By James Slaymaker.
The Great Swindler deserves to be recognised as a major work that sheds light on Godard’s attitude towards technology, critical reflexivity, and the shortcomings of the classical documentary mode.”
Considered as a whole, Jean-Luc Godard’s filmography may be read as a reflexive historiography of the transforming technologies of cinema from the post-war era to its contemporary digital afterlife. It has been frequently acknowledged that Godard’s brazenly confrontational, anti-illusionistic style prevents the viewer from becoming passively immersed in a diegetic screen environment by constantly drawing their attention to the production process. Famous examples of this method include Pierrot’s (Jean-Paul Belmondo) direct aside to the audience in Pierrot le Fou (1965), the abrupt introduction of non-diegetic musical fragments during unexpected moments throughout Une Femme Est Une Femme (1961) and the incorporation of real-life discussions between the film crew and the performers in Tout Va Bien (1972). By explicitly meditating on his own textual strategies, Godard calls upon the viewer to break out of their habitual consumption of moving images, and, therefore become a more active, emancipated spectator.
What has largely been left unexplored by critics, however, is Godard’s career-long preoccupation with filmmaking as a technological process. From his early experimentation with 16mm cameras, through to his engagement with video technology with the Sonimage group, through to his late-period fascination with digital editing and production tools, Godard has embraced technological innovation so that he may simultaneously explore the aesthetic properties of the new apparatus and survey the impact that the technology is exerting on the wider cinematic landscape. If, in Godard’s cinema, the image is never treated as an objective, mimetic trace of reality but a construct shaped by a myriad of technical, artistic and economic forces, then it stands to reason that the filmmaker would be inclined to treat the specific technical capabilities of the filmmaking apparatus as an object of study. Andrew Utterson notes that Godard’s stereoscopic feature Goodbye to Language (2014) expresses ‘an approach to technology that customizes, deconstructs, and otherwise scrutinizes a range of consumer as well as prosumer digital imaging and recording devices’, and in the process ‘‘reorientes these cameras and other devices and their default parameters and preprogrammed automaticity, this apparatus is in turn pushed toward unanticipated practices.’ Utterson’s observation is astute, but I argue that this impulse is not only present in Godard’s digital works – this impulse towards critical technological self-reflexivity can be traced all the way back to his beginnings as a filmmaker.
Although the vast bulk of Godard scholarship remains focused on his 1960s nouvelle vague work, The Great Swindler (aka The Confidence Man, 1964) has, curiously, been almost entirely ignored by critics. This is, in no small part, due to the fact that the short was near-impossible to access for decades after its release. The Great Swindler was produced as part of an omnibus project titled ‘The World’s Most Beautiful Swindlers’, which also features entries by Claude Chabrol, Hiromichi Horikawa and Ugo Gregoretti. After its initial theatrical run, the feature fell out of circulation, and it would not be distributed for home viewing until 2016 in France and 2017 in the United States. Unlike the unearthing of Godard’s Une Femme Coquette (1955) in 2017, however, the release and restoration of The Great Swindler received curiously little fanfare. Perhaps this is due to the zany, comedic nature of the short – although most of Godard’s 60s films contain elements of humour to varying degrees, the only ones which may be described as out-and-out comedies are The Great Swindler and the earlier short Charlotte et son Jules (1960), which is largely dismissed as a prototype for Breathless. Perhaps this is due to the fact that, while Une Femme Coquette was produced at the very start of Godard’s career, The Great Swindler was sandwiched in-between far more high-profile projects like Contempt (1963) and Une femme mariée (1964).
Yet, it is the contention of this article that The Great Swindler deserves to be recognised as a major work that sheds light on Godard’s attitude towards technology, critical reflexivity, and the shortcomings of the classical documentary mode. The short follows the exploits of an American filmmaker named Patricia Leacock (Jean Seberg – clearly riffing on her role as journalist Patricia Franchini in Breathless), who travels to Marrakesh, Morocco, to film an observational travelogue touching on the nation’s cultural traditions, its social customs and its inhabitants. Patricia consciously works in the style of ‘cinéma-vérité’, wielding a handheld 16mm camera, operating without a crew and attempting to film the foreign culture in a totally impartial manner. Before long, she is apprehended by the cops, who inform her that she has unwittingly attempted to pay for a gown with a counterfeit note. After her release, Patricia decides to track down the conman who originally printed the false money, believing that they will be an interesting subject for her film.
Throughout The Great Swindler, Godard self-consciously evokes the formal characteristics and epistemological procedures of cinéma-vérité – but the overall effect he achieves is diametrically opposed to that movement’s imperative to capture pro-filmic reality in a way that is neutral and unobtrusive. 35mm became firmly established as the standard medium for cinematic production and distribution between the years of 1900 and 1920, and this remained the predominate form of image-production by major film studios until digital practices begun to take over at the end of the century. As a result, the format became associated with ‘professional’ filmmaking in the cultural consciousness. Due to the high cost, cumbersome design and image sensitivity of 16mm production tools, however, there was an increasing desire to develop alternatives that would benefit amateur and non-fiction filmmakers. In 1923, Eastman Kodak released a camera that utilised 16mm safety film on an acetate film base. As the width of the film strip was roughly half the length, the camera was far smaller and lighter than any camera that used 35mm film. And because the 16mm camera did not use the highly flammable nitrate base that the 35mm camera did, shooting on location and with smaller crews did not carry such a high safety risk. Furthermore, rather than being shot on negative film stock, 16mm cameras imprinted light onto reversal stock, meaning that the film created a positive print immediately. Reversal stock was also considerably cheaper than negative stock, and, therefore, it did not require an extensive and intricate post-production process to render the film ready for projection.
Despite these practical advantages, 16mm cameras were not widely embraced within the industry, largely due to the significantly reduced image quality and frequent technological malfunctions which marred the format at this early stage. In the decades that followed, however, 16mm filmmaking technology became more refined, easier to use and widely distributed. By the 1950s, 16mm cameras were able to shoot in colour as well as black-and-white, be fitted with a multitude of removable focal lenses (in 1952, zoom lenses were developed for 16mm cameras with the introduction of the Bolex Pan Cinor), and utilising magnetic sound recording technology to capture high-quality audio. A major breakthrough came in 1960 with the arrival of the Eclair NPR, a camera designed by the French scientist André Coutant. The Eclair NPR was so lightweight that it could be placed on the cameraman’s shoulder while they filmed images of remarkable clarity and definition. A number of similar models followed in its wake, including the Auricon and the Nagra. These cameras proved highly attractive to ethnographic filmmakers, who recognised that they held the potential to capture cultures and natural landscapes without the need for large crews or cumbersome equipment. As practiced by directors such as Jean Rouch, Richard Leacock and D. A. Pennebaker, the Cinéma vérité movement sought to utilise 16mm technology to shoot on location in a spontaneous, free-wheeling manner, and therefore capture the natural behaviour of their subjects without interfering with the action. For these filmmakers, the camera was to be used as an instrument of scientific research and the value of the image laid in its evidential status.
This final moment encapsulates Godard’s view of cinema not as a transparent window onto the external world, but as a reflective medium which reveals as much about those behind the camera – and, indeed the camera itself – as the subjects in front of it
Godard’s antagonistic attitude towards the ambitions of cinéma-vérité was well-documented in his early journalism. In 1963, he pithily dismissed the movement in the pages of Cahiers du Cinéma, directing his ire at Leacock’s work in particular: ‘On the other side of the Atlantic, cinéma-vérité is translated as ‘candid camera.’ […]They have no idea what it is they are saying, and that pure reportage does not exist. Hence the childish mania for filming things in close-up which cry out for long shot, for accompanying people instead of following them, for killing actuality by sticking too close to it.’ Essentially, Godard is making the argument here that the works of the movement cannot truly be seen as ‘truthful’, as they efface the role of the filmmaker in consciously manipulating the events that they capture. A more genuine approach to establishing a radical cinema rooted in honesty and transparency would involve turning the camera on the filmmaker themselves, reflexively questioning why they selected their chosen topic, openly interrogating the validity of their stylistic choices and acknowledging that the presence of the film crew will inevitably effect the behaviour of the recorded subjects. As Godard concludes, ‘[h]onesty, in other words, is not enough for a fighter in the avant-garde, particularly when he does not know that if reality is stranger than fiction, the latter returns the compliment’. For Godard, then, it is not enough to pursue ‘truth’, the artist must also ask the critical question of ‘what truth [they] are after’. The surname of Seberg’s character in The Great Swindler is, of course, an overt reference to Leacock, and she directly speaks of her allegiance to the movement through dialogue: ‘I make cinéma-vérité: truth motion pictures, like Monsieur Rouch’. Godard’s film itself intentionally draws upon the aesthetic language of vérité documentaries. The short was filmed on location with a skeletal crew, primarily using natural light conditions. Particularly in the first half, many of the shots of the marketplaces, architecture and crowds of Marrakesh seem as though they wouldn’t be out of place in a straightforward travelogue.
However, Godard undermines any impression of ‘naturalism’. The Great Swindler reflexively disrupts the diegetic mimesis to depict the act of filming on screen, thus framing the 16mm camera not as an impartial tool which merely captures the real but an ideological instrument which actively distorts the real. Patricia’s belief that she may mobilise new, lightweight, unobtrusive technology to achieve a mimetic snapshot of the outside world is treated as quixotic. She makes the impulsive decision to track down the conman without reflecting on why she has chosen to change the course of her documentary, and without acknowledging her connection to the subject within the text she’s constructing. Godard implies that Patricia has already decided on the narrative trajectory and ideological message of her feature before she has started filming, and therefore imposing her own viewpoint upon the material rather than simply observing life as she claims to. Patricia’s lack of honesty is exemplified by the fact that she has determined the title of her film even before she has met with the counterfeiter: ‘The Most Exciting Man I Ever Met’. The fact that she is prematurely ascribing such a lofty title to the project, despite having never met him, is an indication that she does not, in actuality, intend to discern the ‘truth’ through the close study of her subject; instead, she already decided what her take on the counterfeiter is going to be, and she will project these presumptions onto the real man when she encounters him.
When Patricia finally meets the object of her attention (Charles Denner), he confounds her assumptions and challenges the controlling gaze of her camera. While Patricia had assumed that the counterfeiter was a self-involved and opportunistic criminal, he reveals that he views himself as a humanist and philanthropist, printing falsified money so that it may be distributed to impoverished citizens. These notes are rarely detected as fraudulent, so those who spend it hardly ever face negative consequences. Patricia, lacking the capacity to see things from the counterfeiter’s perspective, turns him into the police. After she reprimands him for his illicit practices, the counterfeiter turns the tables on Patricia and accuses her of being the real swindler: the images she produces are fundamentally deceitful, as she markets them as unmediated fragments of reality, when, in fact, their relationship to the truth is deeply tenuous. Patricia thinks that she may arrive at a ‘truth’ beyond the frame by effacing her involvement with her subjects, concealing the technological apparatus and refusing to meditate on her own working methods. Such an impulse towards immediacy is antithetical to Godard’s self-questioning, anti-naturalistic style of filmmaking. Throughout his oeuvre, Godard foregrounds his own strategies of manipulating reality, rather than claiming to present a truth that exists independently of the material apparatus that captures it and the intentions of the author. The film closes on a close-up of Patricia, directing her handheld camera towards the audience. Over this image, Godard’s own voice intones a passage from William Shakespeare’s As You Like It: ‘All the world’s a stage/And all the men and women merely players/They all have their exits and their entrances/And one man in his time plays many parts’. In this final moment, Godard’s perspective collapses into Patricia’s, and the camera depicted on screen is connected to the apparatus used to capture Seberg. This poetic image encapsulates Godard’s view of cinema not as a transparent window onto the external world, but as a reflective medium which reveals as much about those behind the camera – and, indeed the camera itself – as the subjects in front of it.
 Andrew Utterson. (2019). ‘Goodbye to cinema? Jean-Luc Godard’s Adieuau langage (2014) as 3D images at the edge of history’, Studies in French Cinema. 19:1,
 Note: a fifth segment directed by Roman Polanski was included in the original theatrical run, but he later requested that it be removed for the film’s re-release.
 Jean-Luc Godard. (1972) . ‘Dictionary of American Film-makers’ In Godard on Godard: Critical Writing by Jean-Luc Godard. Edited and translated by Tom Milne and Jean Narboni. New York: The Viking Press. p.203.
James Slaymaker is a journalist and filmmaker. His articles have been published in Senses of Cinema, Bright Lights Film Journal, MUBI Notebook, Little White Lies, McSweeney’s, Kinoscope, Film Comment, and others. His first book Time is Luck: The Life and Cinema of Michael Mann is forthcoming with Telos Publishing. His films have been featured on Fandor, MUBI, and The Film Stage, as well as screening at the London DIY Film Festival, the Concrete Dream Film Festival, the InShort Film Festival and The Straight Jacket Film Festival. He is currently a doctoral student at The University of Southampton, where his research focuses on the late work of Jean-Luc Godard, post-cinema, and collective memory.