Cumartesi, Eylül 16, 2006

All You Need is a Girl and a Gun, Part 1

Breathless (A Bout de Souffle) (France, 1959) * * * 1/2
A Woman is a Woman (Une Femme Est Une Femme) (France, 1961) * * * 1/2
My Life to Live (Vivre Sa Vie) (France, 1962) * * * *
D: Jean-Luc Godard

This semester the University of Wisconsin Cinematheque is hosting the first half of a Jean-Luc Godard retrospective, this one, "All You Need is a Girl and a Gun," highlighting his films made before 1968. I have pledged to see as many Cinematheque films this year that I can; the summer only offered a brief series on contemporary African films as well as American road movies, of which my busy schedule just allowed me to see two in the latter series (Two-Lane Blacktop and Road to Morocco). This fall/winter they're also doing a series on the great Indian director Satyajit Ray, films of the 1910's, martial arts movies, and the Hungarian director Bela Tarr, whose seven-hour-long Satantango promises to be grueling and/or life-transforming.

I've always been ambivalent toward Godard. The first film of his I saw, Breathless, should have been the perfect introduction to the seminal New Wave director; instead, I was indifferent, and felt it was just an excercise in style--here is a "great" film that may have worn to threads with age. For Primer I also watched Contempt, which I loved, and which made me briefly consider that I was wrong to dismiss him, though I was already devoted to Truffaut, as though one had to take sides in that battle (I saw the two sides as "story" vs. "style"). Contempt pressed me to give Godard several more chances: Notre Musique, Les Carabiniers, Alphaville, Le Petit Soldat, Band of Outsiders, Week-End. Regardless of my varying reactions to those films, none of which I hated, by that last film I felt I had seen enough, and with Primer over, thought I could begin exploring other French directors such as Rohmer, Melville, and Rivette. Then, a few months later, the Cinematheque announced that its director of the season was Godard, and I was handcuffed to plunge.

Appropriately, the first film of the retrospective was Breathless.

The screening changed my mind. I was wrong to watch this at home. The tiny Cinematheque at Vilas Hall was "sold out" (all screenings are free, and naturally draw a mix of students, film buffs, professors, families, and hobos), and by the scheduled start-time the organizers were turning people away at the door. Consider that they could walk a few blocks to Four Star Video Heaven and rent it on DVD. But that's what I did the first time, and the experience doesn't compare; Breathless must be seen with an audience, and preferably--like this one--a very green audience.

When you go to the first film of the fall semester, you get a lot of freshman who are seeing, perhaps, their very first foreign film (or, at least, their first foreign film to not star Jet Li). You get the requisite unintentional laughter. That laughter changed rapidly as they began to laugh with Godard rather than at him: he was too quick for them. He was making a film for the young; he was only 29 when he made the film, after all. The infamous jump-cuts (removing frames of the film to create "edits" in the middle of a sequence) have been appropriated into weekly dramas on TV ("Homicide," notably); they pass almost imperceptibly now. No, it was Jean-Paul Belmondo, the crooked-nosed, impeccably immature young French actor who was the hit of the evening. Maybe it was how he was given to address the camera directly, or suddenly leap out of a taxi in order to lift up a passer-by's skirt, or maybe it was the fact that he kind of looks like Owen Wilson, I don't know. But whatever he dished in spoonfuls they were eating up. He plays a casual criminal--emphasis on "casual"--who seems to rob and point his gun for the joyful spirit of anarchy more than anything else. His girlfriend is played by Jean Seberg, who I just saw in a very different role in the Peter Sellers vehicle The Mouse That Roared. There, she was Hollywood, sexlessly glamorous. By contrast, Breathless seems to be the behind-the-scenes documentary of Seberg, catching her looking completely natural: there was one moment when she was merely climbing a staircase, and I had the strange feeling that she was unaware of being filmed. But that's the point: Godard is trying to transform the banal. The bravura setpiece of the plotless film is one long evening (and the following morning) spent in an apartment while Belmondo pleads for sex and Seberg dismisses him. He seems like a child at first, his pleas hopeless, but by the end of this stretch we see how dearly Seberg seems to care for him. Nevertheless, the nature of their relationship is constantly in question, and the famous finale is classic Godard cynicism.

The film's weakness is Godard's naive tendency to put a point on matters; his characters frequently underline what the film is about. "We always talked about ourselves but we should have been talking about each other." (Godard wrote the screenplay but Truffaut is credited for the story, which is pretty spare.) But what struck me about this second viewing is how deliberately vulgar it is: Godard was delighting in offending the older, straightlaced generation. His film points the way to the varying rebellions of the 1960's generation, the children of Marx and Coca-Cola, as he defined it. If you didn't get his film, if it was too violent, too anarchic--then you are the enemy; what's worse, you're old. There's still a little of that spirit in his most recent film, the otherwise solemn Notre Musique. (And I couldn't help but think that the extended scene in which Seberg interviews a renowned intellectual, and he disdainfully tosses off his world-summarizing pronouncements, directly, and probably unintentionally, parallels the scene in which Godard himself looks down his nose and makes pronouncements to a classroom of students in Notre Musique. He's finally become what he seemed to admire.)

"Groundbreaking" is the word for Breathless, but it doesn't offer that much more; but the well doesn't have to be that deep in the second film of the series, A Woman is a Woman, which is kind of like if The Umbrellas of Cherbourg had none of the songs. This "idea of a musical," as Godard once called it (thank you, program notes) stars Godard's muse, Anna Karina, as a young woman whose boyfriend (Jean-Claude Brialy) doesn't take well to her new obsession over having a baby. Distraught, she turns to another friend, "Lubitsch" (Belmondo again, who at one point, expressing his disgust, says he's going home to watch Breathless on TV). This is Godard at his most audience-pleasing, and expectedly, the Cinematheque crowd had a blast with it, treating it with as much enthusiasm as The Road to Morocco had received. Yes, Godard is witty here, and addresses the artificiality of the production as much as Bob Hope did, but there is a weird conceit that dominates everything: it's a musical with no music numbers. Well, there is one, within a set context. As Karina strips (her day job), she sings a song by Michel Legrand, who wrote the music to Umbrellas of Cherbourg and The Young Girls of Rochefort, and composed the scores to other French New Wave classics such as Agnes Varda's Cleo from 5 to 7. Even here, there's a conceit: each time she actually sings, the orchestration drops out of the soundtrack, and we're left with Karina's pale voice whispering the seductive words. Godard's attempt to sabotage the song somehow enhances it. Imagine what Marilyn Monroe could do with the technique. Of course, Godard is fond of screwing with the soundtrack, and frequently in A Woman is a Woman you can hear him playing with the mute button on the score. Here is sweeping music, here are the sounds of the street, here is the same sweeping music, here is the dialogue--Godard wants you to think about the process of creating a film, and wants to draw attention to the artificiality. He always wants to do this, which is why I always thought a little of Godard goes a long way, but I'm slowly changing my mind: you can be buffeted about from one Godard film rather deliriously. It's true, as the presenter said before the screening of Breathless, that each Godard film is radically different than the one that came before. True, he's always in the act of deconstructing, alluding, and sabotaging, but if you treat his films as cinema commandeered by Spy Vs. Spy, you can get in the spirit of things.

A Woman is a Woman is, in fact, a cartoon for adults. The peek-a-book nudity, the discussions about sex, the playful infidelity all suggest a tone which A Woman is a Woman cheerfully avoids: nothing here can be taken too seriously. My wife has picked this as her favorite Godard (the other, I think, is Band of Outsiders), and I can see why; no wonder she also loves The Young Girls of Rochefort. This is a lot of fun, and the Lubitsch reference is appropriate.

How perfect that it was on a double-feature not with a Jacques Demy musical but with the film's negative-image, My Life to Live. (It's even in black-and-white.) Here Karina is cast as a woman too pretty to be as desperate for money as she is; with hopes of an acting career dwindling, she turns to prostitution, but always with a philosophical attitude (this is Godard, after all): the situation, perhaps, will not be sad and desperate if she refuses to see it that way. Or perhaps not. The key scene here is when Karina talks to an acquaintance who resorted to prostitution to make ends meet, and eventually married a successful actor; the hopeful story is immediately offset by a shooting in the street, and a bloody victim staggers into the cafe before Godard cuts to the next "chapter." (The film is in 12 parts, with descriptions of the action before each.) Individualism can carry you so far, until you're set against another, stronger force, and the threat of violence hangs over this prostitute's life as it does in other treatments on the theme, such as Lodge Kerrigan's Claire Dolan. If the story is well-trod, at least the style is refreshing. Godard tones down his distracting styles, allowing you to lose yourself in the character's journey. That's not to say there isn't the Godardian, rigorously intellectual approach to camera movements. For a film that reveres the close-ups in Carl Theodor Dreyer's silent film The Passion of Joan of Arc, which Karina goes to see at one point, it deliberately keeps the camera distant, and in the opening cafe scene hides the faces of Karina and her husband, instead eavesdropping from behind as they discuss the end of their relationship, as though we're just sitting a table away. Karina is consistently isolated in the frame throughout, culminating in an abrupt final shot that is deliberately pathetic. Yes, it's a very sad film, but it's elegantly constructed, and reminds of Robert Bresson's Mouchette or Au Hasard Balthazar. It is a film that is so passionately made that it cannot be considered "depressing." I could watch Karina's seduction dance over and over: she tries to pick up a young man at a pool table by playing a song on a jukebox and dancing hypnotically around and around the room. I could use more Godard like this; it seems more essential, and seems to have more to say, than the later Godard experiments I've seen.

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