Jean-Luc Godard’s Prénom Carmen (First Name: Carmen, 1983) is the third film, after Sauve qui peut (la vie) (Every Man for Himself/Slow Motion, 1980) and Passion (1982), in a busy period in the 1980s that boldly announced the director’s return to feature filmmaking. The notion of Godard as a feature filmmaker has always been a curious one since all of his films, including À bout de soufflé (Breathless, 1960) and Le Mépris (Contempt, 1963), have been united by a desire to deconstruct, if not completely destroy, conventional notions of narrative. The accepted wisdom is that Godard (with collaborators like Jean-Pierre Gorin and Anne-Marie Miéville) spent the period between Weekend (1967) and Sauve qui peut on highly polemical and analytical works that rejected narrative and genre. Yet it seems that these years, far from being a hermetic period lost in the wilderness of short film and video, refreshed and consolidated Godard’s determination to bring about the “end of cinema” in the features that followed.
Based loosely on Georges Bizet’s opera Carmen, with a nod to Otto Preminger’s Carmen Jones (1954), Prénom Carmen was originally intended to star Isabelle Adjani in the title role. Adjani, who had achieved international fame in François Truffaut’s L’Histoire d’Adele H (1975), left the set after a week of filming, finding Godard’s alienating approach to actors traumatic. Godard then recast the lead with a relatively unknown, Dutch born Maruschka Detmers. Along with most of the cast, Detmers, then 21, was expecting more guidance in terms of character motivation than Godard was prepared to deliver, and the atmosphere remained tense (but has a Godard set ever been relaxed?)
The film that resulted from this climate of tension contrasts a young string quartet rehearsing Beethoven with the efforts of an odd terrorist cell (a post-Maoist version of the one depicted to comic perfection in La Chinoise (1967)) planning to rob a bank to get the funds to make a movie. As Carmen X, Detmers is a member of the collective who spend much of the film in a beachside house belonging to Carmen’s Uncle Jean (played by Godard himself), a burnt out filmmaker who finds perverse amusement disguised as a patient in a mental hospital.
During the shambolic robbery (a set piece shot with a balletic disregard for suspense), Carmen falls in love with a security guard, Joseph (Jacques Bonnaffe). To prove his love, Joseph decides to help the gang kidnap a wealthy industrialist. In turn, Joseph is adored by Claire, who plays the violin in the string quartet. The push me/pull you eroticism of Carmen’s relationship with Joseph and Claire’s unrequited love gives the fractured tragicomedy of Prénom Carmen a cool lyricism that compares favourably with Godard’s best work of the ’60s. Godard may want to consign Hollywood/French cinema to an early grave, but he can’t help but film his young cast, especially Detmers, with the reverence Josef von Sternberg gave to Marlene Dietrich.
Prénom Carmen’s chief preoccupation is with a new generation’s drownproofing response to a post-1968 France, where the art of the deal is increasingly paramount. The cafes, where revolution was once discussed, are now places where careers are furthered. What people say to each other is no longer as important as how they say it – a point Godard makes explicit in a droll scene set in a glistening bistro where he tosses cryptic aphorisms and cynical quips like Molotov cocktails.
The harshness of this moral universe is mitigated by the cinematography of Raoul Coutard and Jean-Bernard Menoud, as well as a rich soundtrack that blends snatches of classical music, contemporary works by acts such as Tom Waits, and a wild track of sounds recorded near the sea. Prénom Carmen may not bear much resemblance to the sweep and grandeur of its source material, but it is arguably Godard’s most visually and aurally ravishing film since Pierrot le fou (1965). It is operatic in its intellectual ambition reminding viewers how the nature of desire and the need to create are often predetermined by a complex of material circumstance – our jobs, clothes, physical health, social connections, cultural references and so on – in spite of ideals and aspirations.
Prénom Carmen also reaffirms Godard’s love/hate relationship with genre. The film’s closing titlecard, “In memoriam small movies”, underlines the seductive allure of tropes – gunplay, doomed lovers, grand schemes gone wrong – found in the “B” movies Godard and the other members of the nouvelle vague grew up with. In Godard’s film, these plot points are sandblasted of their traditional associations and yet retain a ghostly hold over the proceedings. There is also another spectre in waiting other than Hollywood: the vestige of a certain kind of art film embodied by Prénom Carmen.
While Prénom Carmen was largely a critical and commercial success on in the international arthouse circuit, boosted by being awarded the Golden Lion at the 1983 Venice Film Festival, Godard’s unease with his “feature film comeback” becomes more palpable with the films that follow – the beguiling religious allegory Je vous salue, Marie (Hail Mary, 1985), the fugue-like Détective (1985), and onwards to Nouvelle vague (1990), Allemagne 90 neuf zéro (Germany Year 90 Nine Zero, 1991) and beyond. These are films limned with a mix of despair and nostalgia, as if Godard, like the character in Samuel Beckett’s Endgame, is saying to cinema, “I can’t go, I must go on”.
Prénom Carmen/First Name: Carmen (1983 France 85 mins)
Prod Co: Sara Films/JLG Films/Films A2 Prod: Alain Sarde Dir: Jean-Luc Godard Scr: Anne-Marie Miéville Phot: Raoul Coutard, Jean-Bernard Menoud Ed: Fabienne Alvarez, Suzanne Lang-Willar Sound: François Musy
Cast: Maruschka Detmers, Jacques Bonnaffé, Myriem Roussel, Christophe Odent, Bertrand Liebert, Alain Bastien-Thiry, Hippolyte Girardot, Jean-Luc Godard