Much of Jean-Luc Godard’s most innovative intriguing work occurred after his period of militant Marxism in the late 1960s. Although far fewer of his “late period” films garnered the societal and critical acclaim of his early work, Godard has undoubtedly remained a pioneer of cinema and an important multimedia thinker on twentieth-century issues. Highly personal and obsessively formal, Godard’s techniques became developed into startling essayistic works through the 1980s and 1990s, a high point being the inimitable and difficult Histoire(s) du cinéma (1988-1998). Never one to shy away from the contradictory or impassioned, Godard continues to press forward with cinematic technologies as well as imagistic ideas.
Scholarship on Godard’s work has been plentiful, yet far from exhaustive. Monographs devoted to Godard’s later work are only now being written (Daniel Morgan’s Late Godard and the Possibilities of Cinema and Jerry White’s Two Bicycles being notable examples). Encounters with Godard: Ethics, Aesthetics, Politics enters at a ripe moment, soon after Godard’s voyage into 3D with 2014’s Adieu au Langage (Goodbye to Language) yet (hopefully) before the close of his career in cinema.
James S. Williams tackles head-on the diverse thorny issues involved in Godard’s work since the 1980s. His analyses are instructive, drawing on the political and historical contexts of the films, but his primary interest is what questions and connections emerge from the films themselves. As he readily admits, however, his approach is anything but systematic. Williams begins with an invocation of Susan Sontag’s study of Godard, with its impassioned, sensual tone (p. 1-6), and calls for a return to descriptions of the sensorial and emotional experience of Godard’s films. The author carries this out with a high degree of authenticity and specificity.
The book’s structure is thematic – Williams calls it “a series of critical match-ups”. (p. 14) Each chapter centres on one or two films and examines them from political, stylistic, historical, phenomenological, and theological perspectives. Encounters with Godard is no introduction to Godard: the text assumes familiarity with the films themselves and the ideas that they explore. Neither is the work in deep conversation with other Godard scholarship; aside from a few references and a brief review of the literature, there is little in the way of academic dialogue. While never abandoning the standards of scholarship, Williams emphasises the personal and individual nature of his writing. This is his vision of Godard, yet he leaves room for others, as the ruminations on these films are often far from conclusive, encouraging other voices to join.
Williams’ approach to Godard is without the singular aspirations of some writers looking for a grand narrative across an oeuvre. Instead, the author takes his account film by film, by no means ignoring significant connections between films but not straining to form a cohesive statement out of Godard’s late works. This method allows each film to speak for itself and stand outside of larger-scale traditions and categories that tend to bind meaning and resolve contradiction. Godard, as most who has seen his films will recognize, is not without his contradictions.
Williams fights off the spectre of auteurism through this individuation, but he can not escape the holistic and metacinematic conversation that Godard’s work impels, nor should he. Few film directors can be said to have as personal, intellectual, and intertextual a body of work as the French director. To deny Godard’s fingerprints on any of his films would be absurd. In addition, the collaborative and commercialised aspects of the cinema that make up part of the anti-auteurist argument apply less to Godard for two reasons. The first is his level of participation in each film, which goes well beyond directing to almost every stage of the production process, particularly writing and editing. The second reason is Godard’s direct and open dialogue with other thinkers, writers, filmmakers, and painters. Through a type of interaction unusual in filmmaking (direct quotation of words and images, spoken commentary, etc.), Godard becomes a conversation-partner rather than a straightforward auteur. Much of Williams’ study is an examination of the context and conversation of Godard’s questions in order to better understand their content. This is an auteurism more similar to philosophical commentary than critical unification.
There are also downsides to Williams’ individuating approach. By respecting the films he discusses as discrete texts, his project lacks the strength of vision found in other more strident and polemical monographs. The book’s structure can feel episodic, with each chapter containing an argument that does not rely heavily on previous chapters. Because of this, some might find Williams’ volume more helpful when treated as a collection of independent essays. The price of missing a single forceful claim, however, is well worth the outcome that Williams achieves in his observant and rigorous analyses. Reading his book cover-to-cover rewards the reader with innumerable connections between chapters and films.
In the opening analysis, Williams argues that the power and sophistication of La Chinoise has been overlooked because of the film’s immediate prescience, as it heralded the 1968 student revolts. The film is less about the current state of French young people than about terrorism, both its possibilities and its dangers, as clearly seen in the conversation between Véronique and Jeanson. (p. 25) Williams provides an account of Godard’s involvement in revolutionary politics, as well as terrorism in France. He goes on to focus on Omar Diop, an African student and militant activist who had a role in the film, and gives a brief history of Godard’s varied treatment of Africans and African-Americans in his writings and films.
The following chapter moves from politics to aesthetics, and from La Chinoise to Histoire(s) du cinema. Williams employs Adorno to map a mode of artistic resistance found in Godard’s use of images, both cinematic and painted. The montage and superimposition techniques of the series not only present historical examples of artistic resistance against forces of culture, but demonstrate a resistance of its own to the simplified readings and commercial use of the “global superpresent”. (p. 80) From here, Williams continues his fascinating discussion of Histoire(s) by turning to its treatment of the body in relation to the digital format. The involvement of Godard’s own body here (and elsewhere) complicates the presentation of the given reality of the text, as well as his role as creator. Helas pour moi (1993) is also included in this discussion, with that film’s radical ambivalence about the connection between person and body, divine and human. Williams continues to think about new cinematic technologies in the next chapter, “Silence, Gesture, Revelation”. He turns toward the potential for redemption Godard finds in these technologies in the madcap 1987 film Soigne ta droite: “Soigne ta droite thus offers a fascinating case of two different forms and means of revelation, one messianic, the other poetic, and it does so through set sequences of audiovisual decreation.” (p. 110) Digital imaging here becomes a means for transformation and new gesture. Employing Agamben, Williams argues persuasively that Soigne ta droite reveals an optimism about cinema’s ability to instill within the human form new senses of gesture through the distillation and contraction of montage. (p. 124)
The inclusion of a chapter involving music is vital to a book on late Godard, especially considering this aspect of his work has gone so long underappreciated. Cataloguing composers and describing formal structures in the soundtrack of Je vous salue, Marie (1985) and Nouvelle Vague (1991) makes up a significant portion of the chapter. But Williams does not, in my opinion, go far enough in understanding the radical formal and theoretical aspects of Godard’s soundtracks. Arguing that “Godard’s use of predominantly tonal and melodic music goes to the very heart of his artistic and intellectual project, precisely because it allows him to move beyond the usual chiastic boundaries of his thinking,” Williams chooses to leave his exploration with the acknowledgement of the mystery of love, claiming that some of Godard’s films as entireties “are thus really to be conceived of formally as love melodies.” (p. 148) Still, this encounter emerges as one of the most exciting and productive in the book.
In chapter six, Williams examines Godard’s complex exploration of difference, the boundaries of metaphor, and what Williams calls the Third in 2004’s Notre Musique. Here his writing becomes highly political and historical, as the film makes connections between Native Americans, Jews, and Palestinians, which is ultimately resolved in a recognition of the inability to truly listen or communicate with the Other. Cinematic representation is central to this chapter in its constant questioning of the import of inclusions and exclusions, both visual and aural, of certain people groups. Williams posits that Godard employs the representation of Native Americans as a metaphor for the treatment of Palestinians by Zionists in 1948 and onwards. As with much of the book, the writing in this chapter matches the density of material found in Godard’s films. In stretching the application of metaphor to its breaking point, the argument of Notre Musique runs as a linear series of twists and turns. At points the chapter seems so determined to follow Godard’s musings to their end that it does not stop to catch its breath.
The elusive Film socialisme becomes the subject of the next chapter, which posits that this film enacts a dialogue with the photographic medium, further on display in the book version of Film socialisme. Williams describes the book in detail, outlining how portraits of historical and literary figures enact sets of complex relations. While this section develops his claims about the link between the film version of Film socialisme and photography, the extended description feels drawn out and with only limited results. It might be said that Williams here provides a documentation of a rare Godard work more than an integrative analysis, but for those intrigued by Godard, the description will be of value.
Williams shifts his focus from the photographic sensibilities of Film socialisme to the textual relationships in Godard’s work, including his use of quotation and his invocation of literary authors. Exemplifying this phenomenon are three figures – Anne-Marie Miéville, Marguerite Duras, and Jean Cocteau – who each present a different type of relationship with Godard. Embedded in each relationship is a complex set of gender relations that illuminate one of Godard’s preferred roles in dialogue as “soft” heterosexual and his frequently overlooked involvement with homosexual tropes.
Encounters with Godard is an excellent entry in Godard scholarship, providing extended analyses and important insights on some of Godard’s thorniest and most eclectic works. Williams’ careful and adroit scholarship is fully on display, making connections within and beyond the complex of historical, political, philosophical, and artistic facets related to Godard’s later films. In his film-by-film, topic-by-topic presentation, Williams covers an impressive number of areas: photography, text, intertextuality, gender/sexuality, music, the Other in contemporary international politics and terrorism in revolutionary politics, to name a few. As Williams readily admits, no one text can fully capture the shifting, dense, and at times paradoxical thought of one of cinema’s liveliest and most evocative directors. Encounters with Godard opens important conversations – and continues others – that will assuredly prove their value in future scholarship on Godard.
James S. Williams, Encounters with Godard: Ethics, Aesthetics, Politics (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2016).