Jean-Luc Godard: The Cinema in Doubt

Ryszard Dabek

Abstract


Photograph by Gonzalo Echeverria (2010)
      Photograph by Gonzalo Echeverria (2010)

The Screen would light up. They would feel a thrill of satisfaction. But the colours had faded with age, the picture wobbled on the screen, the women were of another age; they would come out they would be sad. It was not the film they had dreamt of. It was not the total film each of them had inside himself, the perfect film they could have enjoyed forever and ever. The film they would have liked to make. Or, more secretly, no doubt, the film they would have liked to live. (Perec 57)

Over the years that I have watched and thought about Jean-Luc Godard’s films I have been struck by the idea of him as an artist who works with the moving image and perhaps just as importantly the idea of cinema as an irresolvable series of problems. Most obviously this ‘problematic condition’ of Godard’s practice is evidenced in the series of crises and renunciations that pepper the historical trace of his work. A trace that is often characterised thus: criticism, the Nouvelle Vague, May 1968, the Dziga Vertov group, the adoption of video, the return to narrative form, etc. etc.

Of all these events it is the rejection of both the dominant cinematic narrative form and its attendant models of production that so clearly indicated the depth and intensity of Godard’s doubt in the artistic viability of the institution of cinema. Historically and ideologically congruent with the events of May 1968, this turning away from tradition was foreshadowed by the closing titles of his 1967 opus Week End: fin de cinema (the end of cinema). Godard’s relentless application to the task of engaging a more discursive and politically informed mode of operation had implications not only for the films that were made in the wake of his disavowal of cinema but also for those that preceded it. 

In writing this paper it was my initial intention to selectively consider the vast oeuvre of the filmmaker as a type of conceptual project that has in some way been defined by the condition of doubt. While to certain degree I have followed this remit, I have found it necessary to focus on a small number of historically correspondent filmic instances to make my point. The sheer size and complexity of Godard’s output would effectively doom any other approach to deal in generalities. To this end I am interested in the ways that these films have embodied doubt as both an aesthetic and philosophical position. 

There is an enduring sense of contentiousness that surrounds both the work and perceived motives of the filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard that has never come at the cost of discourse. Through a period of activity that now stretches into its sixth decade Godard has shaped an oeuvre that is as stylistically diverse as it is theoretically challenging. This span of practice is noteworthy not only for its sheer length but for its enduring ability to polarise both audiences and critical opinion. Indeed these opposing critical positions are so well inscribed in our historical understanding of Godard’s practice that they function as a type of secondary narrative.  It is a narrative that the artist himself has been more than happy to cultivate and at times even engage. 

One hardly needs to be reminded that Godard came to making films as a critic. He asserted in the pages of his former employer Cahiers du Cinema in 1962 that “As a critic, I thought of myself as a filmmaker. Today I still think of myself as a critic, and in a sense I am, more than ever before. Instead of writing criticism, I make a film, but the critical dimension is subsumed” (59). If Godard did at this point in time believe that the criticality of practice as a filmmaker was “subsumed”, the ensuing years would see a more overt sense of criticality emerge in his work. By 1968 he was to largely reject both traditional cinematic form and production models in a concerted effort to explore the possibilities of a revolutionary cinema.  

In the same interview the director went on to extol the virtues of the cine-literacy that to a large part defined the loose alignment of Nouvelle Vague directors (Chabrol, Godard, Rohmer, Rivette, Truffaut) referred to as the Cahiers group claiming that “We were the first directors to know that Griffiths exists” (Godard 60). It is a statement that is as persuasive as it is dramatic, foregrounding the hitherto obscured history of cinema while positioning the group firmly within its master narrative. However, given the benefit of hindsight one realises that perhaps the filmmaker’s motives were not as simple as historical posturing. For Godard what is at stake is not just the history of cinema but cinema itself.  When he states that  “We were thinking cinema and at a certain moment we felt the need to extend that thought”  one is struck by how far and for how long he has continued to think about and through cinema. In spite of the hours of strict ideological orthodoxy that accompanied his most politically informed works of the late 1960s and early 1970s or the sustained sense of wilful obtuseness that permeates his most “difficult” work, there is a sense of commitment to extending “that thought” that is without peer. The name “Godard”, in the words of the late critic Serge Daney, “designates an auteur but it is also synonymous with a tenacious passion for that region of the world of images we call the cinema”(Daney 68).

It is a passion that is both the crux of his practice as an artist and the source of a restless experimentation and interrogation of the moving image. For Godard the passion of cinema is one that verges on religiosity.  This carries with it all the philosophical and spiritual implications that the term implies. Cinema functions here as a system of signs that at once allows us to make sense of and live in the world. But this is a faith for Godard that is nothing if not tested. From the radical formal experimentation of his first feature film À Bout de soufflé (Breathless) onwards Godard has sought to place the idea of cinema in doubt. In this sense doubt becomes a type of critical engine that at once informs the shape of individual works and animates the constantly shifting positions the artist has occupied. 

Serge Daney's characterisation of the Nouvelle Vague as possessed of a “lucidity tinged with nostalgia” (70) is especially pertinent in understanding the way in which doubt came to animate Godard’s practice across the 1960s and beyond. Daney’s contention that the movement was both essentially nostalgic and saturated with an acute awareness that the past could not be recreated, casts the cinema itself as type of irresolvable proposition. Across the dazzling arc of films (15 features in 8 years) that Godard produced prior to his renunciation of narrative cinematic form in 1967, one can trace an unravelling of faith. During this period we can consider Godard's work and its increasingly complex engagement with the political as being predicated by the condition of doubt. The idea of the cinema as an industrial and social force increasingly permeates this work. For Godard the cinema becomes a site of questioning and ultimately reinvention. In his 1963 short film Le Grand Escroc (The Great Rogue) a character asserts that “cinema is the most beautiful fraud in the world”. Indeed it is this sense of the paradoxical that shadows much of his work. The binary of beauty and fraud, like that of faith and doubt, calls forth a questioning of the cinema that stands to this day. 

It is of no small consequence that so many of Godard’s 1960s works contain scenes of people watching films within the confines of a movie theatre. For Godard and his Nouvelle Vague peers the sale de cinema was both the hallowed site of cinematic reception and the terrain of the everyday. It is perhaps not surprising then he chooses the movie theatre as a site to play out some of his most profound engagements with the cinema. Considered in relation to each other these scenes of cinematic viewing trace a narrative in which an undeniable affection for the cinema is undercut by both a sense of loss and doubt. 

Perhaps the most famous of Godard’s ‘viewing’ scenes is from the film Vivre Sa Vie (My Life to Live). Essentially a tale of existential trauma, the film follows the downward spiral of a young woman Nana (played by Anna Karina) into prostitution and then death at the hands of ruthless pimps. Championed (with qualifications) by Susan Sontag as a “perfect film” (207), it garnered just as many detractors, including famously the director Roberto Rosellini, for what was perceived to be its nihilistic content and overly stylised form.  

Seeking refuge in a cinema after being cast out from her apartment for non payment of rent the increasingly desperate Nana is shown engrossed in the starkly silent images of Carl Dreyer’s 1928 film La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc (The Passion of Joan of Arc). Godard cuts from the action of his film to quote at length from Dreyer’s classic, returning from the mute intensity of Maria Faloconetti’s portrayal of the condemned Joan of Arc to Karina’s enraptured face. As Falconetti’s tears swell and fall so do Karina’s, the emotional rawness of the performance on the screen mirrored and internalised by the doomed character of Nana. Nana’s identification with that of the screen heroine is at once total and immaculate as her own brutal death at the hands of men is foretold. 

There is an ominous silence to this sequence that serves not only to foreground the sheer visual intensity of what is being shown but also to separate it from the world outside this purely cinematic space. However, if we are to read this scene as a testament to the power of the cinematic we must also admit to the doubt that resides within it.  Godard’s act of separation invites us to consider the scene not only as a meditation on the emotional and existential state of the character of Nana but also on the foreshortened possibilities of the cinema itself.  As Godard’s shots mirror those of Dreyer we are presented with a consummate portrait of irrevocable loss. This is a complex system of imagery that places Dreyer’s faith against Godard’s doubt without care for the possibility of resolution.

Of all Godard’s 1960s films that feature cinema spectatorship the sequence belonging to Masculin Féminin (Masculine Feminine) from 1966 is perhaps the most confounding and certainly the most digressive.  A series of events largely driven by a single character’s inability or unwillingness to surrender to the projected image serve to frustrate, fracture and complexify the cinema-viewing experience. It is however, a viewing experience that articulates the depth of Godard’s doubt in the viability of the cinematic form. 

The sequence, like much of the film itself, centres on the trials of the character Paul played by Jean-Pierre Léaud. Locked in a struggle against the pop-cultural currents of the day and the attendant culture of consumption and appearances, Paul is positioned within the film as a somewhat conflicted and ultimately doomed romantic. His relationship with Madeleine played by real life yé-yé singer Chantal Goya is a source of constant anxiety. The world that he inhabits, however marginally, of nightclubs, pop records and publicity seems philosophically at odds with the classical music and literature that he avidly devours. 

If the cinema-viewing scene of Vivre Sa Vie is defined by the enraptured intensity of Anna Karina’s gaze, the corresponding scene in Masculin Féminin stands, at least initially, as the very model of distracted spectatorship. As the film in the theatre starts, Paul who has been squeezed out of his seat next to Madeleine by her jealous girlfriend, declares that he needs to go to the toilet.  On entering the bathroom he is confronted by the sight of a pair of men locked in a passionate kiss.  It is a strange and disarming turn of events that prompts his hastily composed graffiti response: down with the republic of cowards. For theorist Nicole Brenez the appearance of these male lovers “is practically a fantasmatic image evoked by the amorous situation that Paul is experiencing” (Brenez 174).

This quasi-spectral appearance of embracing lovers and grafitti writing is echoed in the following sequence where Paul once again leaves the theatre, this time to fervently inform the largely indifferent theatre projectionist about the correct projection ratio of the film being shown. On his graffiti strewn journey back inside Paul encounters an embracing man and woman nestled in an outer corner of the theatre building. Silent and motionless the presence of this intertwined couple is at once unsettling and prescient providing  “a background real for what is being projected inside on the screen” (Brenez 174). On returning to the theatre Paul asks Madeleine to fill him in on what he has missed to which she replies, “It is about a man and woman in a foreign city who…”.

Shot in Stockholm to appease the Swedish co-producers that stipulated that part of the production be made in Sweden, the film within a film occupies a fine line between restrained formal artfulness and pornographic violence. What could have been a creatively stifling demand on the part of his financial backers was inverted by Godard to become a complex exploration of power relations played out through an unsettling sexual encounter. When questioned on set by a Swedish television reporter what the film was about the filmmaker curtly replied, “The film has a lot to do with sex and the Swedish are known for that” (Masculin Féminin).

The film possesses a barely concealed undertow of violence.  A drama of resistance and submission is played out within the confines of a starkly decorated apartment. The apartment itself is a zone in which language ceases to operate or at the least is reduced to its barest components. The man’s imploring grunts are met with the woman’s repeated reply of “no”. What seemingly begins as a homage to the contemporaneous work of Swedish director Ingmar Bergman quickly slides into a chronicle of coercion. 

As the final scene of seduction/debasement is played out on the screen the camera pulls away to reveal the captivated gazes of Madeleine and her friends. It finally rests on Paul who then shuts his eyes, unable to bear what is being shown on the screen. It is a moment of refusal that marks a turning away not only from this projected image but from cinema itself.  A point made all the clearer by Paul’s voiceover that accompanies the scene:

We went to the movies often. The screen would light up and we would feel a thrill. But Madeleine and I were usually disappointed. The images were dated and jumpy. Marilyn Monroe had aged badly. We felt sad. It wasn't the movie of our dreams. It wasn't that total film we carried inside ourselves.  That film we would have liked to make. Or, more secretly, no doubt the film we wanted to live. (Masculin Féminin)

There was a dogged relentlessness to Godard’s interrogation of the cinema through the very space of its display. 1963’s Le Mépris (Contempt) swapped the public movie theatre for the private screening room; a theatrette emblazoned with the words Il cinema é un’invenzione senza avvenire. The phrase, presented in a style that recalled Soviet revolutionary graphics, is an Italian translation of Louis Lumiere’s 1895 appraisal of his new creation: “The cinema is an invention without a future.”  The words have an almost physical presence in the space providing a fatalistic backdrop to the ensuing scene of conflict and commerce.  As an exercise in self reflexivity it at once serves to remind us that even at its inception the cinema was cast in doubt.

In Le Mépris the pleasures of spectatorship are played against the commercial demands of the cinema as industry. Following a screening of rushes for a troubled production of Homer’s Odyssey a tempestuous exchange ensues between a hot-headed producer (Jeremy Prokosch played by Jack Palance) and a calmly philosophical director (Fritz Lang as himself).  It is a scene that attests to Godard’s view of the cinema as an art form that is creatively compromised by its own modes of production. 

In a film that plays the disintegration of a relationship against the production of a movie and that features a cast of Germans, Italians and French it is of no small consequence that the movie producer is played by an American. An American who, when faced with a creative impasse, utters the phrase “when I hear the word culture I bring out my checkbook”. It is one of Godard’s most acerbic and doubt filled sequences pitting as he does the implied genius of Lang against the tantrum throwing demands of the rapacious movie producer. We are presented with a model of industrial relations that is both creatively stifling and practically unworkable. Certainly it was no coincidence that Le Mépris had the biggest budget ($1 million) that Godard has ever worked with.  

In Godard’s 1965 film Une Femme Mariée (A Married Woman), he would once again use the movie theatre as a location. The film, which dealt with the philosophical implications of an adulterous affair, is also notable for its examination of the Holocaust and that defining event’s relationship to personal and collective memory. Biographer Richard Brody has observed that, “Godard introduced the Auschwitz trial into The Married Woman (sic) as a way of inserting his view of another sort of forgetting that he suggested had taken hold of France—the conjoined failures of historical and personal memory that resulted from the world of mass media and the ideology of gratification” (Brody 196-7). 

Whatever the causes, there is a pervading sense of amnesia that surrounds the Holocaust in the film. In one exchange the character of Charlotte, the married woman in question, momentarily confuses Auschwitz with thalidomide going on to later exclaim that “the past isn’t fun”.  But like the barely repressed memories of her past indiscretions, the Holocaust returns at the most unexpected juncture in the film.  

In what starts out as Godard’s most overt reference to the work of Alfred Hitchcock, Charlotte and her lover secretly meet under the cover of darkness in a movie theatre. Each arriving separately and kitted out in dark sunglasses, there is breezy energy to this clandestine rendezvous highly reminiscent of the work of the great director. It is a stylistic point that is underscored in the film by the inclusion of a full-frame shot of Hitchcock’s portrait in the theatre’s foyer.  However, as the lovers embrace the curtain rises on Alain Resnais’s 1955 documentary Nuit et Brouillard (Night and Fog). The screen is filled with images of barbed wire as the voice of narrator Jean Cayrol informs the audience that “even a vacation village with a fair and a steeple can lead very simply to a concentration camp.” 

It is an incredibly shocking moment, in which the repressed returns to confirm that while memory “isn’t fun”, it is indeed necessary. An uncanny sense of recognition pervades the scene as the two lovers are faced with the horrendous evidence of a past that refuses to stay subsumed. The scene is all the more powerful for the seemingly casual manner it is relayed. There is no suspenseful unveiling or affected gauging of the viewers’ reactions. What is simply is. In this moment of recognition the Hitchcockian mood of the anticipation of an illicit rendezvous is supplanted by a numbness as swift as it is complete. Needless to say the couple make a swift retreat from the now forever compromised space of the theatre.

Indeed this scene is one of the most complex and historically layered of any that Godard had produced up to this point in his career. By making overt reference to Hitchcock he intimates that the cinema itself is deeply implicated in this perceived crisis of memory.  What begins as a homage to the work of one of the most valorised influences of the Nouvelle Vague ends as a doubt filled meditation on the shortcomings of a system of representation. The question stands: how do we remember through the cinema? 

In this regard the scene signposts a line of investigation that would become a defining obsession of Godard’s expansive Histoire(s) du cinéma, a project that was to occupy him throughout the 1990s. Across four chapters and four and half hours Histoire(s) du cinéma examines the inextricable relationship between the history of the twentieth century and the cinema. Comprised almost completely of filmic quotations, images and text, the work employs a video-based visual language that unremittingly layers image upon image to dissolve and realign the past. In the words of theorist Junji Hori “Godard's historiography in Histoire(s) du cinéma is based principally on the concept of montage in his idiosyncratic sense of the term” (336). 

In identifying montage as the key strategy in Histoire(s) du cinéma Hori implicates the cinema itself as central to both Godard’s process of retelling history and remembering it. However, it is a process of remembering that is essentially compromised. Just as the relationship of the cinema to the Holocaust is bought into question in Une Femme Mariée, so too it becomes a central concern of Histoire(s) du cinéma. It is Godard’s assertion “that the cinema failed to honour its ethical commitment to presenting the unthinkable barbarity of the Nazi extermination camps” (Temple 332). This was a failure that for Godard moved beyond the realm of doubt to represent “nothing less than the end of cinema” (Brody 512).

In October 1976 the New Yorker magazine published a profile of Jean Luc Godard by Penelope Gilliatt a writer who shared the post of film critic at the magazine with Pauline Kael. The article was based on an interview that took place at Godard’s production studio in Grenoble Switzerland.  It was notable for two things: Namely, the most succinct statement that Godard has made regarding the enduring sense of criticality that pervades his work:

“A good film is a matter of questions properly put.” (74)

And secondly, surely the shortest sentence ever written about the filmmaker:

“Doubt stands.” (77)

References

À Bout de soufflé. Dir. Jean Luc Godard. 1960. DVD. Criterion, 2007.

Brenez, Nicole. “The Forms of the Question.” For Ever Godard. Eds. Michael Temple, James S. Williams, and Michael Witt. London: Black Dog, 2004.

Brody, Richard. Everything Is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard. New York: Metropolitan Books / Henry Holt & Co., 2008.

Daney, Serge. “The Godard Paradox.” For Ever Godard. Eds. Michael Temple, James S. Williams, and Michael Witt. London: Black Dog, 2004.

Gilliat, Penelope. “The Urgent Whisper.” Jean-Luc Godard Interviews. Ed. David Sterritt. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1998.

Godard, Jean-Luc. “Jean-Luc Godard: 'From Critic to Film-Maker': Godard in Interview (extracts). ('Entretien', Cahiers du Cinema 138, December 1962).” Cahiers du Cinéma: 1960-1968 New Wave, New Cinema, Reevaluating Hollywood. Ed. Jim Hillier. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1986. 

Histoires du Cinema. Dir. and writ. Jean Luc Godard. 1988-98. DVD, Artificial Eye, 2008.

Hori, Junji. “Godard’s Two Histiographies.” For Ever Godard. Eds. Michael Temple, James S. Williams, and Michael Witt. London: Black Dog, 2004.

Le Grand Escroc. Dir. Jean Luc Godard. Perf. Jean Seberg. Film. Ulysse Productions, 1963.

Le Mépris. Dir. Jean Luc Godard. Perf. Jack Palance, Fritz Lang. 1964. DVD. Criterion, 2002.

La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc. Dir. Carl Theodor Dreyer. Film. Janus films, 1928.

MacCabe, Colin. Godard: A Portrait of the Artist at 70. London: Bloomsbury, 2003.

Masculin Féminin. Dir. and writ. Jean Luc Godard. Perf. Jean-Pierre Léaud. 1966. DVD. Criterion, 2005.

Nuit et Brouillard. Dir Alain Resnais. Film. Janus Films, 1958.

Perec, Georges. Things: A Story of the Sixties. Trans. David Bellos. London: Collins Harvill, 1990. (Originally published 1965.)

Sontag, Susan. “Godard’s Vivre Sa Vie.” Against Interpretation and Other Essays. New York: Picador, 2001.

Temple, Michael, James S. Williams, and Michael Witt, eds. For Ever Godard. London: Black Dog, 2004.

Une Femme Mariée. Dir. and writ. Jean Luc Godard. Perf. Macha Meril. 1964. DVD. Eureka, 2009.

Vivre Sa Vie. Dir. and writ. Jean Luc Godard. Perf. Anna Karina. 1962. DVD. Criterion, 2005.

Week End, Dir. and writ. Jean Luc Godard. 1967. DVD. Distinction Series, 2005.


Keywords


cinema; godard; doubt;



Copyright (c) 2011 Ryszard Dabek

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