Éloge de l’amour
Ode to Something (April 2002)
Paradoxically – given his indefatigable taste for anarchism and provocation, and his penchant for perpetual self-displacement – there is a particular metaphoric category where politics, morality, art, history and ethics all intersect for Jean-Luc Godard. It is the category of veridical or legal judgement.
This is the hard, unforgiving, arrogant, unloving (and unlovable) side of Godard – a man seemingly very sure of himself, who said, long ago, that “the cinema can be everything at once, both judge and litigant”. (1) (Curiously, it’s a side of Godard that particularly emerges when he depicts and narrates the lives of women: Raymond Durgnat aleady noted in 1967, after Vivre sa vie  and A Married Woman : “The two studies in woman, prostitute and wife, are studies in philosophical perfidy, in knowing and lying.”) (2)
Today, Godard likes to proclaim that “memory has rights and that it is a duty not to forget these rights”. (3) 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 shamed ignoramuses: didn’t you know that the train station sign “Drancy-Avenir” is also the title of a recent political film, in fact one of the rare French films of recent years of which JLG approves? 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? Godard’s righteousness can be downright hectoring and unpleasant.
Let us return a harsh judgement back upon JLG: “Slowly the labyrinth of echoes, the anxiety of influence, the maze of connections without substance, the schizo-circuit diagrams, become unbearable” (Durgnat). (4) Godard’s films are frustrating to study closely, because they rarely coalesce – in fact, they sometimes disintegrate if looked at too much.
Maybe it is better to see each of his films only once, in a suitably receptive and impressionable state, and then expand its web of significances later, in one’s head. Most Godardian devotees never talk about the individual film in front of them; rather they meditate on the standard tics of Godardian cinema, on grand and ineffable questions and contradictions and paradoxes …
Being someone who has long been partial to the aura of this forever-unreeling Godardian cinema (and video), I do become fascinated with bits and pieces of Éloge. (It is a perfect movie for DVD consumption.) For instance, the strange scenes of conversation – as often in Godard, taking the brutal question-and-answer form of an interview or interrogation – which are more dislocated than ever, with lines of dialogue reconstituted on the soundtrack so that they overlap and cancel each other out, frequently playing out-of-sync and off-screen.
Or the sense that (in Peter Wollen’s words), since 1990, Godard has been dedicated to an intermittent “reworking of his own origins as a classic reference text”. (5) Hence the return to Paris and black-and white, the echoes of Bande à part (a train, a song, a café named Liberté) and Pierrot le fou (the impressionism of coloured lights on a car windscreen), the touchingly aged actors from his oldest films (such as Rémo Forlani) and even from the ‘70s Dziga Vertov group (Jean-Henri Roger).
Or those deconstructive traces: shots of the homeless that ambiguously belong to either Godard or to his characters; words whose meaning and origin are revealed only much later in the film. There is something of Jacques Derrida in recent Godard, whereby each idea that is presented is simultaneously undone, leaving a series of trails leading to some shifty place where signification is endlessly deferred. “Everytime you see something, it reminds you of something else”, says Edgar (Bruno Putzulu, an actor Godard discovered in Jean-Claude Guiguet’s The Passengers ) in Éloge.
Or suddenly beautiful, touching images, like Berthe (Cecile Camp) 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 concrete, not movies or money or children … as it has been in Godardian cinema since Passion in 1982.
But all this is still not enough to redeem Éloge de l’amour.
People I respect can see and feel 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, in-between and uncertain – just like Edgar?
And why does he so carefully and delicately hide Berthe’s face for most of the film – if she is so truly, existentially heroic, a “woman like Simone Weil or Hannah Arendt”, someone with a name, a place, a story and an identity – while making the close-ups of others resonate with the guilt and anguish of a too-stern gaze?
As always, Godard cagily vacillates between a lyrical fullness of meaning and an adolescent desire to sabotage all meaning: hence, this ‘ode to love’ becomes, in the film’s obsessive inter-titles, often just an ‘ode to something’, something that really exists in its concreteness or hardly exists at all – take your pick.
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, or of a sad spoken word or phrase (“It’s me - me”); 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 two halves, which is almost Kieslowski-like (as Nouvelle Vague in 1990 already, inadvertently, was); 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 a road to nowhere …
When asked what he looked for in the actors here, Godard replied: “Something, perhaps not much, that was real”. Others intuit 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 notional (Durgnat’s word) supports or figures in an ongoing essay/collage. (6) But Godard’s two-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 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”. (7)
It’s always intriguing to compare one’s own responses, at different moments of life, to the same Godard film. Éloge de l’amour still strikes me, on a new re-viewing, as an often frustratingly cryptic, secretive film. Part of the magic of his work (especially the late work, to allude to the title of Daniel Morgan’s brilliant book) (8) is when, as a spectator, you feel you suddenly see or grasp one of these secrets, in a moment of illumination that carries a strange, potent emotion.
For example, I identify (in both senses of that word), this time around, with the shadowy presentation of the Berthe figure that I described, bemusedly and with harsh judgement, 15 years ago: she may well be a stand-in for Anne-Marie Miéville in Godard’s life (remember that he postponed post-production completion of it until he had acted in her After the Reconciliation in 2000, a role that seems to have touched him personally, and perhaps mirrored him on an intimate, autobiographical level), representing that precious interlocutor he has so often spoke of, who could challenge and extend him. The Edgar/Berthe relationship is not just then, the ashes of love, or a love that never was; it is more an ideal of intellectual and sensual fusion that slips away from the hero’s grasp. (And, in this, echoes the crux of most of Terrence Malick’s films since The New World in 2005.)
In 2002, I conjured the rhetoric of a certain critical fiction about Godard’s way of working that I and others have nurtured down the decades: namely, that his films are his notebooks, provisional and all over the place, reflecting the contradictory storm of whatever socio-personal moment he was passing through when he made that particular piece. This fiction has long provided a basis for either celebrating or dismissing his cinema – it can work either way. Reading an interview from the time with Godard, I face what I then didn’t know, or chose to forget: that, far from being an impulse-project, Éloge de l’amour was carefully developed (and transformed) over a period of some five years (as most late Godard has been, in one way or another). (9)
This evolution in Godard’s method – decidely different to the way he merrily proceeded in the early 1960s – poses its own challenges: he speaks of his desire not to merely illustrate or execute a pre-given scenario or idea (as most filmmakers would be more-or-less happy to achieve!), and of his delight (as always) in stumbling upon some piece of reality that fits right into the architecture of his project-in-the-making. There is still a complicated dialectic (and sometimes a mutual interference) of design and chance, framework and accident.
But accepting how Godard actually made Éloge de l’amour – i.e., with rather more care and premeditation than I was initially willing to allow him in my mind – opens the distinct possibility that the result is a good deal more coherent than I first thought in my viewing experience of 2001. Now, however covered the thematic-formal structure may be with diverse, elaborate layerings, I see it better today: the film is all about connecting the personal story (of love, family, the working life of an artist, whatever) to the larger history of forces and relations that frame it and bear down on it.
Memory sits between the two poles: inescapably personal memory, that both evades or obscures and occasionally grasps this wider network of significances (wars, politics, money markets, migration, and so on). It’s the personal-and-political dilemma posed to both thought and fiction, poignantly handled: and, again as in Malick, the web of understandings disappears at almost every instant that it is delicately captured. A detail in one realm (the intractablly personal passions and betrayals) always takes us back to the other realm (the Resistance, the Holocaust …) – and then back again, in an endless echo chamber. This is the special, agonised type of Romanticism that Morgan discusses so well in his book.
I am also more inclined, these days, to take Godard at his word when he claims that the discourses arranged in his films are never meant to signal ‘his’ viewpoint, but simply a diagram or montage of clashing viewpoints: this view of things takes out much of the harsh, hectoring tone I originally complained about. It’s always too easy to attribute one or other ‘line’ (or rather, quotation) in a Godard film to the man himself – this is the fatal mistake of, for instance, Richard Brody’s Godard biography (which is truly a hectoring, tunnel-visioned tome).
One final note: I scoffed, in 2002, at the central trope of children and old folks arranged on one side of the film’s semantic structure – being both fully formed as beings and types, and yet still, in some sense, naked and open – versus, on the other side, all the dreary (or heroically struggling) adult figures (such as Edgar). But it’s interesting to note that this same structure is already evident way back in Godard’s work – in A Married Woman, for example (Roger Leenhardt gets a monologue, and so does a kid), in Numéro deux (1975) with its three-generations-in-a-council-flat premise, and even in Le Gai savoir (1968), where (again) a child and an old, seemingly homeless guy (a ‘type’ that recurs insistently in Éloge) are pitted against the formless, vitally young, ever-inquiring adults represented by Léaud and Berto in a TV studio.
It seems to be this middle position – the adult miasma – that Godard himself has always situated himself in and identified himself with … even in 2017, when he’s reached his mid 80s! The complex dialectic of experience-in-the-world goes on …
1. Godard on Godard (Secker & Warburg, 1972), p. 208. back
2. The Essential Raymond Durgnat (BFI, 2014) p. 54 back
3. See, for example, the Godard interview book The Future(s) of Film (Gachnang & Springer, 2002). back
4. The Essential Raymond Durgnat, p. 206. back
5. Jean-Luc Godard: Son + Image (New York Museum of Modern Art, 1992), p. 194. back
7. Positif, no. 484 (June 2001), p. 44. back
8. Late Godard and the Possibilities of Cinema (University of California Press, 2013). back
9. See The Future(s) of Film, pp. 45-64. back
© Adrian Martin April 2002 / August 2017