Cumartesi, Ekim 14, 2006

All You Need is a Girl and a Gun, Part 3

Band of Outsiders (Bande a part) (France, 1964) * * * *
Alphaville (France, 1965) * * 1/2
Pierrot le fou (France, 1965) * * *
D: Jean-Luc Godard

At this point in the Cinematheque series of the early films of Jean-Luc Godard, you can see Godard arriving at a crossroads. While continuing to receive great critical acclaim (if not exactly box-office success), he finds he can continue to produce a couple of features a year with a relatively low budget and a great deal of creative freedom. Yet after what might be his greatest cinematic achievement, Band of Outsiders, his next films seem to be treading water, however entertainingly.

Band of Outsiders was a film I admired when I first saw it on television a number of years ago; but it's a revelation in a theater packed with enthusiastic Godard fans (old and new). Like Breathless and Contempt, the genius of it is that it manages to combine comedy and satire with an underlying sense of tragedy--even if nothing outwardly tragic happens. And all the while, Godard continues to invent new, delightful cinematic tricks. Godard's "muse" (and I put it in quotation marks because it is now her nickname) Anna Karina plays a seemingly much younger girl, Odile. The benefactors with whom she is staying keep a giant stash of money in an upstairs wardrobe. She lets this bit of information pass to newfound acquaintances Arthur (Claude Brasseur) and Franz (Sami Frey), two young rogues who quickly draw her into a plan to rob the house. Odile goes along with the plan half-heartedly; more, one suspects, out of loneliness than anything else. She seems to have led a sequestered life, and while her past is not filled in by Godard, one surmises from Karina's alternately shy and carefree performance that she's had a few friends, a few enemies, and a boyfriend or two, but has never had a great night out. She seeks to remedy that with her two rebels: in the film's most memorable scene, she dances the Madison with Franz and Arthur--Godard occasionally removes the music so that we only hear the tapping and stomping of their feet and the panting of their breath--until, winded, first Franz drops out, then Arthur; Odile continues, as entertained to have no partner as she was to have two. She is completely absorbed in her own universe. This may be why Godard referred to the film as "Alice in Wonderland meets Franz Kafka." Odile would be a perfect substitute for Alice--she is also driven by curiosity--but there is an underlying dread that is signature Kafka. The dance must end, the robbery must be done, and Arthur shows his true, darker nature when they are alone in the house and confronted with the act. Still, there's farce to come, and an ending of dizzying elation, much in the spirit of the opening of his friend Truffaut's film Jules and Jim. But my favorite wrench thrown into the works is the narrator's penchant for attributing cosmically profound observations to each of his characters at comically random moments. That narrator, naturally, is Godard.

Band of Outsiders is the film where Godard got his formula right (however he may have been resistant to the very idea of a formula). The anarchic, youthful spirit of Breathless and A Woman is a Woman is perfectly tempered by a wiser, more well-rounded treatment of its young cast: the characters are much more interesting, and more believably real. Godard's treatment of human relationships, post-Contempt, becomes more sophisticated with this film, and it is the apex of his art. From here, Alphaville seems like a half-held thought, something hastily scribbled in his notebook, and deliberately put to film before the thought took too much structure, and spoiled its surprises. Alphaville is Godard's science fiction film, and seems to form part of a New Wave sci-fi trilogy alongside Truffaut's adaptation of Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 and Chris Marker's seminal short film La Jetee. I love French science fiction, but the problem with Alphaville is that Godard does not. He seems to detest the genre. Granted, this leads to the brilliant and influential decision to merge the genre with one that he does love: the crime picture. This may be the first science fiction film noir, and without Alphaville, you probably would not have Blade Runner (a film that more closely resembles Godard's than the novel upon which it's based). But one conceptual stroke of genius does not necessarily elevate an entire 90-minute film to the level of masterpiece. Godard decided to cast Eddie Constantine as his long-running character Lemmy Caution--sort of a 40's equivalent to Bogart's Sam Spade. Constantine was older, and had aged; with his wide, black eyes and pale, pockmarked face, he looks like he could have been better suited to playing The Lizard in a Spider-Man film. The charm seems to have also weathered over time. Lemmy Caution travels through "intergalactic space" to Alphaville, on a mission to thwart a professor who's building a deadly weapon. Instead, he falls for the professor's daughter (Anna Karina, obviously), who has succumbed to the emotionally sterile environment of Alphaville, in which sex is provided as readily as fast food, poets are executed (poetically, off the diving board of a swimming pool), and a master computer has installed itself as a dictator, barking commands with the froggy, straining voice of a tracheotomy-patient. That last part gets really annoying by the end of the film. While one can forgive Godard his central conceit--despite the futuristic setting, no special effects are used, and the audience is expected to apply its imagination to fill in the details--the fact is that the story's plot was already stale by 1965, and Godard was too disinterested in the SF genre to bother enriching it in any way. This isn't unexpected: Godard was never too interested in plots, which he offers, in both Band of Outsiders and Pierrot le fou, as summarizing fragments told in staccato by the narrator, but rather in human relationships. But this is sabotaged by the plot: Caution is not in love with the professor's daughter, and we know this, however much Godard might insist. Those who had a problem with the Deckard-Rachel love affair in Blade Runner will never buy this one. So there you have it: without a plot that's worth caring about and which Godard abandons at the starting gate, and without characters that are at all appealing or convincing, you are stuck with a stylistic experiment that will either spark your cylinders or leave you cold. La Jetee, with its high-concept plot and a love story worth caring about, is much better, and over an hour shorter.

After that experimentation, Godard returns to the familiar with Pierrot le fou, yet another film about two young criminals falling in love while on the run from the law until violence intervenes, and unsurprisingly starring Anna Karina and Jean-Paul Belmondo. It's shot in Scope and saturated with color, like Contempt (both Alphaville and Band of Outsiders are black-and-white). You get the feeling that Godard wanted to go back and remake Contempt without the compromises forced upon him by his financiers. No Bardot here: the comparitively boyish Karina is actually far more attractive, and that probably has everything to do with Godard's camera, which is capturing his "muse." Not to mention that she's an incomparably more gifted actress. Pierrot le fou, which is divided by its author narrator into chapters, begins as a domestic satire: Belmondo, as Ferdinand Griffon, barely tolerates his socialite wife; as he's dragged to one of her parties, he drifts among the attendees, eavesdropping upon absurd conversations--some of them merely product endorsements! Surely the party scene in The Graduate was influenced by this. (He even meets director Sam Fuller, who compares filmmaking to war.) When he offers to take the young Marianne Renoir (Karina) home, she divulges her intense love for him, and although he doesn't seem to pay her much attention, he's quickly drawn into a gun-running scheme possibly tied to the Algerian war--possibly not--and becomes a Clyde to her Bonnie as they steal cars and cash and go on the run and into hiding. All of this happens quickly and deliberately nonsensically; Godard doesn't expect you to believe the mechanics of the plot that get them where they'll go: the important thing is that they get going. Eventually the love affair intensifies, some songs are sung (unlike their earlier "musical" collaboration, A Woman is a Woman, they actually get to sing in some lovely sequences--but the music never rises, and seems to be played on a toy piano in the distance, as this is Godard and nothing can ever be 100% conventional). Finally, there is a kidnapping, some grisly killings that foreshadow Week-End, a key betrayal, and a spent finale, in which Belmondo resigns himself to his sad clown reputation with a series of tragic decisions.

Pierrot le fou is not Godard at his best, yet it seems to be a clip-show of Godard past and (immediate) future. The songs call to mind A Woman is a Woman, the plot Breathless and Le Petit Soldat; the technique of using blue-sky beauty to counterpoint the dissolution of a relationship owes to Contempt, and the distracted, almost disinterested narration owes to Band of Outsiders. But the broad, antiseptic satire and the splashes of brutal violence foreshadow both Week-End and the overtly political films to come. One suspects that Godard is about to make a drastic change in his approach, but in the meantime, Pierrot le fou seems a bit like treading water. Most distressingly, he's beginning to show the seams in his bag of tricks. At one point, as though worried that his audience might be involving themselves too much in the plot and characters, he flashes the neon word "Cinema." Much like the incessant flashing of the neon "E=MC2" in Alphaville, this is pretty lame. Godard was a critic before he was a filmmaker, and at this crossroads, one can wonder if Godard will finally allow himself to surrender to the techniques of storytelling--bourgeois, yes, but they work--or continue to distance himself from the audience by sabotaging any hint of rhythm or emotional investment with the characters. I'm worried I might know how this one ends.

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