In the book Hollywood Voices, Andrew Sarris describes one of the differences between Hollywood directors and European directors:
[...] the Hollywood director is still taken less seriously than his foreign counterpart, and, in interviews, he generally regards himself with the same lack of seriousness. Part of his problem is the Hollywood ethos of the "team"; part is the tendency of Hollywood movies to conceal the inner workings for the sake of popular illusionism. Audiences are not supposed to be conscious that a movie is directed; the movie just happens by some mysterious conjunction of the players with their plot. [...] Consequently, there has been a tendency to overrate the European directors because of their relative articulateness about their artistic "Angst", and now a reaction has set in against some of the disproportionate pomposity that has ensued (Sarris, p. 14).
In the following discussion, I want to elaborate on Sarris's precise characterization of one of the fundamental differences between the American and European film cultures, in terms of the film director's attitude to the audiences, with the visible director in many European films on the one hand, and the invisible director in most Hollywood films on the other. In order to do this, I have chosen to compare the self-aware cinema of the mythopoeic French film director Jean-Luc Godard with the almost anonymous storytelling in the majority of American films.
The aim is to expose the role of the artist in two different film cultures: Europe versus Hollywood - represented by Godard as the sometimes difficult to comprehend "film auteur," and the seductive Hollywood storyteller who hides himself behind his narration. This is characteristic of American film history, from the genre traditions in the 40s and 50s, to contemporary Hollywood productions in the 80s and 90s. Hollywood never did stop making films based on plots and genres, and will never renounce traditional storytelling based on these aspects. Film modernism exists in Hollywood, but more as the exception that proves the rule.
The Writing Camera
In his famous article from 1948, "The Birth of a New Avant-Garde: La Caméra-Stylo," the French critic and film director Alexandre Astruc characterized the film medium as follows:
"The cinema is quite simply becoming a means of expression, just as all the other arts have before it, and in particular painting and the novel. After having been successively a fairground attraction, an amusement analogous to boulevard theatre, or a means of preserving the images of an era, it is gradually becoming a language. By language, I mean a form in which and by which an artist can express his thoughts, however abstract they may be, or translate his obsessions exactly as he does in a contemporary essay or novel. That is why I would like to call this new age of cinema the age of "caméra-stylo"" (Monaco, p. 5).
Astruc continues his presentation of the new status of cinema in the era of "The Camera-Pen" by saying that: "The creation of this language has preoccupied all the theoreticians and writers in the history of cinema." But a lot of film directors who were active in the 50s and 60s were also preoccupied with this vision of a cinematic language, "by which an artist can express his thoughts" - primarily European directors such as Antonioni, Bresson, Fellini, Bunuel, Resnais, Rohmer, Truffaut, Chabrol, Rivette and Godard. For these directors cinema was more or less a language, a personal means of expression. This is particularly true of Godard, whose film career has been a passionate study of how to express oneself in a language - in paintings, poems, novels, music and films.
Language is the House Man Lives In
From 1959 to 1966 Jean-Luc Godard made 13 feature films, all of which explored the conditions for making art. What is art? What function does art serve? And last but not least, what is cinema? A number of answers to these fundamental questions about art and artistic language are given below. Two or three things I know about Godard's conception of (film) art from his first period, or the so-called Karina years. Godard married Anna Karina in 1960, and divorced her again in 1965.
The meaning of language is an important issue in Godard's cinematic philosophy, as seen most directly in My Life to Live (1962), in the scene between Nana (Anna Karina) and the linguistic philosopher Brice Parain (playing himself) where they converse about language and the necessity of talking. Sitting in a café, they discuss the nature of words and speaking. Nana prefers not to talk, longing for a life in silence without words. Because the more you talk, the less the words mean, she explains. Words should express exactly what you want to say. But they don't. They betray us, she argues. Parain understands Nana's longing for a wordless life in silence, but as a linguistic philosopher he does not agree with her.
According to Brice Parain, you cannot live without thinking. You have to think, and in order to think you have to speak. Thinking demands words, because you cannot think in any other way. Such is human life, concludes Parain in his lecture on our dependence on language as human beings.
And such is life for a filmmaker, one might add, with reference to Godard's numerous reflections on the essence of the cinematic language in his articles, films and interviews. "Language is the house man lives in", as Juliette (Marina Vlady) says in Two or Three Things I Know About Her. About thirty years later, Godard repeats this linguistic reflection in JLG/JLG - Self-Portrait in December (1995) as the narrator of the polyphonic inner dialogue in his film: "Where do you live? In language, and I cannot keep silent. When I am talking I throw myself into an unknown order for which I then become responsible. I must become universal."
In the late 40s and early 50s, Godard studied anthropology and ethnology at the Sorbonne, and also read a lot of linguistic subjects, including the linguistic philosophy of Brice Parain. Parain already appeared in one of Godard's first articles, "Towards a Political Cinema," in September 1950. In this article Godard quotes Brice Parain: "The sign forces us to see an object through its significance." According to James Monaco, Parain's phrase ("Le signe nous oblige à nous figurer un objet de sa signification") became Godard's motto as a filmmaker ten years later: "[...] it urgently wants to state a basic axiom: that there is no way we can sense the objective world without first understanding how our systems of signs - our languages, both verbal and non-verbal - "signify," what they mean, and how they thereby change our perceptions. Godard's career can be seen as a long struggle to work out the multiple possible meanings of Parain's deceptively simple sentence. He began this work in his criticism" (Monaco, p. 105).
Godard is a kind of linguist, looking for the common denominator in all forms of expression: language, signs and meaning. Linguistic philosophical reflections appear in many of his films, often as a kind of key to his artistic universe. Sometimes very poetically, as in Pierrot le Fou (1965), where Ferdinand (Jean-Paul Belmondo) explores the meaning of words in his literary diary. And sometimes very specifically, linguistically so to speak, as in Two or Three Things I Know About Her (1966), where Godard reflects on the scenes we are looking at in 28 off-screen commentaries. The scene with a close-up of a coffee cup with froth swirling round on the surface is a particularly good illustration of the linguistic aspects. On the soundtrack we hear Godard's voice:
But where to begin? But where to begin with what?... We could say that the limits of language are the limits of the world... that the limits of my language are the limits of my world. And in that respect, I limit the world, I decide its boundaries (Monaco, p. 183).
This is apparently a philosophy that makes the artist master of reality. The director creates the world through his language and consciousness, brings into the world a collection of signs and meanings that change our perceptions. But it is at the same time a linguistic philosophy, giving the artist a bit of a problem with his spontaneous experience of reality. Just listen to Godard's later off-screen commentary:
"Words and images intermingle constantly. [...] Why are there so many signs everywhere so that I end up wondering what language is about, signs with so many different meanings, that reality becomes obscure when it should stand out clearly from what is imaginary?" (Godard 1975, pp. 153-155).
Thus, Two or Three Things I Know About Her ends up with an insight into the dialectics and nature of language that is quite similar to Brice Parain's lesson to Nana in My Life to Live. Nana wants to live in peace without using words that betray her, but learns that she cannot live without talking. She has to communicate to get in touch with reality. Godard confronts himself with the same dilemma: on the one hand he is searching for a spontaneous perception of reality outside of language, and on the other he recognizes that the limits of his language are the limits of his world. The world both appears and disappears when he uses his camera. But he has to use it to stay in contact with reality. He has to bring words and images into the world as a filmmaker.
The Cinematic Essay
According to Godard, "there are two kinds of cinema, there is Flaherty and there is Eisenstein. That is to say, there is documentary realism and there is theatre, but ultimately, at the highest level, they are one and the same. What I mean is that through documentary one arrives at the structure of the theatre, and through theatrical imagination and fiction one arrives at the reality of life. To confirm this, take a look at the work of the great directors, how they pass by turn from realism to theatre and back again" (Mussman, p. 82).
The same applies to Godard's films, which oscillate between the genres of fiction and reality. A genre mixture which Louis D. Giannetti describes as follows: "Many of his movies cut across "genre" distinctions, combining documentary realism, stylised tableaux, propaganda, whimsical digressions on art, culture, and sociology in a bizarre and often bewildering mixture" (Giannetti, p. 20). This kind of cinema is incompatible with conventional storytelling and plots, creating quite another narrative style. Or as Godard proclaimed in an interview: "The Americans are good at story-telling, the French are not. Flaubert and Proust can't tell stories. They do something else" (Narboni, p. 223).
What he said in 1965 about Flaubert's and Proust's inability to tell stories and interest in doing something else, was also aimed at Godard himself: "I don't know how to tell stories. I want to cover the whole ground, from all possible angles, saying everything at once" (Giannetti, p. 19). So he tried something else in the late 50s and early 60s, when he entered the film arena with his world of controversial, paradoxical, and poetic fragments. Gradually, he developed the cinematic essay for his own purpose: creating the artistic freedom to express oneself on all levels, by using all kinds of artistic expressions, all kinds of narrative structures and genres. In 1962, after having made four feature films, Godard described as follows his approach to the double role of a critic becoming a filmmaker:
"As a critic, I thought of myself as a film-maker. Today I still think of myself as a critic, and in a sense I am, more than ever before. Instead of writing criticism, I make a film, but the critical dimension is subsumed. I think of myself as an essayist, producing essays in novel form, or novels in essay form: only instead of writing, I film them. Were the cinema to disappear, I would simply accept the inevitable and turn to television; were television to disappear, I would revert to pencil and paper. For there is a clear continuity between all forms of expression. It's all one. The important thing is to approach it from the side which suits you best" (Narboni, p. 171).
A famous, but still very provocative and astonishing statement, expressed with Godard's characteristic sense of paradox: a critic, a filmmaker, an essayist, and a novelist, all at the same time. But of course, this is not enough for him. He also regarded himself as a painter: "I am a painter with letters. I want to restore everything, mix everything up and say everything" (Brown, p. 95). According to Giannetti, "an essay is neither fiction nor fact, but a personal investigation involving both the passion and intellect of the author" (Giannetti, p. 26). So the cinematic essay gave Godard a kind of artistic elasticity that suited the kinds of films he wanted to make.
"Audiences are not supposed to be conscious that a movie is directed; the movie just happens by some mysterious conjunction of the players with their plot," Sarris wrote in his portrait of the style in Hollywood movies. In contrast, Godard wants audiences to be conscious of the actual filmmaking. In 1966, after his thirteenth film, Two or Three Things I Know About Her, he described this in more detail: "Basically, what I am doing is making the spectator share the arbitrary nature of my choices, and the quest for general rules which might justify a particular choice. Why am I making this film, why am I making it this way? [...] I am constantly asking questions. I watch myself filming, and you hear me thinking aloud. In other words it isn't a film, it's an attempt at film and is presented as such" (Narboni, p. 239).
Thus, in Godard's first thirteen films one can detect a dialectical search for a cinematic style enabling him to investigate and improvise - an attempt to deconstruct fiction and reality, and assemble all the fragments into new artistic units. First chaos, then cosmos. Godard's films are neither fiction films nor documentaries, but passionate essays including both genres, filtered through his nostalgic and romantic artistic soul. Or, as Godard puts it in his paradoxical style of writing: "Generally speaking, reportage is interesting only when placed in a fictional context, but fiction is interesting only if it is validated by a documentary context. The Nouvelle Vague, in fact, may be defined in part by this new relationship between fiction and reality, as well as through nostalgic regret for a cinema that no longer exists. When we were at last able to make films, we could no longer make the kind of films which had made us want to make films" (Narboni, p. 192).
The Plotless Cinema
What Godard is referring to by "nostalgic regret for a cinema which no longer exists," is The New Wave's great admiration for a special group of Hollywood directors: Howard Hawks, Fritz Lang, Samuel Fuller, Orson Welles, John Ford, D.W. Griffith and Alfred Hitchcock; and also an admiration for the American genre films based on carefully prepared plots, and precise and economical narrative structures. François Truffaut, Jacques Rivette, Eric Rohmer, Claude Chabrol and Jean-Luc Godard were - in their articles published in "Cahiers du Cinéma" in the 50s and the 60s - obsessed by the American genre tradition, but at the same time they had to recognize the difference between the European film culture and the American film culture. Godard could admire Hitchcock's logic and stringent construction of the plot, but he would never dream of copying Hitchcock's narrative style. Watching Hitchcock's or Lang's films as a critic made him want to make films, but not that kind of cinema.
Godard developed his own film genre: the cinematic essay and the plotless cinema. In doing so, he became present in his own films, almost visible as the director behind the films. A person who could express himself and comment on his own filmmaking. When making Breathless (1959), Godard used many of the conventional props and clichés of the gangster movie: guns, cars, cigarettes, and the characters' way of dressing and talking - imitating all the outward characteristics of the genre. But this did not make it a real gangster film, because the logical storyline was missing in Breathless, and the plot was "rather rambling compared to most American thrillers" (Giannetti, p. 22).
In spite of the fact that Breathless was clearly indebted to American genre films as a kind of gangster film, it is not an American genre film, but a typical Godard film inscribed in a European cultural tradition. It is a plotless film compared to Hollywood movies, trying out all the different means of expression using cinematic language, and inventing new means of expression: the famous jump cuts, the fragmentation of the plot, the use of a hand-held camera with edgy camera movements, long unbroken takes, tracking shots, the use of natural light, shots taken on location, and the hero Michel Poiccard (Jean-Paul Belmondo) speaking directly to the camera, so that we cannot forget the fact that we are watching a movie.
Godard's rage of expression can be seen most clearly in his taste for quotation: "People in life quote as they please, so we have the right to quote as we please. Therefore I show people quoting, merely making sure that they quote what pleases me" (Narboni, p. 173). So Godard quotes what pleases him, taking what he can use from the variety of artists and works of art he loves and admires. Robin Wood describes Godard's passion for cultural references and quotations as follows:
"[...] in A Bout de Souffle [...] there are visual, aural or verbal references to Bach, Brahms, Chopin, and Mozart; Renoir, Picasso, and Klee; Shakespeare, Cocteau, William Faulkner, Rilke; the Arc de Triomphe, the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame de Paris; Humphrey Bogart, Robert Aldrich, Budd Boetticher, "Cahiers du Cinéma"; and doubtless several more I've overlooked" (Mussman, p. 179).
In this way, Godard's first film intended to make a break with Hollywood's traditional storyline, and attack the conventional ways of handling a plot: "What I wanted was to take a conventional story and remake, but differently, everything the cinema had done. I also wanted to give the feeling that the techniques of film-making had just been discovered or experienced for the first time" (Narboni, p. 173).
The following twelve films intensified this approach to film history and filmmaking, creating Godard's very distinctive dialectic narrative style by focusing on the relationship between documentary and fiction. His films were plotless compared to Hollywood movies in general. They rejected an advancing and continuous cinematic language based on logical plots and psychological delineations of character, as it is known from most American films, and replaced it with a discontinuous and fragmentary narrative style that breaks up time and space, thereby forming a collage of letters, words, images, sounds, music, voices, paintings, quotations, and references to art and cinema.
Godard integrated all these expressive aesthetic fragments into his films in an attempt to create a new order of totality, harmony and beauty out of chaos: a union of all the arts. Godard has always been a bit of a romantic, looking for the continuity between poetry, music, literature, painting, dance, architecture, theatre and cinema. He adopted a new way of writing about films, a new way of making films, and a new way of describing the work of the film director in all his interviews, which diverged completely from the Hollywood tradition. As an artist he broke all the existing rules and conventions in filmmaking - like Fellini, like Bergman, like Resnais, and like Antonioni - all those famous "modernists" in European cinema of the 60s.
The Cinema of Comment
As demonstrated by Andrew Sarris, "the difference between American movies and European films [...] is that American movies tend to correspond to reality while European films tend to comment on reality. It might be said, admittedly with a degree of oversimplification, that in the cinema of correspondence, the image precedes the idea, while in the cinema of comment, the idea precedes the image. American critics who ask plaintively why American filmmakers cannot make a Hiroshima, Mon Amour or a L'Avventura are actually grappling with the first principles of the Hollywood ethos. "Hiroshima" is inconceivable in America because there is not enough plot, L'Avventura because the plot makes no sense" (Mussman, p. 61).
In Godard, "the idea precedes the image". His films do not correspond to reality. He has to comment on reality, constantly asking questions - thereby transforming it into something else, filtered through both verbal language and cinematic language. His aphoristic narrative style violates the traditional Hollywood storyline with its carefully devised plots, established genre conventions and narrative continuity. "Movies are a world of fragments," as Godard once said. He could agree that a film should have a beginning, a middle, and an end, but not necessarily in that order, as he claimed in one of his famous paradoxes, in an attack on Aristotle's classical trisection of a drama or story.
He prefers paradoxes, aphorisms and proverbs to storytelling: "To me, style is just the outside of content, and content the inside of style, like the outside and inside of the human body - both go together, they can't be separated" (Giannetti, p. 13). In an interview in the French magazine Lire, Godard described the particular nature of the aphorism as follows: "It is a different kind of thought to the thought with a beginning, a middle and an end. It doesn't tell a story, it is a small part of the story" (Assouline, p.35). This was said in 1997, as proof of the older Godard's loyalty to the younger Godard's concept of storytelling.
Generally speaking, American cinema is based on storytelling and the development of plots, on physical gestures and actions, on fluent dialogue, on charismatic film acting, and on genre traditions. Godard's cinema is the opposite of American cinema, or as Andrew Sarris puts it in his review of A Woman Is a Woman (1961):
"Godard is thoroughly European, as are Renoir, Dreyer, Rossellini, Antonioni, Bergman [...]. He [...] realizes that his intellect must intervene between the reality he confronts on the streets of Paris and the illusion he renders on the screen. There can be no direct correspondence" (Mussman, p. 62).
Jean-Luc Godard is the incarnation of the introspective European artist, and the self-conscious film director par excellence. A linguistically oriented film philosopher extremely familiar with classical music, literature, poetry, painting, philosophy and film history - a cultural heritage constantly referred to in his films. His tribute to composers, writers, poets, painters, philosophers and film directors is obvious.
As a film critic at Cahiers du Cinéma during the 50s, before he became a filmmaker, Godard loved all kinds of cinema, not forgetting the Russians, the Americans, the neo-realists and Dreyer. He was a film enthusiast ("cinéphile"), admitting that he knew nothing of life except through the films he saw and wrote about: "I mean that I didn't see things in relation to the world, to life or history, but in relation to the cinema" (Mussman, p. 82). And in relation to art, philosophy and language, one might add. His films are, in a way, "documentaries on the making of a film. Godard's interest in the cinema is such that his work can have no other subject" (Braudy, p. 365).
This attitude might explain his untameable urge to make references to artistic and cultural subjects. All of his films, his articles and the numerous interviews he has given throughout his career are, without exception, full of suggestive references to art, culture and cinema - and full of paradoxical statements. In A Married Woman (1964) there is a defence of the paradox in the monologue by the French film director Roger Leenhardt (1903-1985), playing himself like Brice Parain did in My Life to Live. His speech praises intelligence and the paradox as a philosophy, probably on behalf of Godard:
"Intelligence is to understand before affirming. It means that when confronted with an idea, one seeks to go beyond it... To find its limits, to find its opposite... [...] the essence of the paradox is, in the face of what seems a perfectly self-evident idea, to look for the opposite" (Godard 1975, p. 87).
Coutard's Light of Day
There are several governing ideas that run throughout Godard's unique work with film, namely those mentioned earlier: linguistics, the development of the cinematic essay, the plotless cinema, the cinema of comment, the rage of expression, Godard's taste for quotations, and all the paradoxes. Furthermore, there are two other important aspects I would like to mention. The first is the photographer Raoul Coutard's hand-held Arriflex, especially his black-and-white images, which evoke Godard's special universe, and the second is the numerous close-ups of Anna Karina, Godard's star and wife during the first half of the 60s. Raoul Coutard describes his collaboration with Godard as follows:
"To keep the natural beauty of real light on the screen, whatever movements Anna Karina and Belmondo may make around the room in "Pierrot le Fou" - that's the cameraman's job. That is what Godard was asking for when he said, in his usual hesitant way, "Monsieur, we are going to be simple". Godard himself isn't exactly simple. [...] He wants to shoot without lights: he's thinking of a shot in a Lang film which he saw six months ago, and of the left half of a shot by Renoir... he's no longer sure which one, and he can't really explain any further, but really it wasn't at all bad. Then after having told me this, he sends me off the set, me and everyone else, while he thinks about the way he's going to do it. And when I come back, I find that it's no longer the same shot. And anyway, he would rather like that very white light which lit up the end of a table in a shot (unhappily a very short shot) from a Griffith film, and he has always wondered whether perhaps that very white light didn't really come from the developing processes used in the Griffith laboratories, which must have been quite different from any other... and so on, and so on. No, Godard isn't simple" (Mussmann, pp. 233-234).
- A little anecdote which emphasizes both The New Wave's preference for using daylight shots, and Godard's boundless admiration of three of the great directors in the history of cinema: Fritz Lang, Jean Renoir and D.W. Griffith.
A Story of a Film Being Made
Godard's great admiration for Fritz Lang, who played himself in Contempt (1963), telling the story of a film being made, a story of the world of Homer directed by Fritz Lang, and with Godard as his assistant, is made very clear in this quote from an interview with Godard in 1963:
"[...] he represents the cinema, for which he is both the director and the voice of its conscience. From a more symbolic point of view, however, particularly since he is shooting a film on the "Odyssey", he is also the voice of the gods, the man who looks at men. [...] Just by his presence in the film, anyone can have the idea that the cinema is something important; and if I played the role of his assistant, it was out of respect, so that I wouldn't lend him shots - as short as they may have been - that weren't his own" (Brown, pp. 38-39).
Godard was once asked why he used a strange quotation from Hölderlin spoken by Fritz Lang in Contempt, and he answered: "Because it is a text called "La Vocation du Poète," and Lang in Contempt symbolizes the poet, the artist, the creator. It was good therefore that he says a line of poetry from the "Vocation of the Poet". [...] I chose Hölderlin because Lang is German and also because Hölderlin wrote a number of poems on Greece. (Three-quarters of the people who see the movie do not know this). But I wanted it to imply something on The Odyssey and Greece. I chose Hölderlin because of the fascination that Greece and the Mediterranean had for him" (Mussman, pp. 149-150).
This answer shows Godard's defence of European culture from Homer's The Odyssey to Friedrich Hölderlin (1770-1843) and Paul Eluard (1895-1952), who is mentioned later on in Godard's answer. It is obvious that Godard identifies with the spirit and essence of this culture, whether it is Homer's classic story, Hölderlin's romantic longing for ancient Greece, or Eluard's modernism. A significant identification that indirectly describes the substance of Godard's artistic universe: an exciting mixture of classicism, romanticism and modernism. In any case, the longing for a new Renaissance is obvious.
In spite of its apparently classical Hollywood-like style, "Contempt" is a thoroughly European film, dealing with the problems of art, the problems of creating, and the problems of finding an adequate language, an artistic style. According to Godard, style is the most important thing for an artist, and he undoubtedly found this adequate artistic language in the world of Hölderlin and Lang, which is why they both appear in Godard's meta-film on the shooting of a film. Contempt is a fictive documentary on the production of a film, just like Federico Fellini's 8 1/2 (1963), Ingmar Bergman's Persona (1966), Rainer Werner Fassbinder's Beware of a Holy Whore (1971), François Truffaut's Day for Night (1973), Bo Widerberg's Love 65 (1965), and Nils Malmros's Aarhus by Night (1989). A collection of meta-films that constitute a typically European genre, focusing on the genesis of the work of art, thereby rendering visible the fact "that a movie is directed."
The Many Faces of Anna Karina
In a speech delivered at the Cinémathèque Française on the occasion of the Louis Lumière Retrospective in January 1966, Godard praised Henri Langlois for his management of the museum: "The whole world, as you know, envies us this museum. It is not in New York that one can learn how Sternberg invented studio lighting the better to reveal to the world the face of the woman he loved. [...] It is here" (Narboni, p.236). A poetic statement referring to the famous Hollywood couple, Marlene Dietrich & Josef von Sternberg, who collaborated in seven films where von Sternberg directed and his wife had the leading role as the glamorous star: The Blue Angel (1930), Morocco (1930), Dishonored (1931), Shanghai Express (1932), Blonde Venus (1932), The Scarlet Empress (1934), and The Devil Is a Woman (1935). This collaboration lasted five years, just like the collaboration between Anna Karina and Jean-Luc Godard from 1960 to 1965.
There is no doubt that in his statement about Sternberg-Dietrich, Godard was also indirectly referring to his own relationship with Anna Karina, as her husband, and as her director in six films portraying the many faces of Anna Karina playing: Veronica Dreyer in The Little Soldier (1960), Angela Récamier in A Woman Is a Woman (1961), Nana Kleinfrankenheim in My Life to Live (1962), Odile in Band of Outsiders (1964), Natacha von Braun in Alphaville (1965), and Marianne Renoir in Pierrot le Fou (1965). Thus, in a slight paraphrase of Godard's comment on von Sternberg's invention of studio lighting, one might say that Godard invented natural lighting "the better to reveal to the world the face of the woman he loved". Still, Godard's attitude to Karina is different from von Sternberg's to Dietrich, especially in his portrait of Nana in My Life to Live.
In twelve episodes, or tableaux, Godard's camera catches Nana's figure - her face, her eyes. Filmed on location, in daylight and evening light without using artificial light, from behind, from in front, from the side, from below, and from above - from all sides and angles, as a declaration of love from the director in love. Impressive close-ups of a sensitive face with shy and wary eyes. A face with black hair and effectual makeup. The camera follows her gestures when she is walking in the street, talking with the linguistic philosopher Brice Parain, smoking a cigarette, writing a letter, embracing a customer at the brothel without kissing him, or dancing on her own. The camera adheres to Nana's face to catch her soul behind her hiding look, at the same time as it gently caresses her smooth skin, forcing her to lower her eyes in front of the camera. It is Nana's face that steals the picture. The story about prostitution could be a pretext for telling the story of the beauty of her face.
So in many ways, My Life to Live is a tribute to the many faces of Anna Karina: her sad face, her melancholy face, her smiling face, her face with tears in the cinema, watching the suffering face of Falconetti in Carl Th. Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), her face when she is smoking a cigarette, drinking a cup of coffee, or selling a record in the record store where she works before becoming a prostitute - filmed in Coutard's light of day, "the better to reveal to the world the face of the woman" Godard loved. His film is a documentary of all those faces, a catalogue of the different facial expressions of Anna Karina. "When you photograph a face... you photograph the soul behind it... Photography is truth... and the cinema is the truth twenty-four times a second" (Monaco, p. 115), as the reporter and photographer Bruno Forestier says in The Little Soldier. This is one of the most commonly cited Godard quotes.
But at the same time, Godard breaks the illusion by commenting on the scenes in the film, and on his job as the director of the film. There is another side to the portrait of his wife, which appears in the scene between Nana and her lover, the young man Luigi, where he reads aloud from Charles Baudelaire's translation of Edgar Allan Poe's "The Oval Portrait," "a story about an artist engaged in painting a portrait of his wife; he strives for the perfect likeness, but at the moment he finally achieves it his wife dies" (Mussman, p. 98). In parallel with his documentary portraits of Anna Karina, Godard stands out as the maker of his own film, underlining the resemblance between the artist and his wife in Poe's "The Oval Portrait" and his own portrait of his beloved. Godard is present in the film through his voice, which is used when Luigi reads aloud. Thus, Godard recognizes his responsibility for Nana's death at the end of the film. Von Sternberg would never have done this. He would never have demonstrated how art steals the beauty of life for its own purpose, thereby killing life itself. Something like that would have been unthinkable in Hollywood.
In My Life to Live Godard constantly reminds us that we are in the process of watching a film. He starts with a proverb by Montaigne: "Lend yourself to others but give yourself to yourself." He reveals himself to us as the director of the film by lending his voice to the young man's reading of Poe's story about the oval portrait, and then he sends his compliments to Truffaut, by letting the moving camera pan over a queue in front of a cinema in Paris that is showing Jules and Jim (1961). He also experiments with the sound, changing demonstratively between silent scenes and scenes with sounds, just as he lets Nana look into the camera. All of these things deviate from Hollywood's storytelling technique where the director hides behind the story. In contrast, Godard makes his presence felt all the time as the person behind the film, thus breaking Hollywood's unwritten rule about not revealing oneself as the director. He never lets us forget that we are in the process of seeing a film.
Godard's Significance in Film History
The exciting thing about Jean-Luc Godard is that, as well as having made a large number of feature films, of which several can be considered as pioneering masterworks in terms of film history, he also forces the audience to take a stance on the entire history of film, with all its numerous genres and changing styles. What is documentarism? What is fiction? What is montage? What is language? What is consciousness? What is Hollywood? And what is the difference between European cinematic art and Hollywood? All of this has to be addressed and studied in more detail if we want to understand both Godard and film, and who does not want to do that? Reference could also be made here to his gigantic work "Histoire(s) du Cinéma" (1988-1998), a video series in eight parts, which reviews the entire history of film as seen from Godard's personal point of view.
Godard, or Hans Lucas as he called himself in a period as a critic in the 50s, himself often answers all the questions one can ask of his films, and of cinematic art and art as a whole, in his films, articles and interviews. Occasionally he can be caught in nonsensical contradictions and completely unintelligible formulations, but as a rule he is accurate and penetrating in his interpretation of things. Sometimes seductive, at other times poetically subdued, but always relevant and challenging in his cinematic art and as a writer. Godard always has an opinion about this or that, possessed by an undiminished rage of expression over the years: an opinion about the metaphysical, melancholy and magical tone of Mozart's clarinet, or about Griffith's genius. The most recent reference to Mozart was in the film For Ever Mozart (1996).
In 1959 Godard proclaimed: "[...] I think one should mention Griffith in all articles about the cinema: everyone agrees, but everyone forgets none the less. Griffith, therefore, and André Bazin too, for the same reasons [...]" (Narboni, p. 135). And this is what he did in many of his writings. "All you need for a movie is a gun and a girl," is another of Godard's proclamations, referring to Griffith's simplicity in his early experimental cinema, consisting of hundreds of short films made between 1908 and 1913. And this: "My grandmother knew Mozart but not Griffith. Nor my sister. In thirty years all the world will know Griffith because he will be in all the textbooks" (Mussmann, p. 145). This is a funny and poetical statement, but also an eloquent one, especially when you know that Mozart and Griffith are two of the artists Godard admires most. For ever Mozart. For ever Griffith. For ever Godard.
NB. The stills appearing in this article were taken from My Life to Live and Alphaville.
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Assouline, Pierre. "Entretien - Godard Jean-Luc." Lire (Mai 1997), pp. 30-37.
Braudy, Leo and Morris Dickstein (eds.). Great film directors : a critical anthology. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978.
Brown, Royal S. (ed.). Focus on Godard. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1972.
Giannetti, Louis D. Godard and others: essays on film form. Rutherford: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1975.
Godard, Jean-Luc. 2 ou 3 choses que je sais d'elle. Paris: Seuil. Avant-Scène, 1971.
Godard, Jean-Luc. A woman is a woman; A married woman; Two or three things I know about her : three films. London: Lorrimer, 1975.
Grøngaard, Peder. "Godards paradokser." MacGuffin 18 (1976), pp. 24-42.
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Sarris, Andrew (ed.). Hollywood Voices. London: Secker & Warburg, 1971.
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