What to take away
Many of the films made by Jean-Luc Godard, in his 40-year career are idiosyncratically verbose, self-consciously probing, philosophical inquiries that deal with the dialectics and concepts of life, death, history, politics and film. What they often don’t feel like is a regular movie with a bunch of characters and a plot. Such is the case with Keep Your Right Up! (whose French title, Soigne Ta Droite!, translates literally as “tend to your rights”), a muddled film with three plots; the main one about a filmmaker (played by Godard) trying to deliver a film to a producer in 24 hours.
Godard is notoriously difficult to pin down. His career, which encompasses some 50 films, falls into four general categories: the New Wave period, from 1959-1968 (Breathless through One Plus One); his Marxist politics and dialectics period, from 1969-1980 (Wind From the East through Comment Ca Va?); his re-emergence as commercial maverick, between 1981-1990 (Every Man for Himself through Nouve Vague); and his personal montage essay films, from 1992 to present (Germany Year 90 Nine-Zero through Histoire du Cinema).
The only consistency over all this time is that Godard has never become a commercial director, like his fellow New Wave compatriot Francois Truffaut. He makes personal films, with little or no consideration for the masses, which is one reason why he is so admired by elite film buffs. But sometimes, his films are so off the charts that they seem, at best, mere folly, and at worst, incomprehensible doodling. Keep Your Right Up!, new on DVD from Facets Video, is both.
The film breaks into three intersecting, vignette-like “stories” that appear to have nothing to do with each other. The main one concerns an airplane trip taken by Godard’s character (named by fellow characters, alternately, “The Idiot” and “The Prince”), to deliver a film to producers, another involves a rehearsal session by a two person techno-pop band named Rita Mitsouko, and the other involves a series of annoyingly silly scenes with an overweight guy called only “the individual” (played by French Comedian Jacques Villeret). After a series of odd, sometimes perplexing, scenes, the Prince delivers his film, the band takes their act on the road, and the individual has been arrested for spying on a woman.
But the plot is hardly Godard’s main focus. Instead, Keep Your Right Up! is more concerned with asserting the significance of art in a world that isn’t interested in art. The title may be interpreted as the film’s “message,” as if Godard is saying that, despite setbacks or producers telling you what to do about your art, just ignore them and keep up your own right. Such broad pontification makes Godard’s films at once appealing, difficult, and maddening: appealing because they leave so much open to interpretation, difficult because of their obscure, Brechtian dramatic structures, and maddening at times, because they can be so cloyingly enigmatic.
Still, this combination of effects makes Godard a unique artist, with a signature style. Watch any one scene from any one of his films in the past 15 years, and it cannot be mistaken for work by any other director. The way he frames scenes off center, his exceptional use of sound and shards of music (like he is a DJ remixing parts of techno-pop with Bach and Beethoven), the way the characters speak in intellectual riddles, and the way scenes are at once serious and deadpan funny—all are distinctive markers.
Unfortunately, Keep Your Right Up!, which was made in 1987, is a little more difficult and maddening than usual. Often, Godard appears to be commenting on filmmaking, rather than actually making a film. In theory, this is fine, but, as too many scenes have no structure and just flutter off into incoherence, the whole appears to be in disarray. The film begins to feel as though Godard really did put it all together in 24 hours, as if he was short on funding and time, so just played around with ideas, hoping they would gel somehow in the editing room. Consider the moment, about halfway into the film, when he crosscuts among three scenes—“the individual” dancing with a naked woman, the techno-pop music group practicing, and a group of odd passengers sitting on the Prince’s airplane. Sequences like this seem composed of a cinematic language that only Godard can understand.
As if in an effort to draw connections, the film includes omniscient voice-overs that allude to literature and philosophy, for instance, Goethe’s pronouncement of the death of God, Doestoevski’s ideas about torture, the protests of May 1968 in Paris, as well as André Malraux’s musings on fate and the wacky comedy of Jerry Lewis. Compounding such enigmas, Keep Your Right Up! is also full of cryptic dialogue, as when one character says, “I’ll admit that people can communicate and trade things, as a husband or a wife trade caresses or a train ticket. But to me, that kind of communication is useless play-acting. The curtain never gets raised. And first time meetings are worse!” Or again, “We alone exist outside the soul. Yet we’re also always inside the soul. So sometimes one of us becomes an angel.”
What do these lines mean? Are they just bad poetry or is the director making some pronouncement? It’s hard to say. Ultimately, they sound like clichés. This is just one of the reasons Godard’s films are not “entertaining” in the traditional sense of the word. He has always had a Marxist’s contempt for the banality of bourgeois entertainment but, at times, he leaves the audience behind completely. You might wonder then, what to take away from the film.
Godard’s admirers (and I am one) understand that film need not be entertaining. And it’s easy to defend a non-entertaining film the defense is premised on a significant political or aesthetic position. This is the case for many of Godard’s best films—such as Breathless, Weekend, Two or Three Thing I Know About Her, and JLG/JLG—but Keep Your Right Up! doesn’t seem to offer a solid idea. Its only strength lies in some of the cinematography by Caroline Champetier de Ribes, including recurring images of the sky and a glass door, looking out on a beach. Sometimes, a little girl stands in the doorway and the door is slammed shut by the wind. Perhaps there is a metaphor here, about doors closing on youth, but I’m not sure.
At one point toward the middle of this film, the voice-over says, “An Argentine writer said it was madness to write books, better to pretend these books exist. One only needs a synopsis, a commentary.” Perhaps this is Godard’s commentary on his own film.