Helas pour moi
The Piety of Thought
One of the key ideas Gilles Deleuze picks up on from Michel Foucault in his book on the historical theorist, Foucault, is the notion of the visible and the articulable, and it might be a useful way of understanding something about Godard that answers a problem addressed by Stanley Cavell; all the while keeping mind that our purpose here is to try and make sense of Godard's inevitably enigmatic Helas pour moi. Cavell was one of the first 'real' philosophers to tackle film. The World Viewed was published well over a decade before Deleuze's two volumes on cinema, and it remains a key film text. However, where both Deleuze and Cavell are philosophers of the affirmative, Cavell often couches this affirmation within not such much rationality as the visible in relation to the articulable - to use Deleuze's terms.
What do we mean by this? Rather than immediately trying to explain what Deleuze means, it might be more useful to see first of all what Cavell has to say about Godard, and then see how Deleuze's terms can help counter his comments. One of Cavell's claims is that Godard seems to utilise Brechtian notions of distanciation, but because there is a mediated relationship between the audience and the character that is absent in the theatre, this leads to a distance that suggests the unfeeling. More than that, Cavell even proposes Godard does not have a position on his own work. "Works that do provide me with pleasure or a knowledge of the ways things are equally provide me with a sense of the artist's position towards this revelation - a position, say, of complete conviction, compassion, of delight or ironic amusement, of longing or scorn or rage or loss."
However, Cavell here isn't so much addressing a problem as explaining a sense of perplexity. We understand something of Cavell's expectations from art, but not very much about Godard. How can we sympathize with Cavell's perplexity, whilst at the same time allowing ourselves a way into Godard's problematic? Maybe by looking at the difference between the visible and the articulable, and showing how Godard questions this relationship further than any filmmaker before or after him. When Christian Metz indicated cinema was an easy art, constantly lending itself to facility, it is as though Godard believes that when we start thinking about it film can become the most complex art of all, or perhaps not so much thinking about it, but existing within it.
For example there are comments by the director in Godard on Godard concerning Pierrot le fou that would seem to chime with Cavell's reservations. "Ever since my first film, I have always said I am going to prepare the script more carefully and each time I see yet another chance to improvise." Is it this improvisatory aspect Cavell discerns getting in the way of a position? As Godard adds, "My impression is that when someone like Demy or Bresson shoots a film, he has an idea of the world he is trying to apply to the cinema..." If Godard lacks this idea of a world, does it also follow that it makes his work unfeeling and purposeless, as Cavell seems to imply?
Let's suppose that when Godard talks about Demy and Bresson he is stating that the articulable and the visible are in unison: all that we can see can also be articulated. We're talking here of two very different filmmakers, of course, but both know not so much how to film the text as turn their films into texts: into coherent aesthetic worlds that yield up, in Cavell's words, a point of view. Bresson's particular genius is perhaps for refining this point of view through his career so that nothing extraneous could be included. He found a form for Jansenist belief, and though many critics (including Jonathan Rosenbaum) insist that we needn't view Bresson's films as spiritual works, their material concision allows for a rigorous theological point of view to come through. It is consistent with Kandinsky's comments on painting when he says "Form in the narrow sense is nothing but the separating line between surfaces of colour. That is its outer meaning. But it also has an inner meaning, or varying intensity, and properly speaking, form is the outward expression of this inner meaning."
But what happens if a filmmaker cannot quite draw together the visible and the articulable; what if the visual is a world unto itself, and the articulable no less so? This is obviously a formal issue in Godard's work, and Michel Chion for example, in Audio Visionand elsewhere, talks of Godard's constantly questioning relationship of the sound/image contrast. In much of his work the sound won't wait for the cut; the sound will cut off in the middle of a shot, or we will have music or noise on the soundtrack that would seem to have nothing to do with the images on the screen. The visible and the articulable are here clearly in conflict with each other. But Deleuze is getting at something more than just formal experimentation - indeed he isn't talking about cinema at all, but being in general, and he suggests what interested Foucault was laying "into the Signifier", where [in Foucault's words] 'discourse is annihilated in its reality by entering into the order of the signifier.'" What we want to look at here is how Godard lays into the signifier, to see how, as Deleuze says, "we must therefore break open words, phrases or propositions and extract statements from them..." Does any filmmaker more than Godard break open words in relation to images, and is it this very freshness of perspective that leads Cavell to wonder if there is a perspective there at all?
If Deleuze can countenance Godard's revolution it resides not least in the philosopher's not so much anti-rationalist bent, but his empathic perspective that goes far beyond the rational, a bent that can incorporate a meaning beyond the established. As he says of Godard elsewhere, in a piece in Negotations, paraphrasing the director, "what counts isn't so much expression but impressions", and also takes Godard's notion of "not a just image, just an image" and adds philosophers should be thinking not of just ideas but just an idea in their own work. Is Cavell still looking for expression and the just idea? Has a great modern philosopher failed to get to grips with a filmmaker who is genuinely beyond him, in some sense outside his analytical grasp, and yet well within Deleuze's empathic range?
Let us not too categorically set up two key contemporary philosophers against each other. We should instead narrow the field of enquiry and see why Godard is a filmmaker beyond a certain form of comprehension, and why Rosenbaum's belief, in Movies as Politics, that Bresson's "films are about mystery, but their manner of arriving there is always quite concrete, just as the fictions of Kafka and Beckett are carefully constructed around certain principles of omission" doesn't apply to Godard and certainly doesn't seem to apply to Godard's perplexing Helas pour moi. In a film that one film guide suggested had been put together in a day, a more sympathetic approach might say it looks like an instinctive response to the apophatic - to God's general distance from the world. This series of removals from the world is well explained at the beginning of the film where in voice over we hear "when my father's father's father was faced with a difficult task he would take himself to a certain spot in the forest, build a fire and fall into silent prayer. And the difficult task would get done." Later, the father's father's faces the same task and finds that while he doesn't know how to build a fire he knows how to pray. Then when it is the father's turn he no longer knows how to build a fire nor pray, but knows the place in the forest. Now we no longer know even the place in the forest, but we know the story. Will the story be forgotten? Later in the film, a young woman says "seeing what is invisible is tiring". She's being questioned by an investigator to explain what happened not so long ago when God appeared to enter the body of Simon Donnadieu (Gerard Depardieu) and slept with Donnadieu's wife.
But this is no ordinary mystery, and so cannot be reconstructed through conventional recall. Yet is this not true also of Godard's work, generally - can we not say that perhaps the 'problem' with Godard is that seeing what is invisible is tiring because of the gap between the visible and articulable? Are we exhausted because the gap between what we see and how we are expected to see it is too great? At one stage in the Foucault book Deleuze says "each age has its own particular way of putting language together, because of its different groupings. For example, if in the classical age the being of language appears completely within the limits of representation it lays down, by the nineteenth century it leaps out of its representative function." As Deleuze adds, "it is now on the point of losing its unifying function." No director has pushed the loss of the unifying function farther than Godard in film, and so it would be erroneous to say that Helas pour moi is simply about the apophatic. If so, meaning would slip in through the back door as a shadowy presence no matter God's general absence. Godard is not a religious filmmaker but God can serve the director's purpose: it is to his absence Godard's drawn; not to his possible presence. Its is the exhaustion of what is not readily visible nor readily articulable that makes Godard's work so challenging as we play catch me up with connections that are removed from cause and effect.
Thus so many of the connections aren't quite conclusive nor are they quite arbitrary. In one scene just under a quarter of the way through the film Simon looks like he is going to sell a garage, and says that he hasn't told his wife yet; another character (who seems to be his lawyer) responds indignantly and there is series of confused meetings with others as Simon passes through a door and another character tries to introduce him to someone called Max Mercure, reputedly a tennis player. Yet when Simon asks if he's there for the tournament, Max replies that no, he is in public relations. Between these exchanges there are a couple of others, like a woman also passing through the door who says, after Simon's said that he hasn't told is wife about the garage, and the other character is surprised, that it wouldn't happen to her, and is indignant not with Simon but with the lawyer. We might wonder if she is responding to the issue between Simon and the lawyer at all. Also as someone introduces Simon to the tennis player, someone else steps in and shakes his hand first.
There are several things worth nothing here. First is the difficulty of synopsizing not just a Godard film but even a Godard sequence. If scriptwriting gurus so love the idea of making cinema visual - minimise voice-over, exposition etc. - then Godard actually pushes so far into the visual that his work can barely be described in words. His work brings to mind Borges's comment in The Aleph. "Really, what I want to do is impossible, for any listing of an endless series is doomed to be infinitesimal. In that single gigantic instant I saw millions of acts both delightful and awful; no one of them amazed me more than the fact that all of them occupied the same point in space..." To describe this, as Borges says, would allow it to be "contaminated by literature, by fiction." There is in Godard's work this sense of simultaneity of event that obliterates ready literary description. To say for example in this scene that Simon's lawyer is irritated by Simon because he hasn't yet told Rachel about the possibility of selling the garage wouldn't be wrong, but it certainly wouldn't be describing this sequence that makes Godard so different from any other filmmaker. The cause and effect approach would give us sense, but not a sense - a sense of Godard's constant elusive and allusive play with form. For what are we to make of Simon's comment about not telling Rachel when, in the scene preceding it, he says to her that "we must sign tomorrow or never."
Yet how can we know when this scene took place, for Godard immediately cuts from Simon looking concerned to a sun setting behind the trees. It is only in this shot that we hear the line "we must sign tomorrow or never". When has the signing taken place? There are numerous questions like this that run throughout the film. So just as it is difficult to include all the incidental details, then we also have the problem of cause and effect. The desire for synopsis collapses against the twin onslaughts of cause wrenched from effect, and detail saturating narrative content. It is perhaps this that Raymond Durgnat is getting at when Adrian Martin quotes him on the idea of the 'notional scene' in Godard - a scene that isn't quite a scene as we would usually define it; and requires from us a suppositional dimension to make sense of it provisionally, subjectively.
We could of course resolve some of these problems critically, but this would offer only a partial solution. A practical, semi-anecdotal explanation lies in Godard's approach. On improvisation Godard once said, in Godard on Godard, "after La Petit Soldat I said to myself: never again! So I started with a very detailed scenario: Une Femme est une Femme. But there was even more improvisation." Godard reckons improvisation isn't for everyone. "There are two main groups of directors. On one side with Eisenstein and Hitchcock, are those who prepare those films as fully as possible." "The others, like Rouch, don't know exactly what they're going to do and search for it." Godard is clearly, and yet loosely, in the latter camp. When for example he says he often keeps his actors standing around while he works out what he wants on the set, this is improvisatory and yet at the same time hardly a style that comes out of the actors' performance. It is, if you like a subjective improvisation, as opposed to the relatively objective improvisation of Robert Altman or a Mike Leigh who wants much of the performance to come out of the actors' themselves. Godard's approach is closer to that of a painter: "The terrible thing is that in the cinema it is difficult to do what a painter does quite naturally: he stops, steps back, gets discouraged, starts again, changes something. He can please himself." (Godard on Godard)
However we are still left of course with the affective problem, of making sense of Godard's project. Here it might be useful to look briefly not at the practical aspect, but the narrative one. Helas pour moi is based loosely on the Greek legend whereby the womanizing God Zeus took human form and seduced a woman by impersonating her husband. In Godard's film God takes the form of Gerard Depardieu's Simon and then seduces Simon's faithful wife. If Godard's film were merely about this it would be provocative but readily coherent; the visible could come from the articulable - from an idea and a script - and the problem would move from the page to the film to the viewer without any discernable difficulties. But what happens if you take this narrative aspect and superimpose upon it the visible problem Godard suggests when he says he envies the painter's ability to step back and start again, and obviously tries where possible to generate the painter's freedom in film? What we have instead are palimpsests: the visible and articulable constantly superimposing themselves on each other and dissolving the film's sense.
At the beginning Helas pour moi we have the story already related, about the increased absence of God. But that isn't all we have. There is as well, relatively coherently, a man walking along the road who turns out to be the investigator into the events so described. But there is also what seems to be the sound of a gate opening and closing, footsteps and then a boy singing. Afterwards the investigator goes to Simon and Rachel's garage and asks where they might be, using their first names. The mechanic replies asking if he knows them, and saying that since the investigator doesn't he should be calling them Mr and Mrs in a brief absurdist exchange that once again calls the diegesis into question even as the film is in the process of developing it. For a critic like Alain Bergala, in 'The other side of the Bouquet', this need for digression is paramount. "Of all filmmakers now working and regardless of what he says, Godard is undeniably the most incapable of shooting a scene only for its given subject." It is such a statement that can allow us to bring together the two sides of the Godardian coin: the narrative and the visual; the articulable and the visible, and it is out of this continual weave between the two that Godard simultaneously destroys the story and resurrects it.
It is perhaps this destruction and resurrection that taps into Cavell's problem with Godard when he says "evidently Godard's admirers read his withdrawal of feeling as a combination of knowingness and objectivity toward the corruption of the world. But objectivity is a spiritual achievement, and apart from it knowingness is only a sentiment." (The World Viewed) But maybe Godard has never so much withdrawn the feeling, but simply refused the emotion: that he has tried not to transmit emotion through character, but created feeling through a form that incorporates the character. In Fragments, Jean Baudrillard differentiates between feelings and emotions. He suggests after watching the forties film The Best Years of Our Lives, that "the characters in the film have retained a candour towards - and nave faith in - their feelings which we no longer possess. Our feelings, which we delightfully term emotions in order to salvage the fiction of an emotional life are not affects any more, merely a psychological affectation..."
Now Cavell believes that after A Bout de Souffle, in the rest of his sixties work, Godard lost a certain objectivity in his characters. Thus in "A Bout de Souffle, Belmondo's character achieves objectivity by winning his subjectivity." Cavell adds, "When he refuses the girl's rejection of his love, saying "there is no unhappy love" his position has the power to turn that apparently empirical claim into a definition of his world." However what Cavell admires is perhaps less the radical Godard than the homaging Godard: that Belmondo's comments are as much a reflection of a Bogartian world as of late fifties Paris. Thus the subjective claims that arrive at an objective achievement seem consistent with the noir, and the forties films Cavell so often praises. But if as Baudrillard suggests, albeit pessimistically, that emotions have replaced feelings, so the problematic shifts from the pursuit of the objective value in relation to one's subjective state, to comprehending the physio-psychological shifts in the characters. It is interesting that Cavell chooses to focus on Belmondo's resigned dignity over Jean Seberg's unmotivated dishonour for she suggests even more than Belmondo the physio-psychological gesture: the gesture that cannot be given as read but requires interpretation. This isn't simply to dismiss Cavell of fogeyism; at the same time he questions Godard's methods he responds to Antonioni's: admiring absence as a "root topic in Antonioni". However where Antonioni generally examines characters with an absence of feeling. Godard in much of his work pushes into the area of examining the presence of emotion: this physio-psychological response to the world that energises situations but doesn't arrive at the objectivity of belief: of feelings in relation to objective conditions.
But how does all this fit into Helas pour moi and the Deleuze/Foucault idea of the visible and the articulable? "Foucault continued to be fascinated by what he saw as much as by what he heard or read and the archaeology he conceived is an audio-visual archive," (Foucault) Deleuze says, adding a little later, "the visible is like the articulable: they are the object not of a phenomenology, but of an epistemology." If Hitchcock is a great phenomenological filmmaker, it is a sort of phenomenology of everyday life, where perceptual faculties are put into practise in a manner consistent with reasoning processes. Even if in Suspicion Joan Fontaine seem obsessively sceptical, and even if Scottie in Vertigo is no less hidebound by his acrophobia, their 'illnesses' still allow the viewer an accessible phenomenology and hence a coherent hermeneutic. Godard pushes for an epistemology by removing the cause and effect that would allow for a hermeneutic out of sensory-motor consistency. For example when Fontaine looks in the mirror and sees Cary Grant putting a letter back into his jacket pocket, the two shots match perfectly and we know exactly what she is suspicious of minutes later when she looks at the letter. But what about Godard's cut from a concerned looking Simon to the sun setting behind the trees? This isn't phenomenological work in the sense of following a character's consistent action; this is closer to epistemological work where we try to draw together the filmic elements that have no causal link. Thus we can see unequivocally that Godard show us a sun setting behind the trees - that is clearly visible - but how can we articulate its purpose? The visible and the articulable in Hitchcock are very closely linked. If someone were to ask why is Joan Fontaine looking indirectly in the mirror to see what her husband is doing, the correct response would be that she wants to spy on her husband without her husband noticing that she is doing so. But what is the correct response to Godard's cut from Simon and Rachel talking, and the setting sun? It is if you like an epistemological invitation; not a phenomenological sensory motor-response.
But of course Godard is still generally speaking a narrative filmmaker. However it is as though he needs narrative not just because he is still interested in character and story (almost all Godard's writing on film concern narrative as opposed to experimental filmmaking), but because he is also interested in creating the maximum epistemological investigation. A complete eschewal of narrative could allow the viewer to lull themselves into a sensory security that asks of them less interpretive work than a certain sensory pleasure as they relax into the colours, the sounds and the shapes of experimenta. In Godard we don't relax. As Armond White suggests in a piece in Foreign Affairs: "Godard's movies represent such a challenge to conventional methods of filmmaking and film watching that casual viewers can become irritated, perplexed, angry..."
What is it that creates this perplexity but Godard's demand that the viewer, out of the visible and the articulable as discrete elements, must put this humpty dumpty aesthetic back together again using epistemological tools rather than cognitive assumption. First of all what is Helas pour moi about? Narratively we might say it is about God visiting earth and, taking bodily form, chooses Simon and commits adultery with his wife. Thematically we could say it is about the absence of God in the world, and that when God returns he does so dubiously. However, if we insist on reducing it to a thematic and narrative coherence, then if this is what Godard wanted to say why didn't he just say it - why all the digressions, the false cuts, the supporting characters with no apparent narrative or thematic purpose? Partly because our narrative explanation and our thematic justification have been too thin; they're reductive suppositions rather than exploratory claims (weak as opposed to strong notional scene explanations), and Godard is nothing if not a filmmaker who demands exploration. As he himself has said, quoted in the Armond White article, "everything remains to be done". Just as Paul Coates proposed in The Story of the Lost Reflection that Godard was an intense, productive artist, whose "fertility...is legendary: his budgets are lower and his shooting schedules shorter than those of any other director," it is as though this desperate productivity comes out of this idea that everything remains to be done. However what remains to be done is not only what Godard has to do, but also what the viewer has to do also. When Deleuze reckons, in the Foucault book, we have to break open the Signifier, this isn't only a job of work for the artist, of course, but also for the receiver of the art work. We have to create, if you like, not merely the notional scene but the notional art work: to create strong notional responses.
If we have a problem with Cavell's take on Godard it is that he too often opts for weak notionalism. Take for example Cavell's comments on La Chinoise, and the scene between Anne Wiazemsky and the political philosopher on the train. Here Cavell accepts that the philosopher says intelligent things, but he is saying them to someone who herself has proved throughout the film an "unloving and dangerous nitwit", and "we have to conclude either that the man can't see this", that he can but he desires the girl, or that "this is the fate of intelligence in the capitalist world, or the fate of old intelligence upon young", or that "men and women have lost all ear for the differences between word (and deeds) of love, lust, instruction, valor, meanness, hope or play." Cavell ends the passage on an important point here. He concludes by saying that he accepts such ideas are commonplace, but spreading such notions is not art. "Some people once thought that women do not have souls. Some thought that a group of people has its own soul. We no longer say such things. But just whom, or what group, does each of us treat as though it had a soul."
Cavell's critique seems to suggest not so much that Godard's films don't have soul, but that the director's attitude to his characters, and between the characters, suggests the soulless. Yet this is where Cavell's perplexity superimposes itself on Godard's aesthetic. If we accept that Godard is a filmmaker who wants to lay into the Signifier, this might help explain Cavell's respect for Antonioni and scorn for Godard. For whatever Antonioni's originality, he still fits loosely into a phenomenological perspective of film, rather than an epistemological one. The former still allows the sign to stand; the latter demands it be constantly rediscovered. Thus when Deleuze says "present or past, the visible is like the articulable: they are the object not of phenomenology, but of an epistemology", Antonioni's film are nevertheless consistent with Camus' claims in The Myth of Sisyphusthat "Husserl's method negates the classical procedure of the reason. Let me repeat. Thinking is not unifying or making the appearance familiar under the guise of a great principle." No, "thinking is learning all over again how to see, directing one's consciousness, making of every image a privileged place." There is here the assumption of a soul without principle but purposefully searching for one. This is consistent with Cavell's idea of what we treat as if it had a soul.
Now this is not to set up phenomenology against epistemology, just as we don't want to set up Cavell against Deleuze. But it is as though we need a dimension beyond the phenomenological to address the problems Godard offers. Thus if the problem in Antonioni's work is so often how to live, how to love and how to work, and Antonioni's allusive style allows us to see why in the modern world these are such difficult questions, in Godard's work the very formulation of what the films are about is part of the problem. Thus we can't even say Helas pour moi is about God's absence, since he of course seems to make himself present by taking on the body of Depardieu's character, but this not the negative theology of the apophatic, simply, but at the same time a desirous God who doesn't embody for the purposes of spiritual enlightenment as Jesus did, but to cheat with another man's wife. But again, even this negative God, this God without disinterest, isn't quite Godard's point. The point resides in God as an indeterminate sign, as a Signifier Godard lays into on as many levels as possible. But this isn't cynical, as perhaps someone like Cavell might believe.
At one stage in the film the investigator asking a young woman about what happened when Simon's body seemed to have been borrowed, says: "Sir, do you know about the ten historical propositions on the Old Testament?" She adds that "Schollum's text affirms that there is a traditional view of truth" and that this tradition can be passed on. "I laugh because the truth in question has all sorts of characteristics, but can certainly not be passed on." It is as if each generation must make its own truth, and the question doesn't reside in ignoring or acknowledging the theological, but perhaps instead in accepting its simultaneous absence and presence. Throughout the film the characters offer statements that invoke the religious unthinkingly - in a general exclamation like my God. These are unavoidable traces, but a trace isn't quite the same thing as a presence, and so how does God manifest himself to each generation? When at the beginning of the film we're told about his increased absence from the world, is this necessarily a cause for mourning, or do we have to find new ways to resurrect the spiritual? By laying into the Signifier, Godard might suggest that God is dead, but how do we bring him back in our own image? Or rather not so much God as a signifying presence, but the spiritual as a permeating presence? As Vicki Callahan says in an essay on the sacred in Godard's work, "several critics have pointed to these later films and have seen a turn away from radical politics into a series of more strictly aesthetic, metaphysical (or spiritual) concerns."
From Hail Mary to Helas pour moi to Eloge de l'amour Godard has mused over the spiritual as if to search for new signs of faith; and yet a faith without not only a dogma, but even an image structure. For the spiritual with an image structure would surely fall into the world of clich, and Godard's persistent search has been for images that are not preconceived, to create images consistent with Bergala's claim that Godard needs a reasonto film something, an internal, quizzical purpose.
In this sense what becomes sacred is the very image, as though Godard's principle throughout his work is, to offer a Godard-like formulation, not to film love, but to film with love. If the image is imbued with enough love it becomes spiritual, because it becomes filled with a certain transcendent possibility - a transcendence close to Wittgenstein's idea that "the sense of the world must lie outside the world". Here a couple of Godard statements are useful; though they may lead to contradictions we'll briefly try and affirm. One is the idea of the deeply personal choice, mentioned by Bergala, but also casually offered by Godard when he says sometimes he will "hire people out of security or personal preference - if the woman is pretty..." (Enthusiasm), the other is that "directors take a camera but they put themselves in the camera's place. The camera needs its independence." (Enthusiasm) One statement suggests the personal; the other the impersonal, but the point resides elsewhere - in the inexplicable sense that meaning mustn't be too readily preconceived. After all, when Godard mentions choosing a pretty woman it comes within the context of casting his films. He claims "I'm not cut out for it because I don't know my motivations well enough, or my relation to the film when I do the casting. I hire people out of security or personal preference." There is this suggestion that Godard doesn't finally so much distrust his own instincts, as sees casting as perhaps too premeditated an activity consistent with the premeditations of the notion of a set script. Thus the apparent contradiction - the seeming impersonality of the camera; the personal preference of the pretty woman - contains a deeper consistency that eschews the premeditated. It as though Godard is searching through cinema for something of the spiritual purity that has to reject the commandments that contain their own truth for a truth that is true to the moment and not the preconception.
Yet this would seem to generate another contradiction As he says, "I've remained a memorialist of this profession in all its qualities. I've always liked every aspect of cinema." Yet unlike a fellow memorialist like Bertrand Tavernier, there has been nothing conventional and conservative in Godard's approach. This is perhaps because Godard works with traces of film, the way we should think of working with traces of God. Where a Tavernier will often work with the blocks of form - the narrative devices, the shot construction of the cinema of old and show himself a superb craftsman - Godard would work with the gesture or expression: Belmondo's thumb gesture from Bogart in A Bout de Souffle, the singular close-ups of Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc in Vivre sa vie. This is cinephilia as Paul Willemen would describe it: "the detail in what is seen which is in excess of what is shown".
It is this here that we can perhaps point up the limitations of Cavell's perspective on Godard and allow for the spiritual cinephilia of Godard to come through via the Deleuze/Foucault problematic of the visible and the articulable. If the filmmaker in the Tavernier mode takes off from the steady accumulation of craft and adds to the solidity of the craft of film; Godard, no less working from the history of cinema, instead does the opposite and dismantles the craft, reshapes it and reconstructs it in if not his own image then certainly a new form. When he says "I often look at people, at certain faces, and I think: I would need a camera to look at that," he adds that many filmmakers "look at the face of a young girl or an old woman, does that face exist beyond them?" He believes that many American filmmakers have done the shot/reverse shot to death, "making it into at trivial ping pong game devoid of all meaning." Godard believes "the director no longer tries to have two people look at each other, listen to each other, think of each other, which is already six possibilities multiplied by six..." (Enthusiasm) This opening up of the form, of the convention, is equivalent to Deleuze's notion of laying into the Signifier. One lays into the form, takes a trace of it for one's own purposes, and generates new possibilities out of it.
This of course causes problems for comprehension: it is a new usage. When for example Godard gives us the conventional shot of Simon screwing his eyes up as he looks at something in the scene quoted above, we would expect what he sees to have its justification in the next shot. What are the permutations of that look - what could he see that would justify that reaction to it? Surely not a sun setting behind trees? It is as though Godard sees cinema built upon a certain set out of causal foundations that he wants to interrupt, and this is what gives rise to an epistemology. When Deleuze says "knowledge is a practical assemblage, a 'mechanism' of statements and visibilities", Godard seems to be searching out impractical assemblages, the sort of knowledge seeking that escapes the homogenized image expectation culture. This replaces expectation with belief, where the filmmaker doesn't believe in the rules but believes in their constant possible expansion.
Thus we return to Helas pour moi and the inexplicable in form and content, and the way Godard generates belief out of playing the two off each other. The content may be about an investigator who tries to make sense of a curious offence (how God enters the body of another man and has sex with the man's wife), but the viewer's investigation is also epistemologically complicated. As the images don't always seem to follow one from the other, as characters offer non sequiturs, as body language seem to have little to do with the story to hand, so Godard creates a fog of possibilities with and around his story. Now in an issue of the New Scientist several years ago on religion, one researcher, Daniel Batson, suggests there are three broad ways of looking at the spiritual. The first is intrinsic religiosity where a belief in God and a motivation to attend church are ends in themselves, and the second extrinsic religiosity, where "religion and churchgoing are seen primarily as social activities, often undertaken for personal gain." But there is also a third category Batson believes, and that is what he calls 'quest religiosity'. Now we don't want to reduce Godard's recent metaphysical work to a social science buzz word, but it is as if Godard's work searches out the further reaches of a kind of quest religiosity that has nothing to do with the pantheistic concerns which seems central to quest religions, and still less the notion of finding oneself in a far flung culture. No, Godard's quest religion is obviously closer to St Augustine, Simone Weil and Emmanuel Levinas, a search for a being beyond being, a self beyond oneself.
This requires a structure of thinking, though, that is close to what Foucault might call the thought from the outside, the idea, Deleuze reckons, "that signifies thinking is not the innate exercise of a faculty, but must become thought. Thinking does not depend on a beautiful interiority that would reunite the visible and the articulable elements, but is carried under the intrusion of an outside that eats into the interval and forces or dismembers the internal." In the early work Godard was very interested in society, and in later work politics, and in more recent work the spiritual, while throughout the processhas been a constant, but in that process questions have been asked about society, about the political and about the spiritual. In each instance the outside thought has been applied to a different problem, but it is the farther reaches of the problem that Godard has worked with, not its dead centre. How far from that centre one is willing to drift to work with the problem Godard addresses is really central to his aesthetic. Cavell would seem to demand a pragmatic no-nonsense approach towards Godard that wonders why the filmmaker moves so far from the ostensible subject, and draws on Brecht to justify his position. Others like Deleuze will see that this is less drift than a constant interrogation of the question within the question that will keep thought mobile. In Helas pour moi Godard wants to ask questions about religiosity, but this is less to answer the question than give thought itself faith - it is like a variation of Heidegger's questioning being the piety of thought. If the New Scientist talks of a questing religiosity as third type, then maybe it should be sub-sectioned into questing and questioning religiosity, with the former suggesting much more a geographical search and the latter a convoluted communion with oneself. Godard's work like Helas pour moi, Eloge de l'amour and Notre musique seem very much examples of the latter, and demand from the viewer the same immobility of movement for the adventurousness in thought.
What Helas pour moi offers is essentially a religious conceit to throw our sense of perceptual norms. What sort of moral conundrum is raised by a 'higher' being occupying a 'lower' form, and how would one investigate such a 'crime', and how then would one film it? Godard might accept the story is hardly new (critics refer to it as the most canonic and timeworn of classical domestic plots), but then makes it new by asking none of the tired questions the conventional form and content would demand. In turn, the viewer is expected equally to ask none of the tired and conventional questions the film might seem to raise while ignoring all the questioning ideas the film does raise. Deleuze suggests in an article on some of Godard's TV work: "Why not pay the people who watch television, instead of making them pay, because they're engaged in real work and are themselves providing a public service?" (Negotiations). How much cinema asks so much of us that maybe we can ask for a little remuneration in return? Perhaps only that which works from a piety of thought, thinking that at the same time works not from the cosy inside of thought, but from the further reaches, from the Foucauldian outside. Godard remains, in this sense, the most pious and adventurous of filmmakers.
© Tony McKibbin