What to do about Godard?

At the end of the ninth month of 2012, I’m only on my fifth director for my year-long project. Oh well, no one really cares about that but me, right? C’est la vie.

Following my joyous experience with Agnès Varda, I stayed in the realm of directors who started during the French New Wave, and explored some of the work of Jean-Luc Godard. This was interesting, because he was someone whose work I thought I would really enjoy diving into, and that ended up not being the case at all. Godard has been incredibly prolific over the course of his career, but going into this, I had only ever seen Breathless (À bout de souffle, 1960) and Week End (1967). I saw both for the first time in college, and loved Breathless, while being reasonably impressed with the very odd Week End—at least from a technical perspective, appreciating its style and its infamously long tracking shot of a surreal traffic jam. But I’d not made the effort to seek out his other works until the past couple of months.

Letting my viewing life be dictated by what’s available for streaming on Netflix—as I often do, for better or for worse—I started out with one of Godard’s most recent works, Film socialisme (2010). Of course I knew that Godard has gotten more experimental with every passing decade, but I was not quite prepared for how impenetrable an exercise this was. Much of the film, which doesn’t really have a narrative to it, revolves around passengers on a cruise ship having long philosophical conversations that actually quote liberally from real philosophical works. I know this both because I speak a fair bit of French and because I paused the movie to read about it and try to figure out what the hell I was watching. Heaven help you if you can’t do either of these things, because the subtitles are just a bunch of intermittent words that don’t convey full, grammatical ideas. There was a method to Godard’s madness—something about the rhythm of the Navajo language—but that doesn’t make it any less aggravating to watch.

The film has several sections, and one that takes place off the boat at a gas station run by a family could have been very enjoyable without the dreaded creative subtitles. The reason for this is because this part of the film actually has a sort of narrative to it. Realizing how far Godard really has come from using a narrative story as the core basis for a film, I jumped way back in his filmography to one I’ve heard praised a hundred times: Band of Outsiders (Bande à part, 1964). Paying homage to elements of film noir, we follow two would-be crooks as they hatch a plan to steal a considerable hoard of cash from the wealthy benefactor of a young woman they know from English language class, who has been silly enough to tell them about it.

I really wish I’d found as much to admire in this film as so many people seem to. I did enjoy the acting, particularly from Anna Karina (even though I wanted to slap her character half the time), and there are some great sequences that let loose in an irresistible way.

But nothing grabbed me enough to really pull me into the world of the film and care about whether the characters would be able to pull off their plan or not. I mean, at some point in watching a film, it’s not going to be enough for me just to coast through scenes where the driving force is air of “cool”—I need more. Does this story truly speak to people? Or am I maybe not grasping something impressive in the physical way the film was constructed? I wanted to like it so much more than I did.

There were some things I liked better about A Woman is a Woman (1961), perhaps because it incorporates elements of a musical, and this provided enough of a fun surprise to hold my interest for a while. It tells the story of a striptease artist (the ever-present Anna Karina, on the verge here of becoming Godard’s wife) who wants a baby, her reluctant boyfriend, and his not-so-reluctant friend who could help out. This provides a potentially interesting core dilemma—although I could have done with a fair bit more exploration of Karina’s character’s internal reasoning for this desire. (Watching films made by intellectual-type men in the 1960s is sometimes an exercise in frustration for a contemporary feminist.) Here, more than with Band of Outsiders, I can look at the sum of the film’s parts and understand why it’s an impressive effort, why it’s an experiment worth studying even now. But that doesn’t erase the annoyance I developed over its insistent self-referential tone—a reaction that might mean that the whole of the French New Wave just isn’t for me in the way I might have thought it was when just seeing its greatest highlights in film classes in college.

From being merely a bit underwhelmed at times by Band of Outsiders and A Woman is a Woman, I moved on to 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her (1967) and Pierrot le Fou (1965). I simply had a hard time getting through both of these movies. The characters were grating; the philosophy spouted was muddled at best, exasperating at worst. Particularly with Pierrot le Fou, no action in one scene ever seemed to have consistent ramifications for the following scenes; if you’re telling me a story and I can’t trust what the stakes are, you have lost me.

Godard has many, many other films, but this was a good sampling from his most celebrated time, and nothing was really connecting. Is he, then, just not for me? Am I just more of a Varda or Chabrol sort of girl when it comes to this era? Was I crazy in thinking that I really loved Breathless? It was clear that I had to watch it again, which I hadn’t done for a good seven years. And I was relieved to find that I still liked it, but the attachment I felt back when it was fresh for me has certainly subsided. I wonder if as I’m getting older, I’m coming to reject the sort of worldview I see in Godard’s work, the despairing, “does it even matter” questions asked by his characters. A bit of existential questioning I can understand; utter detachment doesn’t work for me. Characters who throw each other away because they realize just saying they love someone doesn’t fill a void don’t work for me. I want things to matter. I want people who care.

Am I missing something? Are there other films I should watch that might speak to me? Should I carry on a bit with Monsieur Godard, or let him go?

 

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