Jean-Luc Godard is widely regarded as one of the greats of modern cinema, particularly for his Nouvelle Vague masterpieces of the '60s such as À bout de souffle (1960), Contempt (1963), Alphaville (1965) and Week-end (1967). These movies were jazzy, disrespectful, playful, fragmented, and a generation of filmgoers took to them like nothing else.
Godard's career has in fact gone through several revolutions since the swinging sixties. He went through a deep left-wing phase in the late '60s, and in the '70s retired from film for a while to explore the medium of video. In 1980 he made what he called his "second first film", his return to cinema, Sauve qui peut (aka Every Man For Himself) starring Isabelle Huppert. Suddenly we saw a more expansive, lyrical, poetic Godard – still iconoclastic and cheeky, but now interested in classical art, classical music, religion and the great myths. He took on the Carmen story in Prénom Carmen (1983) and modernised the birth of Christ in Hail Mary (1985).
Instead of quotes from Roland Barthes or Chairman Mao filling his soundtracks, as they did in the '60s, now Godard was quoting grand romantic figures like Rilke and Van Gogh. And, inevitably, Godard has become preoccupied with the pathos of ageing, giving all his recent work a sometimes morose, twilight aura. For Godard, death is an especially grand thing: he believes the cinema as we know it will die along with him and his generation of New-Wavers.
It would probably be fair to say that Godard's work since the mid-'80s has become rather inscrutable and hermetic – but I cannot be definite about this, since virtually none of his films or videos since Hail Mary in 1985 have been commercially released in Australia, and they even have trouble scraping into local film festivals. Godard divides his time these days between occasional cinema features – big, lush, gorgeous movies with French stars like Alain Delon – and more small-scale works put together in his video studio, like the series Histories of Cinema, which is comprised almost entirely of clips from pre-existing films. Hélas pour moi is with the cinema features. It stars a dazed Gérard Depardieu – who, reportedly, walked out a third of the way during filming. According to Godard, whose relations with stars have often been difficult, "the extras did most of the acting" in this film – and it shows.
The film is shot entirely in one location, a Swiss lakeside village. As in Godard's beautiful Passion (1982), an assorted bunch of odd characters swarm around each other. There's a group of idealistic young students studying romanticism, a handful of crusty old workers at the train station, pairs of young lovers caught in an endless loop of breaking up and making up. Everything happens in just a few spots – a pier, a cafe, a video shop, a home.
Out of this swirl, something resembling a central plotline emerges. Where in Hail Mary the spirit of God possessed a woman, here the chosen vessel is a spineless guy: Depardieu, in the process of leaving his ever-faithful wife (Laurence Masliah). Like the angels in Wim Wenders' Wings of Desire (1987), Depardieu the deity wants to experience earthly passion – but all he ends up encountering is the abyss separating the sexes, and the sweet sadness of mortal life.
To be frank, any attempt at a straight synopsis of this film is something of an invention on my part. It is a deliberately obscure and nutty work, as all of Godard's recent fictional films have been. The story advances joltingly through digressions, free associations, allusions to a greater story that is never fully told. In fact, once again, Godard has revisited a myth – this time, the Greek myth of Zeus impersonating a mortal man in order to seduce his wife. This myth is never actually told or explained by Godard in the movie – he only inscribes in the credits the mysterious words, "based on a legend". The original myth is, as usual, just a springboard for him to weave a chaotic, often bizarrely humorous collection of improvised fragments.
Hélas pour moi is, according again to its intertitles, a "cinematic proposition" – an attempt to see landscapes, bodies, gestures and light with a fresh, innocent eye. Godard treats us to a controlled riot of out-of-focus shots, elegant tableaux, loud snippets of classical music and warring voice-over narrations. The film is visually and aurally ravishing. In one remarkable moment, where a mother and child are furiously blown about on a platform by an incoming super-fast train, Godard even cheekily takes us back to the very beginnings of cinema – to Louis Lumière one hundred years ago and his famous train entering a station.
Yet there is also a pathos in all this chaotic madness, for Hélas pour moi is really an elegy for a world that has lost its sense of myth. The film starts with a touching parable (adapted from a passage in Martin Buber's Tales of the Hasidim) of the men of three successive generations at their greatest moments of crisis:
So the modern world has no (or few) bearings, no traditions, no rituals that stick. (The film excludes Buber's upbeat conclusion: "And it was sufficient. For God made man because he loves stories.") There is only the will for peace and beauty, the yearning for transcendence. Godard asks: Is this still enough?
I feel close to Godard's films, even the murkiest of them, but it's hard to dodge the charge of sexism that is often laid at this director's feet, particularly in recent years. It's not simply that he fills his films with young, classically beautiful, naked women, and then gazes upon them through his camera for extended periods of screen time. It's something deeper at the heart of Godard's world-view. He clearly divides the world into two vastly different spheres, masculine and feminine. He does not so much degrade women as raise them up to an ethereal level of the sublime, the spiritual, the eternal. Men, on the other hand – even if the man is God, as in this film – are creatures of the earth and of the flesh, weak and willing, racked by desire and guilt. Women are the silent bearers of cosmic secrets; men are pathetic, pained, sulky intellectuals. And for Godard, old age seems to make this male condition even more pathetic and groping, wistful and solitary.
There are large obstacles in the way of really loving Godard's later films. I am convinced, for instance, that there is no director in world cinema less interested in characterisation. His "extras" dance and strike poses, stiffly reciting aphorisms and witticisms about love, science, history, religion. They are just vessels for words, marionettes to be pushed and pulled around, however elegantly, by the master filmmaker. A French cinephile once told me that only the French know how painful it can be to hear the actors in Godard's movies utter these stilted, impersonal reams of dialogue. The only comparable instance in English language cinema I can think of is Gus Van Sant's My Own Private Idaho (1991), where the cast regularly breaks into a bizarre Shakespearian patois, a pastiche of classicism and Beat poetry – and that sent many viewers completely up the wall.
I don't think Godard is trying to distance us from the characters and the story, Brecht-style, as he did in the '60s. He is attempting something difficult and paradoxical: to make us connect to the emotions and ideas of his films directly, without the intermediary of full-blooded characters. And those who have followed Godard down these past thirty-five years, those who are on his strange modern romantic vibe, will find this emotion in the moody, troubled, melancholic looks on Depardieu's face.
© Adrian Martin March 1995