| Une Femme est une femme / A Woman is a Woman | Le Mépris / Contempt
| Vivre sa vie / My Life to Live
| Deux ou trois choses que je sais d'elle / Two or Three Things I Know About Her
| Weekend | Allemagne 90 neuf zéro
Classic Film and Television Home Page
Jean-Luc Godard is a film director.
Godard, Resnais and Dziga Vertov
Godard's films show the influence of Alain Resnais'
Hiroshima mon amour (1959). Resnais' film is built up of
a series of very discreet acts, like Godard's, each with very
different content. These do not follow the story arcs of conventional
films. It is full of very diverse elements - texts shown on screen,
such as the signs and posters; the photographs, both small, and
blown up to large placards, newsreels - all also Godard like.
It also mixes fiction and documentary, and unusual voice overs
where the characters share their philosophical views - two later
features of Godard's work. There is a film within a film, including
a shot showing a camera on tracks, as in Godard's Contempt.
It also shows non-narrative avant-garde aspects, probably the
nearest source for these in Godard's films. Even the scene where
the car rapidly pulls away is echoed in the departing speedboat
in Godard's Contempt (1963).
Behind both Godard and Resnais stand the avant-garde documentaries
of Dziga Vertov. Vertov, who worked in
the Soviet Union in the 1920's and 1930's, also mixed photographed
texts such as building signs into his work. His The Man With
a Movie Camera (1929) is the archetypal film with a motion
picture production going on inside it: we see the newsreel man
photographing a film, a woman editing it, and an audience watching
it, all contained within Vertov's film itself. The snatches of
newsreel shown as Vertov's film within a film anticipate the diverse
structural elements later used by Resnais and Godard. Vertov's
montage rhythms also anticipate those of Resnais. So do Vertov's
forward tracking shots through city streets. Vertov composed his
films in Acts, also as Resnais and Godard later did. Godard and
Resnais also shared Vertov's left wing politics, as did most filmmakers
strongly influenced by the Soviet school of the 1920's, although
Resnais' political views seem far more anarchist than Marxist.
Une Femme est une femme / A Woman is a Woman (1961). Godard's
film is today little known. There doesn't seem to be much critical
commentary or attention. I finally saw it on video, a tape that
preserves the widescreen format of the original. The camera movements
in the film are extraordinary. They explore the couple's apartment
with tremendous enthusiasm, circling around 360 degrees, and finding
all sorts of interesting widescreen compositions as they go. The
film, Godard's first feature in color, has an optimistic, comic
tone. The upbeat, happy camera movements are consistent with this
attitude. They turn much of the film into a sort of visual party,
one designed to explore the visual potential of the apartment.
Le Mépris / Contempt (1963). Two years later, Godard
made his second color feature, also in widescreen. This was recently
released in a restored print, and I got a chance to see it in
a theater, as is the best way to see all movies. As a visual experience,
this is a 4 star movie if there ever was one. The long sequence
in the apartment echoes the techniques used in A Woman is a
Woman (1961). The camera movements tend to feel a bit slower
here. They accompany a scene and a film that is much more serious
in tone than Woman. The camera movements here often seem
to temporarily assume positions that are at full right angles
from their last place of rest; they are now frontal to another
direction of the apartment. Camera movement is one of the subjects
of the film. It opens with a static, deep focus shot, showing
a camera movement taking place on a film set, with the "on
screen" camera dollying ever closer to the viewer. The film
ends with a second film of a moving camera shot, this one proceeding
from Lang to his assistant Godard on screen. The opening shot
of a moving camera is accompanied by a moving tribute to the late
André Bazin in Godard's narration. Bazin is the critic
associated above all others with camera movement, as well as being
Godard's mentor in his early career.
Godard's color is also extraordinary throughout. It uses the "primary
colors backed by white" of Godard's style - a color scheme
previously associated with Samuel Fuller's
Western film, Run of the Arrow (1957), and before that
with the Dick Tracy comic strip of Chester Gould. The blue
of the ocean toward the end is especially memorable. It seems
to surround the characters, and give a sense that the compositions
are part of a limitless world. I also like the hero's red sports
car, and the moving compositions showing its progress through
the Italian hills of the opening scenes. These shots show much
small elevation and lowering of the camera during its movement;
this is quite unusual in films. Even the beginning and end titles
are in Godard's colors. The gasoline pumps in the film also show
a memorable use of red.
Vivre sa vie / My Life to Live (1962). I have some mixed
feelings, about what in many ways is a remarkable film. The subject
matter, prostitution, has little interest to me. Many of the early
scenes of the film seem too simple or minimalist. On the plus
side, the "mating dance" in the pool hall is one of
Godard's wonderful camera movement set pieces. Also interesting
is the pendulum camera movement of one of Karina's interview scenes.
The whole film develops an interesting overall effect, with good
use being made of collage - the voice overs, the many shots of
writing in the film, the different kinds of scenes.
Deux ou trois choses que je sais d'elle / Two or Three Things
I Know About Her (1966). This film mixes Godard's strange
ideas about prostitution with Marxist dogma; as a whole it is
not very good, especially to people who are non-Marxists like
myself. It does have some inspired sequences, however. The scene
in the coffee shop mixes Godard's philosophical meditations on
the sound track with some striking imagery: clouds swirling in
a cup of coffee. These rotating images recall the galaxies. They
are a spectacular illustration of chaos theory. This scene is
immediately followed by some pans through the streets of Paris,
which represent Godard's gift for camera movement at its most
The film's ultimate imagery, a combination maze and Mondrian-like
collection of rectangles, made up of consumer products, is also
outstanding. It is followed by colored closing credits in the
tradition of Contempt.
Weekend (1967). Godard classic, that explores many different
political points of view from history, dramatized in a series
of vignettes. Jean-Pierre Léaud is especially effective
presenting democratic ideas. The scene towards the end, mixing
green foliage and red activists, is one of Godard's most effective
uses of his primary color approaches.
Godard's later work seems more Symbolist than his earlier, 1960's
films. A work like Allemagne 90 neuf zéro (1991) is literally
incomprehensible on the conventional level, in a style one associates
with Symbolist poets such as Mallarmé or T. S. Eliot. One
sentence often has no immediate relationship with the sentence
that proceeded it, phrases appear out of nowhere, both on the
soundtrack and displayed as title cards, and the images do not
tell a story with any surface logic. There is no clear story,
the film contains a mix of fiction, observation, philosophy, history
and travelogue style images of Germany. Oddly enough, I believe
I understood most of Godard's film: the thoughts expressed in
the film tend to group into clusters, dealing with a series of
subjects such as Germany history, America's relationship with
Germany, philosophy, the end of the Cold War, 1920's German cinema,
classical music and so on, and one can follow the thread of different
discussions simultaneously throughout the movie. Describing the
film as Symbolist is not a complaint, or an expression of bewilderment,
but simply an attempt to characterize the narrative strategy of
the work. Godard has always been avant-garde, but it is unclear
when his work became so Symbolist. A film like Contempt
(1963) or La Chinoise (1967) can be viewed as a piece of
straightforward, linear narrative. Even a film like Two or
Three Things I Know About Her (1966) which is extremely collage
like in its overall pattern, is still made up of individual sequences
that are much more conventionally narrative in structure. What
seems to have happened in a work like Allemagne 90 neuf zéro is
that the collage structure of early Godard has been preserved,
but that the pieces have become much more fine grained. In Two
or Three Things, each piece is a few minutes long, in
, each sentence, shot or title card is another unit
of the collage. In any case, Godard has definitely crossed the
Symbolist line here. I have not been able to see enough of Godard's
post 1970 work to tell when this happened, or how frequently it
occurs in his later work. Sauve qui peut (1979) seems nearly
as Symbolist as Allemagne 90 neuf zéro, whereas none of Godard's
1960's films seems fully Symbolist, despite some approximations.
Godard's brand of Symbolism preserves many of his earlier narrative
strategies. There is a mixture of fiction and non fiction. Parts
seem like personal meditation - one frequently hears Godard's
voice on the soundtrack of his movies, offering us philosophical
ideas and musings - and other parts seem like conventional documentary.
There are a great many phrases that show up on title cards, a
mannerism that is one of Godard's least interesting traits. By
contrast, his personal meditations often express a great deal
of feeling, and help reveal the director's personal attitudes
in a way that is unfortunately rare in other film makers. I loved
Godard's quotation from, and tribute to Bazin in Contempt,
for example, and Godard's meditation on the coffee cup in Two
or Three Things is the high point of the movie.
However, Godard's Symbolism is also not just a pure outgrowth
of his earlier work. It definitely involves the sort of non-linear
narration one is used to in such Modernist literary writers as
Gertrude Stein or James Joyce. Like them Godard has found ways
to preserve an over all stream of meaning, while destroying the
logic of the work on a moment to moment basis.
Godard's camera eye is still strong. His shots of modern Germany
are interesting, especially when he gets out into the countryside.
I could have used a lot more of these.
Here we come to a difficult question. Should you, the reader,
rush out and watch Allemagne 90 neuf zéro? This is a tough question.
Many people are turned off by the mildest avant-garde mannerisms,
and a full scale Symbolist work like this would seem like an endurance
test. Nor is there anything profound or must see about this film.
But, I have to record that I enjoyed this work. I have always
liked reading Godard's essays, and this film is like spending
an hour reading an article or journal by him. I read a lot of
film criticism, and I couldn't help but note how much more enjoyable
it was to spend an hour with Godard, compared to many other authors.
He is also much more enjoyable than most TV shows. I could watch
an hour of Godard many nights. Godard is just my cup of tea. He
always has been, and always will be.