Has any canonized auteur been met with such furious confusion as Jean-Luc Godard? Even well-studied Godardians disagree on his meanings and periods and politics. Which means there’s no way I’m going to “get” everything on my first viewing, so anxiety-free I finally completed Godard’s New Wave output. I haven’t seen them all in order (Made in USA and 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her are absent because Criterion released them last fall), but I once skipped way ahead—seeing King Lear, after reading the play, no less—and it was like a final exam in a language I didn’t know. So back to the late ‘60s: Masculin féminin, La chinoise, and Week End.In Masculin féminin, horniness incarnate (Jean-Pierre Léaud) dates a rising pop star (Chantal Goya) in a mid-‘60s consumerist paradise. (Sidenote: I can’t believe I failed to mention I’m Not There’s debt to Godard, but an early scene from Masculin féminin is explicitly repurposed in Haynes’ film; better late than never.) Interesting that Masculin féminin returns to black-and-white after such a vibrant venture into color as Pierrot le fou, but I suspect it’s both a dialectic thing (masculine/feminine, black/white, me/other) and an exposure of such dichotomies as whole spectra full of values.
Anyway, it’s more of a piece with Godard’s late ‘60s films than the b/w Band of Outsiders era, with France portrayed as an oppressive colonial power whose citizens are distracted by American capitalism. In fact, the Marshall Plan was born about the same time as the protagonists of Masculin féminin (and La chinoise). The kids here—Léaud adorably smooth-faced and hypersincere, Goya in a state of constant anticipation afforded only the very young or the very entitled (or both)—are more than happy to talk about the problems with the world, as long as it doesn’t interfere with their dual profit motives: sex and things. In an intertitle Godard calls them the “children of Marx and Coca-Cola.” Trade Marx for Jobs (or Baudrillard) and you’ve got the iYouth of the 21st century. Much of Godard’s hysteria has been dismissed by history—for one, nonviolence has achieved however gradually relative social equality in the West—but it’s nevertheless impossible to imagine a millennial expression of political power on par with what the French or American students were up to in ’68. Maybe that’s because the world isn’t so physical any more. The young do engage in political expression en masse—galvanizing in response to the Bush era, overwhelmingly embracing gay rights—just not with such violence.
Around ’67, Godard’s desperation to break with classical cinema—not giving himself enough credit for Pierrot le fou or 2 or 3 Things, I suppose—begat La chinoise, at once his most artificial and intimate film from this period. Artificial: 1. The action is broken up by improvised interview segments where Godard or cinematographer Raoul Coutard (who cameos with his camera à la Contempt) interrogates the characters. 2. Most of the film is confined to a single set, white walls covered in primary colored leftish philosophical rhetoric. 3. The camera is either stock still, confronting every monologue, however absurd, or vacillating on a preordained track from speaker to audience as the residents rant about Maoism. I can’t speak for what Godard thought he was making (though a riveting train ride, one reprieve from our Maoist prison, suggests La chinoise is no endorsement), but what I saw was a group of children expressing their rebellion in typically dramatic fashion, which in this case, with the proper education and proclivities, means violent extremism. (Sounds like the upcoming Chris Morris feature Four Lions.)
The way Godard portrays France, a rightist state where violent outbursts regularly occur (a woman shoots her philandering husband outside a coffee shop, the patrons finish their meals), suggests any communist sympathies are more reactionary than reasoned. Which is why I say La chinoise strikes me as unprecedentedly intimate. These kids are based on real life intellectual Maoists at a fancy school where nothing is required of them other than to think, and as sympathetic as Godard is to their ideals, he presents them honestly: they’re on summer vacation (which is to say their rebellion has an end-date) living in an apartment owned by one of their parents; they clearly don’t absorb the impact of their violence, even intellectually; they spend their time indoctrinating each other, putting on crude plays about adult ideas and dismissing individual liberty in the name of revolution. They reinforce rather than challenge their beliefs. That’s why the train scene is so pivotal. It’s the sustained counterargument the film has been lacking, and it’s at once more economical and persuasive than the previous hour of Maoism had been, like Socrates catching Bernard-Henri Lévy on the toilet. La chinoise isn’t Maoist propaganda; it’s a man revolted by the status quo searching for answers.
That’s my favorite thing about early Godard: He doesn’t pretend to have all the answers. His filmmaking changes so much because he’s figuring things out like the rest of us. Week End doesn’t know what the world needs, but it does know what (Godard thinks) the world is: a wretched hive of scum and villainy. Our heroes are two adulterers plotting to kill each other just as soon as they can get to the girl’s dying father and make off with his inheritance. Complications ensue in Buñuelian fashion—in fact, Week End looks like outtakes from The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie or The Phantom of Liberty; by the end I was sure Coutard must have shot those films, but alas—and the couple find themselves walking, hitchhiking, and carjacking their way across a Beckett-ian wasteland to their inheritance. Did I mention they know they’re in a film?
The claim to fame is a ten-minute tracking shot through a nightmarish traffic jam, and indeed it’s a sardonic delight. Not as witty as Buñuel’s best, but as raw an expression of modernist frustration as the cinema has known. Our ears are full of car horns for practically the whole shot, our reward for enduring a screaming child in the scene previous , and the rest of the film is a cavalcade of horror. This is the 20th century, Godard screams, but he’s drowned out by the wails of a woman crying for her Hermès handbag as a fiery victim falls from a wreck. An intertitle in La chinoise calls it “a film in the process of being made,” but Week End is “a film adrift in the cosmos,” one open-ended, the other found whole. La chinoise is a question. Week End is an absolute. Eventually someone gets to the point: “Nowhere do I see the sweet humanity and equable moderation that ought to be the foundation of the social treaty.” Nowhere? Sounds like you’re seeing what you want to see.
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Brandon Nowalk writes about film and television for the Maroon Weekly in College Station, TX and at his blog But What She Said. His favorite films beyond the usual suspects include Henry King’s The Gunfighter, Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad, Orson Welles’ The Trial, Jan Nemec’s Diamonds of the Night, and David Lynch’s Inland Empire.