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Came So Far For Beauty:
Godardís Lyricism

 


This is the text of a paper I delivered at the epochal For Ever Godard conference at Tate Modern in London in 2001 (where, memorably, Richard Brody phlegmatically attacked me from the audience for daring to describe Éloge de l’amour as “glum”). In those days, illustrative clips were still lined up on a VHS player! The talk was subsequently completely reworked, in a more academic vein, as the chapter “Recital” for the book For Ever Godard (London: Black Dog, 2004). In its original form as presented here, the essay has appeared only in my Spanish-language collection What is Modern Cinema? (Santiago: Uqbar, 2008), with a much-shortened update (also in Spanish) for the special Godard tribute issue of Caimán (October 2022).

 

I begin from a simple hunch: that the lyricism of Jean-Luc Godard’s films is one of the principal factors that draws us to them and incites us to figure them out. I speak, at least, personally: the first Godard film I saw, at the age of 15, was Bande à part (1964), and the métro scene in that movie, in which Anna Karina recites and sings a song, completely overwhelmed me. That scene forms the centrepiece of what I want to explore here.

 

Although I believe that many of us respond passionately to the lyricism in Godard, critical commentaries have had surprisingly little to say directly about this aspect of the work. A single long sentence, in a 1967 essay by Marie-Claire Ropars-Wuilleumier, encouraged this initial hunch, where she evokes certain dazzling passages in Godard’s work.

 

For the victory of the cinema resides in the defeat of coherent language, in the triumph of disorder, which only on occasion becomes, in those rare moments of joy during which the editing becomes lyrical, the inexpressible goal which is sought: lyricism, that harmony between being and language, can today only be instantaneous and ephemeral. (1)

 

Let me start with the simplest description of what such passages do. They are often triggered by the singing of a song or the recitation of a poem (within the fiction, or laid upon it), or a sudden flurry of diverse, breathless voice-overs. The stream of images quickens and becomes freer, mixing material from all across the film (flashbacks and flash-forwards), sometimes including shots that we will not see again elsewhere. The sound-editing undergoes a transformation as radical as the image-editing: more tracks, more cuts, lightning mixes and juxtapositions, in a complex, polyphonic relation to the image-flow.

 

The essential emotion that arises from these scenes is one of exhilaration; the plot is suspended, and the film launches into a rhapsodic elaboration of a particular feeling or state or sensation. In the ‘60s, striking examples of such scenes occur in Le Mépris (1963), Alphaville (1965), Pierrot le fou (1965) and Weekend (1967), as well as Bande à part.

 

In more conventional modes of cinema, there are two classic instances that approach this lyric mode: the sung interludes in musical comedy; and the contemporary, autonomous “montage sequence”, in which a parade of shots rolls under a pre-recorded song (like “Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head” in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid [1969], frequently parodied). Both types of scene trade in the suspension of plot and the heightening of feeling. Godard sometimes mobilises the musical comedy reference (as in Une femme est une femme [1961] and Pierrot le fou); and his experiments of the ‘60s no doubt influenced the routine, modern practice of the montage sequence in film, TV and advertising. But Godard’s lyricism takes itself to more radically unusual and inventive places.

 

Lyrical is one of those words we all use easily, in relation to cinema, without ever defining it very clearly. In the annals of film theory, it seems to stand for different ideals or impulses at different times. For Pier Paolo Pasolini in the mid ‘60s, lyricism is virtually synonymous with his dream of a cinema of poetry: “Thus the tendency of film language should be expressively subjective and lyrical”. (2) Two decades before his manifesto, Maya Deren’s concept of the horizontal (prosaic) and vertical (poetic) dimensions of film was already a theory of lyricism in action. For Gilberto Perez in The Material Ghost, lyricism is interchangeable with beauty, whose pursuit in cinema he fervently defends against all militantly anti-aesthetic ideologies. (3)

 

Ultimately, for many filmmakers who experiment at the margins of the film industry (Godard included), I suspect that all these terms – cinema of poetry, subjectivity, beauty – might condense themselves into a powerful impulse away from or against narrative: the restrictive burden of coherent, self-contained storytelling, which is often suspected of being a kind of deathly trap. Lyricism, in that case, would be a name for what critics sometimes discuss as the realm of the non-narrative.

 

To better understand Godard’s lyricism we can go back, beyond cinema, into the literary traditions of lyric poetry, and gauge his transformations of those traditions. There are classical and modernist (and, more recently, postmodernist) lyric traditions. In the canons of literature, the lyric is usually differentiated from the epic, storytelling mode. Lyricism in poetry has an intimate tie with traditions of song. C. Day Lewis, in his 1965 lectures on The Lyric Impulse, refers to the historical echo of what he calls the “singing line” in contemporary lyric poetry. “There is a sense in which one can fairly say that no one can write a good lyric without some melody, heard or dimly apprehended, in his head”. (4)

 

Lewis lists the essential properties of lyric poetry as “beauty, simplicity, brevity”. The “saying of only one thing at a time, without reservations, modifying parentheses, mental complications of any kind, is the lyric’s chief term of reference”. Elaborating this definition, he proposes that the lyric is:

 

… a poem which expresses a single state of mind, a single mood, or sets two moods against the other. It does not argue or preach. If it moralises, the moral has an unsophisticated, proverbial ring ... It speaks with no irony or complexity of syntax: it is transparent, undiluted by any cerebral matter, unclouded by afterthoughts or the reflection of individual personality.

 

Godard’s cinematic lyricism, as we shall see, simultaneously accords with this definition on many points, and also breaks with it in a number of remarkable ways. On many levels his practice can be squared with the deliberately fragmented “critical lyricism” of the poet-theorist Jean-Michel Maulpoix (see his website http://www.maulpoix.net/).

 

Lewis, in his day, was one of the few literary commentators of his time who was able to acknowledge the continuity between lyric poetry and the lyrics of pop songs. For Godard, this continuity is completely natural. Consider the sequence from Prénom Carmen (1983) built around Tom Waits’ 1980 song “Ruby’s Arms”. One of the salient properties of the work of poets, writers and singer-songwriters like Waits that I believe is especially important to Godard is a quality of lyrical expansion or dilation of time. A narrative scene or tableau is evoked in such lyrics, but it’s frozen, stretched out, advanced as Godard would later advance his video imagery, frame by frame.

 

Godard takes full advantage of the strange, multiple tenses or time frames in pop ballads. “Ruby’s Arms”, enacts the dilation of a single, physical movement – the narrator’s crucial passage of leaving his lover, out the bedroom, down the hall, out the door and finally onto a train. The lyrics suspend themselves between the present and future tenses, both inside the act and imagining and anticipating it, in order to magnify this movement: “I will leave behind ... As I say goodbye”. The song’s chorus offers a very Godardian, entirely asyntactical, headlong confusion of times, intentions and feelings: “As I say goodbye, I’ll say goodbye, say goodbye to Ruby’s arms”.

 

Godard responds to and treats this song in many, complex ways. The marriage of song and scene rests upon a paradoxical inversion: the song is about a man in the process of giving up on a woman, but the scene is about a woman in the process of giving up on a man. There are moments when the images are very close to the song’s lyrics to the point of illustration, as when Carmen opens the curtains to the words “morning light has washed your face”; and moments when the song and the scene diverge radically.

 

The temporal dilation of the sung words accompanies a corresponding dilation of actions in the image: Godard’s characteristic stutter cuts (as we might call them), which begin a shot by repeating and thus overlapping the final phrase spoken in the previous shot – a montage invention he appears to have borrowed from John Cassavetes. In a striking piece of multi-tracking, Godard runs Waits’ song twice, one playback beginning a few seconds (or about a line) after the other, creating a further dilation of the sound sample itself.

 

One detail is particularly vivid. Playfully, the scene builds to a point which “sets two simple moods against the other”  (in Lewis’ words), as Joseph’s music, the mournful “Ruby’s Arms”, clashes with Carmen’s music, the ferocious Beethoven string quartet. Through the work of montage, after this orchestrated chaos, Godard reaches a breathtaking moment of aesthetic fusion and suspension: when the gesture of Myriem Roussel lifting her bow from the violin suddenly brings the peace of silence and stillness to this war of musics, freezing and releasing Waits’ song on the ascending melody of the words “say goodbye”. This is among my favourite split-seconds in Godard.

 

Prénom Carmen runs through all the standard registers of Godard’s lyricism. There is, firstly, lyricism as euphoria or celebration, “those rare moments of joy” as Ropars put it, especially the celebration of physical beauty, of sculptural posture, of light, and of dance-like movement. Then there is a harsh lyricism, the violent lyricism of breaks, sudden drop-outs, noises that punctuate and terminate lulling waves of sound, like the ubiquitous ringing phones, gunshots, slammed doors, bird squawks and tolling bells. Finally, there is a melancholic lyricism, expressed in this scene primarily via Joseph’s torpid, blocked, forever yearning state, faced with this woman he can literally never grasp.

 

I want to stress the materiality of the aesthetic work in Godard. I have come to believe that we haven’t the ghost of a chance of really taking the measure of his style unless we literally, palpably register the cuts and the mixes, unless we can tap out the rhythmic flows and arrests, unless we chart and reconstruct the tracks of image and sound technically laid out for each montage – unless, in a sense, we can internalise this material, aesthetic work and in some way re-perform its prodigious action.

 

Godard’s lyricism, as one emblem of that general style, knits itself together at an unusual and rare interface of modes: the poetic and the essayistic. We tend to emphasise the conceptual, essayistic side these days, but it, too, is born in the split-second play of materials. In his A Formal Approach to Lyric Poetry, Gémino Abad begins by quoting Jose Garcia Villa’s poem “Definitions of Poetry”: “Poetry is the love of ideas as music : the love of words as magic : the love of life as wonder. / Poetry is the imagination of realities too great to remain facts”. (5) Ideas as music, sensual thought, concepts born in and from the migratory action of images and sounds: this is what I think of as “real time” Godard, igniting and opening out in a voluptuous envelope of cinema what we cannot quite, or cannot yet, put into words.

 

Let us now turn to Bande à part’s splendid métro scene. This is Godard’s most classical and linear film. There are qualities in the scene which relate to comparatively conventional structures of plot and character, and thus to what we can value as lyrical riffs on these conventional structures. The song of Odile (Anna Karina) is akin to a moment of individual release, an outpouring of heightened expressivity, a soliloquy of the kind we find in any musical comedy. André Habib, in his essay “The Oval Portrait”, stresses the transformative power of the scene with regards to the character: Odile transcends her own limitations, becomes light and free through the act of singing.

 

There is also a strategic displacement at work here in the context of the whole story, for the scene ends with a sudden shock – the image of Odile and her lover Arthur (Claude Brasseur) in bed together for the first time, which is probably also (the film suggests) Odile’s sexual initiation. On a rare occasion in a Godardian fiction, the ellipsis and suggestiveness serve a dramatically expressive purpose: as Barthélemy Amengual suggests, “it is the métro episode which represents the coming night of love and takes its place, transposing it, anticipating the agonies, indecisions, sorrow and deception of Odile which the rest of the film evades”. (6)

 

Yet, just as important as stressing the poetic materiality of Godard’s recent essayistic work, one must insist on the conceptual rigour of his lyrical flights, even already in 1964. Every instance of a lyric mode in Godard comes with a history, arrives as quotation or pastiche. The collage that is Bande à part has an extremely unified tone, mood and sensibility. Godard described it in a trailer as  “A French Film with a Pre-War Atmosphere” – in other words, a period film which is not a period film – and he explained the tag in this way: “I tried to recreate the populist, poetic climate of the pre-war period”. (7) His reference points are less the social, historical reality of pre-war France than the artistic representations from, about or inspired by the period: the Poetic Realism of Prévert’s poetry and screenplays, the 1930s films of Jean Renoir, the novels of Raymond Queneau. In fact, as this short list already begins to indicate, Godard’s fanciful recreation of pre-war populism takes in a big stretch of Popular Front-inspired, or generally leftist popular culture.

 

The poem which Odile recites in the scene is “J’entends, j’entends” (“I Hear”) by Aragon, the surrealist writer who later became a high-profile communist; and the rendition of the poem used in the film is from a 1950s pop ballad by Jean Ferrat, likewise a leftist star who put many Aragon lyrics to music and also had a hit with a rousing tune about the Battleship Potemkin (his music and person had already made a guest appearance in Godard’s Vivre sa vie in 1962). The scene’s very setting – a train at peak hour, taking weary commuters from work to home, is itself a prime emblem of populist art and culture. So is its time frame, from dusk to dawn on a typical weekday. In the same period of the mid ‘60s, it could have been – beyond the strict national context of the French popular chanson tradition – the subject of a song by The Kinks.

 

Poetic populism is both the tone and the subject of the scene – and, in quoting and amalgamating its cultural references in the way he does, Godard manages to both speak through this lyric mode and also speak about it. This is where Godard’s lyricism departs boldly from Lewis’ classical definition, for it is hardly “undiluted by any cerebral matter” or “unclouded by afterthoughts”. The scene is about the act, the gesture, the process of coming to identify oneself with ordinary people, with all humanity. Aragon’s words begin as a distant lament for the masses, but end up collapsing that distance between the poet and his subjects. The poem and the song derived from it are both about finding the basis for a human community – a fragile community that is comprised of nothing but lost, atomised, alienated, individual souls. Godard’s cinematic method, between storytelling and essay, explores exactly what constitutes this populist dream, and how one might today dream and assume it as a philosophy.

 

The movement of Godard’s montage in the scene begins with its privileged couple of Odile and Arthur; it broadens out to shots of unnamed people, individually or in groups, who will never reappear in the film; and it finally comes back to the main characters – except, at the end, under the words “Ah je suis bien votre semblable” (“Yes, I am one of you”), even the amorous twosome has become a poetic threesome, a little imaginary community, with Franz (Sami Frey) also glimpsed in his bed in a similar position to the other two.

 

This scene is for me an outstanding example of cinematic lyricism. It communicates that feeling of taking off from the strict space of the story into a wider world. In this, it achieves the plaintive intensity of the best lyric poetry, and it does have the quality of a proverb. And it also achieves another key aim of the lyric mode: it reaches to an impersonality that is also a trans-personality, a collective voice of experience. The power of lyricism in cinema generally involves the sweet vertigo of a certain experience of loss: we lose our bearings, characters float free of a plot, voices are torn momentarily from bodies and characters, and these voices sing or speak of things they were not able to address a moment earlier ...

 

Godard’s modernism took this exacerbated lyricism, the lyricism of split-second rupture and loss, further than any of his Nouvelle Vague contemporaries. (François Truffaut was another master of montage, but in a completely different, “musicalised” register.) In Bande à part, lyricism is again an effect of intricate montage. I want to stress here Godard’s work on sound, and especially his juxtaposition of different ways of recording voices. In 1964, Godard was already completely lucid about this: “People never attach any importance to sound, but that’s what interests me most”. (8) The materiality of this sound is of utmost importance to him: like for Bresson, sound communicates first as rhythm, tone and sensation before it communicates as meaning. Paramount in this aesthetic is the phenomenological, affective difference for the viewer between the sound of a voice recorded live, within the ambience of a scene, and that same voice re-recorded more “cleanly” (as technicians say) in controlled conditions, such as in a studio. The passage or cut from live to pre-recorded voice often precipitates a powerfully felt, interior turn or move in Godard, an intensification of sensual thought.

 

In the métro scene, Godard and his sound team cut and mix, to my ear, with six distinct tracks of sound. Two tracks are devoted to the voices and four are devoted to sound effects of train and street noises – three recorded live, and one a minimal foley track of artificial footsteps. This is one of the first really elaborate sound montages in Godard’s career. There is a certain trick, an aural sleight-of-hand going on here, since the scene passes at a certain moment from the live take of Karina’s voice backed by real train sound, to a post-synchronised Karina, backed by train noise that has been recorded and mixed-in separately.

 

All mainstream films quietly play these kinds of illusionist games with multi-tracked sound. But Godard assembles and then disassembles this sonic illusion, not just for the purposes of formal demonstration or deconstruction, but for the sake of a truly poetic, lyric drama. I am referring to that moment when the backing track drops out, leaving Odile’s voice sailing alone and unaccompanied over the images. This creates a tremendous effect of real-time suspension and fragile poignancy. Godard gets his great moment, but he also builds a rising lyric structure: each technical treatment of Odile’s performance – the steps from live voice over train, pre-recorded voice over train and then only voice – places it at a more abstracted, purer level of sensation. Here, Karina’s voice is like all those celebrated birds in lyric poetry, soaring away from the world but longing to be merged with its oneness and wholeness. This voice is at once intimate and impersonal, belonging to no one and everyone.

 

What Godard creates here in sound he also creates, complementarily, in images. The scene begins by establishing, in a conventional and economical way, the positions of various people in the train carriage, people who will later figure in the lyrical montage. Once Odile is into her song, the flight of the voice releases the images, and they follow suit. The scene leaps off the train, viewing it from the outside, going out into the streets, flashing from day to night. It is no longer tied to any character’s point of view. At the lyric high point of the scene, when Karina in close-up turns to the camera, we can no longer say exactly where we are on that train, or even that we are still in a train: every realistic index in the image has deliberately been blurred and abstracted. We have definitively passed (in Pasolini’s or Deren’s terms) from cinema-prose to a pure plateau of cinema-poetry, in hardly a minute of screen time. And we have also reached something else: a quoted but nonetheless entirely authentic, passionate statement of Godard’s politicised populist humanism in this period. He commented at the time that the métro scene was “really my point of view in the film, that is, I’m interested in people, in things ... That’s the theme of Aragon’s song”. (9)

 

Both the fragments I have discussed, from Prénom Carmen and Bande à part, reappear fleetingly in the first two episodes of the Histoire(s) du cinéma (1988-1998) series. It is fascinating to gauge how Godard cites, recycles and recontextualises fragments from his own past output. An image of a near-naked Maruschka Detmers darting across the hotel room, shorn of all connection to “Ruby’s Arms”, figures in a montage devoted to images of women in motion, dancing, parading, on show and yet desperately trying to flee that man-made prison of exhibition. The Bande à part métro scene returns without any trace of its populist singing line, only that abstracted close-up of Karina which expresses, in its spoken words, a bottomless depth of despair, now almost accusingly turned against Godard-the-enunciator.

 

I detect a similarly melancholic citation of Bande à part, a dispersed allusion of the train scene’s elements, in Éloge de l’amour (2001), where, once again, the lonely rendition of a pop ballad takes us, via montage, to a sign bearing the word Liberté (freedom) – this time not on a métro station, where it carries a quasi agit-prop force, but now derisively, on the marquee of some ritzy, sad cafe at night. Likewise, the train movement that triggered such poetry in 1964 slows down in 2001 to the solemn crawl of an empty carriage on its tracks. And a single, disconcerting shot in Bande à part’s montage – a homeless vagrant asleep in a Paris street – is multiplied in Éloge de l’amour into a major, apocalyptic motif of urban life.

 

Is Éloge de l’amour a lyrical film? In its glum way, yes, undoubtedly. But as Leonard Cohen once sang, it’s a broken, not a holy alleluia. Since 1980, Godard has several times quoted the lines of another Cohen song beginning “I came so far for beauty” – and, in that citation, the achievement of lyricism is cast as a hard, painful, lonely struggle; that is, when it is not projected backwards as a nostalgic elegy.

 

Why this creeping, histrionic atrophy of the lyric impulse in late Godard? The possibility – or impossibility – of lyricism in the modern world has in fact become one of his central, animating subjects. Commentators including Perez and the filmmaker Robert Kramer have noted that displays of lyrical, artistic beauty in Godard’s works of the ‘90s and beyond are always underwritten, and often overwhelmed, by the disconcerting display of the historic machinery of wealth and privilege that enables the very existence of such utopian luxury. (10) Servants, assistants, waiters, workers, lackeys and gophers of every kind make up a vast army of the underclasses in Godard’s film and video work since Passion (1982), and their appearance always breaks up, comically or melodramatically, the conventional plentitude of a lyrical moment.

 

On the essayistic rather than fictional side of Godard’s work, the Histoire(s) du cinéma offer a rich and ambiguous case study for the lyric impulse. For, despite the relentless pessimism of its socio-historical analysis, the montage forms that build this analysis are of an unparalleled lyric intensity and complexity. In fact, the energy of the series is truly manic-depressive. It oscillates wildly, literally from second to second, from optimism to pessimism – or, to put this even more strongly, from morbid, defeated sound-image figures of death at work, to emblems of poetic rebirth or renewal. Signs of life are crucified, resurrected and then re-crucified in the Histoire(s), with the conclusion or balance of the essay depending solely on where and how the viewer halts the movement of this manic spinning top. Is lyricism a “consolation not to be discounted” (as Perez puts it), or a Utopia residing in “the imagination of realities too great to remain facts”, or a sham distraction during our terrible last days and nights, “the days of shame that are coming / the nights of wild distress” (L. Cohen, “Heart With No Companion”)?

 

The Histoire(s) remind me, more than anything, of the many short texts written in the 1920s by the Surrealists, or by Jean Epstein. Statements about the cinema full of hope and wonder, but also almost instant disillusionment, disappointment, disenchantment. Close enough to the moment of cinema’s birth, they already predict its imminent death. These writers, too, were caught in a frantic oscillation of perceptions: ideally, potentially, the cinema was magic and poetry; but really it was industry and formula and cheap prose. The promise of cinema began again, and betrayed itself again, in every projected film.

 

In 1927, in a text entitled “Battlegrounds and Commonplaces”, the surrealist René Crevel sketched what could have been a scenario for an episode of Histoire(s) du cinéma.

 

At pavement level you used to tell yourself that the marvellous bliss could never end, since the marquee announced “nonstop entertainment” ... But why do these walls and their pretentious frescoes, this screen we were hoping for miracles from, afford us such poor protection?

 

Ultimately, Crevel (who killed himself in 1935) is left with the same fragile, fleeting hope that Godard finds himself entertaining and rejecting over and over again, as he comes so far for beauty.

 

Yet a single minute’s lyricism, the detail of a face, the surprise of a gesture, have always been, and always will be, capable of making us forget all kinds of wretched stories. (11)

 

 

MORE Godard: À bout de souffle, Aria, Hélas pour moi, For Ever Mozart, Masculin Féminin, Soigne ta droite, Sauve qui peut (la vie), La Chinoise, Made in USA, Film Socialism, Tout va bien

 


NOTES

1. Marie-Claire Ropars-Wuilleumier, “Form and Substance, or the Avatars of the Narrative”, in Royal S. Brown (ed.), Focus on Godard (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1972), p. 99. back

 

2. Pier Paolo Pasolini, Heretical Empiricism (Washington: New Academia Publishing, 2005), p. 173. back

 

3. Gilberto Perez, The Material Ghost: Films and Their Medium (New York: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1998), pp. 352-360. back

 

4. C. Day Lewis, The Lyric Impulse (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1965), p. 9. back

 

5. Gémino H. Abad, A Formal Approach to Lyric Poetry (University of Hawaii Press, 1978). back

 

6. Barthélemy Amengual, Bande à part (Crisnée: Éditions Yellow Now, 1993), pp. 37-38. back

 

7. Jean Collet, “No Questions Asked: Conversation with Jean-Luc Godard on Bande à part”, in Brown (ed.), Focus on Godard, p. 40. back

 

8. From a 1964 interview reprinted in Amengual, Bande à part, p. 133. back

 

9. Ibid., p. 131. back

 

10. See Robert Kramer, “In and Around Godard’s Hélas pour moi”, Projections 4½ (London: Faber and Faber, 1995), pp. 107-109. back

 

11. René Crevel, “Battlegrounds and Commonplaces”, in Paul Hammond (ed. & trans.), The Shadow and Its Shadow: Surrealist Writings on the Cinema (San Francisco: City Lights, 3rd edition, 2000), pp. 57-58. back

 

© Adrian Martin April 2001


Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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