JEAN-LUC GODARD: MY SOMETIME HERO

I’ve seen twelve of Jean-Luc Godard’s films and I still haven’t decided whether I want to kiss him or punch him.

Last night I saw Alphaville, which is currently running at Film Forum on Houston Street.  Going out at all last night was something of a fool’s errand—New York is blanketed in snow after a bad storm that left five feet worth of it on the terrace of the apartment I’m staying at, and every street corner was flooded.  Going out in bad weather to see a movie that I’d walked out of five years earlier sounds like an even crazier fool’s errand if there ever was one.  But I figured I ought to give Alphaville, Godard’s futuristic sci-fi/film noir hybrid, a second chance.

The good news: Alphaville was nowhere near as bad as I remembered.  Eddie Constantine gives a good tough guy performance as Lemmy Caution, the film’s detective.  He also has a wonderful scene with Hollywood character actor Akim Tamiroff at the beginning of the film, where they debate where society is heading.  Filmed in newly restored black and white, the movie is a visual marvel, as most of Godard’s films are.  However, what drove me nuts about the movie five years ago still drives me nuts today: its soundtrack, with an oppressive minimalist score, beeping noises that make me cringe in my seat (I associate them with my alarm clock) and a gravelly computer voice that narrates the movie from passages of Jorge Luis Borges are aggravating in the extreme.  That and Godard’s excess philosophizing doesn’t help at all.  Philosophical discussions in film can be exhilarating, like when Marcello and the Professor talk about Plato’s myth of the cave in my favorite film, The Conformist,[1] but there, a strong visual correlative articulates Marcello’s inner dilemma.  When Godard’s characters talk about philosophy, the camera just sits on them and indulges their often-sophomoric level thoughts on life.  Alphaville is awash in these scenes, as are many of his later films, which frustrates me, because when I first discovered Godard, he immediately became my favorite director.

I first saw Breathless in ninth grade Film Studies.  It was the last day of class before winter break, and we had nothing to watch, so I said, “Let’s watch Breathless.”  We had seen a clip of it a few weeks ago and I was intrigued.  The movie rocked me in a way few movies have, with its improvisatory feel, its rapid jump-cutting, and the utter coolness of Jean-Paul Belmondo.  I had never seen a movie that radiated such coolness in its energy and sexual appeal (I even had a crush on a girl two grades above me solely for the reason that she looked like Jean Seberg).  From that point on, I was obsessed with Godard, crime films, the 60s, and foreign films.  Now, eleven films later, I’m not quite sure how I feel.  The highs have been very high: Contempt, Pierrot Le Fou, Band of Outsiders.  The lows have left me aggravated and jilted: Le Petit Soldat, Weekend, and his insufferable King Lear, in which his performance is so amateurish that he makes The Room’s Tommy Wiseau look like Marlon Brando.

The best way to describe my relationship to Godard is by examining my favorite of his films, Vivre sa Vie.  I’ve seen it twice now, and taken friends to see it.  It’s my favorite Godard film because it embodies my whole relationship with him: I think a lot of it is wonderful, and a lot of it is awful.  Anna Karina’s performance is outstanding throughout, and her exuberance in scenes like this one is infectious to watch.  Try watching this scene and not smiling.

Now watch this scene, later in the film, and try not to writhe with boredom.

Karina’s take to the camera at 8:42 speaks for me.

So what am I still searching for?  I’ve sworn off Godard numerous times, only to find myself coming back for more, mostly to the work from the 60s, and seen more movies of his than those of Renoir, De Sica and Truffaut combined, three directors I love with few, if any reservations.  It all depends on whatever movie of his I’ve seen most recently.  God knows if I loved Alphaville, I’d write a “Godard is awesome!” column instead of a more melancholy piece like this.  However, walking out of Alphaville the first time led to the best compliment I’ve ever received.  A few months after doing so, I commented on Roger Ebert’s blog with thoughts similar to the ones I’ve posted here.  The next week, discussing Godard’s newest film, Film Socialisme, he wrote, “A critical comment by Jeremy Fassler was affectionate about his sometime hero.”  Praise like that is hard to come by–it almost makes sitting through King Lear worth it.  Almost.  

Maybe Mick Jagger said it best, after working for him on Sympathy For the Devil: “Godard is a fucking twat.”


[1] Two facts.  One: the Professor and his wife in The Conformist have Godard’s address.  Bertolucci, an avid admirer of Godard’s, couldn’t wait to show him the film.  When he finally did, Godard scribbled a note before walking out of the screening room that said something to the extent of “You must fight against the forces of capitalism!” which angered Bertolucci so much he threw it away.  When asked why years later, he said, “I had reached the stage in my career where the wish to communicate was no longer a sin.  Godard hadn’t.”

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