Director Michel Hazanavicius seems to have a love-hate relationship with Jean-Luc Godard, the protagonist of his latest film, Le Redoutable, viewed at Toronto International Film Festival 2017. Charting the brief relationship of Godard and actor Anne Wiazemsky (following the filming of La Chinoise, their marriage, and the May 1968 riots in Paris) Hazanavicius is obsessed with his subject. While based on Wiazemsky’s autobiographical book, Un an après, the film is never about her: it’s about Godard. And while Hazanavicius is critical of his subject, it’s but a gentle ribbing laced with good intentions.
Le Redoutable begins with Anne (Stacy Martin) and Jean-Luc (Louis Garrel) living together. She, at 19 years of age, is enamoured with the brilliant director; he, at 37, is reaching a mid-life crisis. While Anne and, it seems, Hazanavicius, love Godard’s earlier New Wave films, Jean-Luc becomes more interested in politics and formal experimentation, alienating his wife, their friends, and audiences who enjoyed the fun, youthful energy he had expressed cinematically but would abandoned for stricter Marxist innovation.
While characters — ranging from intimates in Jean-Luc’s life to his adoring fans — express their admiration of his earlier films, Hazanavicius expresses his love cinematically, by recreating Godard’s films within his own. From Breathless (1960) to Made in U.S.A. (1966), Le Redoutable unrelentingly takes and regurgitates: the Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) viewing from Vivre sa Vie (1962), the full-body nude shots from Contempt (1963), the novel title fight from A Woman is a Woman (1961), and the tense beach scenes from Pierrot le Fou (1965) are all here, centering upon Anne and Jean-Luc rather than Godard’s characters.
This aping is unoriginal, and a testament to Hazanavicius’ blind love, but it’s not necessarily a problem. As he delights in Godard’s most accessible films, so have audiences since they were first released, and the appeal of deliberate framing and pastel primary colours is enduring.
But when Hazanavicus turns to critique, the film breaks apart. Jean-Luc is lightly made fun of but mostly in a slapstick manner. Garrel manages the constant falls with a Buster Keaton-esque energy, and the running joke becomes Jean-Luc’s clumsiness in the riots: he’s knocked over, his shoes are no good in the streets, and he breaks his glasses repeatedly. We may laugh at him, but in good spirits.
The issue is that this type of easy comedy is at odds with heavier critiques. When Jean-Luc goes on a public anti-semitic rant, it’s treated in the same manner: equally as silly as his pratfalls. Like the slapstick, Jean-Luc’s rambles are taken as awkward confusion to chortle at, rather than something that should make us uncomfortable.
Focusing on the relationship between Anne and Jean-Luc, Hazanavicus’ criticism is equally impotent when it comes to Godard’s personal life. Anne, despite Wiazemsky providing source material, is empty as a character. Saying very little, she’s presented as hanging on to Jean-Luc, going with him as he causes problems, but never expressing her own concerns. When given more space in the film, it’s only to capture close-ups of her face which express nothing (a mirror image of Anna Karina playing the empty Natacha in the dystopian Alphaville,1965), or to view her fully nude.
Silent and compliant, the film makes no comment on the nature of abusive relationships and their power imbalances, preferring instead to focus on Jean-Luc’s genius. When, finally, we begin to see the cracks in their marriage as Anne gets a role in another director’s film, the scene is once again hidden behind tribute to Godard. Subtitles revealing true feelings as they talk about the role, straight out of Godard’s Une femme mariée (1964), we see the scene becoming, once again, a cute homage to the director’s style, rather than a real look at the way Jean-Luc is controlling and manipulating a much younger woman, who lives in fear of his wrath.
It becomes obvious that while working with Wiazemsky’s book, the text of the woman dominated by Godard, it’s not her story that Hazanavicius is interested in. The filmmaker doesn’t care if Jean-Luc was a bad husband, manipulative, controlling, insulting, and neglectful, because he knows Godard was a good artist. But while Hazanavicius loves Godard as an artist, he seems to feel the same way as the characters in his film: he doesn’t care for the political, experimental progression of Godard’s oeuvre.
And herein lies the problem: Le Redoutable wants to critique Godard’s turn from New Wave genius to strident Marxist, but does so through the lens of his relationship. Choosing to ignore abuse, and taking away Anne’s voice and agency in order to give a fuller view to Hazanavicius’ beloved, Le Redoutable becomes much worse than a simple empty pastiche, verging into its own misogyny by way of hyper-reductive depiction of Anne, and through forgiveness of Jean-Luc for his artistry.