Jean-Luc Godard’s new film, Film Socialisme, is set to premiere in Un Certain Regard at Cannes next month. His first film, the still revolutionary A bout de souffle (Breathless), opened theatrically in Paris on March 16, 1960. A new print just played the inaugural Turner Classics Film festival in Los Angeles and is going to tour the country this spring and summer.Half a century later, we’re still coming to terms with Godard’s meaning, value, tenaciousness and stubbornness. Like Orson Welles, Godard has surrendered a popular audience in order to continuously refine his art. (One year at Cannes, Michael Moore gave a very Republican response to Godard’s criticism of his work, saying essentially because no audience existed for his films he had no right to criticize others.)
No matter how insular or solipsistic that voice becomes, Godard is now, like then, very much a part of the critical discourse. (Jonathan Rosenbaum once said it the best: “I’d rather hear Godard talking to himself than Spielberg speaking to half the planet.”) Besides, the normal parameters and criteria for determining that kind of legitimacy never seemed relevant to Godard.Godard is, astonishingly, on the verge of turning eighty, in December. The excitement, energy and intelligence his current work produces seem very much the product of a younger artist. The recent death of Eric Rohmer leaves only Godard, Jacques Rivette and Claude Chabrol as surviving founders of the French New Wave, or nouvelle vague, the essayists-critics turned filmmakers. (Godard created this beautiful tribute to his friend Rohmer here.)
The nouvelle vague remains the turning point of movie modernism, of contemporary scholarship and of cinephilia—the love and critical reappraisal of Hollywood classicists Ford, Hawks, Hitchcock, the deep and abiding appreciation of the maverick outsiders like Ray, Fuller, Aldrich, Boetticher and the insistent defense and affinity with the solitary or loner individual like Welles and Cassavetes.
There was a time, unmistakably, when Godard was a colossus, the most important filmmaker of his era. From March of 1960 to late December of 1967, Godard made an astounding fifteen feature films. He also made at least five shorts preceding Breathless, as well as a series of provocative, fascinating sketch works, as many as six or seven. “Today I’m going to sing the praises of Jean-Luc, who makes films just as I do, except he makes twice as many,” Francois Truffaut marveled in a 1962 essay.
The qualities that make Godard, unlike Bresson, a culture hero … are precisely his prodigal energies, his evident risk-taking, the quirky individualism of his mastery of a corporate, drastically commercialized art.” Sontag also observes how Godard shared, with Joyce, Picasso and Stravinsky, a “hypertrophy of appetite for culture.”Godard’s Sixties films originally came to these parts out of order, underlining the vicissitudes of foreign language art house theatrical distribution. (It also wasn’t always our doing; the French censors delayed by nearly three years the release of Godard’s second film, Le petit soldat, because of its subject of French criminal conduct in Algeria.)
Film culture has shifted and mutated in so many profound ways over the last five decades. Whatever one thinks of the works that followed, the polemical and abstracted video pieces, the sometimes abstruse and particularly demanding narrative features of the post-Sauve qui peut (la vie) period, the Sixties’ titles are routinely shown in exhibitions, traveling retrospectives and re-issues. I’d particularly point out the first-rate work done by Rialto Pictures.The advent of the DVD format has been somewhat more problematic. A lot of the first generation DVD Sixties titles came to the American market through the serious collector’s worst nightmare: the various iterations of Fox Lorber, Koch Lorber or Wellspring. These divisions dumped on the market transfers that were, generously described, rather atrocious. They were interlaced, the black and white murky and muddy, the colors stretched or bleached out.
Criterion was late to the game because their executives were weighing the long term viability of the format after they were burned by their experiences with the laser disc. Fortunately, the company secured the necessary licensing rights and they corrected the horrific work done by those other companies by publishing, either first-time titles, like Alphaville (number twenty-five on the company’s spine), or more recently, splendid and glorious new editions of A Woman is a Woman, Band of Outsiders, Contempt, Masculin Feminin, 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her and Made in USA.Best of all: the company has started issuing the titles in the high-definition Blu-ray format. First the company brought out a breathtaking Pierrot le fou.
And now, Criterion has recently published the director’s 1962 fourth feature, Vivre sa vie. (Though, all too typically, it’s not quite the unalloyed delight it first appears.) Contempt was one of approximately twenty Canal Plus titles Criterion lost the licensing rights to rival video Lionsgate. The less than audacious high-definition transfers of Contempt and Kurosawa’s Ran are not exactly signs of encouragement going forward. I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt, but so far I’m singularly unimpressed.(Lorber has recently merged with Kino, a company with a far greater track record for producing impeccable transfers, especially their Murnau, Chaplin and Griffith boxed-sets.) As my friend Glenn Kenny has written, Lorber’s transfers of Une femme mariee, La chinoise and Le gai savior are hardly anything to write home about. Many key Godard titles held by New Yorker Films have also been held in a kind of purgatory, awaiting the exact new shape of the promised newly configured and capitalized company.
Fortunately, other options are now available and the excellent UK company Masters of Cinema have come through with beautiful standard and best of all, region-free Blu-ray editions of Un femme mariee. I first bought the standard edition the company released; on Kenny’s strong recommendation, I went all in for the Blu-ray.
Vivre sa vie (also known as My Life to Live) was the second of his works to receive a US theatrical release. Godard shot the movie in Paris during February and March of 1962. It premiered at Venice in late August and opened in Paris theatrically about a month later.
Godard famously dedicated Breathless to Monogram Pictures. Vivre sa vie was dedicated to “aux films de serie B,” in other words, the B movie. The movie is constructed in twelve movements, or chapters, what Godard called the tableaux. The story fixates on Nana, who’s played with a combustible mixture of vulnerability, toughness and calculation by Anna Karina, Godard’s then wife and a key figure of Godard’s first period.
Godard films Anna Karina gloriously, beautifully. The movie opens with a reverse angle close up of her face, captured in the translucent late afternoon Paris light. It subtly shifts to a forward close up, and you see those astonishing eyes, liquid, deep, magnificent. It’s Karina as fetish, and we’re invited to watch, stare, and get lost in that glorious and exquisitely lined face.The movie’s bravura opening is a roughly ten-minute stretch of Nana and her husband, Paul, seated at a Paris café. We see only the back of their heads, but her reflection is a caught in a mirror and discernible from a distance. At once obstinate and inchoate, Nana is difficult to grasp. The beauty masks her ruthlessness, even cruelty, about people and relationships. A twenty-two year old aspiring actress (“I once made a film with Eddie Constantine”), she has abandoned her child and is now informing husband of her plans to leave him for another man.
She holds tight to her belief of an artistic salvation. “I can still be discovered,” she says. One of the recurring ideas of this period is the sense of little or no difference between acting and being. It frames the closing argument between the eponymous woman and her lover in A Married Woman that occasions the film’s stunningly abrupt narrative rupture.
Godard animates it with a dazzling mix of technique and stylization that’s not exactly naturalistic but yet it somehow seems immediately recognizable. The tension develops out of the extent to which the characters either accept or try to refute their roles.Paul is weak and ineffectual, and Nana refuses to back down or reveal any kind of weakness or vulnerability. She taunts him sexually, saying even if they got back together she’d cheat on him again. In virtually all of these films, female desire and sexual independence is insufficient, damaging and illusory without an economic self-sufficiency. Nana’s story quickly devolves into the tragedy of her gradual descent into prostitution. “It was the easiest way,” she explains.
From the start Godard was interested in exploring new ways of synchronizing sound and image. One of the beauties of the Criterion Blu-ray (the same as the Masters of Cinema high-definition edition of A Married Woman) is the chance at privatizing the viewing experience; it’s not a group enterprise, necessarily, but something to return to, and go over, repeatedly if necessary, the parts that excite, fascinate or throw one off.Vivre sa vie proves another opportunity to marvel at the subtleties and brilliance of Raoul Coutard, the cinematographer for the vast majority of the Sixties narrative films. Sontag wrote about how Godard collapsed distinction of first-person and third-person narration.
The camera movement is particularly alert and observant in Vivre sa vie. In the second movement, inside the record store where Nana works, Godard interrupts the normal sequence to track away from her. It’s interesting because the movement does not lend itself to liberation or freedom, but the opposite; it reinforces Nana’s particular stasis, the fact that she’s trapped inside the story and has very few choices available.A similar camera movement occurs later where the track moves down an empty street and suddenly the track jerks abruptly to the left side, revealing two prostitutes standing, forlornly, on the corner. Paris is graced (or cursed) with an intoxicating quality, a sense of untrammeled freedoms and the power and privilege that anything is possible and nothing forbidden. Godard has always gotten at something else about how the city, the architecture and energy lend itself a tragic desperation.
Godard created several enduring, unassailable masterpieces during this period: Breathless, Contempt, Alphaville, Pierrot le fou, 2 or 3 Things I Know about Her and Weekend.Vivre sa vie, I’d put, in the very good category, not the height of his achievement but certainly something worth watching. Now that it exists in optimal home format, it’s where it deserves to be: available, immediate and incandescent.
(Belmondo, as the charismatic Ferdinand, aka Pierrot, in Godard's masterpiece, recently out in a beautiful high-definition edition.)