Eloge de l’amour
There is a fine comment by Douglas Morrey in Studies in French Cinema where he believes what Godard suggests in Eloge de l'amour, in the relationship between the film's two central characters, is not the "the external contact with the other, but the internalization of the other, the way contact with the other can operate a change in the structure of the self." Instead of two bodies colliding sexually, what happens when minds subtly interact? This is, in fact, something that has often fascinated Godard - we see it in Vivre sa vie most clearly; where Anna Karina's prostitute asks Brice Perain's philosopher about the nature of her life, language and employment. It is also there though in Jean Seberg's questioning of Jean-Pierre Melville in A Bout de souffle, and in La Chinoise, in the conversation on the train between Anne Wiazemsky and Francis Jeanson. But Godard takes it further than ever before in Eloge de L'amour, as Edgar (Bruno Putzulu) and Berthe (Cecile Camp) create a union of minds that Godard wants so abstractly to present that for most of the film he keeps Berthe in semi-darkness. He wants us to feel the full weight of minds at work rather than bodies conjoining. For of course Godard knows better than almost anybody how to explore the face, and it's almost as though Eloge de l'amour works as an auto-critique of Vivre sa vie, where the face was so central to his vision. Certainly, Godard wanted to explore that face for more than superficial reasons, even drawing comparisons between Karina's visage and Falconetti's in Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc to suggest the spiritual aspect he was searching out. But we were well aware that absolutely central to Karina's appeal was her beauty. At one stage in Eloge de l'amour, as Edgar is thinking of casting someone in the leading role of his project - a film, an opera, a play, he's not quite sure - he says that Berthe has an appeal but it isn't physical: she's not a beautiful woman. How, Godard thus seems to be asking himself, to film a non-beautiful woman beautifully? If Karina's essence lay in her face; where does Berthe's reside?
Godard is here searching out a very different approach to love and beauty explored by Proust in Remembrance of Things Past and nicely elucidated by Gilles Deleuze in his book Proust and Signs. In Proust's work, beauty is more important than intelligence for the purposes of love, and often a stunning but not very bright woman is ideal because of the multiplicity of signs she offers: many of them visual, and open for hermeneutic work. "The first law of love is subjective...[an] interpretation of signs. ...Indeed, it is inevitable that the signs of a loved person, once we "explicate" them, should be revealed as deceptive: addressed to us, applied to us, they nonetheless express worlds which exclude us and which the beloved will not and cannot make us know." Any hermeneutic work here though is much more ontological, much more to do not so much with Berthe's surface but her depths, or more especially her historical texture. Now Godard captures this texture in a complex narratological way, with the story as difficult to decipher as Berthe's physical presence is to discern. In the film's first black and white film section set two or three years after the second, colour, digital video, section, Edgar has decided to put together a project on the four stages of love, but doesn't quite know what to make, how to make it and who to cast in it. All he knows is that it has to make more than money. But it is perhaps not until the end of that first section (at, chronologically, the end of the story), with Berthe taking her own life, that Edgar begins to understand the sort of project he has to produce. He must make something, we can surmise, similar to the Godard project that becomes Eloge de l'amour. This isn't arrogance on Godard's part, but instead a demand for equal modesty on Edgar's.
For years Godard has talked about the impossibility of making a film, or rather the impossibility of the made film - it's in the process whereby Godard finds his purpose, not in the end result. (Le Mepris, Tou va bien, Forever Mozart, Notre Musique) Frequently this process requires less decisions made than decisions eschewed, and Alain Bergala writes well on Godard's eschewal of convention in 'The Other Side of the Bouquet'. Bergala differentiates the mise-en-scene and the camera's placement on the mise-en-scene, saying Godard's a great director of the other side of the bouquet. Where most filmmakers would film the bouquet from the front, Godard seems always to look for a different angle, a kind of reverse angle where any notion of establishing shot is destroyed. As Bergala says, "Godard can arrange in the same space a young woman, a table, and a bouquet of flowers on the table, and at the last moment attack his shot in such a way that the bouquet of flowers masks part of the woman's face."
We can see this for example when we're introduced to Berthe in the film's first section. She's busy cleaning trains whilst Edgar tracks her down and starts talking to her about their meeting at her grandparents' place a couple of years previously. But throughout Godard keeps her face in darkness as we try and discern aspects of her personality from what she says. It is the antithesis to the Hollywood close-up where the leading lady is offered to us in a halo of light as she appears on screen. But then Godard wants her as neither heroine nor femme fatale: both tropes he's used in the past, whether Anna Karina in Vivre sa vie as iconic heroine, or Jean Seberg in A Bout de souffle playing treacherous. No, he wants Berthe to be internally mysterious so that any enquiry on Edgar's part deepens his being in relation to the depth of being he finds in Berthe. In some ways this runs counter to the Deleuze/Proust notion where it is generally a profound man falling for a shallow woman that creates greater comprehension of the world in the man: it is a hermeneutic of signs; here it is closer to a hermeneutic of being, an interpretive approach demanding much more allusive language than an elusive presence.
Thus just as Odette and Albertine in Proust gain much of their interest from their absence, from Swann and the narrator wondering where they are, with Berthe any enigma manifests itself in the complexity of her being. When she talks about herself, her relationship with an ex, her child, her parents and grandparents, the enigma lies not remotely in coquettishness, but in one comprehending the layers of her existence: the name changes in the family, the suicides and the treachery as we see how difficult it would be for her to have a stable identity. If Godard here works contrary to the Deleuzian/Proustian notion of physical surfaces, he does so not because the other approach is 'shallow', merely because it is irrelevant. When Edgar comments on Berthe's looks and says how she isn't beautiful enough for his project this is Edgar failing to understand what he needs from the woman he will cast. He doesn't require a physical presence; he needs a presence that is temporally complex. Often the inscrutable woman is instead temperamentally complex, as though her being rests on contrariness, coquettishness and mood shifts for which she claims little responsibility. But in the temporally complex nothing is deliberately mysterious; it's more that layers of time have created enigmas that are all but impossible to resolve. So if for example we can say of the coquettish woman she creates inexplicable behaviour often because she wants to seduce another, wants to appear enigmatic in the eyes of another, someone like Berthe is complex not in relation to another in space and in the present (where the mysterious disappearing acts of Proust's Odette and Albertine are essential), but in time, in the complexity of their temporal mode.
What Edgar needs to do to make the artwork immanent within him, though, is to understand the temporal mode. Initially, he focuses on the physical, as we witness a series of casting sessions where Edgar, whether casting beautiful young people, or tortured looking older ones, emphasises the physical presence, but can't find a way into the project. He has to discover his own temporality before he can move towards making the work; he has to find the theme in the many strands which make up Godard's film that becomes Edgar's own unsentimental education, an education that is neither really Flaubertian nor Proustian. If we have noted how Deleuze sees the narrator in Remembrance of Things Past as on an emotional apprenticeship, Edgar's apprenticeship is searching out something else. Neither does he share that melancholia at the end of Sentimental Education where the central character, Frederic, realises he's devoted his life to chimeras - most obviously Madame Arnaux. Edgar is not a reader of signs but nave in the face of them. The narrator in Proust looks for situations in which the most signs offer themselves (and this is why Deleuze says characters like Swann and the narrator fall in love with beautiful but vacuous women), but if Edgar is on a learning curve it is one based on an emotion not before the event but after it. If for Proust the intense emotion is followed by endless analysis (analysis so unending that it can continue, as Proust explains in La Captive, even after the loved one is dead), for Edgar emotion is a vague, retrospective feeling he comprehends after Berthe's demise.
Godard offers a work that is constantly beyond both the audience's and Edgar's reach because of the temporal as opposed to the spatial mode. Sometimes in Proust, Swann or the narrator will search out the spatial by following, respectively, Odette or Albertine home, waiting outside their house, or following them into a museum, hoping to find out some secret aspect of their behaviour. This is a spatial epistemology basically absent from Eloge de l'amour, where neither passion nor space have much of a role. Instead, they're replaced by time and the internalization process proposed by Morrey. If in Jean Baudrillard's take on Seduction he says the love object must escape the comprehension of the desiring subject, must play games with the seducer as the seducer plays games with her, in Godard's film Berthe's being can't be understood by general behavioural principles, but creates a dizzying temporal vortex which drags Edgar into history. Baudrillard might say, "The law of seduction takes the form of an uninterrupted ritual exchange where seducer and seduced constantly raise the stakes in a game that never ends", but it is a game, and subsequently devoid of the search for essences, as if endlessly involved in the search for surfaces: hence the need to be more spatial than temporal.
Yet Godard is frequently an intriguingly temporal filmmaker, temporal in the sense that he often doesn't create characters who exist only in the present tense of the narrative, but also exist in a subjunctive tense consistent with what we have been saying of Godard's films being means rather than ends. Godard has often used women in his films to push through a suggestive mode of thought that creates a state somewhere between an idea and a character. It's there in Vivre sa vie, where the Montaigne quote of lending yourself to others but keeping yourself for yourself contains Karina's character as Godard explores the idea through Karina, her character and the idea. We see it also in Two or Three Things I Know About Her, with Marina Vlady's character a housewife in the Parisian suburbs whom Godard utilises as a figure of late capitalist want. When she takes to prostitution, this isn't verisimilitude at work, but character as hypothetical idea. It is maybe most obviously and daringly apparent in Hail Mary, where Godard alludes to the story of the Virgin Mary whilst holding to a contemporary characterization. To begin to make sense of Godard's work it is often useful to see his characters - and more especially his female characters - as thought composites, even as logical constructs not so much within themselves (Godard can allow for irrational internal behaviour for the purposes of his own purposeful through-line) but beyond them. So what Godard wants from Berthe isn't a fully rounded character, but a thought composite, and it is as though Godard wants to all but evaporate her surface, eradicate her visual presence, to focus on the depth of her history. If generally Godard's male characters have fallen in love with beauty (Belmondo with Seberg in A Bout de souffle, Piccoli with Bardot in Le mepris, Eddie Constantine with Karina in Alphaville) and even on occasion detailed the superficialities of that attraction (Piccoli at the beginning of Le mepris), in Eloge de l'amour the thought composite is at its most advanced, with Godard searching out an alternative femininity that can become the centre of his film. This doesn't of course mean that he casts an ugly woman in the role of Berthe, but simply a woman whose physical attractiveness or otherwise never becomes significantly present for the viewer but only allusively so: allusive in the comments Edgar makes about her, and allusive in her physical presence never really being offered.
She is then elusive, as so many women in Godard's films have been in the past, but it's an elusiveness that conjoins being rather than evaporates it. Is there not often in one's desire for the beautiful woman not the expansion of being but its contraction? One stupefies one's being by offering facile compliments, romantic clichs and suspending one's existence in the hope of catching a glimpse of the love object, or of spending time in their company. Deleuze may talk about the apprenticeship in Proust, and that is in many ways true, but in Flaubert if the complex hermeneutic is absent - as it is for the central character in A Sentimental Education - a life may feel wasted. At the end of the novel there is the suggestion that Frederic's happiest moment was at the threshold of his romantic apprenticeship, at the moment before he would waste years of his life pursuing futile love. But if the epistemology meets with ontology - if the search for the other involves not the coquettish demands of the other but the revelation of time's presence in the other - we have the mutuality Morrey talks about. For Godard this reveals not the instantaneousness of love, the very instantaneousness described well by McCabe in his book on Godard. Here he details Godard's seduction of Karina in passionate terms: Karina, her boyfriend and others were at dinner with Godard during the making of Le petit soldat when during the meal Godard put something into Karina's hand under the table. Shortly afterwards he left, and Karina rushed into the next room to see what he had written. It said "I love you. Rendez-vous at the Cafe de la Paix at midnight." The boyfriend ran out after her and took the note from her hand. He insisted she wasn't going anywhere: she replied that she was and that she loved Godard. In Eloge de l'amour, there is no moment, only endless layers of time that leave a being adrift, unable to find the requisite ontology to contain one's life.
If there is an apparent mis-match initially between the two leading characters it is because Berthe can't find a meaning to her life and Edgar doesn't seem to need one. While Berthe feels the weight of history, Edgar merely enquires into it. At one stage she asks Edgar why he wasn't angrier with the Americans when he visited her grandparents a couple of years before, when the Hollywood men were trying to make their deal to film her grandparents Resistance story? For the simple reason we could say that he doesn't feel history and she does. He wants to understand history, but this makes him more historian than artist. What is it that may move him towards making more than money, towards making art? It is indeed an apprenticeship, also, but not an emotionally painful one - where the learning curve is devastatingly emotionally wrought - but an epistemologically enlightening one: any pain would have to be called ontological, ontological in the sense that Edgar must feel history flow through him at a pace he would previously never have comprehended. If Berthe is in pain, it is maybe because she feels history flow through her at the sort of metabolic rate a loved one usually flows through us. Deleuze says in Proust and Signs that love is very different from friendship because of its faster pace, its interpretive possibilities. "A mediocre love is worth more than a great friendship: because love is rich in signs and is fed by silent interpretation." Is it not possible that one can be flooded by history the way one can be flooded by the presence of another, by a certain inexplicability of past? If to some degree Deleuze on Proust is utilising Rimbaud's 'I is another' to suggest the vertiginous rush of love, might we see Berthe is closer to Whitman's 'I contain multitudes'? She has, like Edgar, 'memory - too much of it', but this memory contains so many historic layers of pain that it seems she can't go on living. But Edgar might require an influx of, if you like, historical pain to produce the film, opera, play he's working towards. The very blockage that partly stops Berthe from living, is the very influx of ontological significance Edgar requires. Rimbaud's 'I is another' becomes Whitman's 'I contain multitudes.'
This raises a key, unavoidably speculative question. Is one of the major problems of being that we all contain multitudes, but that we cannot contain this multitudinousness healthily? Can we go further and say that art and love are ways in which we try and contain the many? In love it is the Rimbaud-esque manner of being absorbed into another, and the other absorbed into us. In art we have instead the slower rate, closer to that of friendship, an 'othering' Freud registered when saying how in art we live with the characters and die with them, and then move onto the next artwork and live and die with these characters also. Godard may always have been drawn to the notion of I being another, but his work is also very much concerned with a position beyond the characters. If love is often a state without perspective, a state that keeps us needing the other to be oneself, is Godard finally much more interested in the multiplicity that makes for thought-composites over characters, even how thought composition creates a profound character like Berthe?
It is this idea of character not being given but curiously taken that fascinates the director, and of course, helps explain his endless obsession with quotation. Where another filmmaker might utilise a character who has an opinion on, say, politics or art, that allows us to see the type of character he is - left-wing, right-wing, bourgeois or working class, womanizing or gay etc. - Godard will instead put the words of another into the characters' mouths and emphasise that multiplicity. For many, this is Godard's Brechtian technique, his way of showing up the art work's artifice, but that suggests a gap between art and life Godard would refuse to recognize because the gap doesn't really exist. That is it's not the gap between art and life Godard's showing up, but the lack of a gap between art and life Godard pinpoints. This is a point that is often missed when writers and critics comment on Modernism, for example when Theodore Ziolkowski says in his introduction to Hermann Hesse's short stories, "...importantly 20th century literature - from Joyce's Ulysses and Thomas Mann's Doctor Faustus to Eliot's The Waste Land and Brecht's St Joan of the Stockyards - has made us increasingly conscious of the basic 'literariness' of literature, which has come to be considered not so much an imitation of life in the Aristotelian sense as a playful manipulation of elements that already exist in an autonomous world of art." This is close to art for art's sake, but what about art for life's sake? Is it not central to Edgar's apprenticeship: that he sees that making something, making more than money, is an acknowledgement of art's interconnectedness with life? This ties into a comment early in the film where a character says art works shouldn't have names; by the same token art shouldn't really have characters: both art and life are amorphous constantly evolving processes of creating not so much objects but on-going subjects.
It is this that allows us to return to Morrey's point that opened the essay. When Morrey says the film is interested in the way characters internalise one another, it's an internalisation that collapses self and other, art object and perceiving subject, even life and death. By the end of the film we feel Edgar comprehends why he needs to make more than money because he understands art and life: that he himself becomes a thought composite in the wake of Berthe's demise, and out of this new found state he can see himself not as a subject responding to the objects of history, but a being infused with both 'personal' and 'impersonal history' - with Berthe, with the Holocaust, with the paradoxes of Resistance activity, of '68.
We might even suggest this is why Godard has been fascinated by the notion of unfinished projects - that he has so often taken as his theme the notion of a film in the making, a project in the making, because it blurs the line between subject (creator), and the made object (artwork). By keeping everything in a state of flux he suggests the thought composite that is both artist and artwork, an assemblage (to use Deleuze's phrase) that means that we don't create art, but that art, or more especially the flux of life, make us and also makes art. This is Godard's Modernist solution to Post-Modernism - whilst at the same time countering the type of modernism proposed by Ziolkowski. That is, if we see Post-Modernism as an extension of Modernism, as a further remove from life as everything becomes a text, so that art has nothing to do with life and the Aristotelian notion of art of mimesis becomes secondary to a knowledge and awareness of the tropes and possibilities in the text, then Godard counters this by saying we ourselves are part of the text. It is in many ways the Nietzschean solution when Nietzsche says art is a supplement to life and at the same time rises life up to a higher level. Edgar initially seems to want to make more than money but perhaps doesn't realise he needs to be transformed by the necessity of art and politics. If Berthe feels the rush of art and politics so rapidly passing through her system that she seems helpless to counter this rush and yet tries to counter it with wilfulness, Edgar begins to feel this rush through his emotional/intellectual involvement with Berthe.
It is here Godard registers two types of resistance. Berthe's wilfulness manifests itself in doing low-paid work, and not only low-paid work but specifically menial low-paid work, like cleaning trains in the evening. As she says, when people in France are paid over 10,000 francs a month they start to lose their soul. It is as though she's saying that one exists as oneself less in action than in inaction, in the way one chooses to control the flow. This is an ascetic resistance, signalled in references to Weil here, and exemplified in such Weil comments found in Gravity and Grace as "Nothing in the world can rob us of the power to say 'I'. Nothing except extreme affliction. Nothing is worse than extreme affliction which destroys the 'I' from outside, because after that we can no longer destroy it ourselves." And, "To accept a void in ourselves is supernatural. Where is the energy to be found for an act which has nothing to counter-balance it? The energy has to come from elsewhere. Yet first there must be a tearing out, something desperate has to take place, the void must be created. Void: the dark night." This is less, then, the aesthetics of creation than closer to an aesthetics of resistance; and yet creation comes out of this resistance. Thus in many ways the most important creative lesson Edgar must learn is what we could call the aesthetics of resistance, the sort of resistance touched upon in our comments on Bergala's take on Godard.
So we can say that what Edgar learns from Berthe is both the notion of I being another, and at the same time the Whitmanesque notion of multitudes, and it's here he finds his reason not for living - there's no sense throughout the film that Edgar has any desire to die - but in doing something that will make more than money. He begins, we can say, to see the necessity of creation. Godard works profoundly at justifying the creation of art as a way of controlling the flow of life that's full of anti-art, of potentially turning our ontological being around and making us not historically profound but ahistorically superficial. It's the anti-art Godard attacks when Berthe comments on Spielberg and what he wants to do with Berthe's grandparents' resistance story - if we must live in this world of anti-art, surely we need to create art as resistance. Where the problem in Le mepris might have allowed for a complete retreat from art into the nature Godard surrounds the characters with, here art has a necessity generated out of a necessary resistance from Berthe as she moves towards suicide, and burgeoning necessity on Edgar's part as he's infused through Berthe, by the Resistance, by art so that he's now finished his apprenticeship and ready to create a work of aesthetic resistance.
We could say Edgar and Berthe represent the two sides of Camus' statement: that suicide is prepared within the silence of the heart, as is a great work of art, and thus justifies our exploration of the two methods of resistance - towards suicide, a la Berthe, or art, as in Edgar's case. So whilst Berthe moves towards suicide, does Edgar move towards trying to produce a significant work of art? At one stage in the film, Berthe says "there is no emptiness. There is always a voice somewhere. Even in silence. Even in death." "When it comes, there's always a sense of self." An artist's purpose, from this perspective, is to articulate the silence, and thus if Edgar is going to make more than money it's for the purposes of this articulation. It is this articulation that Godard so respects when his work constantly quotes because in Godard's work other artworks function as acts of resistance to assumed thought. If for most artists who respect the history of creativity, that respect manifests itself in a sub-textual process that they draw upon for the art they're creating, for making a seamless, self-contained artwork, for Godard, in violating the notion of a self-contained artwork, he will draw upon other artworks, other texts, not sub-textually but textually. He will absorb them consciously into his own text: hence the references here to Simone Weil, Chateaubriand and St Augustine. Godard wants to articulate silence, but does not assume this is a singular task of the artist producing art, but a multiplicit task of the artist conjoining artworks and creating characters that are themselves composites of these artworks.
But maybe Godard has never pushed it so far as in Eloge de l'amour, where he creates a vertiginous sense of being and non-being dependent on one's capacity to believe. Berthe no longer believes in a somewhere that exists in the world of life but instead resides in death. When she says that in death "there is no emptiness. There's always a voice somewhere. Even in silence" this is her belief, her belief as resistance. But for Edgar his burgeoning resistance lies in creating art. When Godard says in Enthusiasm magazine, "yes, the artistic act is an act of resistance against something. I wouldn't call it an act of freedom, but an act of resistance," it's a creativity consistent and not antithetical to Berthe's decision, and thus brings us back again to Camus's comment. Godard wants us to feel also the resistance involved in the art, the belligerent aspect to creation evident here in his attacks on Spielberg, to his dual soundtrack that has us listening at the same time to two different voices talking about the Kosovo situation, to a visual aesthetic that insists he keeps his leading lady out of sharp focus. When Godard insisted in interviews that "television unites, but cinema divides", he was again touching upon this need for resistance, this need to create a work that negates a feeling of ease in its creation and reception.
But why, we might ask, does Godard feel this desire to work so belligerently? Again we return to Morrey and the notion of transforming selves. Let us say most mainstream cinema wants to enchant; Godard wants to engage. To enchant is to perform for the other a persona one believes the other wants to witness. To engage is to demand of the other a self one wants to register. It's a self-expressivity that will insist on expression no matter the terms of that expressiveness. If Godard so often quotes, it is partly to justify this belligerent expressivity, as if to say while Spielberg and co can get by proclaiming their works as self-contained partly by the manner of their superficial inoffensiveness, Godard offers a problematic self-expressivity that says I may not be well-mannered, but I am not alone: here are my fellow travellers.
The question the film finally asks, perhaps, is whether Edgar can absorb all these influences towards a belligerence, a creative resistance of his own. If Morrey is correct and there has been a transformation of selves, then Berthe's virulence towards Hollywood, her disdain for high-paid French workers, her comprehension of the ontological significance of history, all will become part of Edgar. In the meantime, Godard offers a subjunctive work which shows the possibility in Edgar's very apprenticeship that of course becomes Godard's finished (unfinished) film.
© Tony McKibbin