h, Jean-Luc Godard-- you delightfully pretentious Frenchman! It's not always criminal to be pretentious; to be characterized by the assumption of dignity, importance, artistic distinction-- that is, if the assumption is correct-- and from 1959 to 1965 the renowned master of French New Wave was more often than not "correct" in his creative endeavors. A film critic turned filmmaker, Godard had the academic equivalent of Quentin Tarantino's cinephile credentials, although Godard was far more prolific when he finally got the chance to make movies. Then again, as he once declared, Godard didn't make "movies", he made "cinema"! See what I mean by "pretentious"? Still, he could have called his movies "cinnamon" as far as I'm concerned; what's important isn't how he labeled them, it's how he made them-- off the cuff, experimental, passionately, intelligently. His gold rush of films (made during the aforementioned six year period) not only hold up today, but show how lifeless and dimwitted most modern day cinema is by comparison. And then there's his muse, Anna Karina... but we'll get to her in due time. Now, let's start at the beginning of my Godard DVD collection....
BREATHLESS (A Bout De Souffle), 1959
You know what I'm not going to do? I'm not going to tell you about the important place Breathless has in film history; I'm not going to talk about how it introduced jump cuts and shit like that; I'm not going to talk about the French New Wave movement; I shall offer little to no historical perspective. Because who cares? Really. This ain't film school here, it's a trip-- hopefully at times a bumpy ride-- through my Godard DVD collection. I'm looking at the back cover of my Breathless DVD right now, and do you know what I see? I see Jean-Paul Belmondo, who plays the lead character Michel, looking so French, and so hip (sunglasses, cigarette hanging lazily from his mouth). Below him is a blurb from the Chicago Reader proclaiming the film "Gritty and engaging...the quintessential existentialist movie in style as well as attitude." Ha-- I'm always overjoyed to see the word "existentialist" used in the marketing of a product! They might as well have the following label: Warning - Not For Morons. Nonetheless, you don't need to be that smart to enjoy Breathless; it has enough cool cars (Godard had a thing for Fords), sexiness and pulp moments to entertain viewers who aren't into existentialism; although a decent attention span may be required for the lengthy dialogue-driven centerpiece of the film in which our anti-hero Michel and his attractive but detached girlfriend, Patricia (played by Jean Seberg), lay around a bed for twenty minutes and just...talk!
Fortunately, the dialogue is good-- scratch that, it's terrific-- and if you're like me, that's enough to maintain interest. Moreover, Godard's dialogue is rich in humor, irony and lyricism. Just as influenced by literature as cinema, Godard's films sublimely blend the visual sensation of motion picture with the psychological depth of fine prose. And with Michel, Godard creates a character not unlike the amoral protagonists found in French literature such as Lois-Ferdinand Celine's Journey To The End Of Night(referenced in more than one Godard film) and Albert Camus's The Stranger; though Michel is more sympathetic; not because of his actions, but because of the tired-eyed vulnerability Belmondo brings to the role. Michel isn't a base individual; he's just operating on instinct, like a wild animal speeding recklessly to wherever his instincts take him. Michel doesn't even hold malice for the police who are dogging him, nor for possible informers; as he casually intones: "Informers inform...burglars burgle...murderers murder...lovers love." Breathless is truly an existential movie, because the viewer sees and feels things through Michel's point of view, whether it's via him turning and talking to the audience directly while driving ("If you don't like the city...then get stuffed!") or by the haphazard camerawork of the masterful Raoul Coutard trailing Michel around a kinetic Paris and catching every revealing twitch of the man and the city. When Michel shoots a cop early in the film, the scene is shot from his mindset: Michel grabs the gun in a rush of panic, he rolls the barrel-- bang, the cop falls-- and we cut quickly to our anti-hero running across the French countryside with a blast of jazz fueling him. The rough and manic editing reflects the sudden mania of violence, the sudden mania of Michel.
However, this capricious crime is only a backdrop to Michel and Patricia's noncommittal relationship...well, noncommittal on her part. At numerous times, Michel declares his love for her-- though as casually as he confesses to murder-- but Patricia, always the cute poker-faced blonde, merely ponders if she loves him or not as if she's trying to select which purse to purchase or café to lunch at. In the end, Michel-- a man broken by the contrary laws of society and nature--looks up at the icy visage of Patricia and utters, "It's a real scumbag." I for one can relate to such a realization.
A WOMAN IS A WOMAN (Une Femme Est Une Femme), 1961
This, my friends, is where the enchanting Anna Karina enters our journey; a model-turned actress-turned wife of Godard all in one year. After a smaller role in his 1960 film The Little Soldier (Le Petit Soldat), Godard was ready to place the spotlight on his young bride and thus begin what arguably emerged the greatest collaboration between director and actress ever. A Woman Is A Woman stands in stark visual contrast to Breathless, due to it being widescreen and in color; another trend started here was Godard continually shifting between widescreen color features and smallscreen black & white. At the beginning of the film, A Woman Is A Woman is touted as a musical, and that aesthetic is immediately apparent with a spirited Karina strolling down a Technicolor Paris to a bustling Michel LeGrand score (one that foreshadows the composer's sublime work on The Thomas Crown Affair). But Godard, always rebellious in the face of possible convention, has a mischievous trick up his sleeve. Throughout the film, whenever the principle characters interact with one another and verbal conflicts ignite, the music begins to swell as if a song is going to be broken into-- which is expected since the film is labeled "a musical"-- but it never happens. In fact, the only time there is any singing in the movie is when the characters listen to a Charles Aznavour record, and in situations where Anna Karina's character would be singing in real life (at which point the ubiquitous score abruptly drops out). Yes-- Godard almost had us there! The smartass Frenchman is gifting us with an anti-musical musical, though Anna Karina seems to be very much in a musical musical. In her first starring role, Karina comes off more humorous than seductive, which is fitting since A Woman Is A Woman is without question a comedy. For straight laughs, it's Godard's most effective work.
Karina plays Angela, a loopy stripper determined to have her sourpuss boyfriend, Emile (Jean-Claude Brialy), impregnate her. He's reluctant; she pouts; he rides his bicycle around their apartment-- you know how it goes with these nutty French couples. At the film's climax, when Emile accuses Angela of having "no shame", our charming cookie faces the audience with a satisfied grin and winks, proclaiming, "I'm not without shame...I'm a DAME." How can we not become smitten by the woman after that? In addition to being Godard's funniest movie, A Woman Is A Woman is one of his more experimental endeavors. Raoul Coutard's cinematography in this film makes Breathless look conservative, as the camera pans around with the restlessness of a child on a sugar rush. Godard tosses visual tricks and gags in left and right; in one scene after Angela and Emile have a heated verbal exchange, the camera pans back and forth between their suddenly tight-lipped faces while subtitles appear across the screen spelling out their inner emotions; after another one of their arguments, Angela and Emile refuse to speak to one another yet continue to communicate their displeasure by walking over to a bookshelf, removing books with cantankerous titles (sometimes manipulated by their fingers) and displaying it to the other. A Woman Is A Woman also features the star of Breathless, Jean-Paul Belmondo, though merely as a co-star. Regardless, Belmondo strikes the most humorous moment in the film when his character Alfred gets into an argument with a hotel manager in the streets of Paris. The hotel manager accuses Alfred of splitting without paying a bill; Alfred pulls out a journal and calmly searches for his entry on the date-in-question; when he finds it, Alfred reads "5:30 pm...left without paying Hotel Bikini" and subsequently tells the hotel manager he will never pay the bill. The two adversaries back away from one another and exchange various curses, the score charging up for a musical number that will never occur. If there's one disappointing factor of A Woman Is A Woman, it's that there aren't more scenes between Belmondo and Karina. However, the two will get their chance to shine together in Pierrot Goes Wild...down the line....
MY LIFE TO LIVE (Vivre Sa Vie), 1962
This is where Anna Karina becomes deeply and completely beguiling. Not only does My Life To Live feature Karina's best performance, it could very well be Godard's best film; to quote the Sight and Sound blurb on the back of my DVD, My Life To Live is "The real confirmation of Godard's genius." The mainstream masses can have their insipid Pretty Woman; the only hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold for me is Karina's Nana, and My Life To Live is her story.
The plot is simple enough. Nana, an attractive young woman, leaves her boyfriend and child in order to pursue a half-baked plan for an acting career, and when that doesn't work out, she becomes a streetwalker. Though a woman who would leave her child for such a frivolous goal doesn't sound worthy of audience sympathy, Nana is indeed a sad character and we connect with her. Why exactly? Is it the way she cries when watching a Joan of Arc movie? Is it how lost she appears when being questioned by a policeman over her near theft of 1,000 francs? Is it how she struggles so desperately when her first client attempts to kiss her? It's all of these things, these moments--brought to precious life by Anna Karina-- combined with the ingenious eye of the film's creator establishing each episode with a novelist's precision, and setting the melancholic tone with forlorn headshots of Nana. When we first hear Nana speak, we only see her from the back of her head. This not only keeps with Godard's penchant for being unconventional for the transcending sake of it, but also gives us an immediate sense that Nana is isolated from those around her. But this doesn't mean she can't charm the pants off you (a handy trait considering the profession she falls into). Wearing her fur-lined jacket, standing on the corner, a cigarette dangling from her lips, those eyes so tragically sly and mysterious, her spirit so innocent, her body so corrupted-- she's the angel/whore of many a man's dreams. But that's all appetizer for the meal she serves up: the dance scene at the pool-hall.
Now this isn't some stripper-tease, overtly sexual routine. In fact it's childlike and whimsical-- almost goofy at times-- but again, those eyes-and smirk! I said it before: when Anna Karina dances, the earth moves, and how! But in addition to making herself a delightful presence, Karina paints Nana another coat during this perfect movie moment and makes her fate more tragic. Similar to Thomas Hardy's Tess (an influence on Godard), Nana is "a pure woman" despite where the harsh currents of Fate have taken her. More than anything, Nana just wants the adoration of one man, just one person to see her for the unique individual she is. When she breaks it off with her child's father at the film's beginning, it's not because she's callous or even that career-minded; it's because he doesn't view her as special: "You say you love me, but you don't think of me as someone special." And like Belmondo's character in Breathless, Nana is too feral and instinctive to survive in man-made society. British colloquialisms aside, she is a bird-- to be sure, flying with the wrong flock-- a bird described by a child during the movie: "A bird is an animal with an inside and an outside. Remove the outside, there's the inside. Remove the inside and you see the soul." Still, this doesn't mean Nana is unintelligent; during a pinnacle scene near the end of the film, she has a thought-provoking conversation with an old philosopher about the necessity of words. Nana argues against the use of words; but the philosopher makes a good argument in their favor: "One cannot distinguish the thought from the words that express it. An instant of thought can only be grasped through words." Only Godard can make a scene with two people simply talking so engrossing to watch! Cameramen, actors, words... Godard knew how to use them all, and My Life To Live is his masterwork, his portrait of his love while his feelings for her were at their dizzy, idolizing heights.
CONTEMPT (Le Mepris), 1963
Contempt is easily Godard's most accomplished piece of filmmaking; it may also be his best. I can't decide myself-- is it My Life To Live or Contempt? Can it be any of the films that followed? Bah to such pigeonholing! Godard was a man with more than one masterpiece under his belt; let's just leave it at that. Contempt is Godard's one and only big-budget, star-filled extravaganza; European sex idol Brigitte Bardot is the lead and American actor Jack Palance co-stars. Whereas his previous films had an intentionally slapdash look and feel to them, Contempt is the exact opposite: it's a meticulous and lavish affair; superbly crafted in both detail and scope. I'm a fella who appreciates extremes-- give me guerilla art or grandiose art-- hence I'm down with the production upgrade. And it's not like Godard was selling out; always the rebellious artist, Godard drove the producers batty and turned what at first appeared to be an embrace of the mainstream into a final and gorgeous negation of it. In the ultimate coup d'état, Godard turns his biggest production into one of his most intellectual, personal and emotionally stirring films. Subversive in many ways, the film also openly criticizes the politics behind big-budget filmmaking. Because of this, Contempt is often cited as a movie about moviemaking-- and it is to a degree-- but like Fellini's 8 1/2 (released the same year), Contempt is less about the process of moviemaking and more about a man questioning his artistic integrity while his marriage unravels.
Michel Piccoli plays the man, Paul, with subtle brilliance and Brigitte Bardot plays his stunning wife, Camille, to great melancholy effect. Paul is an intelligent but B-Level writer enlisted by an American producer (Jack Palance) to help rewrite the script for a troubled adaptation of Homer's The Odyssey. Palance is especially good as the arrogant producer; it's hard not to smile when his character can hardly contain himself at the sight of a naked woman on screen, giggling and beaming like a fiendish child-- oh, he's a hoot that Palance! Nevertheless, the stars of this contemporary Greek tragedy are Piccoli and Bardot; the film's centerpiece focuses exclusively on Paul and Camille in their apartment. Here Godard ups the ante of extended dialogue and character intimacy-- we're with them for a good half hour as their marriage falls apart, not with any loud crash of violence or shocking revelation, but through Paul's realization that Camille no longer loves him. They roam about the apartment like lost spirits who can't connect; the more they talk, the more the columnated ruins of their union go down like dominoes.
Cinematographer Raoul Coutard outdoes himself here-- the camera following around husband and wife so closely, so acutely that we feel more like we're experiencing their lives than watching them-- and we're never bored, even though we're merely watching a couple at odds in an apartment. Firstly, the apartment itself is visually appealing with its Athens meets space-age décor, and then there's Camille-- ah, hell it's Brigitte Bardot! In an interview with Godard (one of the Criterion Collection's nice DVD supplements), he likens Bardot's naked body to a sculpture of Venus, and you can't disagree. In addition to the jaw-dropping Capri scenery in the third act of the film, the several shots of Bardot's breathtaking ass is more than enough reason to view the windscreen version of this film. And while we're on the subject of nice packages, the Criterion Collection really put together a good one with Contempt (as they also did with our next stop, Band Of Outsiders). A movie of such visual splendor-- what luminous primary colors and the shimmering blue ocean and Bardot's golden locks in the sun!-- deserves this fine treatment. Even several hours after watching the film, I retain the haunting image of Bardot in a bright yellow robe, standing on top of the Casa Malaparte,against an infinite sea. And the tragic score by George Delerue lingers...lingers....
BAND OF OUTSIDERS (Bande a part), 1964
I may think My Life To Live and Contempt are Godard's best films, but Band Of Outsiders is my favorite-- yes, my objectivity and subjectivity clash ever so slightly-- what is "best"? What is "favorite"? Again, who cares? I love all these flicks...dig it? And you'd have to be a troglodyte not to dig Band Of Outsiders. What a blast-- bang, bang! After the opulence of Contempt, Godard decided to go back to his small budget roots, Breathless style, and make an existential caper film. Also returning is Anna Karina, after having had Brigitte Bardot as a stand-in, and she's still alluring, still Karina. Joining the fold (and making a quirky love triangle) are Claude Brasseur and Sami Frey as two young men who border on being cartoon characters; Frey's character even declares himself "Loopy De Loop" in one scene. We're again taken to the wilderness with these three characters-- Odile (Karina), Arthur (Brasseur), and Franz (Frey)-- who are much like children and even more like animals. Thus, it's only natural that Odile would throw a tiger some raw meat as she skips sprightly through the woods, off to see Arthur and Franz-- two more cats desiring meat. None of the three-- the Band Of Outsiders-- can stand still for more than a minute; Arthur and Franz often fidgeting and walking around with pensive, caged-in glowers, even though they have plenty of space in the rustic suburbs. They do not, however, have much loot. There is a big stack of bread stashed away at Odile's aunt's house and our boys have a plan. It's not a particularly good one, but they've seen enough caper films: grab some masks, a gun, get the very pretty and very bored girl you're seducing to let you in, and voila!
But before the petty suburban heist they're going to bungle (and believe me, the writing is on the wall for these clowns) there is fun to be had! Using their fingers as guns, Arthur and Franz play a quick game of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. The two buddies hang by the river, reading newspaper articles out loud simultaneously. Then we're playing musical chairs at a café as our love triangle gets to know one another over some schnapps, Coca-Cola, and peppermint soda. Let's not forget the hilarious minute of silence, followed by the Madison (the dance number to end all dance numbers), with our three outsiders dancing with ultra hipness as equally hip Michel Legrand swinger music blares. Did I mention that Godard narrates the film? No? Well, he does and he narrates during the Madison dance; telling us what each character is thinking while they groove. What Franz thinks is the tops: "He wonders if the world is becoming a dream or if the dream is becoming the world." Wee wee-- what a time there is to be had while killing time! Listen to Karina's husky voice sing you away on a subway; watch our threesome's fast, giddy run through the Louvre; laugh at them fumbling with that ladder! What makes Band Of Outsiders work best is how enjoyable the main characters are to watch; it's as if each one is trying to out-French the others. Odile is pouty, hating everything but "nature", a throwback to silent films; Arthur, amoral, blasé, ice cold New Wave; Franz, romantic, broody, a throwback to 1930s-1940s cinema. Oh, how we want to see Franz and Odile get together; a collective "doh" sounds from the audience when he cups her breast at an inappropriate time; a collective cheer when we hear next time around, Odile and Franz have a tropical adventure"in Cinemascope and Technicolor". Our following destination, Pierrot Goes Wild, more or less delivers on this promise....
PIERROT GOES WILD (Pierrot Le Fou), 1965
...Except Karina isn't playing Odile anymore, but rather the more ambiguous Marianna, and there's no Sami Frey. But Karina's character does have a tropical adventure in Cinemascope and Technicolor with (at last!) Jean-Paul Belmondo! The tease of seeing Godard's two greatest actors together in A Woman Is A Woman finally culminates in an epic payoff: Pierrot Goes Wild. Godard really takes us to the wilderness in this one, with trees, ocean, birds, coyote and Belmondo's face painted tribesman blue at the film's dynamite finale. But let's rewind to the opener; we hear Antoine's Duhamel foreboding score and see blackness... then letters, in alphabetical order, slowly begin appearing on the screen-eventually we're staring at the credits and we know we're in for some cutting-edge shit. Not surprisingly, Belmondo plays Pierrot...although that's not his name; it's just what Marianna (Karina) insists on calling him; Belmondo's character is actually named Ferdinand. At the film's beginning, Ferdinand is a frustrated member of the bourgeoisie; kind of like his character, Michel, from Breathless if he had settled down and gotten an education. Michel and Ferdinand both have the same tired eyes and lazily hanging cigarette. Anyway, Ferdinand is miserably bored with his status quo life. Even sardonic insight regarding his wife's Maidenform girdle doesn't lift his spirits: "After Athens, after the Renaissance, we are now entering the civilization of the rump!" At a multi-colored, society party, he sulks and says to a vacuous girl: "You're right...I talk too much. A man alone always talks too much." He's had enough and goes wild, throwing wedding cake at his wife as fireworks explode. Yes, we see fireworks!
Pierrot Goes Wild is one of Godard's most experimental films; one can even use the term "crazy-ass." Whatever the adjective, there's no doubting the creative freedom Godard (pretty free to begin with) is exhibiting here. It's the same exciting strain of freedom Ferdinand must feel when he arrives home, free from his bourgeoisie shackles, to find the hot babysitter, Marianna, in need of a ride. Marianna's more than a looker, she's a hip kitten and ex-lover of Ferdinand; she understands him when he asserts: "There are days...you meet nothing but squares." As the two are out driving and talking their love affair recommences. The next morning, after making love and hearing a song from Marianna, their strange adventure begins. Godard once said you only need a girl and a gun to make a movie; here we have a girl and a shitload of guns! Marianna is not just a babysitter, she's a gunrunner, and she throws a rifle at Ferdinand-- it's of the same make that got Kennedy. Marianna's underworld activity is revealed in perhaps the greatest and most avant-garde transition scene ever filmed; we see Ferdinand and Marianna getting rid of a bloodied body, loading up the weapons and fleeing in jump-cuts while the two reveal what's going on in scattered fragments of dialogue: "a story - (all mixed up) - leave in a hurry - escape from a bad dream - I knew some people - politics - an organization - get away - gunrunning." The fugitive lovers take out some hapless gas-station attendants (the Laurel and Hardy trick leaves us in stitches) and eventually end up in nature. That's right: Mother Fucking Nature.
For the more adrenaline-driven audience, this is where the movie falls apart; but for us pretentious literary types, we love it when Ferdinand walks around the beach reading and writing poetry. Marianna hates it though; "Let's go back to our gangster movie," she cries out, "with fast cars and guns and nightclubs." They do, but the film never succumbs to Marianna's suggested pulp clichés; instead Ferdinand and Marianna make money by acting out the Vietnam War to American caricatures-- the formerly apolitical Godard getting mighty pointed in his politics-- and they do a musical number about Marianna's diminutive fate-line. One should note the irony (surely deliberate) of this non-musical having more singing than Godard's musical did. Karina's charming voice aside, things get dark for our gunrunning lovers, but I won't tell you how dark. Both Contempt and Pierrot Goes Wild end with the camera panning to the Mediterranean ocean; twice we're left to ponder a blue infinity.
The final destination on my Godard DVD tour is a little place called Alphaville. This is Godard's film noir/sci-fi flick, starring Eddie Constante as a hard-boiled gumshoe named Lemmy Caution. And when I say hard-boiled, man, I mean hard-boiled! Lemmy Caution's impassive face is the steeliest you'll ever see; he shoots people on a hair trigger because he doesn't like talking; he slaps crazy broads like it's nothing; he flicks on his cigarette lighter by shooting it; and his two favorite things are "gold and women". But dig this: He's also a romantic who loves poetry! Of course, in the Godard universe, everyone loves poetry...well, except for one big bad boy: the giant computer Alpha 60. The grumble-voiced machine runs Alphaville-- actually, the Alpha 60 is Alphaville-- an omnipresent autocrat that requires its citizens to be perpetually drugged and emotionless. Lemmy Caution is a secret agent from the Outlands who traveled to Alphaville, posing as a reporter named Ivan Johnson, in order to find a Professor Vonbraun; it's worth mentioning that Caution traveled across the galaxy in a Ford Galaxy. After some decent gumshoeing, our hard-boiled hero learns Alpha 60 is planning to launch a preemptive war against the Outlands in order to destroy any potential threat and disseminate its fascist culture or anti-culture (sound familiar?). Yes, it's pretty bad in Alphaville: emotions are not permitted and if you're caught showing any emotion whatsoever, you're sentenced to death... and an exceptionally weird death at that, involving a firing squad, a swimming pool and a school of bloodthirsty chicks in swimwear. And speaking of school, Alpha 60 teaches its citizens such homilies as "life and death are found within the same circle." Yikes! Anyone can understand why Caution states: "This dump of yours isn't Alphaville, it's Zeroville."
But can our gritty, poetry-spouting gumshoe save the fate of the galaxy? More importantly, can he find love? For you see, the elusive Professor Vonbraun has a lovely daughter, Natasha, played by-- surprise, surprise-- Anna Karina! Caution falls immediately for Natasha and "her pretty sphinx voice." So do we for that matter-- and when I say "we", I mean me, myself and I-- but I can't fathom any man not falling in love with Anna Karina after one particular moment in the film. I am speaking of the scene in which Natasha turns to Caution in his hotel room-- shot in extreme close-up-- smiles a disarming smile, a warm spark in her eyes, and utters: "Whee." Ah, my passion for Anna Karina is indeed love... pure and impossible, and one that transcends any paltry reality. Sorry for the digression; back to the hotel room. Caution and Natasha have one of those classic Godard scenes in which the male and female get involved in extended dialogue with one another, and not suprisingly, it's a highlight of the movie. Love is born; moving sections of Paul Eluard's "The Capital of Sorrow" are recited; and goons show up. Uh oh... the Alpha 60 has Lemmy Caution captured; with old-fashioned microphones sticking in his face, the computer tells him: "It is logical to condemn you to death." Caution, always ice cold, retorts: "Fuck yourself with your logic." Will Caution escape? Will he be reunited with Natasha? I'm not spoiling anything here, but Alphaville does end with "a night drive across intersidereal space."
As does our tour of my Godard DVD collection-- if either Made In USA or Weekend were available on DVD, maybe we'd continue. But they aren't, so we won't. Later, traitors.
By: Edwin Faust
Published on: 2003-11-03