Jean-Luc Godard’s early films continue to exert a fascination, and the prospect of their marketing on DVD is going to be something to make the eyes and ears quiver. It’s happening but not quite in any apparently planned way. This is a bit surprising, especially in the light of the DVD release in the USA of extensive series of films by some of his contemporaries, most notably François Truffaut and Eric Rohmer. If there were any rational film distribution occurring anywhere in the world it might at least be thought that the films from Godard’s ‘streak’ period would be available on DVD. But sadly the DVD distribution is spotty and, really, rather irrational.
In Australia nothing has been released. This seems rather symptomatic of a market where little has appeared from any sources of independent DVD distribution. No equivalents of the (past and present) video distributors Home Cinema Group or 21st Century are yet releasing foreign titles issued by Australian theatrical distributors.
So what does a trawl around the Internet produce? Well for a start a major delightful surprise. Charlotte et son Jules (1958) was made the year before À bout de souffle (Breathless) (1959) and in many ways prefigures the arrival of that major film. Shot entirely in or from a single hotel room (Godard’s own in the Rue de Rennes) it centres on Jules, played by Jean-Paul Belmondo who delivers a rapid-fire tirade about his girlfriend and their relationship when she turns up back in the apartment. The poverty of the production is indicated by the fact that the voice of the Belmondo character is that of Godard himself. But its machine gun dialogue and restless jump-cutting camera is almost an advance preview of the long sort of love scene between Michel and Patricia in Patricia’s tiny apartment in Breathless. The same contortions under the sheets, the same machine gun dialogue, the same misogyny.
Charlotte et son Jules is included as an extra on a superb DVD of À bout de souffle issued in Britain by Optimum Releasing (OPTD 0001, Coded Region 2). The image quality is excellent and the subtitling is based on a new translation by Lenny Borger, one-time Paris correspondent for Variety. All in all, a major treasure and one which makes it difficult to understand why there can be over a dozen Godard films available on VHS video in Britain but only one on DVD.
Which means you have to turn to the USA to continue to find the streak. There are four Godard films available on DVD in the United States, issued by Fox Lorber Home Video. They include: Une femme est une femme (1961), Vivre sa vie (1962), Pierrot le fou (1965) and Prénom Carmen (1983). None of these has any regional coding so all you need to play them is a TV set which can handle NTSC. Unfortunately, one must look in vain for Le Petit soldat (1960), the first film to feature Anna Karina. How can you describe Karina better than Andrew Sarris who called her “the greatest love of Godard’s life among his several Galateas”? Delayed following an initial ban, and then overlooked it seems to be unavailable anywhere.
There is some variation of quality in them. The DVD of Vivre sa vie is exceptional, a beautifully crisp black and white transfer from obviously high quality material. The DVDs of Une femme est une femme and Pierrot Le Fou are similar. Good quality 35mm prints have obviously been the source. Une femme est une femme and Pierrot le fou are both issued letter-boxed and the colour in each seems to me, at least in memory, as similar to that which was in the original 35mm prints that I saw all those decades ago. Don’t hold me to it.
Prénom Carmen seems as well to be an excellent transfer though the sound went off on a couple of occasions and I can’t say whether my machine was simply not coping with Godard’s more invasive and elaborate soundtrack. It should be noted that the packaging refers to the film being in a ratio of 2.33. This is not correct. However, that’s not what appeared on the copy I saw and I could find no menu that offered a scope version as well as the one I saw. I did not see any evidence of pan and scan in the DVD copy so it may be simply that the packaging is wrong. My copy was a full Academy ratio with no topping or tailing and no black strips on top or bottom of the screen. It did however look fine. Watching it straight after Pierrot le fou you get the uncanny sensation of the same plot device being used. ‘Lovers’ ditch all and take off for who knows where and talk endlessly. I’m not deriding the device. Anyone who has memorised my Top Ten on the Senses of Cinema Top Tens page will know that Pierrot remains an enduring personal favourite. However, even the moments when the male comments on or is asked for comment on the female’s physical features is pinched from earlier Godard work.
Watching Prénom Carmen again, only the second time in seventeen years or so, I confess to having forgotten entirely the part played by Godard himself as the broken down film director, paranoid, badly mannered and rather obsessed with money. It’s a very funny take on his colleagues, no doubt one etched out of years of misanthropy.
The device of seeking or offering comment on the female anatomy is most famously used in Le Mépris (1963). The opening sequence dwells on Camille’s (Brigitte Bardot) back side while she asks her husband Paul (Michel Piccoli) his opinion of her physical features until he announces that he loves her “totally, tenderly, tragically”. Le Mépris is available on DVD only from France and the French distributor, using what now seems to be standard French uninventiveness when it comes to DVD releases, has included absolutely no additional features beyond some perfunctory credits and the trailer for the film. The packaging has more production and distribution company credits than you can jump over but the DVD appears to have been released by a company called Opening Edition and is coded for Region 2. There are no subtitles in any language nor even French subtitles for the deaf or hard of hearing. You are on your own on that one. The quality of the image however is very good. The colours are as crisp as can be remembered and the darkly lit interiors are presented with a clarity impossible to achieve on video. To verify that I had a look at a section of the film and compared it to the version that I had taped from SBS-TV (Aust) when it screened the film. It’s immediately obvious that the DVD is significantly superior in most respects. One element however favours the SBS copy. The cinemascope of the SBS version is just a tiny bit wider than that on the letterboxed DVD and thus in some scenes where Godard has positioned his characters on the very edge of the frame the SBS picture includes just a little more.
Finally there is Alphaville (1965). Released by Criterion in the USA with no regional coding, this was a DVD to look forward to. Criterion prides itself on its presentation and many of its disks offer a breathtaking array of special features. One recent Criterion title, Cocteau’s Blood of a Poet (1930) for instance, offers behind the scenes photos, a 60-minute documentary on the director, a transcript of a lecture given by the director at the film’s opening, a 1946 essay by the director and a biblio-filmography. The DVD of Alphaville, priced comparably with other Criterion titles, offers none of these. A perfunctory set of chapters and some skimpy credits is all there is. It is not saved by the transfer which is clearly drawn from a very second rate print of the film. A major disappointment and not value for money.
So, the Godard streak of masterpieces, made and screened completely within the normal production arrangements of the day, that ran from À bout de souffle in 1959 through to Weekend in 1968 is not yet available on DVD anywhere. The omissions are Le Petit soldat (1960), Les Carabiniers (1963), Bande à Part (1964), Une femme mariée (1964), Masculin, féminin (1966), Made in USA (1966), Deux ou trois choses que je sais d’elle (1966), La Chinoise (1967) and Weekend (1968). Then there are the post-’68 films of which only Prénom Carmen seems to have appeared, at least outside France. There is a lot of work yet to be done.
A DVD copy of À bout de souffle can be ordered at www.blackstar.co.uk. For Le Mépris, go to www.fnac.com. For the remaining Godard DVDs from the US go to www.dvdplanet.com or www.amazon.com. For the most amazing range of DVDs in general, including many titles for which it is the only source go to www.facets.org.