Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Two or Three Things I Know About Her (2 ou 3 Choses que Je Sais d’Elle)

Godard on the set of the film

TWO OR THREE THINGS I KNOW ABOUT HER (2 ou 3 Choses que Je Sais d’Elle)               C                    
France  (87 mi)  1967 ‘Scope d:  Jean-Luc Godard

By now Godard has grown comfortable with his essay style of filmmaking, which has become the prototype for the kinds of films he will be making for the next 50 years, where he comes across as lecturing or pontificating, much of it actually read or spoken aloud, including the director’s voice constantly interjecting, whispering his thoughts aloud, with characters breaking from the screen and speaking directly to the audience, as if this adds an element of truth.  Gone are the days of narrative filmmaking, as this represents what modern era filmmaking means to Godard.  Personally, there’s little in this film that the director didn’t say better in My Life to Live (Vivre Sa Vie: Film en douze tableaux) (1962), as this overly verbose film uses 10,000 words to express what that film reveals in 100, where both films deal with the subject of prostitution, though here it’s stripped of all sexual context and is interested only in the commercial transaction, a metaphor for capitalism and consumer culture, with Godard suggesting the growing dependence on consumer goods is bleeding the country dry, literally sucking the soul right out of the nation, creating a more indifferent population that are too busy trying to find ways to earn money simply to survive that they have little time left to actually live.  The difference here is that there is no thought of a developing conscience, no hope for the future, no appreciation for the world around us, as it’s all been soiled and destroyed by political interests, namely France and America who both got bogged down in an unending war in Vietnam, spending billions on bombs and sophisticated weaponry, blowing the country to smithereens rather than offer anything of cultural value.  Rather than an equal exchange of cultural ideas and interests, it’s a one-sided bloodbath causing a horrible loss of lives.  Yet the citizens of both imperial powers hardly bat an eye at the consequences inflicted by their warmongering nations, as they’re much more interested in buying the latest products advertised through constant bombardment on TV, basically telling people what they should want if they want to build a happy middle class life.  But once they’re surrounded by modern gadgets in their comfortable suburban, middle class homes, they’re no happier, as they’ve been hoodwinked into believing this is what they wanted.  The film depicts Paris as a continuous construction zone, featuring bulldozers, cement mixers, and giant cranes dotting the landscape, where the constant noise of jackhammers can be heard throughout the picture, with Godard turning the sound on and off, as he has done throughout his career.  In this film, things that exist in standard narrative films, but are never emphasized, become the focus of this film, such as brand-name consumer products, which the director finds just as interesting, where a close-up of a cup of coffee becomes a link to the cosmos through a self-reflective inner voice that allows the director to ponder the meaning of his own existence.  

At the center is Marina Vlady as Juliette Janson, a Parisian housewife from the suburbs who spends her afternoons as a prostitute in order to earn some extra cash, basically dumping one of her kids in a play area while she entertains men behind closed doors.  In complete contrast to Anna Karina, who provides depths of emotion in My Life to Live (Vivre Sa Vie: Film en douze tableaux), always an appealing subject, Vlady is lifeless and bland, remaining indifferent throughout, never once generating a spark of interest.  The same could be said for all the other Godard performers in this film, as they are literally indistinguishable from one another, except one, Juliet Berto, who is absolutely stunning in her brief appearance onscreen, simply sitting in a café engaging in a conversation with someone sitting next to her.  Why is she so much more interesting than anyone else?  Because she’s not lifeless and inert, displaying some spirit and personality, and because she brings with her audience recognition from later Rivette films (who actually uses her as an actress), as she is instantly recognizable from one of the lead roles in Out 1 and Jacques Rivette R.I.P. (1971) and the ever charming Céline and Julie Go Boating (Céline et Julie vont en bateau) (1974), where she’s absolutely adorable in both, bringing as much interest and appeal to the French New Wave as Anna Karina, as both are startling fresh faces offering a jolt of something new.  That said, the rest of the film is dispirited and monotonous, continually quoting from written text, where the film is as much about reading as it is about cinema, often depicting characters reading various passages from randomly selected books, which is a habit of Godard himself, known for reading just the first and last pages of books.  To put that onscreen, however, is about as undramatic as possible, as there is essentially no character development and no story, no suspense, and no emotional engagement, as the characters themselves become just another consumer product.  Godard has chosen a flat, emotionless style to spout various ideas, questioning his ability to communicate, challenging the concept of cinéma vérité, or even the idea of cinema itself, where one wonders what effect, if any, this has on viewers, who are distanced from the subject matter throughout.  Even Bresson or Brechtian theater engage the audience, forcing them to actively participate in the subject matter, but not so here, as ideas are presented, rapidly moving from one to the other in a fragmented style, but never developed coherently, often confusing thought itself with reality, creating a startlingly indifferent style of cinema that neither shocks nor provokes, continually overemphasizing rational discourse through the written word, which is spoken endlessly in this film, as if the director was in love with language itself, irrespective of whether it carries any meaning.  It doesn’t seem to matter to this director, constructing a film (with subtitles) that is essentially read rather than viewed, like reading notes from a personal diary or journal.  Thoughts attributed to others are lost in this process, where the original source becomes meaningless, as all are included under the umbrella of the Godardian universe.    

As the promotional film poster designed by Godard asserts, “her” is the subject of:

HER, the cruelty of neo-capitalism
HER, prostitution
HER, the Paris region
HER, the bathroom that 70% of the French don't have
HER, the terrible law of huge building complexes
HER, the physical side of love
HER, the life of today
HER, the war in Vietnam
HER, the modern call-girl
HER, the death of modern beauty
HER, the circulation of ideas
HER, the gestapo of structures

Godard was concerned how easily the city of Paris (the “her” in the title) was being transformed on a vast scale into something altogether different, losing its essential character and identity, describing it as one large brothel, with inhabitants that are obedient and docile, continually prostituting themselves, reflecting Godard’s feelings about the prostitution of modern life.  Inspired by a magazine story from Le Nouvel Observateur showing how many women from a low-income high rise housing complex in the outer banlieue regions resorted to casual prostitution in order to survive economically.  Forced to relocate outside the city into these dreary looking buildings that have all the modern conveniences, but at a price, often falling into debt by having to pay relocation moving fees and an exorbitant charge for heat and electricity.  In order to afford the luxury associated with modern living, these women found themselves making day trips into Paris meeting clients for sex, returning with grocery bags filled with items from an alleged shipping spree, offering a cover for their unsuspecting husbands.  The film follows 24-hours in the life of one of these suburban housewives (Marina Vlady as Juliette), living in what appears to be a loveless marriage with her husband and two children, as she spends her day in Paris.  Godard’s larger view was to provide a critical appraisal of the de Gaulle government, specifically the appointment of Paul Delouvrier (who is mentioned by name) as the Minister of Planning for the new Parisian region under the pretext of reorganizing and modernizing, and was actually standardizing the natural tendencies of capitalism by accentuating a hyper-inflated spending spree, buying and building structures they could not afford, routinely going into debt as a result, which he demonstrates is the new morality of living in Paris.  Meanwhile, workers spend three-fourths of their lives being paid for a job that holds little interest to them, essentially prostituting themselves, which has become the norm, whether they be builders, plumbers, postal clerks, bankers, or even film directors.  Throughout the film Godard questions his own motives for making the film, as does Juliette for her own daily decisions, creating a collage of opinions and images, where there’s an overriding feeling of dissatisfaction associated with their work.  In one of the few scenes showing her “at work,” she and a girlfriend Marianne (Anny Duperey) are hired by an American photojournalist (producer Raoul Lévy known for originally hiring Brigitte Bardot) wearing a T-shirt of an American flag.  It is at this point and time that Godard turns his back on American culture (described as America über allies), as the war in Vietnam personifies all that’s wrong in international politics, with one side essentially forcing its views upon another through an endless bombing campaign, producing mutilated bodies and a neverending stream of napalmed corpses, many of which are starkly photographed in this film, intercut between two women parading around naked wearing TWA and Pan-Am flight bags over their head, showing how easily advertising love and war are actually interchanged, simply using different graphics.      

Becoming one of Godard’s more acclaimed films, viewed as revelatory, with critic Jonathan Rosenbaum describing the film “the most ambitious of all his attempts to create a new language of truth-telling,” or noted critic and New York Film Festival co-founder Richard Roud describing it as “the summit of Godard’s work,” considered a modern work expressing a contemplative tone reflective of the times, it represents the dialectical mode that has become the centerpiece of his later works, arguably more distanced and less interesting, yet he is lauded for elevating the level of debate, for offering a counterpoint to the seemingly out-of-control massive development projects that were sweeping across Europe at the time, changing the identity of its populace, who become part of the push for modernization, as their work and consumer habits basically pay for it.  Instead of revolting against this soulless imposition people instead immediately adapt to a bourgeois lifestyle and all that’s promised in terms of greater comforts, victims of a society dictated by advertising, asking citizens to continually spend more and more.  At the same time, Juliette’s husband is a ham radio operator, listening to overseas broadcasts of American President Johnson announcing, with a “heavy heart,” that he is ordering increased escalation of the Vietnam bombing campaign, repeating aloud what he hears on the radio broadcast.  Even their small child has a dream that can be summed up as a unification of North and South Korea.  What this suggests is that people are bombarded by information, all directed at them, which they have to make sense out of, as the daily bombardment only increases, suggesting this is the new reality.  The secret for survival is finding order through all the chaos, maintaining one’s calm in all the confusion, where there’s a blitzkrieg of change challenging our ability to adapt, with Godard revealing his own self-doubts, but also personal confessions of people seemingly chosen at random speaking directly to the camera about the state of their lives, with Godard himself interrupting, offering his own appraisal, all juxtaposed together into a rational cinematic discourse, an ethical commentary on our times.  Questioning the limits of language, suggesting an inability to make things clear, Godard suggests the limitations of language are the limitations of the world around us, where we are constantly pushed aside in the pursuit of greater interests, like forced relocation to make way for a giant supermarket complex that offers the promise of lower prices and greater convenience, yet it pushes the corner grocery stores out of business, permanently altering the landscape around us, about which we have little say.  Raoul Coutard behind the camera shows the world through bizarre angles, creating a mosaic-like surface that has been cut up and reassembled seemingly in random order, yet this is the template for Godard to spew his philosophical meanderings.  Whether people will find this informative or appealing is purely subjective, as there’s an air of dismissiveness that can leave one cold, as Godard simply doesn’t care about his relationship with the audience anymore, as he does what suits his interests, period, where he’s all that matters, placing himself front and center in his pictures.  It’s a relatively aloof vantage point, stuck in an elitist ivory tower, becoming more and more omniscient and all-knowing as time goes on, spewing what amounts to verbiage and academia as he assumes the role of the lone professor and/or high priest of cinema offering his voodoo analysis. 

Saturday, February 23, 2019

Masculine Feminine (in 15 Acts) (Masculin Féminin: 15 faits précis)

Director Jean-Luc Godard (right) on the set of Masculin Féminin (1966)

MASCULINE FEMININE (In 15 Acts)          B-                   
aka:  Masculin Féminin: 15 faits précis
France  Sweden  (103 mi)  1966  d:  Jean-Luc Godard 

No, it’s more a film on the idea of youth.  A philosophical idea, but not a practical one—a way of reacting to things.  It’s not a dissertation on youth or even an analysis.  Let’s say that it speaks of youth, but it’s a piece of music, a “concerto youth.”  I have taken young signs, signs that have not yet been deformed.  My signs haven’t already been used a thousand times.  I can talk about them now, afterward, because when I made this film, I didn’t have the least idea of what I wanted.
Godard on "Masculine Feminine"   Pierre Daix interview with Godard from Les Lettres Francaises, June 1966 (pdf format)

We’d often go to the movies. We’d shiver as the screen lit up.  But more often, Madeline and I would be disappointed. The images flickered.  Marilyn Monroe looked terribly old.  It saddened us.  It wasn’t the film we had dreamed, the film we all carried in our hearts, the film we wanted to make... and secretly wanted to live.            
—Paul (Jean-Pierre Léaud)

Following on the heels of the highly popular Pierrot le Fou (1965), a lightweight comedy featuring a handsome couple (Jean-Paul Belmondo and Anna Karina) as outlaws on the run through some of the most gorgeously photographed locales in southern France’s ravishly beautiful Cote d'Azur region, this is a return to low grade black and white, notable for being Godard’s last film in black and white, where Godard’s regular cinematographer, Raoul Coutard, has been replaced by Belgian-born Willy Kurant.  Unlike the sumptuous color of his previous effort, creating an almost exhilarating giddiness, this film is shrouded in an overall feeling of gloom, where there’s not an ounce of warmth or compassion anywhere to be seen in the film.  In view of Godard’s own crumbling relationship with actress Anna Karina (divorced in 1968), who is absent from this production, only to reappear again in one final film together, the barely seen MADE IN U.S.A. (1966), the director seems to be working out his own personal frustrations within the context of the more despairing characters who lack the energetic optimism of his previous films, becoming a meditation on the seeming impossibility of relations between the sexes.  Of course it wouldn’t be a Godard film if he wasn’t also making a satirical comment on the vacuousness of celebrity worship while dramatizing the commercialism of contemporary art and music.  Using natural lighting and synchronous sound, shooting many of the scenes at night, capturing the rush of Christmas shopping, exactly as Éric Rohmer does in My Night at Maud's (Ma Nuit Chez Maud) (1969), Godard’s film is a time capsule capturing a city for all seasons, a portrait of everyday Paris.  Shooting on the streets of Paris in the winter of 1965, a contrast to Chris Marker’s Le Joli Mai (1963), which was shot on the same streets during the spring of 1962, and Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin’s CHRONICLE OF A SUMMER (Chronique d'un été, Paris 1960), which was shot in the summer months of 1960, all are early examples of cinéma vérité.
Moving away from narrative, using a near documentary style, as the title suggests the film is more a series of incidents all strung together, where there is little connection to any of the characters.  Like a missing adventure from Truffaut’s Introduction to The Adventures of Antoine Doinel, featuring actor Jean-Pierre Léaud as Antoine Doinel, he reappears here in a Godard film as Paul, much the same, now 21-years of age, still a young idealist whose job description continues to be hitting on attractive women, rather awkwardly and usually unsuccessfully.  Here he drifts through various jobs, currently working for a public opinion poll, though rather than adhering to a specific script, obtaining scientific objectivity, he spontaneously veers into questions of his own interest (allegedly spoken into his ear by the director), blending fiction and documentary, reflected in a painfully forced, near ten-minute take of a lengthy interview of “Miss Nineteen” (Elsa Leroy), an attractive model/singer who represents the youth of today, which grows ludicrous in the sheer stupidity of the questions, grilling her on subjects she knows nothing about, yet very similar to the kinds of nonsensical questions asked of the Beatles during their early 1960’s press conferences as reflected in A HARD DAY’S NIGHT (1964).  While this is going on, there’s also an inner struggle with Paul, where he questions his own motives.   

Little by little during these three months I've noticed that all these questions, far from reflecting a collective mentality, were frequently betraying and distorting it…Without knowing it, I was deceiving [the people I was questioning] and being deceived by them. Why? No doubt because polls and samples soon forget their true purpose, which is the observation of behavior, and insidiously substitute value judgments for research. I discovered that all the questions I was asking conveyed an ideology which didn’t correspond to actual customs but to those of yesterday, of the past. Thus I had to remain vigilant. A few random observations came to me by chance and served me as guidelines:

A philosopher is a man who pits his conscience against opinion:  To have a conscience is to be open to the world.

To be faithful is to act as if time does not exist.  Wisdom could be if one could see life, really see, that would be wisdom.  

At least part of Godard’s interest in making the film was documenting the conditions during the lead-up to the December 1965 presidential elections where de Gaulle eventually beat Mitterand in a runoff, viewed not so much through a political lens, but from the vantage point of an interested bystander gauging the interests of the public at the time, where the film has more of a sociological feel to it than most.  The mood of the nation is considered through a somewhat skewed social milieu, as Godard seems more interested in the youth voters and pop culture.  Due to the adult subject matter, however, the film was actually barred for children under age 18, probably the very audience Godard was targeting.  One should understand that any film starring Jean-Pierre Léaud at this age is going to delve into satiric foolishness, as he’s always trying to get into a girl’s pants, and will go to any extremes, where here his narcissistic persistence eventually becomes too much of a pain in the ass, though his comical lightheartedness is amusing.  While he will forever be defined by two films, Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (Les quatre cents coups) (1959) and Jean Eustache’s The Mother and the Whore (La Maman et la Putain) (1973), he pretty much plays himself in every film, a likeable and charming, yet somewhat naïve and goofy guy, where women like to have him around as much to make fun of him as to enjoy his company.  His jealousy and over possessiveness, however, usually gets the better of him.  Here he is paired against Chantal Goya as Madeleine, an attractive model attempting to get a start in the music business as one of the Yé-yé girls, where she’s hoping to gain some success as a pop singer, which at the time is her sole concern.  In doing so, she maintains a youthful innocence in her songs while being marketed and/or exploited in a sexy and deliberate way.  Throughout the film she is seen as little more than a carefully developed commodity, a child of the Pepsi generation where Paul gets lost in the fantasy aura surrounding her, failing to ever really register with the person herself.  In fact it was Truffaut who suggested to Godard that he buy his first television set in order to “discover” this young talent performing on TV while also working in the offices of several popular teen magazines, Salut les copains and Mademoiselle âge tender, giving Godard the opportunity to work her real life into his film.   

This was the era of James Bond and Vietnam. A great wave of hope had risen in the French left with the approach of the December [1965] elections. 

Ostensibly the film deals with the developing relationship between Paul and Madeleine who meet at a café counter and engage in flirtatious banter that she initially finds charming, where his opening line is, “What about the twenty-third?  You told me we could go out together on the twenty-third,” to which she responds, “And when you say go out, you mean go to bed?” confiding her thoughts in a voiceover, “Maybe I’ll screw him, if he isn’t a drag.” Eventually introducing him to her two attractive roommates, Catherine (Catherine-Isabelle Duport) and Elisabeth (Marlène Jobert), women that seem to have nothing in common with him, yet the relationship blurs the boundaries and turns into a silly ménage a trois when Paul moves in.  Paul opens the film a declared radical leftist and works with another leftist journalist friend, Robert (Michel Debord), where the extent of their activism is expressed by mounting posters or political slogans on the street, uttering catchphrases like, “Kill a man and you’re a murderer.  Kill thousands and you’re a conqueror.  Kill everyone and you’re a god.”  Though you can never tell if he’s pretending or if its real life, but eventually Paul becomes a pollster (for the French Public Opinion Institute), which gives him an excuse to ask any probing question he likes, as if he’s always on duty.  No one ever asks men these kinds of sexist, air-headed questions, where most of it sounds like male pandering, where they’re just being annoying pests hovering around attractive girls.  While the women are just as superficial, they seem to be more honest and up front about it, while the guys are posers, continually pretending to be something they’re not.  Time and again Godard returns to the interview format throughout the film, with Paul trying to instill some political interest in Catherine who pretty much avoids his questions, smiling incessantly for the camera, claiming she prefers “reactionaries” as they’re somehow “against” the prevailing tide. 

No one is ever seen working, yet they somehow always have money and dress in the latest fashion, so all are likely ravenous consumers.  While there are references to revolution or leftist politics, no one is seen organizing or doing the necessary work to make these desired anti-capitalist realities happen, though there are a few humorous asides, instead it’s more of a façade of all talk with no action, mirroring the way these vacuous guys talk with girls, with the endless questioning, which sounds like the mindless kinds of questions asked of beauty contestants.  It goes from silliness, like a series of murders taking place before our eyes but nobody cares, an actual appearance by Brigitte Bardot rehearsing her lines in a café, or a scene title that says, “This film should be called ‘The Children of Marx and Coca-Cola,’” to ugly when they all go out to the movies, which turns out to be a sadistic porn film from Sweden, where Paul goes ballistics when he discovers it’s not being shown in the correct aspect ratio, reading the projectionist a lecture on the proper guidelines.  Ultimately, however, this becomes another surface level film that never sufficiently delves below the surface, punctuated by interjecting title cards, as Godard is more fascinated by style than substance, where the guys endlessly dwell on talking politics and painting slogans while the girls are continually looking at themselves in mirrors while playing with their hair and shopping for the latest styles.  Due to the non-involving nature of the characters themselves, who never generate any heat or electricity, overall the film resembles a hopeless love affair, with Godard identifying with the emptiness of the relationships, reflective of the lost idealism of the 60’s and the dilemma of being young, where the film’s real value is more as a time capsule documenting the times.  It represents a transitional stage in Godard’s career where in his late 30’s, for the first time in his life, he’s about to discover politics, where his earlier 60’s films feel so much more charming and exuberant, representing a much simpler time.