You’ve got to hand it to TIFF Cinematheque. Their major retrospective this fall focuses on the controversial post-Sixties work of Jean-Luc Godard. While part one of their series Godard Forever, which ran in the summer, was an easy sell to Toronto audiences, concentrating on the most accessible films of the French-Swiss intellectual filmmaker, this new programme is far more risky.
Jean-Luc Godard’s career is one of the most problematic in film history. Having scaled the heights of critical and audience acclaim with his debut feature Breathless in 1960, Godard became one of the most recognized filmmakers of the Sixties, creating such masterpieces as Pierrot le Fou, Alphaville, Une Femme est une Femme and Weekend. Then at the height of his fame Godard abandoned narrative filmmaking in 1968 and spent most of the next decade pursuing a Marxist-Leninist agenda, making revolutionary tracts against capitalism and imperialism. In the process, he alienated the bourgeois art-house cinema crowd and most of the critics who had praised him in the Sixties.
In the Eighties, he returned to feature filmmaking without abandoning many of his revolutionary anti-narrative principles. The films that he’s made since that time have not enjoyed the massive acclaim that accompanied his storied early period. But many have won awards and gradually, the films and videos of the past 35 years are winning over critics, academics and niche audiences.
So perhaps it’s the right time for an evaluation of “later Godard.” At any rate, that’s the curatorial impulse for part two of Godard Forever.
Viewing a number of late Godard pieces, as this critic just did, turns out to be a revelatory experience. First off, it’s clear that Godard’s return to features in the Eighties signaled an acceptance on the cantankerous director’s part to embrace much of his old style and philosophy of filmmaking. Many critics and aficionados appeared to forget that Godard’s approach to narrative filmmaking was always radical.
Viewing such Eighties and Nineties films as Detective and Passion and For Ever Mozart again, it’s fairly straightforward to see that they have much in common with such Sixties fare as Made in USA, Two or Three Things I Know about Her and La Chinoise. Scenes in his films still stop and start in a manner that appears to be willful. So does the often-beautiful music on the soundtrack. Dialogue sequences are rarely covered in the shot/counter-shot style used by Hollywood (and praised by Godard in an influential article when he was a film critic in Paris in the 1950s.)
Most of the films have a mere sketch of a plot but what’s still present is the wonderfully digressive structure that is endlessly appealing to Godard acolytes. Philosophers, filmmakers and literary giants fill the recent films, like their famous ancestors, with aphorisms and brilliant asides. Godard is an essayist, and that aspect comes across in all the films.
Secondly, the famous sound and text disruptions occur in all of Godard’s work. The dialogue is still multi-layered and occasionally difficult to hear and the images are often shot in a way that makes it impossible to see a character clearly. Adding to the essay approach is the use of text on the screen, often signaling a new idea or approach to the “story.”
Third—and this can’t be emphasized enough, late Godard films are simply gorgeous to watch. The black-and-white scenes in Eloge de l’amour, the use of colour in Film Socialisme and the overall look of Nouvelle Vague are ravishing and meant to be loved.
Fourth—if all that’s true, and it is, why has there been so much criticism of late Godard? The answer lies in the love of storytelling that is intrinsic in most people. Quite simply, Godard doesn’t share the typical storyteller’s concern to entertain an audience while drawing them into the characters he’s created. Certain films, such as Nouvelle Vague and Helas Pour Moi still appear to have scenes, which are nearly incomprehensible.
It is possible, however, to highlight some masterpieces of late Godard, which still have narratives and are brilliant essays. Eloge de l’amour, with its discourse on memory and love ranging from the Holocaust to art-theft to the French Resistance in World War 2 and Notre Musique, on the aftermath of the wars fought in the former Yugoslavia, with a Holocaust and contemporary Middle East perspective, are wonderfully well done. Both films have recognizable characters and plots.
So many of the late Godards are worth seeing (or seeing again)! Prenom Carmen and For Ever Mozart incorporate Godard’s love of classical music with slightly elaborate narrative structures. They’re definitely accessible as are such films as Je vous salue, Marie and Godard’s take on King Lear.
Godard Forever Part Two is an inspiring, somewhat difficult fall programme. Be adventurous: go to a film with a friend. Even if you don’t adore the film, you may love the ensuing conversation.
Written by Marc Glassman
Adjunct Professor, Ryerson University
Director, Pages UnBound: the festival and series
Editor, POV Magazine
Editor, Montage Magazine
Film Critic, The New Classical 96.3 FM
Film programmer, Planet in Focus
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