Le Gai savoir

by Erik Hinton

13 May 2008


This is a tough one. You know, one of those films that you have to watch in parts, interwoven with carefully planned intermits of reflection. If you find yourself without a spiral-bound notebook when watching a film like this you feel you will lose points. You will search frantically at random intervals for a glossary, a concordance, or a companion to help you make it through the 90-minutes that comprise this film. Put simply, Le Gai Savoir is not just akin to an intellectual torture test, it is the ne plus ultra of intellectual torture tests, dripping with intertextuality and esoteric post-structural philosophy. Then again, the director is Godard. Par for the course.

The format of Le Gai Savoir is a simple one. Two “militants” Emile and Patricia, meet time and time again in a television studio-cum-void and entertain lengthy discourse about the nature of language in an ongoing quest to salvage language by bringing it back to a “degree zero”. They seek to find the unconscious roots and the overlooked structure upon which language cooly rests. This, of course, is in the all-worthwhile pursuit of knowledge, as well as the deconstruction of reified and disguised power structures of political and cultural authorities. Images strobe on the screen in response to the duo’s utterances, words are chopped into phonemes, interviewees are subjected to word association games.

cover art

Le Gai Savoir

Director: Jean-Luc Godard
Cast: Jean-Pierre Leaud, Juliet Berto

US DVD: 13 May 2008

If from the moment I said “degree zero” you shouted “Barthes” at your computer screen, or you have not been able to get your mind off of Derrida throughout the preceding paragraph, not only have you won your Where’s Waldo of French philosophy, but you will also, probably, love this film. Godard even uses pages from Of Grammatology for the sub-titles, that sly dog. Godard deserves to be commended for his striking adaptation of the post-structural philosophy which appears stilted and unnatural even in its originary context.

Aided by the artifices of sounds and motion, Godard brings out the finer points of Derrida & Co. One of the true miracles of this film is how well its illuminates Derrida’s quest against the primacy of the spoken word over the written one and the logocentrism in general. As both the image of the word and the sound of the word are equally products of reproduced film (or DVD disc, in this case) the supremacy of the voiced word over the written one begins to flag. Furthermore, the negative space highlighted plainly by the dark, low-key setting that the protagonists find themselves in for the film’s entirety and the conspicuous editing’s focus on what is not there are supremely welcome manifestations of Derrida’s philosophy of absence.

That being said, the film is not enjoyable, per se. The pacing is erratic and meant to off-put the viewer as revolutionary cinema so proudly announces. The acting is no more than a staged reading, and the dark cinematography of the void-studio becomes monotonous after the first 15 minutes. Furthermore, a team of musique-concrete artists could not have come up with a more grating soundtrack than the cacophony of whispers and what sounds like a sending/receiving modem which accompanies much of the film’s “dialogue”.

Should this film be enjoyable? Had I paid $10 to see Le Gai Savoir at the local drive-in with my best girl, I would say, “Yes.” Then again, find me the drive-in which plays Godard or, even better, find me the girl who would happily accompany me to said abstruse drive-in. (Email suggestions are welcome). However, I am more likely to be inclined to deny that this film has to be entertaining. Already winning a medal for its masterful capturing of the spirit of Derrida’s philosophy, if Le Gai Savoir attempted any more it would collapse under the weight of its own contrivance. Instead, it does what its job is and stands as a profound marker in the thinking man’s cinema.

So go out and buy this brilliant, lesser-known Godard piece and show off to all your friends who think name dropping Breathless is still fashionable. Or don’t. Either way, make sure that when you watch Le Gai Savoir, you are ready to work, and that you entertain no fantasies whatsoever that it will go over well as a date movie.

Le Gai Savoir


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