There’s a sense that the phrase “later Godard” – meaning most of the great director’s post-sixties work – is used pejoratively as much as a descriptor: it means impenetrable, pretentious, stridently political, cold, formalism for its own sake.
The first, while intensely political, is far from obtuse or inaccessible, and the second is a surprisingly moving and spiritual film. Both are consistently fascinating. Maybe I just happened upon exceptions to the rule? Or maybe other factors are in play in that critical consensus.
In a spirited defense of his later work in PopMatters, Calum Marsh summed up that negative consensus: “Godard was a precocious genius who produced a slew of culturally significant ‘classics’ throughout the 1960s, but who, after falling into radical leftist politics during the politically tumultuous atmosphere surrounding the ‘68 French student riots, withdrew from the standard practices of the mainstream film industry while his projects grew increasingly difficult and he himself grew increasingly deranged.” This, Marsh argues, is a too-tidy and reductive view, and even with just these two titles to consider, I’d be inclined to agree.
Comment ça va? is a film obsessed with representation, image, and the responsibility that comes with their creation and context. The plot involves a man and a woman tasked with putting together a film about the day-to-day workings of a communist newspaper (very much like Liberation, with which Godard was associated).
The man (credited only as “Communist newspaper editor”) and the woman, Odette, have different takes on how the film should unfold, how it should function, and what it should say. He’s pragmatic and just means to construct a serviceable documentary as the Party has requested. She’s a post-leftist far more concerned with the material aspects of representation, of the images that are chosen, the ways in which they are juxtaposed to create or reroute meaning, and how they will be received by the viewer.
Much of the film is their debate, shot almost invariably from over her shoulder – there’s little confusion as to which side Godard is choosing. There are even some laughs amid all the philosophy. Consider their contrasting suggestions for a caption – His: “A modern printing plant and newspaper for men and women struggling for democracy.” Hers: “Language is the place where the torturer turns the victim into another torturer.”
The idea of newspaper objectivity, or filmic objectivity for that matter, is constantly at issue, and Odette’s unwavering insistence on its impossibility takes hold through Godard’s manipulation and overlayering of images, text, and sound. The film is explicit, at one point observing, “For Odette, objectivity had become a crime.” There is no neutral position, and there is no neutral image. All representations contain political content, and responsibility falls on those who would use them to acknowledge this, and choose sides. Nearly 40 years after its release, in a world now dominated by images and their rapid, often context-free dissemination on the internet and through other media, where the meaning contained in a picture is as fraught a battleground as ever, Comment ça va? is a very forward-looking film, probably more so than Godard could’ve imagined at the time.
Hélas pour moi is a tougher nut to crack. Loosely based on the story of Leda and the swan, the film is ostensibly about the end of a romance, but that doesn’t skim the surface of what Godard is after here. This is a full-on interrogation of spirituality and creation, set against a background of lush forest and quiet water, and filled with human (and perhaps trans-human) searchers for meaning.
A key phrase appears at the movie’s halfway point: “Our epoch is in search of lost questions, as if weary of proper answers.” Is this Godard’s renunciation, or critique at least, of the sectarian left he was so much a part of decades prior? Are the answers “proper” because they are correct but insufficient, or in the sense that they are the ones we provide because they are expected of us?
Like Comment ça va?, the camera frequently shoots from behind or over the shoulder of its characters, aligning us or Godard (or both) with them in different ways, and like that earlier film, questions of representation and performance are paramount. A pivotal breakup ends with one character dissatisfied with how they came across and related to each other: “We need to redo the scene,” he says. So they do. “The language of cinema,” the film notes, “is imperfect.” Similar text appears throughout on the screen, interrupting and disrupting the image with aphorisms and repetitions that take on a meditative aspect. Fellini-esque processions occur from time to time, and the score features catches of familiar melodies, juxtaposed and in conversation.
Much more could be said about Hélas pour moi, but the main takeaway is Godard, one of the directors and critics most responsible for honing auteur theory, reflecting on film, image, love, and our relation to the eternal, as experienced through art. Underwriting everything is the notion that we ourselves were “made in His image,” that, at a certain level, we’re in fact defined by representation.
It’s also a spectacularly beautiful film to look at, filled with melancholy and sublime set-pieces that are about as far away as you could reasonably expect Godard to get from the “cold, impersonal” narrative his critics have foisted on him for decades. I can’t say what Hélas pour moi is about exactly, apart from the broad strokes, but it is anything but cold, or any empty formalist exercise. In fact, it demands another viewing.
With the release of Goodbye To Language last year, Godard’s most recent film and one which, due to its apparently revolutionary use of 3D, has won him widespread acclaim, maybe things have shifted and some of these older films will get a reconsideration. I hope so. There is way too much going on in them to write them off as the lesser, compromised works of a once-great master.