Thursday, August 2, 2012

Three from Godard

By David Skolnick

While Francois Truffaut is the most consistently excellent director of the French New Wave movement, Jean-Luc Godard is easily the genre’s most compelling, adventurous and political filmmaker.

And because Godard is so unique and productive over his nearly 60-year career as a director, the quality of his films range from among the greatest to among the strangest.

There are few films that can match the quality and brilliance of Godard’s 1960 full-length-film debut, A bout de souffle (Breathless), or 1964’s Bande a part (Band of Outsiders). Other great Godard films include 1963’s Le Mepris (Contempt) as well as Masculin, Feminin, and Made in U.S.A. (both released in 1966). I highly recommend all of them.

But, at times, Godard made films, heavily influenced by his far-left-wing, anti-American politics, that leave me wondering: “What am I watching?” I end up being disappointed that the film never seems to go anywhere.

An example would be 2 ou 3 choses que ju sais d’elle (2 or 3 Things I Know About Her) from 1967. The film is about a French suburban housewife who becomes a prostitute to make money in order to buy material things. It’s an interesting subject, and something that was happening in France at the time, but Godard’s effort to capture it on film fails. Women who become prostitutes for money aren’t uncommon plots in Godard movies, as will become obvious shortly.

Because Godard’s films are compelling, even though some are much better than others, and rarely boring, I’m always looking to see as many as possible.

Here are three I recently saw through Hulu Plus. (They’re in the order in which I saw them.)

Week End (1967): This is definitely one of those films that left me wondering: “What am I watching?” It’s a black comedy about a married couple, Roland and Corinne, who want to kill each other. But first, they want Corinne’s father to die – they unsuccessfully try to do it themselves a number of times – in order to collect the inheritance.

The movie is a collection of bizarre scenes, including one at the beginning that lasts for more than eight minutes. It’s a traffic jam with angry and impatient people honking their horns. The camera very slowly goes to the right, passing large animals and people picnicking, as we get closer to what caused the tie-up. It’s a horrific accident that’s left dead bodies all over the street and on the nearby grass – and nobody cares.

When they get to her parents’ house, the father is dead, but Corinne’s mother won’t share the inheritance. Bad move on her part as the two kill her. But their problems are hardly solved. On the way home, they end up kidnapped by cannibal revolutionaries, led by legendary French actor Jean-Pierre Leaud (Truffaut’s semi-autobiographical character, Antoine Doinel, in four full-length films and one short).

The film is definitely black and has comedic and absurd moments. The couple meets historical and fictitious characters, killing some of them without concern because they’re not real. It seems as though Godard was too busy focusing on the evils of a capitalist society and on the look of the film to give the movie much of a plot.

Vivre sa vie: film en douze tableaux (titled My Life to Live in U.S.) (1962): Anna Karina, Godard’s wife and muse at the time, is outstanding as Nana, a beautiful woman with amazing eyes who leaves her husband and young child to pursue an acting career even though she isn’t an actress. It’s not a very well-thought-out plan and unable to make enough money for rent and expenses as a clerk at a record store, Nana becomes…guess, and remember it’s Godard…yup, a prostitute.

Film en douze tableaux is French for: A film in 12 scenes, and that’s what we get. A title appears before each of the scenes telling us what’s about to happen. It’s not one of Godard’s better-known movies, but it is exceptional even though the ending is flat.

Tout va bien (titled All’s Well in the U.S.) (1972): Week End’s plot is crystal-clear in comparison to this film starring Jane Fonda (who speaks most of her lines in French) and Yves Montand. They’re a married couple with Fonda as a disillusioned American reporter in France and Montand as a former film director who has to make silly TV commercials to support their lifestyle.

However, it’s far more complicated than that and far more complicated than it should be. The movie starts with people trying to put together a film about a couple to be specifically played by Fonda and Montand who end up at a sausage factory in which its employees are on strike. Many characters break the fourth wall so we’re not sure what’s real and what isn’t.

The factory strike is, by far, the most interesting part of the film. Of particular note is the lack of a wall on the outer part of each room at the plant allowing the camera to easily move and give insight into what’s happening throughout the factory.

But the dialogue is too heavy-handed about the struggles of the working-class and politics that I became somewhat annoyed that I was getting too much dialogue and not enough action. Godard sometimes falls into the trap of telling and not showing moviegoers his points and messages. Movies are a visual medium. When Godard is at his best – like the classic dance scene in Bande a part (Band of Outsiders) – he’s brilliant. When Fonda and Montand are interacting in this film, I’m waiting for the movie to end.

A final note: For those interested in learning about the history of the French New Wave movement, I recommend this article:

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