Whose Film Is It Anyway?
Jean-Luc Godard
Note: The purpose of Whose Film Is It Anyway? is to examine the validity of the auteur theory through the lens of individual film-makers, taking a look at their bodies of work and highlighting the technical elements, personal style, and thematic consistency of their films. Ultimately, the goal of this column will be to generate a discussion of the merits of auteur theory through examinations of directors widely considered auteurs, analyses of directors whose status as auteurs is more tenuous, and occasional looks at non-directors who may drive the quality and content of their films with more assuredness than the directors they work with.

"Action!"-First Assistant Director (Jean-Luc Godard), Contempt

I endeavor with this column to write about people who have a singular voice in cinema, and who express it consistently throughout their work. In that way it is surprising that I did not cover Jean-Luc Godard earlier, or even in the first installment of this column. To put it simply, there is no one else like Godard in the entire history of cinema. Neither before nor since has anyone grappled with filmmaking in exactly the same way as him, nor even tried as consistently to get at the core of what the movie watching experience is made up of, and what we expect to see when we walk into a movie. Playing with expectations is one thing, but as David Thomson puts it, "Godard is the first filmmaker to bristle with the effort of digesting all previous cinema and to make cinema itself his subject." Throughout a career that has spanned 50 years and dozens of films, Godard has challenged the way we view movies and the reasons we have for viewing them, and also the reasons artists have for making them. Especially in his early work (Specifically everything he made between his debut feature Breathless in 1960 and Weekend in 1967) Godard deals with cinema through cinema in a way that no one else has ever even tried.

Breathless, which Godard wrote with fellow French New Wave founder Francois Truffaut, is made as an homage to American gangster films, specifically to the career of Humphrey Bogart. Michel (Jean-Paul Belmondo, a frequent collaborator of Godard's during his early work) is a petty criminal who wants nothing more than to be like Humphrey Bogart. After he steals a car and is forced to kill a policeman during the escape, Michel goes into hiding with his American girlfriend Patricia (Jean Seberg) while trying to call in a loan that will fund his escape from France. The film is rife with references to Bogart and to American movies in general, including B-movie Studio Monogram Pictures. Yet Breathless is hardly one long pop culture riff"”in fact, it includes some of the most innovative cinematic techniques used up to that point. As one of the founders of the French New Wave, Godard firmly believes in using long takes in order to minimize editing, which he holds creates a better sense of realism within the film. Godard also heavily employs the use of the jump cut throughout Breathless, which gives the film its own urgent sense of progress, and also solved one of the editing problems inherent in filming a movie in a series of long takes. When Godard was instructed to cut his movie down to an hour and a half, he used the jump cut to edit down scenes that were filmed as one long take. The film was also shot in a faux documentary style, which was mostly unheard of in 1960, and so the entire film was shot with a handheld camera and almost no lighting equipment (a style that is used fairly often today, but was daring at the time). It also contains two other trademarks that would become important to an examination of Godard as an auteur: his attitude towards his female characters and the tendency of his leads to break the fourth wall and address the audience directly (both of which were topics I considered centering this column around until I decided to take a broader look at his contributions). Patricia is ultimately responsible for the downfall of Michel in the film's conclusion, and it is her betrayal that colors his view of the world as the film ends.

In 1961 Godard released A Woman is A Woman, which allows for a closer examination of his views on women, but also represents his take on the American musical in all of its silly excess. Godard's film is not a musical, but, as he put it "the idea of a musical," and follows Angela (Anna Karina, another frequent collaborator of Godard's, and his wife from 1961-67) as she tries to convince her lover Emile (Jean-Claude Brialy) to have a baby with her, even scheming to pretend to leave him for his best friend Alfred (Jean-Paul Belmondo) in order to coerce him. The film's score is almost deliberately discordant and chaotic, coming up at random points throughout the film and dying away just as quickly. The film is also packed with audio dissolves, which usually accompany the beginning of a musical sequence in a traditional musical"”here, Godard has the audio dissolve into silence instead of explode into song. In one scene, the characters even break into a dance, referencing Cyde Charisse, Gene Kelly, and Bob Fosse in the process. The film also includes breaking of the fourth wall, including Angela and Emile bowing to the audience before they begin fighting. Throughout the film, third person exposition is also written out on the screen, usually as the camera pans between Emile and Angela fighting (for example, in one moment as their fight reaches its emotional climax, the words that appear between them read, "Because they love each other, everything will go wrong for Emile and Angela."). In perhaps its most famous, and famously innovative scene, Angela and Emile have decided to stop speaking to each other, and so begin to communicate their insults entirely via book titles. The idea is so patently original it's hard to imagine anyone else pulling it off, yet Godard deepens the cleverness of the scene by also parodying the lighting rules of most musicals that require everyone be perfectly lit at all times. Emile and Angela have turned off the lights to go to bed, yet each time the other decides to get up and grab more books to continue the feud, they carry a lamp with them, keeping them hilariously illuminated throughout the conflict (the entire scene can be viewed below).

The film, as I stated earlier, is also a showcase for Godard's problematic view of women during his most creative period. With few exceptions, women in his work are femme fatales, either betraying their lovers, scheming against them, withholding the love they seek, or otherwise damaging their psyches and destroying their dreams. Angela is no different, though the comedy of the film, and its focus on her, allow this to seem more humorous and endearing than it often comes across in Godard's dramas. As Emile says at one point, both in condemnation of Angela, and of her grammar, "Women are, or woman is, the cause of suffering. You can say it either way." Later in the film, Emile and Alfred commiserate in the meta-exchange, "Is this a comedy or a tragedy?" "You never know with women." Finally, the film's closing line sums it all up nicely, when Emile tells Angela, "You are shameless" and she replies, "Am I not a woman? I'm a woman."

In perhaps his best film, Contempt, Godard brings his examination of film, and his examination of male-female relationships, to the forefront in a dense, symbolic, and masterful look at the film industry. From the moment it opens, with the credits being narrated to the audience as a camera films one of Godard's classic tracking shots, the story of Paul (Michel Piccoli) and his attempt to re-write the script for an adaptation of Homer's Odyssey while his relationship with his wife Camille (Brigitte Bardot) deteriorates trades heavily in both of Godard's favorite areas to explore, but also takes Godard's penchant for the meta-textual one level higher by making his movie about not just making movies in the way that Breathless and A Woman is a Woman were, but also textually about the making of a movie. The film brilliantly parallels Godard's own life, and the Odyssey, as Paul, Camille, and greedy, vain playboy and producer Jeremy Prokosch (Jack Palance) correspond both to Odysseus, Penelope, and Poseidon, and to the relationship between Godard himself, his wife Anna Karina (who was originally supposed to star), and the film's distributor Joseph E. Levine. Godard's examination of film is also never more prevalent than when Paul discusses the process with his film's director Fritz Lang (who plays himself), a personal hero of Godard's in real life. As Fritz Lang, who was singled out as an auteur by Godard while he still wrote for Cahiers du Cinema, describes, "Each picture should have an individual point of view." However, Lang comments on Godard as a director when he speaks with Paul and Jeremy about the nature of God and belief and says, "It's God's absence that reassures man. Strange but true." To add yet another delicious layer to Godard's commentary, he plays Lang's first assistant director in the film, and even utters the movie's ironic last word, "Action."

The other tendency of Godard's that takes center stage in Contempt is his meditation on the relationship between men and women. The middle of the film is consumed by a 30 minute sequence that follows Paul and Camille around their apartment throughout one day in their lives, tracking the subtle ways they goad each other and demand answers they don't honestly want to hear to questions they are honestly afraid to be asking. Paul operates from the sequence's beginning under the theory that Camille has stopped loving him, and through his constant goading, his supposition becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy over the course of several achingly long takes that pan between the two and track their movements around the apartment. While most of Godard's films deal with women in a problematic way, Contempt transcends his tendency towards misogyny by revealing the equally terrible forces that drive men, and often push women to do the things that Godard blames them for in much of his other work. Contempt is not an indictment of women, but rather a condemnation of both sexes and of the games they play with each other's minds over the course of years spent together.

The next year, Godard released Band of Outsiders (the original French title, Bande à Parte, formed the title of Quentin Tarantino's production company A Band Apart, and Tarantino's films Reservoir Dogsand Pulp Fiction are replete with homages to the movie) which follows Odile (Anna Karina) as she is pulled into a plot to rob her own house by Arthur (Claude Brasseur) and Franz (Sami Frey), both of whom are attempting to seduce her. Band of Outsiders focuses on the love triangle between the three, but also involves two famous sequences that toy with cinema conventions. In the first, the three sit in a crowded café and decide to observe one minute of total silence; as this minute begins, the entire soundtrack goes completely silent. Shortly following that, the three decide to dance in the café, and their break away dance sequence forms the inspiration for Vincent Vega (John Travolta) and Mia Wallace's (Uma Thurman) dance scene in Pulp Fiction. Finally, the film plays with the idea of narration, being narrated by an omniscient narrator who also examines the characters inner thoughts and feelings, and ends with the promise of a sequel, yet another meta-touch added to Godard's repertoire.

In 1965, Godard released Alphaville, a blend of science fiction, film noir, and satire that could arguably be called the first neo-noir. The film follows secret agent Lemmy Caution (played by American expatriate Eddie Constantine) as he travels to the dystopian titular city on a distant planet in an attempt to recover missing agent Henry Dickson (Akim Tamiroff), capture or kill the city's founder Professor Von Braun (Howard Vernon), and destroy the dictatorial computer Alpha 60, which has outlawed all emotion within his city. Alphaville is packed to the brim with the stylized dialogue of noir films, and its protagonist is a trench coat wearing detective with a tragic past and trouble with women. Even his love interest, the Professor's daughter Natasha Von Braun (Anna Karina) is a standard femme fatale, as her entrance into Lemmy's life can attest. Much of the film is comprised of Lemmy verbally sparring with Alpha 60 as he attempts to incapacitate the ever present computer (who also serves as a kind of narrator throughout the film) and reckon with Alpha 60's contention that, "No one can live in the past, and no one can live in the future. The present is the central form of life."

The next year, Godard continued his riff on film noir with Made in U.S.A. which is loosely based on The Big Sleep (and unofficially based on the novel The Jugger, which kept it from being seen in the United States until 2009), yet inverts the protagonist's sex, starring hardboiled detective Paula (Anna Karina), who travels to a fictionalized Atlantic City to meet her lover. When she finds out he is dead, she mounts an investigation that plays out like a classic noir, filled with verbal sparring, stylized dialogue, gangsters, cops, and double crosses. The film focuses on a tendency of Godard's I have neglected to this point, his predilection for socialism as a political system, but also breaks the fourth wall in an even more inventive way than Godard had tried previously, as Paula tells a gangster she is interrogating, "You can fool the movie audience, but not me" before the two proceed to turn towards the camera and summarize the rest of their exchange, shortening the necessary exposition to speed up the plot.

Earlier the same year Godard released Masculin, Feminin, another riff on the relationship between the sexes and one that also exists as a document of youth in Paris during the mid-1960s. As Godard tells the audience in an intertitle between the film's chapters, "This film could be called The Children of Marx and Coca-Cola. Understand what you will"; indeed, the title would be equally expressive, as the film deals not only with love and the battle of the sexes, but also with Marxism and socialist theories and with pop culture, including references to Charles De Gaulle, James Bond, The Beatles, and Bob Dylan. It would not be a Godard film if it did not also examine how cinema affects our lives, and as another intertitle tells us, "Philosopher and filmmaker share a way of being, an outlook on life that embodies a generation." With Masculin, Feminin Godard does aim to embody a generation, superficially following Paul (Jean-Pierre Leaud) and Madeline (Chantal Goya) as they tentatively embark on a youthful romance, but taking time to interview each character in the fashion of a documentary, about life, love, sex, and politics. The film comes to a somewhat cynical view, summed up when Paul says, "To be faithful is to act as if time didn't exist," yet it does serve as almost a time capsule on the views of young people in the 1960s.

Godard played with the conventions of cinema like no one else in history, and used it as the medium through which he explored not just film, but also the relationships between the sexes, differing philosophies on life, and the political tenets of socialism. Watching one of his films is a singular experience, not only because each is recognizable as the work of Jean-Luc Godard, but also because each is wholly different than anything else you're likely to see. By tinkering with our ideas about film, Godard opened up a whole new way of viewing cinema, and one that has never really been adopted by anyone else. Jean-Luc Godard changed the face of cinema in a way that other filmmakers can (and do) respect, but more importantly, he did so in such a singular way that his influence, his ideas, and his style will never be replicated. He stands, not just as one of the great auteurs of all time, but one of the most unique voices to ever communicate through the medium of film.

Read more Whose Film Is It Anyway? here

Coming up on Who's Film Is It Anyway?:

9/12: Sergio Leone

9/26: Ingmar Bergman

10/10: Halloween Horror Auteur Month: George Romero

10/24: Halloween Horror Auteur Month: John Carpenter
comments powered by Disqus