Essays (book reviews)

Godard: A Portrait of the Artist at 70
by Colin MacCabe
(Bloomsbury, 2003, 432 pages


Hybrid forms of writing – especially those which intermingle fiction and non-fiction – are all the rage these days. But hybrids, however attractive in theory, often turn out to be monsters – unwieldy attempts to do too many things at once.


The critical biography is one such literary hybrid. It is obvious why a growing number of arts critics and scholars are turning to this form. It escapes the narrow niche market of a purely academic commentary on an artist’s work, while opening up the possibility of a comprehensive look at the socio-historical context which formed it.


Trying to blend criticism and biography, however, often results in an awkward juxtaposition of materials. Such awkwardness is foregrounded in Colin MacCabe’s unsatisfying biography of France’s greatest living film director, that Nouvelle Vague legend, Jean-Luc Godard.


By the third line of the preface, MacCabe is already declaring his “dislike of biography” and his doubts about the entire endeavour. 330 pages later, he winds up the text with the dismal admission that his subject’s life “often became tiresome” to him, adding sagely that “we are all, like the dog returning to its vomit, condemned to repeat within a sadly limited repertory”!


In between, MacCabe rarely shakes off a tone of acute discomfort. The book exudes a peculiarly British form of embarrassment in the face of its subject’s personal life. MacCabe’s language becomes hopelessly contorted and evasive whenever it approaches anything remotely intimate. This account is virtually a gossip-free zone: almost every salacious story I have heard or read about Godard is missing, and its most entertaining anecdotes are apologetically buried in the notes up the back.


Does MacCabe know more than he is letting on? In 1993, he published a short sketch for this book (it appears in the mighty MoMA catalogue, Jean-Luc Godard: Son + Image, 1974-1991) , which included the information that Godard, in his youth, was briefly a gay hustler. The publication of that text reportedly angered Godard. Perhaps as a result, this incident no longer figures in MacCabe’s biography – and one wonders what else has been excluded or toned down in order to avoid the filmmaker’s opprobrium. (Researchers in this field are well aware, for instance, of Godard’s total aversion to the reminiscences of his former wife, Anne Wiazemsky.)


MacCabe presents his book as a “series of angles” that hopefully add up to a composite portrait of Godard. Firstly, it is a family history, with MacCabe providing the most original part of his research: a painstaking recreation of Godard’s privileged, Protestant background.


Next up is intellectual history. MacCabe picks up Godard’s trail in the Paris of the ‘50s as he becomes involved with the intense, social scene around the magazine Cahiers du cinéma and its resident guru, André Bazin. Much of this section listlessly recycles what is already available in other, better books about the pre-history of the Nouvelle Vague.


Then we move on to film history – in particular, the peculiar industrial conditions that sustained Nouvelle Vague mavericks like Godard, François Truffaut and Jacques Rivette in the 1960s. Amazingly, MacCabe seems more interested in innovations in filmmaking technology than the action-packed lifestyle upheavals of that period – although he does offer extensive reminiscences from Godard’s first wife and most iconic star, Anna Karina.


The dourest section of the book deals with political history – Godard’s left turn into militant filmmaking in 1968, working with his second wife Wiazemsky, and the young radical, Jean-Pierre Gorin. It is here that MacCabe’s own past as a leftist intellectual begins making its presence felt in an overly intrusive and earnest way.


Indeed, the final section of the book, concerning Godard’s return to narrative filmmaking from the ‘80s to now, focuses disproportionately on MacCabe’s own, relatively minor involvement as producer on three of Godard’s video projects. Here the biographer almost succeeds in displacing the artist altogether.


MacCabe’s slicing up of Godard’s life into this succession of starkly different histories creates more problems than it solves. We are never able to follow any single line all the way through. Odd gaps proliferate: people cease to exist once they have exited Godard’s career, so one would not know from these pages that, post-Godard, Karina found renewed fame as a pop singer, or that Wiazemsky became an acclaimed novelist. And the list of Godard’s collaborators that MacCabe consulted is highly selective – where, for example, are the male stars such as Alain Delon, Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean-Pierre LĂ©aud?


MacCabe repeatedly asserts that what really matters is Godard’s work, not his life. But his book is even less substantial as a critical study than it is as biography. Banalities and truisms abound: Godard the collage artist, Godard the mixer of high and low culture, Godard the painter in cinematic images …


For a scholar with such a materialist bent, MacCabe is often reduced to the bald assertion that what makes Godard’s films great is their “incredible beauty”. That much is certainly true, but it can only be a starting point for the book that MacCabe has failed to write.



© Adrian Martin February 2004

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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