Godard: adult concepts?

Fergus Daly and Adrian Martin

1. The debris of a smile

Fergus Daly
In the 1980s, when ‘the Sublime’ was the idea that defined Postmodernism for cultural analysts, Jean-Luc Godard realised it was by working through the idea of the beautiful that truly creative things would begin to happen. Not the Kantian beautiful wherein disinterest before the artwork relieves the spectator of his habits of thought, but a kind of bio-political ethico-aesthetic notion (when asked some time ago what it might mean to be ‘Godardian’, the filmmaker replied that it would be “to defend an ethics and an art”). In this notion, nature would have to be re-invented by cinema and bodies constituted by way of relinquishing their ‘habits of habitation’; both human subjects and the earth would be born in a single movement of life.

Éloge de l’amour, Godard’s first feature in 5 years, interrogates Memory, History, Resistance, Language, Ethical Adequation. Widely touted as his “most accessible film in years”, in reality it is barely penetrable yet deeply moving and stunningly intelligent, and its ‘method’ brings poet Paul Celan to mind: “Speak—but keep yes and no unsplit. And give your say this meaning: give it the shade.”

A one and a two and a three and a four—this count-in, a beginning, is also a count-down, 4, 3, 2, 1—a blast-off! 4 for the moments of love, 3 for the stages of life, 2 for black and white, 1 for monochrome and colour, cinema and video, TV and life, Hitler and Weil, Spielberg and Godard. But in recent years it is the 1 that most preoccupies Godard, ways of being one. Not so much the conventional problem of Singular versus Universal, but a form of the universal that would also be singular.

Godard’s fundamental problematic is unquestionably Ethics: ethical possibilities that don’t have the dead moral weight of established transcendent moralities. Godard’s characters are literally embodied ethical positions. If the human body remains the locus of new forms of resistance to ‘the Program’, then in Éloge the lightness that passes between bodies, in particular those of the vital trio Edgar (Bruno Putzulu), Berthe (Cécile Camp) and the old Resistance fighter (Francoise Verny), reaches a Bressonian intensity. Hence Godard’s invocation of quotations from Bresson’s Notes sur le cinématographe, as well as of Simone Weil (Edgar is composing a Cantata for Simone Weil).

This direct confrontation with the universe of Bresson whose characters are “figures with a movement in which weight plays no part”—to borrow Alain Bergala’s citation of Weil’s definition of grace—has been a long time coming in Godard’s cinema. Not only is there something of the Bressonian model in Putzulu’s performance; also in Edgar’s approach to the actor/bodies he seeks: he seems to want not models—vessels containing the spiritual—but beings carrying the ethical. Is Berthe not the embodiment of values somehow still out of Edgar’s reach? Godard wants not only his actors but his characters, even his documentary subjects, to suggest ethical possibilities. In his version of Baudelaire’s Tableaux Parisiens, Godard—rejecting a Grace/Fall duality—rummages through the signs and traces of the city for the meeting point of singular modes of ethical being which would also be universally beautiful.

Beauty is a matter of ethics for Godard. In Éloge it is tied to the theme of adulthood. “I’m not beautiful enough for the role”, Berthe tells Edgar. It is said of Edgar that he’s “trying to be an adult” but to be ‘at one’s prime’ as an artist tends to forego the capacity to capture birth and decay, childhood and old age. Compare Edgar’s inability to see Berthe’s singular beauty with Godard’s skill at creating a context to allow certain bodies or faces to appear on screen. In particular he succeeds in creating a unique sense of intimacy—the appearance of the old resistance fighter woman’s face (in all its History-lined beauty) appears to ‘find its moment’ in a way that is truly overwhelming. In allowing her to exist on screen, Edgar proves to be the film’s true ethical consciousness, or rather, the revealer of a new ethical possibility.

What has changed in Godard in the 35-40 years that now allows this face/body to appear on screen? Something which could never have occurred in the 60s, for example. Maybe it has to do with the eschewal of the ironic for the development of an approach that, in countering the manner in which the ironic announces itself, allows a revelation coming from a completely different place, and a new form of the beautiful.

Éloge de l’amour, as Yonnick Flot has noted, expresses “his way of seeing in adulthood the neutral gear of life, held in suspension by the energy of childhood and the forces of old age.” Here Godard returns to the ontological problem of lightness versus heaviness treated by Leos Carax in his first films, now staged in terms of History—more specifically, the French Resistance. In this context, Godard examines the way in which memory is transmitted from old to young people and the role of cinema in that transmission. Here we witness Godard continuing his search for a specifically cinematic ethics that would also say something philosophically about the present’s relation to the past. The film suggests that there is a certain lightness that passes straight from childhood to old age (from liberty to wisdom), thereby bypassing heavy adulthood.

2. Ode to Something

Adrian Martin
Today, Jean-Luc Godard likes to proclaim that “memory has rights and that it is a duty not to forget these rights.” How does he show this viewpoint on screen? Those in power who suppress historical memory (that means Hollywood, TV, government, capitalist corporations) are villains. And those ordinary people who possess no cultural memory—all those extras in Éloge de l’amour who have never heard of Bataille or Hugo or the inventor of some snazzy car—are simply fools, worthy only of being yelled at. But is it their fault? Godard sometimes makes his viewers feel the same way, like ashamed ignoramuses: didn’t you know that the train station sign “Drancy-Avenir” is also the title of a recent political film? Can’t you recognise all those Parisian sites where the key moments of the French Resistance played themselves out? Didn’t you appreciate the profundity of the citation from Bresson?

Let us return a harsh judgement back upon JLG: “The labyrinth of echoes, the anxiety of influence, the maze of connections without substance, the schizo-circuit diagrams, become unbearable” (Raymond Durgnat). Godard’s films are frustrating to study closely, because they rarely coalesce. As someone who has long been partial to the aura of Godardian cinema, I become fascinated with bits and pieces of Éloge. For instance, the strange scenes of conversation, more dislocated than ever, with lines of dialogue reconstituted on the soundtrack so that they overlap and cancel each other out. Or the sense that (in Peter Wollen’s words), since 1990, Godard has been “reworking his own origins as a classic reference text”: hence the return to Paris and black-and-white, the echoes of Bande à part and Pierrot le fou, the touchingly aged actors from his old films. Or suddenly beautiful, touching images, like Berthe whispering something into Edgar’s ear, something we will never know. Or, finally, that peculiarly Godardian form of fiction: some events that have already happened (but we can never exactly fathom what), combined with the film-to-be-made which cannot quite start, creating auditions, digressions and researches that lead only to business partnerships and personal relationships dribbling away, producing nothing, not movies or money or children…But all this is still not enough to redeem Éloge de l’amour.

My friend Fergus Daly sees and feels something in Éloge that I cannot—or only fleetingly, fitfully. I cannot grasp the film or its logic, and I suspect that it is, ultimately, incoherent. Godard’s artistic and philosophic thoughts proceed by a zany ‘free association’, leaping from one word-play to the next. Do these thoughts ever develop, grow, lead to a satisfying synthesis or resolution? For example, we hear often in this film about childhood and old age being real, genuine life-states, while adulthood is a void. It is a void because adults need social identities (banker, wife, thief), and identities lead to stories, and stories are, for Godard, ‘Hollywood’, thus they are bad. Then we leap up to the level of nations, and history: North Americans are void as people, because they have no real ‘name’, no origin, and they stalk the globe pillaging the stories of others…

And yet we will hear it said, with emotion, that the doleful Edgar is “the only person trying to become an adult.” Is this a joke, or a tribute? And hasn’t Godard spent several decades celebrating everything that is ‘unformed’ and ‘in between’ and uncertain—just like Edgar? As always, Godard vacillates cagily between a lyrical fullness of meaning and an adolescent desire to sabotage all meaning: hence, this ‘ode to love’, in the film’s obsessive inter-titles, often becomes just an ‘ode to something’, or maybe to nothing.

Denying himself most of the pleasures and possibilities of narrative, Godard depends purely on his formal structures to provide movement, mood and pathos to this crazy-quilt of quotes and notes. It all comes too easily to him: the perfectly placed repetition of a few bars of music by David Darling and Ketil Bjornstad; the welling up of an oceanic visual superimposition, combined with a halting, nervous camera-zoom or freeze-frame; the large-scale interplay of the film’s 2 halves, which is almost like Kieslowski; even that old poetic stand-by, the central character on a ‘journey’ (via foot, car, train), across mutually alienated spaces (city and country) and back through the shards of lost time, but mainly on the road to nowhere…

When asked what he looked for in the actors here, Godard replied: “Something, perhaps not much, that was real”. Fergus intuits the grace in these morsels of physical reality. I am frustrated, yet again, by the absence of genuine personality in Godard’s characters, and by his inability to invest their exchanges with anything resembling plausible, everyday emotion. I realise they are not meant to be ‘realistic’ characters, just supports in an ongoing essay/collage. But Godard’s 2-dimensional sketches either serve as an ‘open sesame’ for the viewer—prompting him or her to project all manner of emotions and meanings into the empty intervals on screen—or else they block any kind of engagement. Stéphane Goudet in Positif (no. 484, June 2001) wondered whether “the flagrant gap between the film and its title (‘love’?)” reflects, in the last analysis, “a fear of feeling and an anguish when confronted with the body.” There are still too many vestiges of the old Godardian dance, poetry and musicality in Éloge de l’amour for me to completely agree with that verdict. But I am sorely tempted.

Jean-Luc Godard, Éloge de l’amour, Melbourne International Film Festival, July 23-August 11, www.melbournefilmfestival.com.au

RealTime issue #50 Aug-Sept 2002 pg. 22

© Fergus Daly & Adrian Martin ; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 August 2002