1A (Toutes les histoires)


I undertake this essay in praise of hands as if in fulfillment of a heavy duty to a friend. Even as I begin to write, I see my own hands calling out to my mind and insighting it. Here, facing me, are these tireless companions who for so many years have served me well, one holding the paper steady, the other peopling the white page with hurried, dark, active little marks. Through his hands man establishes contact with the austerity of thought. They quarry its rough mass. Upon it they impose form, outline and, in the very act of writing, style.

Hands are almost living beings.…The hand means action: it grasps, it creates, at times it would seem even to think.

– Henri Focillon, “In Praise of Hands” (2)

In his youth Godard painted and, at the outset of his film career, he declared that he was working like a painter. In his first period, he worked only once with a well-known set designer or art director, and then effectively suppressed the position most allied to painting in a film crew, because he was the painter.

In the first three decades of his career, he clearly demonstrated his methods as a filmmaker–painter. In the 1960s, he employed, like his contemporaries the Pop artists, a certain popular culture in his films. Following May ’68, attitudes towards images greatly changed as they came increasingly under suspicion, and Godard abandoned the idea of working like a painter (3). The ’80s marked his return to the image, as he explored various pictorial elements: colour, framing and composition. Sauve qui peut (la vie) (1980) is a film done in the palette of the Barbizon school while Prénom: Carmen (1983) is more under the influence of the Fauves and the off-kilter framings favoured occasionally by the Impressionists. His painterly concerns are very evident in Passion (1982), where painting invades the very narrative, and again in Je vous salue, Marie (1985), where numerous shots are inspired by well-known paintings of the Virgin Mary.

What can be said of Godard and his relation to painting in his most recent period? (4) First of all, that in addition to being a painter, he also has ambitions as an art historian. What follows here is a reflection, an attempt to “describe precisely” (“faire une description precise” (5)) the rapport between his films and his painting culture since 1990, and particularly in the Histoire(s) du cinéma (1988–98).

If painting exists in Godard’s cinema since his earliest films, its presence in the Histoire(s) du cinéma is nonetheless very striking, even overwhelming. What are all these paintings doing in a history of cinema? It is useful to know that at the outset Godard planned ten chapters for his histories, with each segment devoted to an art, following, consciously or not, the approach of André Bazin in Qu’est-ce que le cinema? (6). Ultimately, he opted to do only eight episodes, with each episode in dialogue with all the others (7). Godard has often said that he is the child both of the Liberation and of museums – in other words, the offspring of the war and of painting – and it is under this double heritage that he created his Histoire(s) du cinéma.

With regard to his heritage from museums, Godard is evidently the heir both of Henri Langlois’ heteroclite programming at the Cinémathèque Française and of André Malraux’s imaginary museum. For Dominique Païni, the Cinémathèque was itself a kind of realisation of the imaginary museum (8), and the Histoire(s) du cinéma bring up to date this Malrucian idea (9).

Malraux understood well that photography gives us the possibility of creating our own museums. Malraux achieved his imaginary museum via his art books with their copious illustrations and their layout. His books no doubt provided the source of inspiration for Godard to accompany his Histoire(s) with the four volumes jointly published by Gallimard and Gaumont (10). Malraux, himself a cinephile and a filmmaker, observed a parallel between an art book and a film, and Godard elaborates and continues on this theme.

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In fact, Malraux’s influence is visible in the gestation as well as in the final form of the Histoire(s) du cinéma. Working on this project since the late ‘70s, Godard re-edited the early versions that circulated unofficially. Similarly, Malraux first published Psychologie de l’Art in three volumes, later transforming it into Les Voix du silence in four volumes. In episode 1B (Une histoire seule), Godard cites Les Voix du silence, and for his episode 3A (La monnaie de l’absolu) he even borrows a Malrucien title.

In Nouvelle Vague (1990), Hélène (Domiziana Giordano) and Roger (Alain Delon) discuss the fact that blockbuster exhibitions are often accompanied by long lines of waiting. They look at two post cards of Gauguin (one is Dans les vagues: Ondine). In Hélas pour moi (1993), there is a sustained shot showing in close-up a Paul Klee reproduction (echoing the Klee post card that Bruno (Michel Subor) attentively looks at in Le Petit soldat (1960)). Godard seems to say that he does not stand in line at museums; that it is enough for him to have access to great paintings via reproductions, in contrast to one of his grandfathers, an art collector. But if Godard is not a fetishiser of original paintings, he remains nonetheless very attached to film and its medium, and he criticises television precisely because it shows “not films, only copies of the reproductions” (11). In The Old Place (1998), Godard-Miéville reproach Andy Warhol for whom art existed only via the market.

The Old Place was commissioned by the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and its topic was to be a history of that particular museum. The result, however, is more a reflection on art tout court. Its title in English seems faintly ironic, not unlike the phrase “my old man” to speak about a husband. But a series of title cards reveals the logic of the filmmakers’ thinking: “The old place” is the equivalent of the old museum, the equivalent of old films. “The old place”, thus, becomes a phrase of affection, and also Godard’s reflection on his own death and his own mausoleum/museum. In the seventh decade of his life, he prepares the Seventh art (and himself too) for entry into the museum.

In the Histoire(s) du cinéma, the idea of the museum comes directly into play in episode 3B (Une Vague nouvelle). The museum in question is Langlois’ Cinémathèque, where Godard and his friends came of age. For Godard and company, Langlois’ museum, baptised here “the museum of the real”, was a kind of classroom. There, those young men discovered their own lives and then they tried to film “boys and girls in a real world”. Langlois’ museum discouraged them from overly identifying with traditional history, because they were “without a past”, “metamorphosed in the present” in the uninterrupted parade of cinematographic images. This episode closes humorously with Godard’s own voice. While a young visitor demands to know the relationship between Honoré Daumier and the New Wave, Godard, the museum custodian, announces its closing: “Closing time children, closing time”!

In a voiceover in episode 4A (Le Contrôle de l’univers), Alfred Hitchcock observes that the cinema is a marriage of a story with a style, but that often the spectator thinks only of the narrative. What can be said then of the style of the paintings in the Histoire(s) and the manner in which they are used therein?

Taking seriously this idea of the imaginary museum, Godard often includes reproductions of famous paintings in his shots. Frequently, he juxtaposes an actor with a figure in a painting, emphasising thereby a resemblance. The result is often an unusual pairing, and one that stays in the spectator’s memory. In Pierrot le fou (1965), Anna Karina is photographed between two portraits of Jacqueline by Picasso (12). And in the same film Jean-Paul Belmondo is framed with a Pierrot by Picasso – or again, in episode 2A (Seul le cinéma), Julie Delpy with a drawing of Alice in Wonderland. Likewise, in episode 1A (Toutes les histoires) Fernandel’s face is compared to a young man in a painting by Georges Seurat (and strangely, also with Adolf Hitler’s face), in order – it seems – to underline a physical resemblance. Occasionally, the original painting giving rise to the comparison is lacking, as in the young woman wearing a turban in Grandeur et décadence d’un petit commerce du cinema (1986) who clearly evokes a painting by Johannes Vermeer. Already in À Bout de souffle (1959), Godard revealed what was at stake in these comparisons. Lining herself up to Mlle Irène Cahen d’Anvers in a poster reproduction of this portrait by Renoir (13), Patricia (Jean Seberg) inquires: “Is she prettier than I?” What we have here are unabashed comparisons between painterly and filmic images.

Thirty years later, in an interview with Wim Wenders, Godard returns to this idea when he responds that he is indifferent to the fact that he no longer enjoys the popularity he did in the ‘60s. Now he is holding out for the day when he can sell his shots like paintings on an auction block (14). In episode 4A (Le Contrôle de l’univers), Godard brings up to date his painterly ambitions. First, we see an image with indistinct forms and bright colours, hovering between Pointillism and Fauvism; it is an early Kandinsky, Ludwig’s Church in Munich (p. 34) (15). Not long thereafter, a filmic image echoes this painting (p. 37): bright spots of colour in the same hues appear at first indistinct and then several seconds later this image is pulled into focus, and we realise that the spots of colours were the headlights of numerous automobiles. This image has become a kind of signature or trademark image for Godard. This visual rhyme, between a painting and a filmic shot, manifest clearly his ongoing painterly ambitions, as well as the superiority of an image in movement: one moment it is a pointillist image of vague forms, and the next it becomes a hyper-realistic image. Often, then, the choice of paintings is made on a formal level, corresponding to another filmic image, either anterior or posterior, always for the rhyme.

2A (Seul le cinéma)

In 2A (Seul le cinéma), we hear Julie Delpy’s voice on the soundtrack read from a poem by Baudelaire: “Les uns, joyeux de fuir une patrie infâme. D’autres, l’horreur de leurs berceaux” (pp. 58-59) while on the image track we see a painting of a woman by Gustav Klimt. Here, Godard plays on our memory of Une Femme est une femme (1961) when Angela (Anna Karina) tells Emile (Jean-Claude Brialy) that she is not “infâme”, but rather “une femme”. In this instance, the choice of image is in accord with the soundtrack: the painting highlights the spoken word. In episode 3A (La Monnaie de l’absolu), Godard narrates a brief account of Erich Pommer, and, to emphasise the fact that this producer was German, Godard simultaneously shows us a woodcut by the German artist Erich Heckel, Pommer’s contemporary. Then, in citing a phrase of Pommer’s (“I will make all the world cry in its armchair”), he shows us a painting by Edward Hopper, where a woman is seated in an armchair, looking out a window. Here, as in a book, the choice of images, illustrates the text.

If we speak of Godardian images, we must mention the highly contrasted black-and-white images based on photographs that he employs from time to time: for instance, the image of himself as a boy (16) (also seen in JLG/JLG: Autoportrait de décembre (1994)), or another image of himself, head slightly lowered and with a cigarette in his mouth (17), or again the image of Valentin Feldman, the young philosopher and Resistance hero shot in 1943 (18), among others. On the one hand, his usage of these simple images, in highly contrasted black and white, announce a theme of his history of cinema: “It is with colours of mourning, black and white, that photography began to exist. Not on account of the graphic arts. Nadar’s first bouquet does not copy a lithograph by Doré.” (19)

On the other hand, if we try our hand at the art historian’s game of determining influences, we suspect the influence of the French journal Opus International. In the 1960s the well-known Polish designer Roman Cieslewicz often used highly contrasted black-and-white images in his lay out for the magazine. Godard knew this publication and its editor, Alain Jouffroy, who, in 1967, dedicated an issue to Godard’s La Chinoise, ou: plutôt à la Chinoise. Malraux always stressed the importance of photography of works of art to create the imaginary museum. With these stark images, Godard refers to another revolution of image reproduction, that of the xerox.

In his dialogue with Serge Daney in episode 2A (Seul le cinéma), Godard identifies himself as a historian (he also seems to confuse criticism with history). Acknowledging his debt to the History of Art, Godard notes that it to date has accomplished only odds and ends of history (“des bouts d’histoires”). In episode 3A (La Monnaie de l’absolu), especially dense in painting, Godard narrates a history of art compatible with traditional histories of modern painting. He dates the origins of the cinématographe to Edouard Manet. Similarly, the American critic Clement Greenberg traced the origins of modern painting to Manet, when painting began to liberate itself from representation in order to concentrate on form and colour (a title-card in 3A, appearing during a series of paintings by Manet specifies that that painter was creating silent films: “C’était du cinéma muet.”) In the Greenberg version, based on an idea of progressive evolution, modern painting reached its acme with the heroic paintings of the American Abstract Expressionists. In Le Musée imaginaire, Malraux also reveals a predilection for history on the progressive model, and likewise dates the beginnings of modern painting to Manet, while remaining less teleological. Godard similarly relies upon a notion of progress, while substituting the cinema as its culmination. Just as Greenberg had done for abstract painting, Godard makes a case for the exceptional nature of the cinema, his parti pris indicated above all in the repetition of the title of episode 2A “Seul le cinéma”. Godard seems to say that only the cinema is capable of showing certain things (20). In 3B (Une Vague nouvelle), a voice-over spoken by Anne-Marie Miéville, quoting André Bazin, continues in this vein: in saying that “‘perspective was the original sin of Western painting. Niepce and Lumière were its redeemers.’”

The reference to Bazin is not by chance. In his role as historian, Godard, like Bazin, emphasises the Second World War as a watershed for the cinema. An extremely important leitmotiv in the Histoire(s) du cinéma, the Second World War appears even in its title: “Histoire(s) du cinéma/Histoire avec des s/des SS” (episode 1A Toutes les histoires). Marguerite Duras once commented that Godard had a “permanent air of being guilty or damned” (21): did he feel a responsibility for showing images of the war?

In the Histoire(s), Godard reveals himself to be the curator of his own museum, where he displays a veritable exhibition of paintings. Occasionally his choice of pictures is made formally, and at others times it underscores the soundtrack. Can we discern other reasons for his choice of pictures? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. Occasionally his use of a particular painting is not especially evident, except possibly that it pleases him and is part of his visual landscape. Thus, in his exhibition, certain paintings recur, undoubtedly because they number among his personal favourites: Nicolas de Staël’s Reclining Nude seems relevant here, as does Kees Van Dongen’s Tango with the Archangel (22). Ultimately even if his reason for using a certain painting is not evident, it is clear that his painting culture, like his film culture, remains decidedly Eurocentric (23).

There are also in the Histoire(s) photographs of painters, notably of Matisse and of Nicolas de Staël. Regarding the latter, Godard shows himself ever faithful to this painter whom he describes in The Old Place as “the beginning of eternity” (24). In the 1950s, Staël worked with the colours red and blue, declaring: “When I have no more blue, I add red.” These colours have been of great interest to Godard, using them repeatedly since his first colour film Une Femme est une femme and more recently in Hélas pour moi. The red and the blue suggest of course the French flag and suggest also an antinomy. Masculine/feminine; cold/hot: these colours express a fundamental rhyme at the very heart of Godard’s way of thinking and working.

1A (Toutes les histoires)

The colours red and blue are particularly in evidence in the first episode, 1A (Toutes les histoires). Echoing Yves Klein’s anthropometric canvases and Belmondo’s last act before blowing himself up in Pierrot le fou, Godard literally paints himself with red, blue, and white: wearing a white lab coat, he is seen in his office with its blue wall and red lamp, even his magic markers (red and blue) announce these colours! (p. 66). In his last episode, 4B (Les Signes parmi nous), Godard declares his “privilege to live in France as an artist” (p. 279). Likewise his choice of paintings occasionally reinforces these colours: see for example the Don Quixote by Daumier and also Venus at her Mirror by Diego Velázquez, seen one after the other in episode 1A (p. 63). With regard to the Velázquez, it seems that Godard intensifies the red and the blue, as is often done in cheap reproductions (25).

In episode 4A (Le Contrôle de l’univers), Godard pushes one step further his historiography of cinema and art. Curiously, he makes a hierarchical separation between female artists and male artists, perhaps recalling the obligatory separation of boys and girls in schools in his youth. The episode begins with a series of photographs of female artists or thinkers: Camille Claudel, Lou Andréas-Salomé, Simone Weil, Hannah Arendt, Flora Tristan, Virginia Woolf, Anne-Marie Miéville, Colette and Sarah Bernhardt. Interspersed between each photograph are title-cards that are the chapter titles, in the correct order, of his Histoire(s) du cinema. The end of the series is marked by the general title of the series (“Histoire(s) du cinéma”), and is followed, surprisingly, by an image of coitus and then an image of a woman undressing with the help of a man. The rhyme is achieved shortly thereafter with the series of photographs of male artists, but this time Godard limits himself to the realm of filmmakers: Robert Bresson, Fritz Lang, Jean Cocteau, Eric Rohmer, François Truffaut, Jacques Rivette, Luchino Visconti, Philippe Garrel, Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Alfred Hitchcock. The title cards between the female artists leaves little doubt as to their role in this history; they are like caryatids buttressing the overall structure of these histories. The men, on the other hand, are all announced by a card distinctly more prestigious: the word “artist” separates and identifies each and every one of them, like a radiating halo. For Godard, the word “artist” designates someone of genius, and his ideas here come directly from Malraux (26). For Godard as well as for Malraux, artists are the equals of legendary heroes. Neither of them recognises, or barely, female artists as generators of such power. In episode 3B (Une Vague nouvelle), Miéville’s voice declares that “the history of cinema is to make pleasant things happen to pretty women.” (27)

Reduced to the Godardian idea of embodying “beauté fatale”, women in his universe not surprisingly remain the object of the masculine regard, an idea well expressed in JLG/JLG where the camera displays numerous reproductions of famous paintings, where many represent a woman in a state of partial nudity (28).

The series of male filmmakers in 4A is accompanied by the voice of Alfred Hitchcock, speaking on the importance of style. It is immediately followed by Godard’s monologue on Hitchcock, a monologue that is surprising, even astonishing. Godard identifies Hitchcock as a great artist, a great creator of forms, because he knew how to hypnotise the public with his objects much better than did poor Cézanne with his apples! According to Godard, Hitchcock succeeded “where Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Napoleon, and Hitler failed” (29). It seems hardly accidental that this particular episode is entitled “Le Contrôle de l’universe”. For a filmmaker who has cultivated his marginal status, it seems a curious discourse, to say the least. À Bout de souffle was a succès de scandale, and thereafter Godard hoped that his second film would be poorly received, since he found greater freedom when he felt an opposition. (30) His worldview in the Histoire(s) du cinéma, a strange mix reflecting on art and politics, leaves an odd aftertaste: does he hope himself to take control of the universe?

If the question is provocative, it is nonetheless very serious. With his penchant for the high road, Godard reminds us in 3A (La Monnaie de l’absolu) that the cinema is made for thinking. But the Histoire(s) du cinéma, with their veritable explosion of images, risk hypnotising the spectator rather than stimulating his or her mental faculties. On us, his spectators, is Godard trying to reproduce the effect he experienced as a young man in Langlois’ museum, with all those countless images washing over him, a thousand hours each year? The Histoire(s) du cinéma do not lend themselves easily to analysis. Rather, they must be taken on faith.

The tone as well as the storyline in the Histoire(s) du cinéma is thus very idiosyncratic. As for its models, it is worth noting that there are no overall histories of an art by an artist. (31) In speaking of Hitchcock, Godard puts him in the company of conquerors and empire builders (Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Napoléon and Hitler), and the parallel is certainly not made lightly. Besides his debt to Malraux, Godard does not follow the models of an artist or a filmmaker, but rather, consciously or not, the memoirs of politicians and Statesmen, wherein the actors of History narrate the grand historical events they have known and participated in. Pace Godard’s remarks on the incompatibility between an Artist and the State in 4B. And here, once again, André Malraux, with his two hats, man of action but also man of thought, proved doubly useful. The writings of Winston Churchill (also a Sunday painter!) are perhaps of additional interest in this vein.

Thinking about these other models helps us to understand better the recurrent political discourse in the Histoire(s) du cinéma. The soundtrack of episode 3A (La Monnaie de l’absolu), for example, begins with Godard’s voice-over on the barbaric behaviour of European governments, and is illustrated by a montage of various photographs and paintings evoking war and violence: Saturn devouring his Children by Goya, a Baroque painting of Judith beheading Holofernes, etc.

4A (Le Contrôle de l’univers)

Central too to Godard’s conception of art is the importance of hands. For him, they are the very source of creation. In the Histoire(s) du cinéma, there are numerous images of hands, sometimes a single image, sometimes a series of images. In episode 4A (Le Contrôle de l’univers), devoted to artists, Godard tells us that “Man’s true condition is to think with his hands.” Already in La Chinoise, Guillaume (Jean-Pierre Léaud) confides to Véronique (Anne Wiazemsky) that he would like to be blind in order to see better. With the loss of the vision, the blind discover the world with their hands.

In 3A (La Monnaie de l’absolu), there is a transition between the interrogation on cinema and the section on Manet: it is an image taken from JLG/JLG, where we see Godard’s hands with a book, while on the soundtrack he says: “I had a book in my hand.” Episode 2A (Seul le cinéma) opens on his own hands, engaged in writing; in the same episode, while speaking with Serge Daney, Godard punctuates his dialogue with his right hand. A hand by Alberto Giacometti recurs in these histories, as does the hand of Peter Lorre in M. In episode 4A, while the series of female artists is followed by an image of coitus, that of the men is followed by a bouquet of hands. In 4B, the last episode, Godard shows us his hands at work manipulating film over an editing table (p. 263).

Malraux and Elie Faure are always cited as influences on Godard. But there is another who deserves to be mentioned, the art historian Henri Focillon, specialist of Romanesque sculpture and of European painting (32). Shortly before his death in 1943, he worked for the Liberation of France in the United States, and republished his Vie des formes, with an additional text entitled “Eloge de la main” (33). Was Focillon inspired by the devastation of the war to write this beautiful homage to hands? Episode 1A (Toutes les histoires) contributes to the idea that a popular art (the cinema) arose from a devastated art (painting), in the ruins of the war.

For Focillon as well as for Godard, the idea of being a creator is fundamentally linked to an artist’s hands. For them both, artistic work remains a manual labour. The origins for such ideas are to be found in a post-war discourse, when there was a veritable proliferation of films on artists. In general, the popularity of this genre is attributed to a search for stable values in an unstable world in the aftermath of the war. (34) André Bazin addressed this genre in his article “Cinéma et peinture” and one of the earliest articles of the young Godard was a review of a film on Alexander Calder and another on the German painter Henri Goetz. (35)

With these images of hands, Godard effects a subliminal montage, the most devastating of all. The Histoire(s) du cinéma were created under the twin inspirations of History and museums, and, for Godard, History here is the equivalent of the Second World War. Again he shows himself to be ever close to Malraux who once declared: “During the Resistance, I married France.” Several episodes of the Histoire(s) du cinéma deliver an account of the war in France. 1A (Toutes les histoires) chronicles the war, year-by-year, highlighting in particular 1940 and the defeat of France. Episode 3A (La Monnaie de l’absolu), taking up the question of collaboration, parallels the infamous trip to Berlin of a group of French actors (Junie Astor, Suzy Delair, Viviane Romance) in 1942 and Bresson’s film Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne (1945), where he cites Agnès (Elina Labourdette) as a Resistance fighter. Bresson’s Agnès is a revenant in these Histoires: already in 1A, Godard creates a montage between Agnès on her deathbed with a photograph of Jean Moulin. In 3B (Une Vague nouvelle), Godard returns to the behaviour of the French during the war. A super-imposition gives us both de Staël’s Reclining Nude in blue and red (or rather, Godard’s pastiche of this painting) with a photograph of the young Marguerite Duras. Over her image appears first the words “MARGUERITE FAUST” and then “MARGUERITE DE FRANCE” adroitly evoking (and passing judgment on) Duras’ comportment at the end of the war. (36) In 4B, on the soundtrack, Godard reminds us again of Resistance fighters and collaborationists, by giving us an excerpt from Malraux’s celebrated speech on Jean Moulin, when his ashes were transferred to the Pantheon.

1B (Une Histoire seul)

Strangely, besides the filmmaker himself, Adolf Hitler is the person the most frequently evoked in the Histoire(s) du cinéma. In these histories, the mastermind of the Second World War is almost a star. In episode 1A (Toutes les histoires, p. 79) and again in 1B (Une Histoire seul, p. 249), there is a photograph of Hitler with his hands raised. In 2A (Seul le cinéma), we see Godard at his desk: he’s wearing his tennis visor and no shirt, revealing his barrel chest, while on the soundtrack he speaks of Nuremberg lighting as having been invented “at the same time when Hitler hadn’t even enough money to pay for a beer in Munich.” Immediately thereafter, Godard looks attentively at his own hands. In the book 3B (p. 122), the title of the episode 4A, “Le Contrôle de l’univers”, the episode dedicated to artists, is superimposed over a photograph of the German dictator while he signals with his hands to the masses below. In 4B (Les Signes parmi nous), Godard reminds us that in the word “manifester” we find the word “main” (p. 22), to which we can add that the word “main” is also to be found in the word “manipuler”. With these images of Hitler, above all with the one in episode 4B, Godard delivers a subtle but nonetheless overwhelming innuendo, reminding us that Hitler, who took control of the universe between 1940 and 1944, was in his early years an artist, albeit a mediocre one without prospects.

4B (Les Signes parmi nous), the last episode of Godard’s histories, is partially devoted to montage, an invention of the cinema, if we are to believe Godard. (37) The title-cards give us his definition of montage: “To bring together things which have never been brought together and don’t seem disposed to being so.” A subsequent title card reminds us that André Bazin, one of Godard’s mentors, effectively forbad montage. But the analogy between Hitler and all the hands in Godard’s visual jungle is disconcerting, even troubling, because of its ambiguity: suggesting creativity but also brute force. After all, in episode 4A, Godard intimates a positive meaning for the phrase “prendre le contrôle de l’univers” (“to take control of the universe”) when paying homage to Hitchcock.

In 3A (La Monnaie de l’absolu), Godard speaks of forms that think, declaring that the cinema is made for thinking. If comparisons and juxtapositions can be very useful, they are also in themselves only a beginning. What a pity that at the end of these histories, so dense in allusions and citations, Godard didn’t cite Marcel Duchamp. Instead of dedicating his last episode to Anne-Marie Miéville and himself, he could have dedicated it to us, his beleaguered spectator, who is the “regardeur qui fait l’œuvre d’art”, since in this universe “where every eye (or ear) negotiates for itself”, it is the spectator who completes this vast work, sometimes overwhelmingly beautiful and moving, sometimes irritating and troubling.

At the end of this analysis, it seems odd that in all these histories Godard has omitted one that he himself actively participated in: May ’68. There are only vague traces, visible in those highly contrasted images inspired by Opus International and also in his play with words. In so far as May ’68 represented an attempt to put an end to the autocracy of the author and creator, an idea well expressed by Duchamp, Godard’s stories appear to be a veritable denial of May ’68 and an encomium of a “politique des auteurs” and a return to the omnipotence of the artist.

* * *

Thus, we finally arrive at understanding why to narrate his Histoires(s) du cinéma, Godard relies so heavily on painting.


  1. This article first appeared in French in a special issue (“Où en est le God-Art”) of CinémAction, ed. René Prédal, no. 109 (2003), pp. 226-35.
  2. Henri Focillon, “In Praise of Hands”, trans. S. Lane Faison, in The Life of Forms in Art, trans. George Kubler and Geroge B. Hogan (New York: Zone Books, 1989), pp. 157-58.
  3. The gesture of Anne-Marie Miéville in Comment ça va? is emblematic of this period: she refuses to show her face to the camera throughout the film. See Sally Shafto, “Le verbe contre l’image: les relations homme-femme dans le cinéma de Godard dans les années 60 et 70”, in Jacques Aumont (Ed.), La Différence des sexes est-elle visible: Les hommes et les femmes au cinéma (Paris: Cinémathèque Française, 2000), pp. 181-98.
  4. See Godard’s interview with Alain Jaubert in Peinture et cinéma (Paris: Ministère des Affaires Étrangères, 1992), pp. 188-93.
  5. This phrase, appearing over a photograph of Godard at the beginning of 2A (Seul le cinéma), is a definition of ekphrasis: to describe an image.
  6. In his writings, Bazin treated the cinema among the other arts, notably in the following essays: “Théâtre et cinema”, “Peinture et cinema” and “Pour un cinéma impur. Défense de l’adaptation.”
  7. No doubt the phrases “Montage, mon beau souci” and “La réponse des ténèbres”, which appear as inter-titles, like the eight titles of the completed episodes, are vestiges of the two chapters ultimately suppressed.
  8. Dominique Païni, Art Press, no. 221 (February 1997), p. 32. See also Michael Temple, “Big Rhythm and the Power of Metamorphosis: Some Models and Precursors for Histoire(s) du cinéma”, in Michael Temple and James S. Williams (Eds), The Cinema Alone: Essays on the Work of Jean-Luc Godard 1985-2000 (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2000), pp. 76-95.
  9. Already in La Chinoise, Godard acknowledges, albeit jokingly, Malraux: Véronique and Yvonne are staging a mock bullfight with the handlebars of a bicycle. When Kirilov discards the handlebars in the garbage, a neighbour retrieves them for his bicycle, and Véronique, addressing M. Malraux, announces that that is called: “The metamorphosis of the gods”!
  10. Malraux, a maniac for layout and, according to his biographer Olivier Todd, a “gourmand de typographie”, put extraordinary care into his books, while Godard seems considerably less interested in such issues. In general, the colours of the paintings reproduced in the Gaumont/Gallimard volumes are not only inaccurate vis à vis their originals, they are also inadequate reflections of the reproductions seen in the video versions. See, for example, page 55 in volume 3A (La monnaie de l’absolu): in the reproduction of Manet’s Un bar aux Folies-Bergère the blue in the background, which appears in the video, is completely lost. While Malraux produced beautiful books which were themselves works of art, Godard is content to have produced functional books.
  11. “Pas des films, que des copies des reproductions.” See Jean-Luc Godard, Histoire(s) du cinéma: 1A (Toutes les histoires) (Gallimard/Gaumont, Paris, 1998), pp. 67-71.
  12. In fact, the idea of framing Anna Karina with a portrait of Jacqueline by Picasso was perhaps inspired by her first film. In the Danish short entitled La fille avec ses chaussures (1959), she appears framed in a shot near a portrait of Jacqueline by Picasso.
  13. Today in the Bührle Collection in Zurich, this portrait during WW2 was appropriated by Göring for his private collection.
  14. Wim Wenders and Jean-Luc Godard, “For a Few Dollars Less”, Sight and Sound, supplement, November 1991, pp. 20-22.
  15. The page numbers included in the text refer to the corresponding page(s) in the Gaumont/Gallimard volumes of the Histoire(s) du cinema.
  16. See the Histoire(s) du cinéma: 3A (la monnaie de l’absolu) p. 73.
  17. See the Histoire(s) du cinéma: 2B (Fatale Beauté) and also: 3B (Une Vague nouvelle), p. 142.
  18. 1A (Toutes les histoires), p. 128.
  19. With regard to Godard’s use of highly contrasted black and white, see Jacques Aumont’s remarks in Amnésies: Fictions du cinéma d’après Jean-Luc Godard (Paris, P.O.L., 1999), pp. 101-102.
  20. That said, Godard’s argument to convince us that the cinema is superior to the other arts (“because the cinema projects itself”) seems hardly convincing. See episode 2A.
  21. The phrase appears in episode 2A (Seul le cinéma), p. 39.
  22. A detail of this painting is seen at least four times in the Histoire(s) du cinéma: in 1A, 1B, 2A and 3B. In addition, it is reproduced twice in the companion books. See: 1B (Une histoire seule) (Gallimard/Gaumont, Paris, 1998), p. 262; and also in 2A (Seul le cinéma), p. 30.
  23. Godard’s film culture embraces American cinema, while the painting of Edward Hopper seen in 3A (La Monnaie de l’absolu) is a rare (if not unique) example of American painting in his œuvre. His painterly quotations also lay claim to Spanish painting, via Goya, while Spanish cinema is completely ignored in his Histoire(s).
  24. See Sally Shafto, “Leap into the Void: Godard and the Painter, Senses of Cinema, no. 39, April–June 2006.
  25. See in this regard plate 204 in: Yves Bottineau, Velasquez (Paris, Citadelles & Mazenod, 1998), where the colours are considerably less brilliant than in the reproduction used by Godard.
  26. The remarks of Oliver Todd in his biography of Malraux are pertinent here. See especially: “Les arts, l’Art” in André Malraux: une vie (Gallimard, Paris, 2001), pp. 570-85.
  27. The phrase that Miéville reads is apparently Truffaut’s: “l’histoire du cinéma est de faire faire des jolies choses à des jolies femmes.”
  28. The issue of nudity or partial nudity also arises in the Histoires du cinéma. Godard’s multiple and diverse histories also includes images which are either pornographic or erotic. Appearing often extremely rapidly, these images affect the casual viewer subliminally.
  29. Very strangely, in the transcription of this monologue in the companion volume by Gaumont/Gallimard, the name of Hitler is omitted. It is more than possible that the casual viewer of the video doesn’t even hear Godard pronounce Hitler’s name. 4A (Le Contrôle de l’univers), op. cit., p. 85.
  30. Quoted in Richard Brody, “An Exile in Paradise”, The New Yorker, 20 November 2000.
  31. There is of course the history of American cinema by Bertrand Tavernier, but there, Tavernier is not directly implicated in his history, and in any event he published its first edition three years before his first feature film. See Bertrand Tavernier and Jean-Pierre Coursodon, 30 Ans de cinéma américain (Paris, 1970). As for the fine arts, George Rickey’s reliable history of Constructivism seems germane. But the American sculptor’s history is only a partial history of his medium. See: George Rickey, Constructivism: Origins and Evolution, (New York, 1961). My thanks to Craig Adock for his insight on this topic.
  32. Faure and Focillon were both important influences on Malraux.
  33. The first edition of Vie des formes was published in 1934.
  34. See, for example, Martin Norden “Film and Painting”, in Gary R. Edgerton (Ed.), Film and the Arts in Symbiosis: A Resource Guide (New York: Greenwood Press, 1988), p. 21.
  35. H.L., Gazette du cinéma, no. 4, October 1950. Reprinted in Alain Bergala (Ed.), Godard par Godard: les années Cahiers (Paris: Flammarion, 1989), p. 49.
  36. Godard obliquely refers to the Delval affair. In 1944, Duras was engaged in the French Resistance. In fact, she worked as a kind of double agent, seducing the Gestapo agent, Charles Deval, responsible for the deportation of her then husband, Robert Antelme. Her testimony at Deval’s trail was apparently crucial in his being condemned to death in 1945. For more on this topic, see the biography of Duras by Laure Adler, (Paris: Gallimard/Folio, 1998). See also Duras’ autobiographical novel: La Douleur (Paris: Gallimard, 1985).
  37. But is Godard right to make such an attribution? It could be argued that it was rather the German art historian Heinrich Wölfflin who “invented” montage. Wölfflin compared slides and photographs of examples of Renaissance and Baroque art, and that that “montage” allowed him to articulate the distinctive features of each period. His study, Renaissance und Barock, first published in Munich in 1888, remains a classic.

About The Author

A Research Associate at Williams College, Sally Shafto is a scholar of French and Francophone film. Her most recent publications include editing and translating the Writings of Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet (New York: Sequence Press, 2016).

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