Cumartesi, Eylül 30, 2006

All You Need is a Girl and a Gun, Part 2

Le Petit Soldat (France, 1960) * * * 1/2
Les Carabiniers (France, 1963) * * *
Contempt (Le Mepris) (France, 1963) * * * *
Operation Beton/Une Histoire D'eau (France, 1954/58)
D: Jean-Luc Godard

The Cinematheque series on the pre-1968 works of Jean-Luc Godard has continued over the past two weeks with three films released in 1963, proving, if nothing else, that Godard was one of the most prolific directors of the French New Wave. (Actually, Le Petit Soldat was completed in 1960 but withheld by French censors until 1963.) The films also make clear the astonishing variety of subject matter Godard was attempting to tackle in his early years, while keeping his very particular stamp on each film. You could see three random clips from Le Petit Soldat, Les Carabiniers, and Contempt, and identify each as a separate film, but at the same time identify none but Godard as the auteur.

Yet the first two are "war" films. Le Petit Soldat ("The Little Soldier") would make an ideal double feature with the better-known (and, indeed, more highly regarded) Battle of Algiers by Gillo Pontecorvo--both are set during the Algerian war as Algeria struggled against its French occupiers for independence. Bruno (Michel Subor) is a young man very much like the one played by Jean-Paul Belmondo in Breathless: an anarchic punk on the run. Ostensibly he belongs to a right-wing, anti-Algerian group, and is ordered to kill a spy sympathetic to the Algerian cause. He falls in love with another Algerian sympathizer, Veronica (Anna Karina, making her first film with Godard), which causes his fellow right-wingers to suspect him of being a double agent. It's a noir film, it's a political film, and it's a quasi-documentary, with Godard adopting the techniques of cinema-verite. But ultimately it is a film about a girl, and a man who finds himself being brutally tortured more or less because of her: he is a martyr for the cause of the girl, and not Algeria or France. The war was still going on when the film was completed, so understandably the French government suppressed the film until Godard's reputation was won and the war lost. I missed the screening of both this and Les Carabiniers due to a schedule conflict, but having seen it a year ago on Turner Classic Movies, what stands out is the transition from the iconic Godardian mix of young gangsters, existential romance, and cinematic experimentation in the early scenes, to the brutally realistic and drawn-out torture of Bruno in the final scenes. The effect is of philosophy and romance being simultaneously stripped away and seared into the flesh.

Les Carabiniers ("The Riflemen"), though grouped by the Cinematheque as another "war film," is by contrast a savage satire and fantasy along the lines of Godard's later film, Week-End. In a country that might as well be a more gritty version of the Marx Brothers' Freedonia, two farmers (Albert Jeross and Marino Mase) succumb to the propaganda of their country's army--a war is being arranged, and soldiers are needed--so they enlist under the promise of seeing distant countries, and the opportunity to kill and rape anyone they please. What follows is rather jaunty. We see postcards the boys send back to their cheerful wives. We witness the chaos and the murder. Eventually, the anarchic joy subsides and the weight of the war begins to crush them. Seldom seen, it's actually started making the rounds on TCM over the last couple of years; it's a sharp satire, if a bit obvious and heavy-handed. But when seen in the shadow of the Iraq war--and in particular the reports of American soldiers raping and killing an Iraqi girl, and slaughtering her family, before officers attempted to cover it up--it becomes even more distressing. This is essential Godard, if for no other reason than to see the beginning of a path he will follow for much of the rest of his career, sacrificing subtlety for confrontational politics. I think it works here, because it's kept timelessly simple, almost allegorical.

The first Godard film I ever liked was Contempt. Based on the Italian novel Il Disprezzo ("The Ghost at Noon") by Alberto Moravia, it's set in Italy, on the sets of the renowned Cinecitta Studios, where Fellini was making his classic films. This is considered Godard's attempt to make a mainstream, Cinemascope production with a name cast, and as such seems to have split Godard fans between those who consider it one of the greatest films ever made (it usually appears very high on Sight & Sound's critic-polling top 10 list) and those who merely consider it good. Godard, though still married to Anna Karina (his marriage was on the rocks), this time substituted a world-famous star as the film's muse--Brigitte Bardot, whose best-known film to this day is Roger Vadim's mediocre And God Created Woman. Here she is a "typist" married to the older, cynical playwright Paul Javal (Michel Piccoli), who, by contract with Godard, dresses like he's in a film noir and lights a cigarette in every scene. He also carries a gun, fulfilling Godard's notion that "all you need is a girl and a gun," and opening up the threat of violence in what is otherwise a very languid, brightly-lit, Mediterranean film. Paul is hired to rewrite a script for The Odyssey which is being adapted by the legendary German director Fritz Lang (playing himself). The American producer, Jeremy Prokosch (Jack Palance), wants more sex and action, and less of the arty stuff. (Famously, he says, "Every time I hear the word 'culture' I get out my checkbook.") While Paul seems bilingual, his wife Camille only uses the language stumblingly; this doesn't seem to bother Jeremy, intent on seducing her. Jeremy knows very little French, but grins lasciviously while she talks. Fritz Lang is fluent in English and French, but seems the most isolated of all of them, concentrating only on his film, and bemused by these creatures that keep fluttering around him and getting in his way.

Language presents just one barrier for this quartet at the center of Contempt. Paul, Jeremy, and Lang argue over whether or not Ulysses' wife Penelope was faithful while he was away on his long voyage. Paul, meanwhile, encourages his wife to spend time with Jeremy, and she suspects him of having an affair with Jeremy's assistant Francesca (Giorgia Moll). He is afraid of losing her, but at the same time lets her leave. Is it because it is the easy and correct thing for his career, and hers? Similarly, he greatly respects Lang, but has been hired to mutilate his film. To follow the path to success is also to tragically destroy--in one case, a work of art, and in the other, a relationship. The secreted gun is never fired. At one point, Francesca is discovered toying with it; later, Camille unloads it, essentially emasculating Paul while she runs off with Jeremy. She doesn't run off because she wants to--rather, it's the only option left to her. This act, and the tragic violence that does follow, offers up the ironic possibility that now Fritz Lang will be able to complete the film to his own artistic ideals.

Behind the scenes, Godard was forced to compromise by producers who may have been directly parodied by the caricature of Jeremy Prokosch. The rough cut did not present the quantity of Bardot flesh that they were expecting. As a result, Godard agreed to shoot a sequence at the beginning of the film which depicts the husband and wife in bed, the only time the relationship will be seen at a tranquil, happy stage. Bardot lies with her behind exposed, and the camera seems to caress her repeatedly while Godard satisfies his avant-garde impulse by exchanging different lenses, as though to show the different moods that can be evoked within a scene. While the scene jarringly interrupts what could have been a very smooth transition from the opening credits (Francesca, the assistant, walking down an Italian street while a film crew shoots her) to the first significant meeting with Jeremy Prokosch (on the same streets, as Francesca turns a corner and introduces them)--it does seem necessary to see the lovers at rest before their relationship begins to decay over the next two hours. Without this scene, Georges Delerue's despairing score would have no context. And about that score: though this is his "mainstream" film, Godard again satisfies that avant-garde impulse, and plugs the score in repeatedly, and at seemingly inappropriate scenes, to demonstrate how the score alters the mood, impact, and meaning in what might otherwise be banal. In a drawn-out scene in which the lovers nap, read, bathe and dress while talking (seemingly a Godard motif ever since Breathless), a point comes when Bardot is simply crossing a room and the score lifts, a propos of nothing, and then vanishes when she reaches the other end of the room. If you are moved by the stirring score, then why? Nothing happened. Yet several times during the film, Delerue's score is exceptionally moving, and adds the necessary weight, such as when it repeatedly regards Bardot's face as her husband lets her leave alone with Jeremy. Paul addresses the moment on the level of the banal: it's okay, he's the producer, what could happen, you're an adult, see you in the afternoon, etc. She witnesses it on the level of the tragic, and level with Delerue's score.

The final scene, when Paul climbs the stairs--which call to mind the stairway to heaven in Powell & Pressburger's A Matter of Life and Death--to the top of a villa where Fritz Lang is shooting Ulysses against the backdrop of a wide, blue sea, and Lang (or someone) shouts "Silencio!", is one of very favorite final shots in a motion picture.

After Contempt two early short films were screened. Operation "beton" was Godard's first film, an industrial short made to prove to financiers that he was a competent filmmaker. It's a dry depiction of the construction of the Grand Dixence dam in Switzerland. While mildly interesting (in particular I was struck at how young the workers were, and how dangerous the work), it would be naive to try to cherry-pick Godardian themes from the 17-minute film. Une histoire d'eau ("History of Water"), on the other hand, is delightful. Francois Truffaut shot two actors fleeing a flooded village for Paris, and Godard was given free reign to write his own narration. He has the actress lecturing on all manner of topics, from referencing Raymond Chandler to the comment that sound is more important than image! The print the Cinematheque received, from the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, had no subtitles, so the organizers ripped the subtitle track from a Korean DVD of the film and projected it overlapping the French print. Similarly, last year several of the prints in the F.W. Murnau series had no English translations to the intertitles, so one of the professors would read a translation aloud to each. This is why I love the Cinematheque.

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