By Jeremy Carr.
After concluding what was ostensibly his second phase of filmmaking – if one accepts the admittedly blurred lines that divide a comparatively commercial feature like Weekend (1967) and the ultra-political, pseudo-documentary works of his so-called Dziga Vertov period – Jean-Luc Godard embarked on the third major stage in his career. Launching with Sauve qui peut (la vie) (Every Man for Himself, 1980), in his own words his “second first film,” Godard’s characteristically prolific, characteristically sundry approach toward cinematic practice pushed further the boundaries of formal and narrative construction, once again reinventing the perception of his technical trajectory while remaining affixed to deceptively simplistic storylines. Three of the films released during the years between this period and the more essayistic productions that have largely defined his filmography to this day have recently been distributed on Blu-ray by Kino Lorber, and while they may not represent the best of what Godard had to offer during this transitional stride in his career, all are nevertheless exemplary of his ever-evolving, defiantly singular methodology.
Written by Anne-Marie Miéville, a frequent Godard collaborator and his live-in partner since the early 1970s, Prénom Carmen (First Name: Carmen, 1983) is loosely based on Georges Bizet’s 1875 opera, Carmen, and was inspired, perhaps even more so, by the 1845 Prosper Mérimée novella of the same name and Otto Preminger’s 1954 film, Carmen Jones. In any event, as Jordan Cronk observes when comparing Prénom Carmen to Le mépris (Contempt, 1963), Godard’s riff on Homer’s “Odyssey,” it is “less a direct translation than a revision.” Although it was an unsuccessful commercial release, Prénom Carmen was a critical triumph and received the Golden Lion at the 1983 Venice Film Festival (its accolades are read aloud before the movie begins). Starring twenty-one-year-old newcomer Maruschka Detmers (replacing Isabelle Adjani, who was put off by Godard’s directorial process, something Detmers and others similarly struggled with), the film follows the exploits of Carmen X’s terrorist gang as they scheme to kidnap a wealthy industrialist. More compellingly, however, the film pivots on the precarious relationship formed between Carmen and Joseph (Jacques Bonnaffé), a bank guard swept up in her amorous passions and lawless plight. Their love is born from instantaneous struggle, as they scramble for an errant gun and end up embracing on the floor, and per Godard’s inimitable brand of byzantine romanticism, the affair becomes both baffling and entirely affecting. The subsequent sexual friction drives Prénom Carmen far more than the conflict derived from the rampant criminality; the film is principally preoccupied with the sporadic fracturing of Carmen and Joseph’s relationship, their time spent in a diversionary hideaway (Godard’s Trouville apartment), and the solidification and strain of their verbal engagement, consummated in passages of dialogue punctuated by casual nudity and inevitably demonstrative complexity.
Two years later, Godard’s Détective (1985) embeds similarly romantic interests (among several others) into a shallow criminal milieu. Returning to the “beautiful country of narrative,” as James Quandt quotes Godard on the Kino Lorber disc, the primary focus here is on a hotel’s private detective, Prospero (Laurent Terzieff), who endeavors to crack the unsolved case of a years-old assassination that took place on the lodging’s grounds. He is joined by his nephew, Inspector Neveau (Jean-Pierre Léaud), and Neveau’s girlfriend, Arielle (Aurele Doazan). At the same time, in the same hotel, there is the thorny domestic dismantling of Françoise Chenal (Nathalie Baye) and her husband, Emile (Claude Brasseur), the owner of an airline shuttle service who is indebted to organized crime. The business of Prospero and Neveau’s investigation is established early on, in surprisingly lucid fashion, while the marital issues involving the Chenals are less clearly expressed.
There are several additional plot points in each film. In Prénom Carmen, there is the ensuing police pursuit of Carmen and her mob, which though half-hearted to say the least is no less haphazard and hasty than the actions of the more prominent protagonists, and there is the incorporation of Carmen’s shambling Uncle Jean/Jeannot, a has-been filmmaker played by Godard himself, whose cinematic acumen is integrated into the gang’s criminal aspirations. Still, until the very end of the picture, despite continual talk of what will apparently transpire, there is little to no indication of an ultimate endgame. Disregarding anticipated character identification and narrative progress, Godard induces an indirect tension born from the film’s arbitrary exposition, proposing that indeed anything may be possible because of this self-conscious uncertainty, something which lasts through to its bumbling, somewhat anticlimactic climax.
Described by Wheeler Winston Dixon as a “straightforward commercial venture,” a venture Godard had little interest in and was essentially made to finance his extraordinary Je vous salue, Marie (Hail Mary, 1985), Détective houses a populated congregation of peripheral characters: boxer Tiger Jones (Stéphane Ferrara); promoter Jim Fox Warner (Johnny Hallyday), with whom Françoise has an affair; an elderly Mafia boss (Alain Cuny) known only as “the Prince” and accompanied almost always by a young girl; Tiger’s girlfriend (Emmanuelle Seigner), known as the “Princess of the Bahamas”; and a “Wise young girl,” played by Julie Delpy in an early performance. Written by Godard, Alain Sarde, and Philippe Setbon, the film is a playfully scant homage to American noir, dedicated to John Cassavetes, Clint Eastwood, and Edgar G. Ulmer and containing multiple nods to B-movie touchstones (for its own part, also bowing to its cinematic forbearers, Prénom Carmen receives the dedication: “In memoriam small movies”).
Minus the benefit of such genre benchmarks, however unchained they may be, Hélas pour moi (Oh, Woe Is Me, 1993), the third film in this Kino Lorber trio, proves a far more ambiguous and denser feature, emphatically disjointed and without the overt direction of familiar tropes or chronological signposts. Subtitled “A Proposition for the Cinema,” its story descends from the Greek myth of Alcmene, in which Zeus assumes the body of Alcmene’s husband, Amphitryon, in order to participate in the loving physical bonds between man and woman. Investigating Godard’s version of the incident, which involves in the Alcmene and Amphitryon roles Rachel and Simon Donnadieu (Laurence Masliah and Gérard Depardieu), is a publisher named Abraham Klimt (Bernard Verley), who arrives in a Swiss village and attempts to uncover the tale of this supposedly divine possession (the curious deity is played in flashback by Harry Cleven, adorned in a crumply trench coat and speaking in a distorted intonation). With the intermittent comings and goings of assorted characters, making their odd and often inconsequential entrances and exits abruptly and without circumstance, Hélas pour moi’s fundamental inquiry is regularly thwarted by the unreliable recollections of unconvincing eyewitnesses.
Although their advancement is certainly fragmented, the respective stories of Prénom Carmen and Détective unravel in a relatively straightforward manner. In the case of the former, Godard even allows for rare bits of vocalized foreshadowing, as when Uncle Jean observes of his niece, “You have a talent for doom,” and Carmen tells Joseph, in a passage echoing the film’s source material, “If I love you, that’s the end of you.” All the same, both films are marked by casually supplanted pictorial inserts, disconnected sounds dropping off without warning or prompting, and, especially in Détective, lyrical voiceovers carried over to germane or indiscriminate cutaways or a wholly different scene altogether, and disembodied voices heard before their corresponding characters are ever seen let alone introduced. Hélas pour moi, on the other hand, is intensely informed by its muddled spatiotemporal structure, its conspicuously varying points of view, overlapping voices, on-screen text, scenes cut short or briefly suspended, and its relentlessly dense compendium of references and quotations—“I don’t understand sentences like that,” says Rachel at one point, undoubtably resonating with the mystified viewer. The picture begins to clarify when it is pared back and slowed down, concentrating exclusively on Rachel and Simon as they grapple with the film’s heavenly revelations, and it becomes more serious and settled as the performances of Masliah and Depardieu show a notable grace and restraint. (That this is achieved is all the more remarkable given Depardieu quit halfway through the production and the initial cut of Hélas pour moi only ran about an hour, both factors to cause significant editorial reordering and the invention of the Klimt post-mortem to help fill out the plot.)
What Hélas pour moi may deny in terms of complete coherence, certainly upon an initial viewing, it makes up for with an abundantly illustrative style, complimenting the story’s celestial symbolism with cinematographer Caroline Champetier’s pristine images of natural splendor. The film strikes a potently sacred, melancholic, and meditative tone, in line with the even more poignant Je vous salue, Marie but in a way that reinforces its narrative vagaries, a subsidy generally unnecessary in Godard’s earlier feature, which checked an obvious (albeit tremendously controversial) basic scenario. Concerning Hélas pour moi’s formal qualities, which include an exceptional tracking shot tableau and a cleverly low-key realization of God’s assumption of Simon, Godard was asked by Gavin Smith about his “exploring the technical vocabulary of cinema: focus, exposure, camera movement, montage, even a zoom out and in.” Godard said such technique was because “the movie was escaping” him and he probably “tried to hang on to some things even though they were completely different from what I wasn’t able to do.” In classic Godardian terms, he argued the “grammar was more important than the sentence itself, or the grammar became un souvenir of what the sentences would have been. The sentence wasn’t made, the grammar was made. It’s like a mathematical theorem that has absolutely no success with scientists because there was nothing else to the theorem except pluses, minuses, and equal signs.” While not exactly illuminating in any traditional sense, Godard’s explanation does acknowledge the considered construction of his piece-by-piece being greater than the whole strategy; or, as remarked by Samm Deighan in her audio commentary for the film, it endorses a distinguishing philosophy applicable to most of Godard’s later work, whereby the journey is more enriching than the destination.
Détective and Prénom Carmen likewise conjure imagery to mirror and bolster key components of their requisite plot. Positioning characters behind or to the side of varied obstructions – objects, other people, the frame itself – Godard produces in Détective an interior claustrophobia to fortify the confined pressure of the picture’s Hotel Concorde Saint-Lazare setting, a hotel space described by Nicholas Rapold in his Kino Lorber essay as a “dollhouse of moods and viewpoints to slice and dice.” Godard’s mise-en-scene is static, often stifling, and jumbles its thoroughly indistinct hotel layout, and as in Prénom Carmen, there is the sense of willfully induced confusion, off-eyeline cuts, and a disregard for predictable causal assembly, a result of Godard’s frustration with such conventions and his view of its ultimate irrelevance within the framework of an uncertain world and an indeterminate medium. Boasting its own array of emblematic scenic inserts – crashing voluble waves and luminous traffic at night – and exceptionally well-photographed by Godard mainstay Raoul Coutard (though it would be their last collaboration; he too was gradually irritated by Godard’s temperament), Prénom Carmen’s compositional abstraction rises to dazzling heights in its frivolous action sequences, wildly choreographed and making clear that a customary depiction of thrilling violence is hardly Godard’s concern; Détective’s final shoot-out, now outside the hotel but with segments of bodies falling into low, canted angles, divided by the frame and nearby vehicles, equally impedes any fulfillment of broad procedural unity.
Formal experimentation extends to a composite aural configuration as well. As Godard’s first feature in stereo, Détective’s soundtrack is a mélange of musical punctuation points, offered up seemingly at random to steer or veer emotion. Characters talk in circles, prolonging and confusing channels of dialogue to align with the film’s themes of broken-down communication (also evident in Prénom Carmen), and one hears outbursts from unseen observers, frequently presented without further elucidation. There are auditory distortions and cutaways between isolated characters who seem to respond to one another in a knowingly spirited play on words – one detective speaks of “the bosom of young girls” as Françoise appears in the next scene commenting on “the money of men.” Like so many Godard features, from the start of his career to now, conspicuous aspects of Prénom Carmen and Détective’s linguistic composition are its musings on cinema, history, politics, art, and literature (Godard claimed, falsely, that every line of Détective was a citation of some sort). The precise narrative corollary of these voiced extracts is as debatable as ever with Godard, and many such reflections are equally compounded by cleverly spun comic quips about one thing or another and, again, not necessarily relevant to the drama – or even the comedy – at hand (“When shit’s worth money,” comes one musing in Prénom Carmen, “the poor won’t have assholes”). Receiving an additional award at Venice for its cinematography and sound, Prénom Carmen does integrate one vital acoustic element, though its application is elusive to start: a chamber ensemble performing Beethoven’s late string quartets. Introduced and continually implanted without context, their music occasionally spilling over into succeeding, unrelated scenes (even Godard’s bemused uncle asks where this quartet fits in), the group’s eventual function – and it’s somewhat surprising there is one—is only toward the end revealed
In Détective and Prénom Carmen, and even in the preliminary portions of Hélas pour moi, it’s hard to take any of the posturing conflict seriously, if that was ever Godard’s intention to begin with. Even amongst the perceived chaos of gunfire, oblivious bystanders stand idly by or remain seated, indifferently reading as so many Godard characters often do. A cleaning woman saunters in to tend to the spilled blood of Prénom Carmen’s opening raid before the violence ever concludes, while a considerable portion of one Détective scene has Seigner’s princess trying on assorted camisoles, distracting Tiger and the viewer for no reason other than she can (and Godard wants her to). This nonchalant tone of off-hand downtime combines with restlessly manic behavior, from Godard’s physical tics in Prénom Carmen, wandering aimlessly about his sanitarium chamber, slapping the furniture and refusing to leave, to Bonnaffe flashing his gun around in an excessively threatening manner and Leaud’s laughable sleuthing. As romantic entanglements and personal links collide with exaggerated, oscillating emotions, Godard upends the surface discord by having these same characters participate in a slapstick, deadpan hybrid of behavior, acknowledging, in word and deed, their role-playing indebtedness to a fantastic life of crime.
With a bounty of repeated, frequently incongruous imagery, the reticent motives of most characters, and the push-pull tones of tenderness and hostility, deciphering the eccentricities of Godard’s increasingly complex work can prove difficult to appreciate and comprehend. The self-reflexivity and non-stop allusions are demanding and confounding, encouraging endless potential for sometimes strained interpretation (see Craig Keller’s Prénom Carmen commentary). A work like the surrealistic, purposefully abstruse Hélas pour moi prompted critics like Hal Hinson in the Washington Post to observe, “Only a genius or a madman – or some divinely ordained combination of the two – could have dreamed up a movie experience as revelatory, perplexing and masterly as Hélas pour moi,” a sentiment reiterated by Kevin Thomas, writing for the Los Angeles Times, who called the film “beautiful, terse, perplexing, allusive as it is elusive – and a stunning experience if you’re prepared to bring to it near-total alertness and openness.” That’s a crucial caveat also noted by Deighan, who does a brilliant job placing the film amongst the ample agenda of Godard’s progressive career (really the lone agenda to elucidate such a multifaceted picture). The willingness required of the viewer to meet Godard on his own level is often the only way to realize his work’s full potential. As confirmed by Prénom Carmen, Détective, and Hélas pour moi, with this conscious inscrutability and seeming desire to upend any number of established cinematic customs, Godard in peak form transcends trifling incoherence to affirm his greatest assets: an overwhelming, evocative, engaging, and never fully satiated sense of freedom and potential.
Jeremy Carr teaches film studies at Arizona State University and writes for the publications Film International, Cineaste, Senses of Cinema, MUBI/Notebook, Cinema Retro, Vague Visages, The Retro Set, The Moving Image, Diabolique Magazine and Fandor. His monograph on Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1965) is forthcoming with Auteur Publishing, and he is a contributor to the forthcoming collections David Fincher’s Zodiac: Cinema of Investigation and (Mis)Interpretation, from Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, and ReFocus: The Films of Elaine May, from Edinburgh University Press.