Archive for May, 2012

I’d rather people feel a film before understanding it.—Robert Bresson¹

Whenever Jean-Luc Godard makes a new film², one always hears the same complaints from baffled reviewers that his movies are confusing, esoteric, mannered, opaque, and ultimately unintelligible—both difficult to follow as stories and failing to convey any clear message. It’s often implied that Godard is either too specialized for most filmgoers, or worse, a depleted has-been straining to create the appearance of meaning in order to conceal the essential emptiness of his work.³

To be sure, in many of Godard’s films (particularly those made after 1980), the narrative isn’t presented in a clear manner, and I’d be hard-pressed to extract an overarching theme even from one of the relatively straightforward ones—which may have something to do with why none of his recent features have been as successful, critically or commercially, as his official ’60s masterpieces.⁴ To cite just one example, although the plot of Nouvelle vague (1990) is relatively easy to understand, the film’s narration is still pretty darn elliptical, and the cacophonous soundtrack is full of literary quotations that obliquely comment on the action without developing a coherent thesis. Ultimately, one comes away from the film with feelings and impressions rather than firm ideas.

The plot is easily summarized. While driving along a stretch of highway in the Swiss countryside, a wealthy industrialist, Helene Torlato-Favrini (Domiziana Giordano), finds a drifter, Roger Lennox (Alain Delon), lying by the side of the road. They instantly become lovers, but it’s not long before they start bickering with one another. One day while swimming, Helene (accidentally?) pulls Roger into the water and then watches from her boat while he drowns. Several months later, Roger’s twin brother Richard (or perhaps Roger himself, pulling a Lady Eve) turns up at Helene’s mansion, driving a convertible and wearing a fancy suit, to ask for a job in her company. He and Helene also become lovers, but this time it’s Richard who wears the pants in their relationship. (In the film’s early scenes, Roger is often seen walking around Helene’s mansion in his boxer shorts.)

Although one could imagine this story being the basis for a fairly conventional movie, Godard’s eccentric découpage deliberately obscures some major plot points. In the film’s second sequence, for instance, it’s not clear if Roger was hit by a truck when Helene stops to help him. The scene begins with an extreme long shot of Roger walking along the highway holding a suitcase.

The camera smoothly tracks right until a thick tree comes into frame, obscuring our view of Roger.

Over a title card reading, “Incipit Lamentatio,” the blare of a car horn rises on the soundtrack. Cut to Roger running towards the tree in order to avoid getting hit by a truck.

The sound of the car horn continues over a low-angle shot of the tree, and another shot of Roger standing by the tree, looking offscreen right as the truck and Helene’s car pass by.

The next shot presents the tree from such an angle that Roger is no longer visible.

While tracking left, the camera quickly pans right with the movement of the truck and Helene’s car, which speed by the same tree a second time. (Once they pass the tree, the sound of the car horn quickly dies down.) A few seconds later, Helene’s car comes to a sudden halt in the middle of the road and begins backing up.

Two shots later, after another low-angle shot of the tree, the camera tracks right with Helene’s car as it pulls off the main road. As the tree comes into view, we can see Roger’s raised hand sticking up into the frame, indicating that he’s now lying on the ground.

Earlier it looked as though the truck had narrowly missed him, but now it seems that it didn’t; based on such uncertain evidence, one can’t say definitively either way. In other words, Godard uses harsh sound effects, oblique framings, elliptical editing, and sudden camera movements to give the viewer the impression of speed and aggression without making it explicit what’s happening.

What’s more, the dialogue, rather than explaining the plot, consists mainly of tangentially related musings. Some of these are situated within the diegesis (when asked about critics, a female writer replies, “Read Jules Renard, darling. A critic is a soldier who fires on his own regiment”), while others comment on the story from without. (The first thing we hear in the film is a raspy male voice saying, “But I wanted this to be a narrative. I still do”—a warning to the viewer that this isn’t going to be a normal movie.) And since most of the film’s dialogue takes place offscreen rather than onscreen, it’s often not clear whether a particular line is spoken within the diegesis or not. In the sequence where Helene finds Roger by the side of the road, when we hear the former say (over another low-angle shot of the tree), “You’re hurt,” we can be fairly certain that she’s speaking to Roger, but when a man’s voice remarks a few seconds later, “Who puts any value on a well executed death? Even the rich, who can afford it, no longer bother,” we can’t be sure if this is Roger talking to Helene or a non-diegetic narrator talking to no one. As well as adding to the movie’s grave tenor, such sombre ruminations—together with the numerous shots of natural settings and title cards—by suspending narrative development, invite the viewer to reflect on the story rather than getting swept up in it.

Here a skeptic might interject: Isn’t the principal pleasure afforded by all great narrative films the enjoyment of being swept up in a story, waiting eagerly to see what will happen next? Therefore, I should add that, rather than precluding involvement in the movie, Godard’s way of narrating a story allows for a different kind of emotional engagement. This applies not only to Nouvelle vague and Godard’s other recent features but his early films as well—notably, À bout de souffle (1960), in which the playful asides slow the plot down while some key events are presented in an elliptical manner.⁵ Incidentally, while that film is widely considered a classic now (even by reviewers who dismiss Godard’s later work), it met with considerable controversy on first release.⁶ This isn’t to say that, in time, Nouvelle vague—or Passion (1982) or Notre musique (2004)—will come to be as highly regarded as À bout de souffle, but that Godard’s movies have always required viewers to make some adjustments to their habitual assumptions about the art (and business) or narrative filmmaking. That said, while no one could mistake Nouvelle vague for a film of great commercial appeal, it’s not a film that requires any specialized knowledge to be understood as the emotions it conveys speak loud and clear.

1. This quote comes from an interview for French television, which is included as a bonus feature on the Chinese DVD of Bresson’s Pickpocket (1959).

2. I’m referring here only to his theatrical features and not his videos.

3. Todd McCarthy for one appears to subscribe to the former thesis (in a blog entry on Film socialisme [2010], he characterizes Godard’s fan base as “a private club with a rigorously limited membership list”), while Roger Ebert seems inclined toward the latter. In his review of Éloge de l’amour (2001), he writes that, “[Godard] stumbles through the wreckage of this film like a baffled Lear, seeking to exercise power that is no longer his. […] After a second viewing, looking beneath the surface, I see so little there. It is all remembered rote work, used to conceal old tricks, facile name-calling, the loss of hope, and emptiness.”

4. Although none of Godard’s recent films have been big hits in the United States (or, so far as I’m aware, anywhere else), Nouvelle vague is particularly obscure in a North American context as it’s never had a US distributor.

5. “Scenes containing crucial action are sometimes brief and confusing. The murder of the traffic cop, an event that triggers much of what follows, is handled in a very elliptical fashion. […] So much action has been left out that we can barely comprehend what is happening, let alone judge whether Michel shot deliberately or by accident.

“In contrast to the whirlwind presentation of this key action, a lengthy conversation in the middle of the film brings the narrative progression almost to a stand-still. […] So rambling is [Michel and Patricia’s] exchange that some critics have assumed that the dialogue was improvised (although Godard attests that it was all scripted). […] By the end of the long scene (which occupies nearly a third of this 89-minute film), we still do not have a definitive step forward or backward in Michel’s courting of Patricia, and he has made no progress towards escaping.” David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson, Film Art: An Introduction, eighth edition, 2008, p. 397-398.

6. Emmanuel Laurent’s documentary Deux de la vague (2010) contains archival footage of Parisian moviegoers responding to À bout de souffle in 1960, some of whom plainly despised the film (one man describes it as “gratuitous dirt”).

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