There are many filmmakers who work with ambiguity of meaning, but only a handful who push the ambiguous so far that we can neither know for sure whether one shot follows the previous one, or how we should feel about certain attitudes and behaviour expressed by characters within the story. Jean-Luc Godard is in both areas one of cinema’s great filmmakers of the ambiguous, and yet at the same time few filmmakers offer a stronger vision than Godard. How to explain this?
One way is to note that most filmmakers politely subsume their vision within the story, so that characterisation and narrative development take over or compete with the directorial personality. Hence, many auteurist critics will extract from a director’s work the recurrent themes, as though the characterisation and story have buried them in the exigencies of narrative, whether this would have been Chabrol and Rohmer insisting that Hitchcock’s work is about the transference of guilt, or Peter Wollen seeing the underlying structures of the garden and the wilderness in John Ford’s work. In each instance theme is contained by the more foregrounded elements of narrative cinema: character and story, and the mise-en-scene that shapes them. In Godard’s work, from Le Mepris to Pierrot le fou, from Tout va bien to Numero deux, he reverses this hierarchy and makes the character, story and mise-en-scene subordinate to an exploratory theme. This is presumably partly what writer Paul Coates means when saying, in The Story of the Lost Reflection, that the reason critics love his films is because Godard turns all viewers into critics.
To “understand” Godard’s work it is surely important to accept this reversal of priorities. When on a mainstream film one hears of the indecision of the director, the chaos of the production, the arguments with the actors, it is usually deemed to be no more than worthless gossip next to the finished work, yet in a Godard film it seems part of the texture of the work itself. In his Godard biography, Everything is Cinema, Richard Brody notes that Godard wanted for Slow Motion more than one cameraman (he ended up with regular William Lubtchansky and Renato Berta) so that during the shoot “he could listen calmly, ask them some questions, and even see each give a different answer, like doctors to a sick person.” At another moment, Brody says Godard would observe one of his leading ladies, Nathalie Baye, so closely that he spent several days with her in her country home. “He was with me when I lived my daily life, when I was cooking.” Baye noted. “He observed me. He said very little to me about the film.” Brody mentions that meetings for the film were tense. “Godard claimed that he didn’t know what he wanted to film or how to proceed; at times he cried in the presence of his team.”
In centripetal cinema such production details are usually deemed irrelevant however fascinating, but Godard is more than most interested in a centrifugal cinema where every detail of production becomes part of the possible diegesis, part of the filmed story. The procrastinating director at the film’s centre is called Godard (played by Jacques Dutronc), while one of the leading characters, Isabelle the prostitute, is played by Isabelle Huppert. The character of Godard’s daughter is called Cecile and played by Cecile Tanner, daughter of well-known Swiss filmmaker Alain Tanner, whose regular cameraman, Berta, is of course the co-cameraman here. Baye even bears a passing resemblance to Godard’s partner Anne-Marie Meiville. Are these trivial film buff details, or all part of the fabric of the film? We should remember after all that Godard is a filmmaker frequently fascinated by the process of filmmaking, who often talks about his inability or reluctance to work from a script, and also who makes many of his films about the process of making films: including Le Mepris, Numerous deux, Passion and Eloge de L’amour. In the brief sketch documentary accompanying the Slow Motion DVD, Godard says he is looking not to work from a script, but from thoughts and images. He mentions the importance of light, and paintings from Bonnard and Hopper.
In such an approach the film is the sum total of its influences, and is thus an inclusive rather than an exclusionary approach to cinema. Where many an anecdote about filmmaking seems irrelevantly trivial, in Godard’s film it is almost as if the work invites the speculative: the ‘weakness’ of its diegetic form seems to demand non-diegetic interpretation. This is why we talk of the centrifugal aspect in, and beyond, Godard’s films. It’s as if in the maddening ambiguity one searches for meaning wherever one finds it: and anecdote might appear as good a place as any in trying to make sense of the story or getting to grips with the form.
Yet the centrifugal needs to be addressed in all its manifestations, and this paradoxically requires a closer look than most films would demand, as we try simply to piece together the diegesis, and its irrationality. For loosely the story takes the form of a director who has split up with his wife and occasionally sees both his ex and his thirteen year old daughter. He’s in the middle of an affair with a television producer, but also sleeps with Isabelle. Here are the bare bones of the story, but Godard doesn’t so much flesh out the synopsis with narrative detail; more with cinematic incident. A centripetal film would generally create strong cause and effect linkages, so that the split with his wife and the on-off affair with his lover, and then sleeping with Isabelle, would contribute to the chaos of Paul Godard’s life. It is true that his life seems chaotic, but it isn’t especially because of the clear narrative chaos of his existence. If his life were so disorganized because of his emotional relationships, at least this would indicate a reason seeming to counter the chaos: Paul’s life is chaos, but we would know why it is such a mess. Godard instead extends the chaos into the very form of the film and through the narrative and technical non-sequiturs he adopts.
For example, there is no motivation for his reason to sleep with Isabelle, and no consequences either. This sexual liaison thus doesn’t represent the mess of his life; rather it illustrates its arbitrariness. These are not quite one and the same thing, and Godard is at pains to show the arbitrary over the messy, as though the latter too readily works within the confines of bourgeois expectation; the former the impulses of change however erratic. The arbitrary nature of the exchange between Isabelle and Paul comes in at least two shots in the sequence before they go to bed together. The first is a cut from a slow motion shot of part of Paul’s body and Isabelle’s face, to the pair of them walking away after presumably agreeing on a price. The next comes a moment later when instead of following their conversation as they walk presumably to the hotel, Godard instead cuts to a couple talking about sex.
Yet it would be wrong to assume Godard wants to work without cause and effect. He sets up expectations, but frequently either refuses to follow through on them, or removes the certainty that the incident has been followed through at all. We might note that shortly before Paul picks up Isabelle, he has had an argument with his lover, Denise (Baye). But when we see him walking the streets apparently having just fallen out with Denise, can we say with any certainty this shortly follows the argument? It seems likely, certainly, and in another film unequivocal, but Godard forces the viewer to question such linkages. We may think of an earlier scene in the film where Denise cycles through the countryside and into town. Yet where she is wearing one set of clothes in the earlier shots, she is wearing different clothing when she arrives. Is this a different day, week, month? The superficial continuity of form is countered by the lack of continuity in mise-en-scène. The cuts more or less match to indicate she has arrived from the cycle trip we have witnessed, but Godard undermines the usual cause and effect matches by the clothes she is wearing in the following scene.
Some may find Godard’s cinema meaningless, but better to see it as meaningful in a different way: in a centrifugal way. There are two articles from the fifties, both from the magazine, Cahiers du Cinema, that Godard was closely affiliated with as a critic, that help explain Godard’s project. One is by Rohmer on Voyage to Italy; the other by Andre S. Labarthe on Last Year at Marienbad. Rohmer notes that what is so striking about Roberto Rossellini’s film is the pensive space it creates in the viewer, as Rohmer confesses “that as I watched the film my thoughts went off in directions far from those of the plot itself.” For Rohmer, the drifting from plot leads to anything from the incidental details of the actors’ clothing and hairstyles as he “was plunged into all kinds of absurd trains of thought”, to thinking about the skulls he sees in a scene at the catacombs. Labarthe, meanwhile, believed that neo-realism led to a new purpose for the spectator: “the notable result of all this is that the new conception to cinema entailed a new way of looking at film. The passive spectator was succeeded by an active spectator…”
Rossellini was of course a neo-realist, and many saw Voyage to Italy as an extension into farther freedoms for the spectator that the earlier neo-realist films hinted at. How far could one could take the viewer’s gaze away from the dead centre of plot to the active speculation of everything concerning the film? In such an instance one notices what a character is wearing not necessarily out of the idle curiosity Rohmer invokes, but a new level of activity.
This is a position somewhere in between the diegetic attention demanded of most films where we follow the story, and the non-diegetic pondering over the incidental details that have nothing to do with the narrative content nor even formal concerns. When Rohmer muses over the suits that the actors wear, or the hairstyles they have, it isn’t to deduce something from the character especially; more to allow himself to drift in and out of the film. Godard forces that drift upon us, but at the same time doesn’t settle for the casual observation Rossellini allows for, but the insistent alertness to the image in all its manifestations, whether that is to background detail, say, or to the ‘irrational cutting’ in Gilles Deleuze’s words in Cinema 2: The Time Image: here one cut doesn’t necessarily follow another, but is linked to another. Our purpose is to make sense of these linkages.
Let us think again of Voyage to Italy and Last Year at Marienbad. Labarthe believed Resnais’ film was an inevitable outcome of the freedom neo-realism initiated. Neo-realism created spaces for the viewer’s interpretive freedom; Last Year at Marienbad opened up those spaces still further by allowing no definitive conclusion to be made in relation to the images we have seen. Last year and this year at Marienbad disintegrate into each other, as Resnais plays with space and time to undermine our perceptual certitude. For example, in one scene the camera passes a character standing still and then keeps tracking only to show the character entering the frame, as if miraculously, shortly thereafter. We’ll assume initially this is the same period of screen time, because Resnais gives the impression that the shot is continuous. Yet for the character to move from his standing position to his entering of the frame, time must surely have passed. We may also note that the shot isn’t actually a continuous track, but applies a very subtle cut.
This type of irrational cutting and tracking isn’t the same thing as a continuity error, but can sometimes look like it. Voyage to Italy has a glaring example of the latter that critics like Laura Mulvey (Vesuvian Topgraphies’) have pointed out. There is a scene where Charles is using the car but at the same time it is being used by Katherine, his wife: there is only one car and few watching the film will see it as anything but an error in the film’s continuity. Maybe viewers will say the same of Godard’s example in Slow Motion (concerning the different clothing Denise wears as she arrives in town), but Godard so often plays with our sense of spatial and temporal assumptions that it is surely an intentional attempt to get the viewer to question the general flow of images we find in film. Rossellini’s project lay elsewhere, and we must assume it was simply a mistake.
Yet at the same time Rossellini was one of Cahiers’ masters, and while the magazine’s critics might not have gone so far as to claim a mistake as a technical innovation, there was much in Rossellini’s work that filmmakers like Godard did learn from. Rossellini was interested in filming reality and making the diegesis out of that filming process. Voyage to Italy has a loose narrative structure, showing a relationship falling apart as an English couple holiday around Naples, but what really counts is the space in which he films. As he said in a Cahiers interview in the late fifties, “I have no fixed plan. What I do have, rather, is a particular speed of observation, and I work according to what I see. I always know that if the eye is drawn to see certain things, then they are the things that matter.” This could equally be Godard’s dictum, except where Rossellini would say “I don’t make calculations. I know what I want to say and I find the most direct way to say it…What matters are the ideas, not the images,” Godard would reply that he does make calculations, and the ideas are inextricably connected to the images. Hence we may note Godard’s need for more than one cinematographer so that he can calculate and choose; and also the constant desire to make the viewer aware of the image structure.
Yet of course Godard also makes us aware of the ideological structure his films work within also. It is one reason for the self-consciousness of technique, an element that while central to all his work, became a political issue in the late sixties after Weekend. He ‘retired’ from relatively commercial filmmaking, devoting himself to political and experimental work from 1968 to 1980, returning with Slow Motion, and thus worked here with a young commercially, oriented producer like Alain Sarde, the studio Gaumont, even a fairly mainstream musician (Gabriel Yared, who would go on to work with Jean-Jacques Beineix on films like Betty Blue). The form nevertheless remains demanding, as we’ve shown, and the same is true of the film’s ideological element, equally centrifugal in its insistence that we cannot settle into its assumptions. After all, what are we to make of the exchange between Paul and the football coach discussing Cecile as she is filmed in slow-motion? As Paul asks the coach if he has ever thought of buggering his daughter, and goes on to say he finds it unfair that the mother can touch and caress her children more than the father can, how are we supposed to respond? The exchange takes place off-screen, and, when the film cuts to Paul after it, there is nothing in his expression that indicates he has just made a provocative statement, and we have no idea how the coach reacts. The film would seem to be a dialogue exchange (the coach replies no when asked if he’s ever thought of buggering his own daughter), yet it is presented almost as an idle thought passing through the mind of the protagonist.
We may be offended by the comments, but let us for a moment instead wonder how another film would contain such statements without being ideologically problematic. Perhaps by putting the words into the mouth of the antagonist, and relying on reaction shots to show how disgusted the audience ought to be by the statement made. Godard does neither, and leaves the comments dangling as a statement we’re indeterminately offended by. Somehow the comments aren’t contained by categorical characterisation nor formal expectation, and we’re left to ponder over what it says about the character, what it says about the filmmaker and what it says about the viewer watching the work. Just as Godard asks us to ask questions about the aesthetic experience of watching the film; equally he asks us to muse over our ideological beliefs.
Perhaps one will see no more than empty formalism on the one hand, empty provocation on the other. How finally to defend Godard against such claims? One is to propose Godard is constantly looking for a new affectivity, taking into account Fredric Jameson’s very useful observation that there has been a ‘waning of affect’ in modern art. The second is that he is interested in trying to find ways in which to shock the viewer that has nothing to do with extreme images in the vein of violent or sexually explicit imagery, but more by tearing at the fabric of society’s assumptions.
In relation to the first point, Slow Motion seems to be a film that wants to move us emotionally, without forcing us to believe in the characters. It brings to mind Milan Kundera’s comment (and Kundera is given a passing reference here), that “it would be senseless for the author to convince his readers that his characters once actually lived”. Godard, though, obviously working in film rather than fiction, wants an intense observation of the actor, and a shallow comprehension of character, evident in his interest in Baye’s daily habits, and also in casting Dutronc in the leading role here. Dutronc is a major and well-respected singer in France, and Godard no doubt plays on that recognition. Part of the affect lies in the very casting, not especially the embodiment of character, but a certain disembodiment that allows the actor to come through. He understands, like writer and filmmaker Marguerite Duras, whose voice is heard in the film, “that the making of the film is already the film”. Godard asks us to be moved not especially by the narrative result, but the cinematic process; by observing life filmed, rather than manipulated only by a story told.
Secondly he wants to shock us, and though there have been far more sexually explicit scenes in film than the one near the end of the film here, and more aggressive family arguments than an exchange between Paul, Cecile and her mother in the café earlier on, Godard achieves the outrageous not especially through the representative, but through surprising permutation and defying expectation. In the earlier scene after Cecile asks for her present, Paul throws the T-shirts at her and refers to her as a bitch: playing the petulant role where we would usually expect it to be the other way round: the petulant daughter and the complying dad. In the scene near the end of the film, a businessman creates an elaborate sexual game resembling production line mechanics. As he deploys two prostitutes and a co-worker, he insists that when his colleague anally penetrates one of the prostitutes, she fellates him. In each instance it isn’t the explicitness of the material that shocks, but the capacity to create a situation within which to contain the shock. Many filmmakers create shocking moments, but frequently within a derealized yet strongly contextualized environment that needn’t cause us any moral/perceptual problems. Even when a villain horrifically gouges an eye out we know he is a villain and we know that the scene is simply a more gruesome version of a clichéd scene where a baddie shows his brutality.
Godard’s shocking moments are original, and part of our dismay lies in making sense of the scene. Where are we supposed to stand for example when Paul makes his comments about his daughter? The scene is controversial enough even with the statement, but then there is the compete lack of contextualization for the statement – Paul and the coach are off-screen – and we don’t have a reaction shot where the coach shows his disapproval.
Godard is then an original filmmaker, as though what matters most is not the telling of a story, the mastering of one’s dramatic craft: the capacity to elicit fine performances, to create a plausible mise-en-scène. What other directors would regard as their craft, Godard would probably claim to be clichés so sublimated that artists take them for granted as aspects of their professionalism. Obviously many viewers will completely disagree with Godard’s claims, and see that the traditions of storytelling, plausible characterisation etc., have been around for thousands of years and still serve their purpose well. How closely one agrees with this perspective on art may determine how maddened one is by Godard’s work, but to deny him significance would be to deny much of what is possible in film. Few directors more than Godard have explores these possibilities.