Masculin Feminin (France, 1966) * * * *
La Chinoise (France, 1967) * * 1/2
Two or Three Things I Know About Her (France, 1967) * * *
Week-End (France, 1967) * * *
D: Jean-Luc Godard
If the final stage of the Cinematheque's Godard retrospective represents a shift toward the political, it isn't yet a complete abandonment of narrative. (Although one film included here which is not part of the Cinematheque's retrospective, Two or Three Things I Know About Her, achieves just that.) I keep smacking at that point because I'm a big rah-rah fan of narrative and all its conventions. In these films, possibly excepting Two or Three Things, Godard is not yet forsaking cinema for essay or screed.
Though it's been described as a political film, Masculin Feminin struck me as apolitical. The politics are an ornament the central character wears; Paul (Jean-Pierre Leaud) seems less passionately involved in defining his politics (as his friend is) than pursuing a deeper meaning to the world around him. He looks for that deeper meaning in his tumultuous relationship with Madeleine (Chantal Goya). Their relationship is open to question throughout the film: he pursues her, she is indifferent; he wins her, she is indifferent. She holds him at bay for much of the film, and their tender scenes are limited to one, as they make spare physical contact under the sheets while a third member (ah, the 60's) tells them to shut up so she can get some sleep. Does she ever love him, and does she need him? The final shot, the last in a series of interrogations that form the central motif of the film, is as ambiguous as the Mona Lisa's smile.
Masculin Feminin continues Godard's interest in abstract surrealism (for lack of a better term), which came to the foreground in Pierrot le Fou. As with that film's early party scene and non sequitur musical numbers, moments of pure fantasy intrude upon the action as the film hints at other films, other stories that this one could have been. In one scene, a conversation between the two central characters is interrupted by the quarrel of two lovers sitting at another table, which takes a turn toward sudden violence. But it doesn't intrude upon our plot. Paul is, at one point, accosted by a man who turns a knife upon himself, and later sees (off-screen) a man setting himself on fire; these don't intrude upon our plot. These scenes are like watching random events from the television news in the late 60's (and anticipate 1968)--Vietnam, assassinations, riots--but Paul and his urban, privileged friends are allowed to carry on unaffected, with only a slight stress upon their conscience. Well, that would be upon Paul's conscience: he's the only one who seems to notice it happening. As with previous Godard films, this is novelistically divided into chapters, with witty titles, the most famous, about being the children of Marx and Coca-Cola, being one of the more flippant. Call it Godard's Warhol moment. Still, Masculin-Feminine is mesmerizing. It has a deeply flawed central character who is nonetheless likable because he is recognizably human: an intelligent, sensitive student who likes pretty girls and is self-consciously pretentious when socializing. All of the characters, even peripheral, are recognizable; Godard is not (yet) a misanthrope. The realistic dialogue and dashes of misplaced passion elevate what could be another stylistic exercise into brilliant and involving filmmaking.
It makes for an interesting double feature with La Chinoise, a film about genuinely misguided, devoutly passionate youths in a tiny Communist club. Sequestered in a room filled with little red books, they recite Marx to each other while pacing in front of portraits of Chairman Mao, and when they listen to pop music, it's a song called "Mao Mao." They are, in effect, like children playing revolutionary dress-up, a point driven home in the final scene, but when the question arises as to whether or not they should take violent terrorist action, one of their members leaves. This leads to the film's centerpiece scene, as, while riding a train from stop to stop, Veronique (Anne Wiazemsky of Au Hasard Balthazar), the most devoted member of the cause, argues about the value of political violence with her old professor, who can't believe she would be going down such a path. The most impressive aspect of the film is its cinematography, saturated with reds, reds, reds; the ancient print we watched turned most of them to pink, which might be just as appropriate. Basically, this would all make a smart, snappy short film, but at almost 90 minutes it's far too long for its simple premise and cardboard characters.
I was disappointed that Two or Three Things I Know About Her was excluded from the retrospective, so I sought it out on my own time. It's a noble effort by Godard to break free of all conventions that had previously been restraining him. This film is an essay, sometimes spoken by Godard, sometimes spoken by his characters, but a contemplative, complicated theorem which he must slowly build over the course of the film--like Chris Marker's Sans Soleil, except with a less enlightening revelation at the end. The high point of this talky film is when he simply focuses the camera on some bubbles stirring in the middle of a cup of coffee while discussing the cosmos and the birth of consciousness. It's an extraordinary example of making the very small seem transcendent.
While the ostensible protagonist is a career woman who, like Deneuve in Bunuel's Belle de Jour, takes an unnecessary day job as a prostitute. But that bit of plot doesn't seem so interesting to Godard as the extras who stand behind her while she goes about errands, and so we are treated to the philosophies and feelings of tertiary characters, who look directly into the camera and speak candidly, often with breathtaking poetry (just as often with mediocre witticisms). Godard reportedly achieved these long monologues from unprofessional performers by giving them an earpiece and dictating their lines from behind the camera. The results can be remarkably dislocating, such as when a child starts talking politics. It's an indulgent device--and all this film hangs upon apart from the tired tirades against consumerism--but it feels so fresh that it makes the film pleasurable to watch. Naturally, Godard would soon revolt against the idea of "pleasurable" films, and so it's appropriate that 1967's notorious Week-End is a violent revolutionary riot against the viewer.
The first time I made an attempt to watch Week-End was six years ago or so, when I was living in Seattle. It was on cable, and while I missed the first couple of minutes, I came in on the traffic accident tracking shot which is now considered one of the watermarks of cinema in the '60's. Since I have some stupid policy of refusing to watch a movie unless starting it from the beginning, I changed the channel, but not until I saw that long, several-minute-long sequence to its end. Godard begins the shot with his bourgeoise couple, having just set out upon their weekend trip (to possibly commit a murder or two), arriving at a traffic jam on a country road. Those cars which are not pressed up against each other are smashed into trees. As the couple attempts to circumvent the traffic by driving in the opposite lane, the other drivers lay on their horns or race ahead to ensure no one cuts in front of them. If you've ever driven in Seattle, this sounds like a documentary. But it's pushed to surrealistic lengths: the traffic jam contains lions, llamas, chess players, picnic outings, singing children, tea breaks, upside-down cars, cars pointing in the wrong direction (and insistently honking), and grisly violence. Indisputably, it's one of Godard's tour de force moments. I caught up with the entire film about a year ago on DVD. After years of having that shot fixed to my memory, the rest of the film was a disappointment. I'd seen more Godard by then, and this just seemed like more of the same: experimentation for its own sake, abrasiveness, arrogant lectures, cruel violence. I was a little bored by it, and on the small screen, with Godard's distant framing, I couldn't see the character's expressions, or tell them apart. I felt like I was watching a manipulated diorama.
Now, on the big screen and on a second viewing, I have a deeper appreciation for the film--similar to my second approach to Breathless--but I haven't fallen in love, for the flaws are still on display. First the good news: the first half of Week-End is brilliant and designed with the grace of a (grand guignol) ballet. After a lengthy, descriptive, sexually frank monologue between husband and wife that seems intent on topping the one Bergman staged in Persona, Godard gets to the central motif of the film: car crashes. In this mesmerizing vision of the end of the world, Godard convincingly postulates that the apocalypse will come by just a little bit more unfettered rage between the classes. Just a touch more road rage, that's all it takes, and after seeing Week-End, you'll believe it. Fender-benders lead to awkward (and comic) combat, first with tennis rackets and paint guns, then with real weapons, until the roads are strewn with fiery wrecks, posed bodies, and pools of blood. Our unlikable, murder-plotting heroes abandon their flaming car in one of those wrecks and take to the road as hitchhikers; in fact, this could have screened with the Cinematheque's summer road movie series. The further they travel, the more they seem to leave the fabric of reality. They meet Emily Bronte, who delivers a rather moving monologue about a pebble. (She gets burned to a crisp by our callous protagonists.) They admit they're characters in a film. They listen to Mozart played in a pit stop, while the camera tracks in a neverending circle from right to left, as though travelling backward in time. (The intertitles indicate that this film either was found on a trash heap, or is drifting aimlessly through the cosmos.)
All of this works pretty well. The free-form satirical fantasy, as well as the absurd random acts of violence, were born in sequences in Masculin Feminin, Pierrot le fou, and even earlier films; it seems natural that they should suddenly take over and get their own movie. But just when you give Godard enough rope, he hangs himself with it, in one interminable sequence where two garbagemen, eating sandwiches and glaring at the camera, discuss turmoil in Africa and the Middle East, then lecturing about the devolution of so-called "civilized" European societies. Sure, it's critical to get across the notion that societies become more barbaric as they "progress," but isn't the illustration everything we've seen leading up to this point? If you were to scream "Show, not tell!", Godard would probably just deviously drag the scene out for twice the length. He enjoys this kind of torture. You've had your candy, now take your vegetables. This is a new kind of cinema, and cinema can be talking, too. Unfortunately, Godard's ideas here are not all that profound; they're overly familiar. Perhaps that's why Godard is so popular with college students: these are the kind of conversations they hold late night in a dorm room, thinking they've finally gotten to the bottom of CNN. Godard's also popular with the young for his use of shock--not just the jarring jump-cuts and sudden flashes of commentary intertitles, but the use of taboo subject matter and imagery to deliver harsh truths to a presumably middle-to-upper-class audience. (Yeah. You grow out of that.) Here his coup de grace would seem immeasurably more shocking in 1967 than it does now: the revelation that the young hippies will not form a utopia upon the graves of the dead bourgeoisie, but instead will degenerate into cannibalism (and endless drum solos). The final scenes of the film, particularly those involving the slaughter of animals, can be very difficult to watch--and it was interesting to note that all laughter in the theater died when a real pig's throat was really cut, real blood pouring out, the stumpy legs shaking spastically while the "actor" flips the animal over to gut it. Here, finally, was a taboo that was still potent. Godard killed animals on screen? Oh, shit, not him. Finally, as the film drags itself to a close, you get the final, nauseating shot that you actually want to see, because it ties everything into a grisly little bow. I actually felt a little ill after the movie. On the small screen, the impact isn't quite so...impacty.
Still, the movie hasn't aged well, and it wears on and on, so that by the end I was growing really tired of the staginess of Godard's tableaux: here is a man playing drums in the foliage, here is the cannibal cook surrounded by his meat, here is the girl with the gun...he practically puts a spotlight on each as he isolates them. It's all so abrasive and so artificial. Just a week ago we were watching Bela Tarr's Damnation in the same theater, and while Tarr himself would mature into better films, I find myself preferring his rhythm, his careful, contemplative eye, his obsession with capturing the feeling of reality even when indulging in fantasy. What I'm saying is, when you're young, you can start with Godard. Eventually you come around and you appreciate the stillness found in a Tarr film, or a Tarkovsky, or a Bresson, and all the flash, and "commentary," and savage editing and sound that Week-End throws at you seems like the spittle-covered invectives of a third-year philosophy student.
Yet the contradiction here is that only a year before, Godard made Masculin Feminin. Before that, he made Band of Outsiders, A Woman is a Woman, My Life to Live. Those films spoke less, but they said more. By dealing with real characters and real relationships, even when their lives touched upon fantasy or satire, the themes gained greater resonance. I walk away from Week-End devastated and, yes, a little nauseated, which is exactly the effect he intends. But I don't feel enlightened, and devastating work can achieve that too. So I don't think it's a "Great Film." I would hold up his earlier work, when he was a little less cynical, his delivery less pretentious, his ideas more interesting, his techniques more fresh. Next year the Cinematheque is planning a continuation of its Godard survey, moving into his video works as well as his more recent works. Judging by Notre Musique, Godard did mature into something quite different, so it should be interesting to track a new evolution in this artist.