Jean-Luc Godard | 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

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Jean-Luc Godard

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

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

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

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

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 inventive.

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.

Allemagne 90 neuf zéro

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.