Sunday 23 September 2018

The fights, fun and frolics of le révolutionnaire

A new biopic recreates the heady summer of 1968, when director Jean-Luc Godard shut down Cannes, writes our film critic

Life through a lens: Louis Garrel as Jean Luc Goddard in Michel Hazanavicius' biopic, Redoubtable
Life through a lens: Louis Garrel as Jean Luc Goddard in Michel Hazanavicius' biopic, Redoubtable
Matt Dillon
Leave no Trace

Paul Whitington

Fifty years ago this week, a po-faced cabal led by Jean-Luc Godard burst into the Grande Salle in Cannes to insist that the 21st film festival should be halted. This was bad news for filmmaker Peter Lennon, whose seminal documentary about 1960s Ireland, The Rocky Road to Dublin, had just been screened, and the two men shared an ill-tempered exchange.

But Godard, the Chairman Mao of the nouvelle vague, was not about to be thwarted. His protest related to the student riots and workers strikes that had erupted across France earlier that same month. Capitalism, American imperialism and bourgeois values were the avowed enemies of wealthy students who'd forget all about their radicalism when their turn came to board the gravy train. But this left-wing cant was music to the ears of Godard.

The 1968 riots came along at the perfect time for an artist who was beginning to feel irrelevant. And this was his Danton moment, as he and a group of like-minded film-makers managed to shut down the festival.

Now that eventful year in Godard's life is the subject of a scathing and very entertaining biopic which opened at the IFI yesterday. Redoubtable is directed by Michel Hazanavicius (creator of The Artist), and adapted from a memoir by Jean-Luc Godard's second wife, Anne Wiazemsky, who died late last year. It is, to be truthful, something of a hatchet job, portraying the younger Godard as a petty, vindictive, self-serving narcissist.

All of which may not be too wide of the mark, but must be squared with the inconvenient truth that Jean-Luc Godard was one of the most important film-makers of the late 20th century, author of half a dozen game-changing near masterpieces and a life-long debunker of the received language of cinema. So who is Godard? Is he a genius, a charlatan or a bit of both?

He is, to correct a popular misnomer, more Swiss than French. Countries don't come much more bourgeois than Switzerland, and Godard (born in 1930) grew up in some comfort on the shores of Lake Geneva. His father was a physician, his mother part of the family that founded Banque Paribas: he attended private schools, dabbled in painting, and came to Paris in 1949 to study anthropology at the Sorbonne.

He never bothered showing up for lectures, and instead began attending screenings at Henri Langlois's Cinematheque, and a left-bank gathering place called the Cine-Club du Quartier Latin. There he met other impassioned young cinephiles, like Francois Truffaut, Claude Chabrol and Jacques Rivette: all would drift into movie criticism before becoming major forces in film-making themselves.

One would like to have been a fly on the wall at the Cine-Club to listen to what must have been impassioned debates about the ossification of popular cinema. Godard later said that "in the 1950s cinema was as important as bread. At the Cinematheque I discovered a world which nobody had spoken to me about. We watched silent films in the era of talkies. We were like Christians in the catacombs."

When Andre Bazin co-founded the Cahier du Cinema in 1951, Godard was among the first of the new wave firebrands who began writing for it. His essays were strident, provocative, well-thought-out. Howard Hawks was "the greatest American artist", Orson Welles "overly artful", a rather absurd point of view but undeniably original. And as his impressive technical knowledge of cinema deepened, it seemed inevitable that he'd start making films himself.

A Bout de Souffle (1959) was surely one of the more astonishing feature débuts in cinematic history. A thinly plotted policier with nods to American film noir, it starred Jean Paul Belmondo as Michel, a petty criminal with a Bogart obsession who steals a car and shoots a cop who chases him.

Godard shot the movie in central Paris using hand-held cameras, minimal lighting and no working script: the dialogue was dubbed in afterwards.

The finished film felt bracingly fresh, free, unfettered, different. It, Alain Resnais' Hiroshima Mon Amour and Francois Truffaut's 400 Coups launched the nouvelle vague, a film-making revolution that would profoundly influence the new generation of writers and directors who took over Hollywood in the late 1960s.

From then on, the rules of movie-making were broken, and would be patched together in new and interesting ways. And for Godard himself, it was the start of an extraordinary purple patch of brilliant, provocative, urgent and endlessly innovative films.

In Vivre sa vie, Bande à part, Pierrot le fou, Alphaville, Masculin Feminin and La Chinoise, he pushed the boundaries of what seemed acceptable and possible, mixed high themes and low art with gay abandon, toyed with techniques old and new and constantly questioned the language and traditions of cinema.

It was dizzying stuff, dazzling and infuriating in equal measure, but Godard's brilliant run came to a juddering halt in 1967, when La Chinoise, his tricky contemporary adaptation of Dostoyevsky's The Possessed, was savaged by French critics. Its quality has since been recognised, and its story of Maoist Parisian student revolutionaries could be seen as an eerily prescient prediction of the 1968 riots, but Godard was devastated by its poor reception, and turned inward to begin a radical reassessment.

He was 37, and had recently married Anne Wiazemsky, a beautiful actress 17 years his junior. But he now felt his career was at a crossroads, and he found himself confronted by the terror of irrelevance. A brilliant self-publicist, Godard had never been short of witty aphorisms: "Photography is truth", he said, but "every edit is a lie"; cinema was "the most beautiful fraud in the world", and "all you need for a movie is a gun and a girl".

His sayings were clever, brimming with paradox, but made him easy to caricature, as he would discover when the student riots began. Godard, living in Paris, was thrilled by the anarchic energy of the uprising, and began filming and taking part in the protests, and turning up at chaotic meetings to trade Marxist dialectic with the student leaders. But in his desire to be radical, he went to ludicrous extremes, and he was rightly pilloried when he stood up at one meeting and called the Israelis "the new Nazis".

Then came Cannes, and impassioned speeches, fist fights and scuffles, during one of which Godard broke a pair of his trademark glasses. Milos Forman and Roman Polanski, who'd both grown up under communism, watched bemused from the sidelines. Polanski later said that Truffaut, Claude Lelouch and Godard seemed like "little kids playing at being revolutionaries".

But Godard, in fairness, seemed in deadly earnest about his Marxism, and in 1968 set up a movie-making collective called the Dziga Vertov Group with the journalist Jean-Pierre Gorin. For the next five years, his films were made by committee, with everyone from the actors to the lowliest technician arguing over how the next scene should be shot. They were often as unwatchable as they sound.

Godard's later work would frustrate fans of his brilliant, playful early films, which he himself had disavowed as hopelessly bourgeois. But there were always moments of brilliance, searing insights into the fate of a medium he seemed to simultaneously love and hate. In his 2010 movie, Film Socialisme, for instance, he treated us to a fascinating meditation on the history of Mediterranean civilisation while we watched a leaky old ferry putter between the area's crumbling ports. It was beautiful to watch, but inevitably got bogged down in weary Marxist cant.

When Irish film-maker Peter Lennon ventured into the Grande Salle in May 1968 to join a chaotic debate, he argued that in taking over the festival one ought to "liberate films - anybody should be able to show anything anywhere". Monsieur Godard disagreed, and wanted no films anywhere. "He was a perverse little guy," Lennon recalled, "albeit an extremely talented one. He said 'we are speaking about revolution and all you are talking about is close-ups and tracking shots'. It was complete bollocks."

Most entertaining bollocks though, it has to be said.

 

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