Tagged: Jean-Luc Godard

Redoutable (Le Redoutable, France-Myanmar 2017)

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Truth at 24 frames a second?

I’ve found it increasingly difficult to watch Jean-Luc Godard’s recent films but am not sure whether that’s a comment upon me or Godard. Others seems to like them but maybe the fans haven’t moved on; from what I can tell Godard hasn’t moved much in recent years but it must be incredibly difficult to recapture what was seen as youthful brilliance during his heyday of the French ‘new wave’. Director Michel Hazanavicius’ script is based on Anne Wiazemsky’s memoir Un an après, which was about her marriage to Godard in the late ’60s (though they didn’t divorce until 1979 they had been separated for nine years) and so the film shouldn’t be taken as a straight rendition of what happened; however, I was fairly convinced.

In the film Godard himself (played brilliantly by Louis Garrel) says he’s finished at 37 years old and there is a sense that he was out of his time. His brilliant debut À bout de souffle was made in his 30th year, not quite in the ‘hot fire’ of youth, and when May ’68 erupted he was nearly 40. The film portrays him as trying to keep up with the youthful rebellion but not belonging despite the reverence with which he is held by the youngsters. Incidentally the May ’68 demos are brilliantly staged in the film.

Godard’s films steadily moved away from commercial cinema, not that he started in its midst anyway, and by the start of Redoutable he’d just made La Chinoise (1967) which didn’t hit the zeitgeist though the follow-up, Week End (France-Italy, 1967) did; the latter doesn’t get a mention as the film covers only a few weeks in May including the abandoned Cannes film festival. He’s seen meeting Jean-Pierre Gorin with whom he formed the Dziga Vertov group; they went on to make the excellent Tout va bien (1972, France-Italy) with Jane Fonda and Yves Montand. One film of Godard’s from the era I’d like to see again is Le gai savoir (France-Germany, 1969) which I remembered enjoying in the halcyon days of the UK’s Channel 4, in the 1980s, when they screened truly alternative texts.

Hazanavicius uses a Woody Allen gag when a fan asks Godard when he’s going to make funny films again (as against the serious political stuff) and though Godard didn’t make straight comedies (or straight anything) there was a lightness of touch to many of his earlier films and Redoutable takes its cue from that. One scene, in particular, is hilarious when Godard and his confederates had managed to get Cannes cancelled the General Strike means there’s no transport back to Paris other than a packed car in which he can’t help but be his argumentative self; its superbly staged and performed.

There are more gags in the Godardian touches such as the use of intertitles and the self-reflexive scene were Godard and Wiazemsky (Stacy Martin) discuss having actors perform nude gratuitously in film: of course, they are naked. In fact Martin is often naked in the film though it’s a stretch to suggest that Hazanavicius is satirising the misogynist tone of many of Godard’s films. The portrayal of Godard does show him to be an entitled male even though he is one who understands his entitlement he can’t resist using it. At the end of Agnès Varda’s documentary Faces Places a planned reunion with Godard fails to happen because he isn’t home showing him to be mean spirited.

I particularly liked Christian Marti’s set design that emphasises red, white and blue, colours that often featured in the director’s films. I think those who know Godard will enjoy the film more than those who don’t but there’s enough for the non-aficionado too. Any Godard fans want to have a go at the question, ‘Redoutable is the best film featuring the name Jean-Luc Godard for many, many years’. Discuss?

Editing in À bout de souffle (France, 1960)

Taking audience's breath away in 1960

Taking audience’s breath away in 1960

Before reading this post it would be a good idea to watch the film’s opening:

In any concise guides to film history, Jean-Luc Godard’s A bout de souffle (Breathless) is accredited with introducing the jump cut. A jump cut is an obvious discontinuity caused by the editing: if either the background appears to move, and the characters remain in the same position, or vice versa, due to a different position of the camera, there appears to be a jump in the frame.

The jump cut itself is now a stylistic device used in all forms of film, from giving a ‘cool’ look to ‘talking head’ interviews to adding dynamism to montages. It is very difficult for us to imagine how audiences felt when confronted by the film in the early ‘6os; though Godard had used jump cuts in his short (1959) … aka All the Boys Are Called Patrick. However, A bout de souffle still looks different and a close analysis of the first scene might offer some clues to how Godard manages to disorientate his audience (though, obviously, it would be necessary to check out the rest of the film to see if the techniques used here appear elsewhere).

Initially we’ll consider how narrative space is created using eyeline match editing (NB the numbering does not necessarily refer to distinct shots).

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1.    1st shot of Michel after the shot of a newspaper.

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2.    Michel looks rapidly to his left, pauses

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3.    then rubs a thumb over his lips (a la Bogart) as if signalling someone; (emphasising the eyeline match).

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4.    A shot of accomplice but she doesn’t seem to matching Michel’s eyeline because she’s looking to her left

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5.    but immediately turns to her right and the match appears to be complete

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6.    she then looks back to her left and nods quickly (another signal) apparently passing on Michel’s signal; she then looks back toward Michel.

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7.    This is the same as shot 3 and (appears to be) completing the eyeline match.

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8.    Michel then looks to his right and then to his left (apparently he’s looking at whomever the accomplice nodded to) and then right again completing a triangle of narrative space.

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9.    Returns to 6 sealing the relative positions of the accomplice and Michel and she turns back to her left and then nods vigorously just before a cut to

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10.    the victims of the car theft getting out of their vehicle. The relative positions of the three points might look like this:

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11.    The next shot return to Michel, who’s now looking to his left and so he’s also seeing the victims leaving their car; Michel then looks to his right toward the accomplice

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12.    who we see waving Michel over

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13.    BUT the victims are in the same shot (she follows them!)

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14.    Back to Michel, but now in a medium-long shot, however he is still looking toward his right so maintaining the position between him and his accomplice – he nods at her

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15.    Shot of the harbour; this could have functioned as the establishing shot if it had appeared much earlier in the scene.

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16.    This pans left until the accomplice is shown looking over the water

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17.    The pan continues left after a cut to Michel jump-starting the car.

It seems that Godard has followed the patterns of continuity editing but shot 13 is a mistake; or a wilful breaking of the rules. However, if we swap the positions of the car and the accomplice then shot 13 does make sense and we can read the sequence as follows:

1.    1st shot of Michel after the shot of a newspaper.

2.    Michel looks rapidly to his left, pauses

3.    then rubs a thumb over his lips (a la Bogart) as if signalling something.

4.    A shot of accomplice looking to her left so matches his eyeline

5.    but immediately turns to her right as if seeing something.

6.    She then looks back to her left and nods quickly; she then looks back toward what we will see to be the victims.

7.    This is the same as shot 3 and shows Michel looking at the car.

8.    Michel then looks to his right and then to his left and then right again completing a triangle of narrative space.

9.    Returns to 6 sealing the relative positions of the accomplice and Michel and she turns back to her left and then nods vigorously, confirming which car is to be stolen, just before a cut to

10.    the victims of the car theft getting out of their vehicle

11.    and returning to Michel, who’s now looking to his left and so is looking at his accomplice; Michel then looks rapidly to his right toward the victims.

12.    We see his accomplice waving Michel over; she had apparently moved toward them between shots 10 and 11 so when Michel looked for her at the start of 11 she wasn’t there hence the rapid movement to his left.

13.    Now it is clear why the victims are in the same shot.

14.    Back to Michel, but now in a medium-long shot, however he is still looking toward his left so maintaining the position between him and the victims – he nods in affirmation that this is the car he will steal.

15.    Shot of the harbour; this could have functioned as the establishing shot if it had appeared much earlier in the scene..

16.    This pans left until the accomplice is shown looking over the water

17.    The pan continues left after a cut to Michel jump-starting the car.

Shot 4 then immediately makes sense. So it seems perverse to read the scene the first way; however, whenever I show it to students that’s the way it is understood. Godard is following the rules of continuity editing but his decision not to include a shot of what Michel is looking at after shot 3 means we are likely to assume that that’s where the accomplice is. By taking one conventional shot out of the whole sequence Godard has broken one rule but created a very different looking film.

Vivre sa vie (France 1962)

Anna Karina (centre) as Nana in one of the brothel scenes.

Anna Karina (centre) as Nana in one of the brothel scenes.

(Notes from a 2003 class.)

Paris in 1962 was arguably the most exciting place in the world for cinephiles – true obsessives about cinema. ‘La nouvelle vague‘, the outpouring of films by new young French directors, was at its height and readily appreciated by both a young audience, better educated and newly affluent, and by filmmakers across the world, including in the UK and the US.

There were over a hundred first-time filmmakers who made up la nouvelle vague, but it is a small group of ex-critics from the magazine Cahiers du cinéma who have been most remembered. Jean-Luc Godard made his first feature A bout de souffle in 1959 and quickly followed it with Le petit soldat (1960) and Une femme est une femme (1961). Vivre sa vie was his fourth feature and the third to star his young wife Anna Karina. Godard’s early career almost defies critical belief. Producing films on very modest budgets at a prolific rate, whilst at the same time learning how to direct and how to re-invent cinema is no mean feat. Each of the first four films brings together ideas about art, philosophy, and modern life refracted through forms of popular cinema and a conscious attempt to question the conservative conventions of film style and narrative.

“…this initial fixation upon and investigation of Nana’s image, in particular her face, from a variety of perspectives, is the essence of Vivre sa vie. So despite its surface break-up into twelve chapters, its notation as a treatise on prostitution (from actual reportage), its essayistic and discursive qualities, and its extremely varied audio-visual devices, all elements which attempt to survey and understand the outside of the subject, Vivre sa vie is most candidly a ‘documentary’ of Nana’s image (and subsequently the image of Godard’s then wife, Karina). Elements such as Nana’s visual similarity to Louise Brooks, her emotional reaction to and identification with Joan while ‘silently’ watching Carl Dreyer’s La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc, and various other references to films and stars, highlight the cinematic self-consciousness of this work and its engagement with a history of images (cinematic, photographic, literary, etc.). The film itself becomes a record (similar in effect to La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc), a catalogue of postures, poses, gestures, everyday, real and performed actions. And also a record of the social, economic, sexual and cultural circumstances that lead to Nana’s situation and the philosophical and existential dilemmas she encounters. The film doesn’t exactly present an argument but rather a series of observations, approaches and reports denuded of many of the trappings of fictional narrative cinema.” Adrian Danks (2000)

La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc was a highly praised Danish film made in 1928 with Maria Falconetti as Joan. Louise Brooks was an American who became a star in Germany for the director G.W. Pabst. In one of her classic films, The Diary of a Lost Girl (Germany 1929), she plays a young woman cast out of a middle-class family home after her seduction by an older man. Forced to stay in a home until her child is adopted, she turns to prostitution.

Vivre sa vie includes ‘documentary’ accounts of Nana’s life, but it is also presented in twelve ‘tableaux’ “to emphasise the theatrical, Brechtian side. I wanted to show the ‘Adventures of Nana’ side of it” (Godard in Milne & Narboni, 1972). Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956) promoted a political theatre which used various devices to ‘distance’ the audience, to stop them getting too involved in ‘story’ and to make them think about the process of presenting a narrative and the social context of the events it portrays.

Godard was trying to “film a thought in action” (a typically slippery Godardian quote from Milne and Narboni). The film includes important dialogue, full of the usual Godardian allusions to art and culture, and the image is often subservient to what we hear, Raoul Coutard’s cinematography still manages to create a tone that suits Anna Karina’s presence and there are moments, such as her electric dance around the billiards table, when it isn’t too difficult to see why Godard’s seemingly ‘specialised film’ attracted a large audience in 1962.

Godard and narrative
In his first feature-length film, A bout de souffle, Godard presented a recognisable narrative that drew on the Hollywood ‘B’ crime film – “a boy, a girl and a gun”, to quote the director. Even so, Godard saw fit to break or distort other familiar narrative conventions, including those to do with editing and sound in particular. Some of Godard’s inventions in the film may have been prompted by his chronic lack of budget and some by a simple ignorance (by both Godard and his cinematographer, Raoul Coutard) about how it was done ‘properly’ in the French studios. Even so, the invented ways of constructing a film worked well and enabled Godard to move forward quickly and by Vivre sa vie he was already fulfilling a desire to ‘write an essay on cinema’ rather than simply to ‘tell a story’.

Like many other nouvelle vague films, Vivre sa vie was filmed on the streets and in the cafés of Paris. Narrative space is represented in a conventional way as is narrative time. The assault on our sense of narrative development comes rather from a refusal to comply with our expectations of how actors will be presented within the space – the film opens with Nana facing away from the camera, instead of conventional mid-shots we are often offered close-ups or side-on compositions. Godard’s trademark slow tracking shots appear as Nana drifts into prostitution. Characters walk out of or through static frames. The soundtrack features voiceovers and music which starts and stops abruptly. Seemingly important dialogue is sometimes delivered by characters who are off-screen. We could argue that the whole film is held together only by the focus on Anna Karina – who is mesmerising.

There is a story – Nana’s story of her gradual decline into prostitution and criminality – and if an audience clings to the conventional notion of narrative, the story can be followed. This story is affecting enough because of Karina’s performance and the unexpected ending, but somehow the ‘essay’ about what cinema could be seems much more compelling. By ‘breaking the rules’, Godard gets closer than the continuity editing of Hollywood to presenting ‘social reality’, with all its complexity, on screen.

Discussion questions
1. To what extent do Godard’s techniques ‘distance’ the audience and prevent us identifying too closely with Nana?
2. If Vivre sa vie is what Godard often referred to as an ‘essay’, what does it suggest about cinema, art and the possibility of moving beyond entertainment to explore ‘realities’.
3. How important are the conventional genre elements of Nana’s story in providing the framework for Godard’s ideas?
4. How do we feel when we watch the film – frustrated, bored, enraptured, emotionally involved?

References and further reading
Adrian Danks (2000) ‘Vivre sa vie‘ on www.sensesofcinema.com/contents/00/5/cteq/vivre.html
Tom Milne & Jean Narboni (eds) (1972) Godard on Godard, London: Secker & Warburg
V. F. Perkins (1967) ‘Vivre sa vie‘ in Ian Cameron (ed) The films of Jean-Luc Godard, London: Studio Vista

Other websites:
www.geocities.com/annakarinawebpage/PhotoGallery.html
www.imagesjournal.com/issue04/features/newwave4.htm

Bande à part (The Outsiders, France 1964)

Arthur (Claude Brasseur), Odile (Anna Karina) and Frantz (Sammi Frey)

(These notes were written for a re-release of the film in the UK in 2001)

After A bout de souffle in 1959, Jean-Luc Godard made five more features and three ‘episodes’ in ‘portmanteau’ films before he started work on Bande à part in early 1964. Many critics saw the new film as ‘slight’ – Godard was taking a breather after all the stress and strain of the big budget Le mépris. At the time, Bande à part was not given much critical support. But its current release has met with almost universal acclaim. Godard is back in fashion and for younger cinephiles there is the added bonus that Tarantino is such a fan of the film, quoting it in the dance sequence for Pulp Fiction.

How should we approach the film? After the lure of CinemaScope and Technicolor at Cinecitta with Le mépris, Godard is back in Paris and on the streets in black and white. The obvious comparison is with A bout de souffle and Godard himself has alluded to Franz and Arthur as ‘suburban cousins’ of the Jean-Paul Belmondo character in A bout de souffle. The similarities between the films are clear – ostensibly crime stories, both films are more about the characters, life in Paris and being young. Yet visually the films are very different – Godard has learned to do all the things he wants to do. Bande à part is controlled and fluid and the dominant image in many parts of the film is the long shot used to frame action. This seems to derive from Rossellini and also possibly from Truffaut. It is balanced of course by the tight framing of the three principal characters in their long bouts of waiting. Here the difference is of tone – much of it influenced by the presence of Anna Karina. If A bout de souffle was Belmondo’s film, then Bande à part, despite the sterling work of Claude Brasseur and Sammi Frey, belongs to Karina.

Anna Karina

Married to Jean-Luc Godard in 1961, Anna Karina appeared in a total of nine of Godard’s films – Bande à part was the fourth. The bubbly stripper who wants a baby in Une femme est une femme (1961) and the more serious young woman who watches Dreyer’s Joan of Arc and becomes a prostitute in Vivre sa vie (1962), is now Odile, a childlike innocent in Bande à part (Odile was Godard’s mother’s name – Anouchka, the name of the production company, was his pet name for Anna). Anna Karina, like many of Godard’s female leads is not French. Born in Copenhagen, she takes her place alongside Jean Seberg, Marina Vlady, Joanna Shimkus et al. Godard himself is Swiss. Perhaps being an ‘outsider’ both suits the Parisian sense of being cosmopolitan and marks out Anna Karina as different from the other young women who flock to the city – for it seems possible to argue for Karina as an essential ‘face’ of the 1960s. She arrives in Paris as the country cousin, much as Rita Tushingham comes to London in The Knack (UK 1965), and like the young women in British Cinema of the period, she holds the fascination of the men she meets. Godard himself, in typically extravagant style, describes the character of Odile as:

“. . . in a direct line from English Romanticism of the 19th Century. But she comes also, and even more directly, from German Classicism of a century earlier. This means that in her are conjugated almost perfectly the spontaneity of Mary Webb’s gentle heroine, and the disenchanted pride of Hardy’s unhappy Tess.

Odile is never at the same time sad and gay, gentle and violent, tender and distant, as people are in a normal psychological film. She lives, on the contrary, each day as it comes, each emotion as it comes, which she plunges into one after the other, rather than all at once, which is the sign of a simple and gentle heart.

. . . Odile is Leslie Caron in Orvet or Lili; then suddenly she’s Cathy O’Donnell in They Live By Night. For three seconds she follows the winding river like Jennifer Jones in Cluny Brown, and suddenly fate brings her to the point of tears like Sylvia Sidney in Lang’s immortal film (You Only Live Once).” Jean-Luc Godard (quoted on the BFI website – but now not available)

Godard and Cinema

Robin Wood (1967) sees Bande à part as a halfway point in Godard’s development as a filmmaker. Still recognisably a (genre) narrative film, there is a much clearer sense of moving towards a more radical approach. Although elements of the earlier films had already shown evidence of Godard’s interest in disrupting mainstream cinema (e.g. the mismatching and abrupt editing of sound), they are here for the first time presented as an integral part of the whole:

“Stylistically and structurally the film is built on two tensions which characterise all of Godard’s work, but the opposing pulls in each here find a unique balance in the tension between traditional narrative and what I have called collage; and the tension between naturalism and stylisation, both pushed to extremes.” (Wood 1967)

Wood analyses the classroom scene in detail, pointing out that as a ‘straight’, narrative sequence it works well to set up the relationships between the three central characters, but as a classroom lesson it makes no sense, unless we are prepared to ‘read’ it in terms of the cultural references and juxtapositions between the characters in the room and the literary heroes of Hardy and Shakespeare. ‘Collage’ as Wood presents the idea, refers to the ways in which Godard attempts to persuade us to think across scenes in a ‘thematic’ way. The best example of this is possibly the running commentary on ‘life’ and ‘art’ that is the characters’ own understanding of gangster heroes in ‘real life’ and the cinema. The robbery attempts are shown, often in longshot, in a way that recalls the ineptness of early cinema clowns, but when the characters consciously ‘play’ at gangsters, in the famous shot of Arthur dying as Billy the Kid, the scene is structured to evoke the generic power of the Hollywood version. Other aspects of the film that continue the ‘collage’ effect are the dance scene in the cafe, Odile’s song, the stories the men tell and the race through the Louvre.

Arthur’s ‘dying act’ as Billy the Kid is taken from Anthony Mann’s Man of the West.

Arthur’s ‘dying act’ as Billy the Kid is taken from Anthony Mann’s Man of the West.

On a first viewing, Bande à part is a film that you tend to remember for the dance scene and the luminosity of Anna Karina. On a second viewing, the economy and fluidity of even the simplest scenes becomes evident. As Wood points out, Godard demonstrates that he could have made an elegant genre thriller, but he chose to offer us something else.

References

Much of the material presented here was found on the BFI website but has since been moved.

Robin Wood (1967) ‘Bande à part’ in Ian Cameron (ed) The films of Jean-Luc Godard, London: Studio Vista