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ReFramed No. 2: Jean-Luc Godard - The Second New Wave (1980-1989)

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Thursday, Jun 2, 2011
by Jordan Cronk and Calum Marsh

Passion

Cronk: I think First Name: Carmen has a pretty decent reputation as far as these things go. It did win the Golden Lion at Venice that year (1983), though again, it’s almost like it alljust gets swept up into this pile of negligible Godard films, which is completely ridiculous. I’m glad you brought up Passion, though: that one is always my default answer for the best Godard film from this era, even though I don’t find myself wanting to watch it as much as the others. I feel like it’s almost Godard’s Day for Night, a film he actually expressed interest in remaking after seeing the Truffaut original and more or less writing it off—which, turns out, was one of the final straws in the collapse of their relationship for good. How do you feel about that one, and do you think Godard’s reputation at this time as more or less a complete jerk was warranted?


Marsh: Passion is certainly a great film, though its greatness is amplified, I think, by the short film Godard made to accompany it, Scenario Du Film Passion, which is quite illuminating. Many of Godard’s films are followed by short works which expand upon the features, but I think with Passion finds Godard not quite able to fully articulate his ideas, and although the film is still enormously moving and interesting and works really well as a whole, the themes it deals with are put forward a little more acutely in the short. But yes, it is sort of his Day For Night, which is a film that Godard hated because he felt it deceptive and untrue—there’s a rather famous quote from a letter Godard wrote to Truffaut about the film, in which he attacks Truffaut (who stars as the director of a fictional production) for being the only character who isn’t shown having sex. The implication I guess being that Truffaut was somehow afraid to show reality, his reality—which Godard then proceeded to do in his own film about the filmmaking process. Godard may have been a jerk during the ‘80s, but it says a lot about his humility and self-awareness that the director character in Passion, who is clearly his surrogate, is both weak-willed and duplicitous with women and completely unable to finish the film he’s struggling to make.


Cronk: Exactly. More than most any director I can think of, Godard films play like a very personal kinds of exorcism, like he’s working out his problems on screen—which obviously leads to indulgence and bouts of incoherency, but is fascinating to behold and is above all honest. Which kind of brings me to my next point: Godard’s relationship with sexuality. Besides politics and the cinema itself, sexuality—and in particular, female sexuality—is one of his great thematic concerns. How do you react to the nudity and sexuality of these ‘80s films, which in almost every case features copious amounts of nudity, some of which could be argued as misogynistic? I’m thinking particularly of Every Man for Himself, and to a slightly lesser degree, Hail Mary and First Name: Carmen.


Marsh: As you said in our discussion of his work during the ‘70s, Numero Deux is a remarkable exploration of female sexuality, and I think his work during the 1980s only builds on that exploration. There are moments that are so frank or blunt they’re almost shocking—there’s a pretty extreme shower rape sequence near the end of First Name: Carmen, for example, that’s a little difficult to watch—but it’s clear that Godard treats sexuality with the utmost candor exactly because he takes it seriously as a subject. It never feels like exploitation or needless spectacle; it always functions as part of a greater dialogue about what it means to have physical agency and a sexual identity. In Every Man For Himself that means interrogating the nature of desire and transgression, with a particular focus on incest and pedophilia that can be disarming and, on a gut level, repulsive—but we’re left to question what we’ve seen and our reactions to it, and if exploring transgression seriously means transgressing those boundaries visually, you know Godard’s doing it with good reason.


Of course when Godard attempted to explore the notion of divine sexuality in Hail Mary, which features what is essentially a sex sequence between Mary and God, you had a lot of people freaking out—even the Pope condemned the film. But calling Godard misogynistic isn’t very fair. Or at least calling these films misogynistic isn’t fair; again, it’s best to leave Godard’s personal life out of the discussion, because then we’re dragging the debate back down into the authorial muck. The point is that these films have a lot of very sophisticated things to say about human sexuality, some of which the average person doesn’t want to hear.


Cronk: Do you think these are images, sequences, and ideas that Godard would have liked to explore more thoroughly in the ‘60s? A number of his films from that period, particularly Vivre sa vie, Une femme marie, and 2 or 3 Things I know About Her, are dissections and interrogations of sexuality and prostitution. What I mean to say is there is a lot more, as you say, graphic sexuality in these ‘80s films—was this something you think Godard had to work toward—via, say, Numero deux and some of those ‘70s films—to arrive at these even more provocative themes, or was that more a product of the environment and Godard’s place in mainstream French film industry of the day? Because, if nothing else, everything on screen is there for a reason, and like you say, it’s there for good reason. Which is why I should also add that I don’t feel these films are misogynistic either, but those charges have been levied against Godard over the years and I feel it’s important to discuss it since we do have the forum here to do so.

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