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  1. #1
    Join Date
    Jul 2002
    SF Bay Area

    Early Godard

    These are purely personal jottings and not meant to be definitive, and this is a work in progress. Not all the films have been viewed currently yet. Where possible I have watched the Criterion Collection DVD's, with their supplementary material and commentaries, which are extremely helpful. Besides individual interviews that flesh out details of Godard's relationships and working methods, concordances fill us in on ideas, facts, and books mentioned in the films, which are highly referential.

    The essential early Godard

    Jean-Luc Godard, a young man with radical ideas, born in Paris into a rich French-Swiss family, insured his fame as a filmmaker early on with a literally breathless string of daring, freely inventive, rapidly-produced films - which made him one of the most famous and recognized people in France. It's impossible not to remember vividly how exciting Godard was as part of the Nouvelle Vague of the Sixties. He was a bit too intellectual for some of us perhaps, but it was hard for anyone excited by cinema not to love the fresh, iconoclastic style, at once admiring of Hollywood and mocking toward it. But Godard's films, unlike those of other French directors of the time like Chabrol, Rohmer, Malle, Truffaut, Rivette, seemed to turn on his audience and alienate it and never change to achieve commercial appeal. His later work has largely left me cold, even though one can appreciate the intellectual energy that churns on even in his eighties, and his last few films, featured at the New York Film Festival, have bristled with visual ideas even if one could not make any sense of them. Here are a few jottings on his iconic early works. If some of the films haven't lost their freshness while others have, I still love early Godard and miss the cinematic energy and experiment of those heady times. These films remain an influence on world cinema.

    Godard's cinema has always been free and experimental. At some point he began early on moving toward the didactic and the instructive and away from the purely entertaining. He was attracted by Marxism, and he liked to engage the viewer combatively. In this he evoked Bertolt Brecht's theatrical device of "verfremdungseffekt," the Alienation Effect, which involves reminding the audience it is watching something artificial, not allowing it go get lost in the fiction and thereby be satisfied or charmed, but made instead to stop and think. Hence Godard's many signposts in his films, the big intertitles, and the moments when the character/actor stops and addresses the viewer directly, interrupting the action/fiction.

    1960 Breathless/À bout de souffle.

    A romance/tragedy of a French petty hood and a naive American girl set in Fifties Paris and starring Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg, the first film that made Godard instantly famous, still his most popular work, it's breezy, bold, engaging, declaring a fresh new style of filmmaking, improvisational, knowing, referential, on the cheap. A classic and a memorable charmer for the ages. If you cut it some slack, it's very endearing and gracefully captures the mood and charms of a now long-gone postwar Paris. Full of wistfulness for an American girl's naivete and a petty hood's false bravery. It shows Godard in love with American genre films - here, gangster + romance - the legacy of his time as a writer for Cahiers du Cinéma, the film review founded by André Bazin that was a breeding ground for the Nouvelle Vague. Jacques Rivette, Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol and François Truffaut all wrote for the revue before becoming directors, which from 1957 to 1963 was edited by Eric Rohmer.

    1960 Le Petit soldat (The Little Soldier).

    Jacket blurb: "Set during the Algerian War, Le Petit Soldat follows Bruno Forestier, a disillusioned young deserter who becomes involved in the French nationalist movement. He is ordered to kill an Algerian sympathizer, and although he does not hold deep political beliefs, commits the murder and undergoes torture when captured. At the same time, he meets and falls in love with a woman (Anna Karina, Godard's wife and muse, in her film debut) who he does not know is fighting for the other side. Godard's controversial follow-up to Breathless, Le Petit Soldat was originally banned from release in France because it refers to the use of torture on both sides, during Algeria's struggle for independence. Chronicle of a young revolutionary sent on a kill mission that he does not wish to execute, this seems closer to a realistic spy adventure story than anything else Godard did. It may be difficult to get hold of a rental copy of this film in the US. I have one with Italian subs only.

    1961 A Woman Is a Woman/Une femme ets une femme.

    A young striptease artist (Karina) decides to get pregnant, and when her lover (Jean-Claude Brialy) refuses to do the job, she recruits his more-than-willing best friend (Jean-Paul Belmondo). Anna Karina with Brialy and to a lesser extent Belmondo. She is at her most charming; the whole film is a lark, though also claustrophobic and repetitions. Not so much to say about this one, but it's worth watching. It is a tribute to another American genre, the movie musical; Michel Legrand's music constantly punctuates scenes and is a part of the action. Also the first film Jean-Luc Godard shot in color and Cinemascope, a signal he was getting more funding - and beginning to revel in bright color.

    1962 Vivre sa vie/My Life to Live.

    Starring Godard's then love, muse, and wife Anna Karina as a record store clerk who becomes a prostitute, finds the love of a "young blond man", and is shot and killed in a pistol fight between two pimps. In a series of short scenes or "situations." Arguably Godard's most simple, perfect, beautiful, touching film and justly a favorite of critics. The seemingly chilly formal style does not hide a considerable depth of emotion, as French film scholar Jean Narbone points out in the 45-minute discussion filmed by novelist and film historian Noël Simsolo included in the Criterion Collection disc of the film. Prostitution was a lasting preoccupation for Godard. He returns to it in the 1967 2 or 3 Things I Know About her/2 our 3 chose que je sais d'elle, where it's a suburban housewife (Marina Vlady), prompted by the needs of consumerism, who turns to ad hoc prostitution to make expenses.

    1963 Les Carabiniers (The Riflemen).

    A deliberately grating (noisy, ugly) anti-war film, attacking war and movies that glorify war or make it attractive. I find this tedious to watch.

    1963 Le mépris (Contempt.)

    Bigger budget, color, famous names including Jack Palance, Brigitte Bardot, Fritz Lang and Michel Piccoli in his debut. Based on the Alberto Moravia novel. Several memorable sequences, but a bore, not a success. Why this is deemed popular with the public is a mystery. One scene after another drags on and on. Evidently with these name actors, for one thing, Godard was less able to use his swift, economical method of shooting scenes. The topic is a famous European director (Lang) is trying to make an arty interpretation of the Odyssey at Cinecittà in Rome, but the commercial American producer (Palance) doesn't buy it. Not that it much matters, this is based on Moravia's novel Il disprezzo (Contempt). The producer has hired a novelist (Piccoli) to rework the script. The writer is becoming estranged from his wife (Bardot). Besides references to Homer, there are ones to Bardot's and Godard's personal lives and Godard's problems with the film distributer Joseph E. Levine.

    1964 Bande à part/Band of Outsiders).

    About a gang of young outlaws. This has some of the wistful sadness, the tragic bravado of Breathless. Only this isn't a couple, but a trio. Sami Frey and Claude Brasseur compete for the love of Anna Karina, whom Frey's character meets first in an ESL class, as the three try to steal a stash of money from a house out in the country. Things get complicated when the uncle of Arthur (Brasseur) gets wind of the money and wants a cut so they have to carry out the caper earlier than they'd planned. Based on he novel Fools' Gold (Doubleday Crime Club, 1958) by American author Dolores Hitchens (1907–1973), but as usual Godard shot freely, writing the script each day and giving exact instruction to the cast that he improvised on the spot, which gives the action a helter-skelter air. The plot doesn't matter so much as the air of romance and the youthful bravado - and the loose, half mocking, half admiring, reference to American film noir.

    1964 Une femme marriée (A Married Woman.)

    1964 Alphaville.

    A pessamistic noirish B&W sci-fi film of an oppressive corporate near-future of a totalitarian techno-galactic empire with crime thriller overtones, with Eddie Constantine, the American expatriot actor-singer in his signature hardboiled role as "Lemmy Caution," and with Anna Karina as the "hostess" he falls for. With its grim, laborious throaty computer-control voiceover and urban nighttime gloom it's richly atmospheric, but tedious and repetitive. I have watched this many times, and with repetition, it ultimately loses its initial charm. Why? Because it's not sexy.

    1965 Pierrot le fou.

    In bright color and visually gorgeous, again starring Jean-Paul Belmondo, this film is nihilistic and pessimistic. It's episodic structure renders it barely comprehensible at best. A grim and off-putting effort. Some descriptions of it are largely misleading.

    1966 Made in U.S.A.

    Bright colors, flat backgrounds, neo-noir detective story (based on an American novel). It makes little coherent sense as a whole. But packed with references to movies and politics - Hollywood B pictures and favorite directors of the Cahiers writers, plus to wartime politics, Vicky and the French resistence and Ben Barka. Also filled, not for the first time, with personal references and emotion, because the last film Godard made with his muse Anna Karena, when they had already divorced. Near the end of Godard's first great run of filmmaking and the last "genre" film. Has some Ionesco-like nonsense scenes such as the notable one in a bar with Jean-Pierre Léaud as a clownish figure, whose witty nonsense dialogue reminded me of the absurdist theater of Eugène Ionesco of the Fifties. Some echoes of Alphaville.

    1966 Masculin Féminin.

    Shot simultaneously with Made in U.S.A.

    1967 Two or Three Things I Know About Her (Deux ou trois chose que je sais d'elle). While he was shooting Masculin Féminin with his ex, Anna Karina, he was simultaneously shooting this film with a new woman interest, the experienced actress Marina Vlady, who'd been in over forty films. (She was French-born, of a Russian father.) This was her only film for Godard, but she reported it was a great learning experience. It's shot in a new development of high rises on the outskirts of Paris, and there are frequent panoramic shots of construction work, cranes, buildings going up, etc. Later this district was to become part of the banlieue, the dangerous slums ringing Paris that cops don't dare enter. Now it's simply bland and soulless. Godard had briefly enrolled in anthropology at the Sorbonne, and he's inspired by sociological concerns here: stories that ad hoc prostitution was being practiced by middle class housewives (the theme of Buñuel's Belle de Jour) in the new districts. Godard's thesis is that thee new urban commercialized worlds of the day, where advertising is on the march, everyone is forced into some of "prostitution." This film is considered to be Godard's first film-essay: disenchanted with America through Vietnam and the US's other imperialist ventures, he can't take inspiration from Hollywood any more - so no more play with conventional film genres like musicals, gangster movies, etc. Yet as has been pointed out, this film is still quite poetic and has some touching moments. He does a voiceover which is whispered - a haunting, insinuating effect. This may have developed out of his habit of planting earphones in actors' ears through which he fed them lines and instructions, perhaps whispered.

    1967 La Chinoise.

    Again no more movie genre reference, and instead a cinema essay. Godard at the height of his Sixties fame and chic; a bright-colored, arty, Brechtian Maoist tract. It sputters and crackles with ideas. I watched it at the time with great excitement, but felt rather let down on this recent re-watch. There is something chilly always about Godard and this is one of the times he also seems a little shallow. The characters are just hollow voice-pieces for his ideas. This is a bourgeois Sixties expression of "revolution" played with by well-off students in their summer vacations.

    1967 Week End.

    Godard's picture of contemporary chaos and decay focused on holiday-makers trapped in a horrible traffic jam spread across the country, something that did happen in France and Italy because everybody want on vacation at the same time and came back from it at the same time. But he turns this urban disaster into an apocalyptic dystopia.

    1972 Tout va bien (Everything's Fine).

    Maybe this is beyond "early Godard," but the transition is seamless. Directed by Godard and collaborator Jean-Pierre Gorin and starring Jane Fonda as an American reporter and Yves Montand as her French husband, and centered on a strike in a sausage factory. This is focused on the damage done by capitalism on society, and reflects post-1968 attitudes. In Brechtian fashion, everything is done to separate the audience from characters and action. Uses a factory set where the rooms are open in the front so the camera can dolly around and look into them, heightening the awareness that it's a set. Inspired by Jerry Lewis's The Ladies Man. Godard and Gorin use other self-reflexive techniques in Tout va bien, like direct camera address, long takes, and abandonment of the continuity editing system. Unfortunately, this just feels like a play that's not working. Or, au contraire, the Brechtian effect is lost because the ensemble acting created a realistic feel. Sometimes Fonda and Montand look trapped in an amateurish theatrical they didn't bargain on. But it has some very amusing passages too.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 12-20-2016 at 03:15 AM.

  2. #2
    Join Date
    Oct 2002
    I just want to clarify. Chris, if this early Godard period amounts to your favorite period in his career, then maybe you don't really like Godard. You do seem to think of him as highly interesting and important, of course, and you clearly know your Godard. What I mean is...I've read these comments carefully and you don't seem to believe there is more than one, perhaps two (Band of Outsiders, perhaps "My Life to Live"), Godard films that are an unqualified masterpieces (a word not found in the whole post). Even "Breathless" requires one "cut it some slack" to find it "endearing". "A Woman is a Woman" is only "worth watching". The term "film essay" is most appropriate and it applies to the bulk of his career, even some of these early Godards, as you say.

  3. #3
    Join Date
    Jul 2002
    SF Bay Area
    A lot of Godard's early stuff is iconic for everybody who knows them, especially for me Breathless and Alphaville. The point where we agree is that they're cinematic essays. I think the Jonathan Rosenbaum list-making approach hunting for "masterpieces" is irrelevant; that his whole career is the masterpiece, not any of the individual films. But if you're disappointed I didn't find "masterpieces," which ones are that, in your view? I reject your assumption (which even seems preposterous) that my preferring the early Godard (which is the most famous and iconic Godard) means I don't really like Godard, and your tone in declaring that is condescending, as if I were one of your less promising film students. But I don't "like" Godard anyway, you got that right. There are artists, filmmakers or writers who're so important in one's life one has to know them well even without "liking" them. Liking isn't the point. Godard doesn't want to be liked. He wants to be disliked. He wants to be impossible to ignore.


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