A Companion to Jean-Luc Godard book reviewIn the opening paragraph of their introduction to A Companion to Jean-Luc Godard, Tom Conley and T. Jefferson Kline situate a particular cinephilic response to the great Swiss filmmaker’s work in terms of where you were at a particular moment when you first encountered Godard’s seemingly boundless “cinema”. For Conley and Kline, cinephiles of a particular generation can track their engagement with the cinema in terms of their mercurial but always attentive response to each new work in Godard’s storied, varied and sometimes (often?) exasperating career. But although it is inarguable that Godard is one of the key film and video makers of the post-war era, I’m not so sure that his unimpeachable status as an object of cinephilic obsession and reverie is quite as clear or cast in stone as they let on. The continued lustre of Godard’s work from the first half of the 1960s is seemingly self-sustaining and assured, but much work still needs to be done on almost everything that comes after Week End in 1967. Although there are numerous important critics and academics – including a number of the contributors to this book – who maintain a strong interest in Godard’s work after this point – particularly some of the films and videos from Histoire(s) du cinéma­ (1988-97) onwards – I’m not so convinced that Godard’s varied output over this long period sits very comfortably within the tastes and expectations of mainstream cinephilia. Perhaps this fascination is more generational than some of us may care to admit.

The response of many of my own colleagues and friends to some of these films (and in fact the bulk of Godard’s output over the last 48 years!) is lukewarm at best. Unlike the generally highly consistent and readily readable work of other varied objects of cinephilic obsession such as Max Ophüls, Éric Rohmer, Alfred Hitchcock, Robert Bresson, Jean Renoir, Michelangelo Antonioni and so on, Godard’s irascible, complex, shifting and probing cinema (it is, of course, more than that) is not made for such acts of devotion. I think we can love Godard while still disliking and even “distrusting” large sections of his output. This is both a strength and a weakness. Although I have long claimed an allegiance to Godard’s early work at the expense of almost everything that follows, I’ve come to realise that my taste for the director’s work is more complex and varied than that, and also shifts across time and lived experience. While it is true that I once was able to tolerate and embrace pretty much anything Godard threw at me – and I use that expression pointedly – I now vacillate towards some of the more astringent works of the early to mid 1960s (Vivre sa vie [1962], Une femme mariée: Suite de fragments d’un film tourné en 1964 [A Married Woman, 1964], 2 ou 3 choses que je sais d’elle [Two or Three Things I Know about Her, 1967]) and the autumnal, melancholy essays of the last 20 or so years (Histoire[s] du cinéma­, JLG/JLG – autoportrait de décembre [1996], De l’origine du XXIe siècle [Origins of the 21st Century, 2000], Notre musique [2004]). My own preferences are even somewhat mirrored in A Companion to Jean-Luc Godard. But, as Conley and Kline must confess, we all have our own Godard.

A Companion to Jean-Luc Godard book review

Vivre sa vie (1962)

A Companion to Jean-Luc Godard is the tenth in a series of volumes published by Wiley-Blackwell that attempt to provide a substantial overview and exhaustive analysis of a single director’s work. The scope of these volumes is considerable, allowing a wide array of expert contributors to expound at length on a particular film, theme or complex in a director’s work (I should note here that I am very familiar with the brief as the editor of the recently published 13th volume in this series devoted to Robert Altman). Conley and Kline’s significant contribution to this series includes 33 new essays (only a couple of which rework existing material) on a wide variety of topics and films within the expansive field of what we might now call “Godard studies”. The last 15 or so years has seen an array of books dedicated to this prolific filmmaker, including critical biographies by Colin MacCabe and Richard Brody 1 and numerous books focusing on specific periods of Godard’s career and particular aspects of his work. There are too many to list here, but even the previous issue of Senses of Cinema contains reviews of two other recent books on different aspects of and moments in his career: Volker Pantenburg’s Farocki/Godard: Film as Theory [LINK] and Godard’s own Introduction to a True History of Film and Television [LINK]. Conley and Kline’s collection is plainly a major contribution to this voluminous body of work that has been inspired by Godard’s ever-shifting output, but also leaves plenty of gaps and areas for further exploration. Although the ambition and scale of this series implies that it is meant to be encyclopaedic, most of its chosen objects of study exceed and complicate any attempt to cover the full range and depth of their work. This is as true of Godard, and the various stages, returns and cul-de-sacs in his career, as any other filmmaker in the history of cinema.

As Conley and Kline openly admit, and despite what I imagine was a fairly open call for submissions, the contributors to their “vast” volume still orbit around particular phases of Godard’s career. At least half the book is dedicated to the first seven years of Godard’s feature film career, while the later sections of the book are dominated by the discussion of Histoire(s) du cinéma and several other works – such as JLG/JLG and Allemagne 90 neuf zero (1991) – that are closely aligned with its immense project. There is very little in the book that explores Godard’s written criticism in the 1950s and early 1960s – besides a prosaic opening chapter by Jean-Michel Frodon that argues for all of Godard’s work as criticism (a common move) – and the overall tone is laudatory rather than combatively critical. I would also have liked to see more here on the various collaborations that mark and define his work (with Raoul Coutard, Anna Karina, Anne-Marie Miéville, François Musy, et al.). There are also very significant films that receive little discussion at any point in the book’s closely-packed 560 pages such as Une femme mariée, Alphaville, une étrange aventure de Lemmy Caution (1965), Made in U.S.A (1966), Week-end (1967), Sauve qui peut (la vie) (Slow Motion, 1980), Grandeur et décadence d’un petit commerce de cinéma (1986), Nouvelle vague (1990) For Ever Mozart (1996), and so on.

A Companion to Jean-Luc Godard book review

Allemagne 90 neuf zéro (1991)

Rather than view these absences as a deficiency of the book – and I think the first five in that list (all definitive works) are problematic “absences” in a book of this scale, size and orientation – I think it is better and more productive to use these gaps as a kind of yardstick of critical tastes in relation to Godard’s work at the current moment. Unsurprisingly, Le Mépris (Contempt, 1963), Une femme est une femme (A Woman is a Woman, 1961), 2 ou 3 choses, and Histoire(s) du cinéma are dealt with in a number of the essays, and the majority of the features prior to 1968 receive stand alone chapters or at least substantive analysis. It is also inevitable and appropriate that À bout de souffle (Breathless, 1960) is still a constant point of reference. These chapters shift between close textual analysis of specific films and explorations of particular preoccupations and points of interest across Godard’s work in this “initial” period. Phillip John Usher does manage to bring some new insights to his discussion of A bout de soufflé, but the most successful and illuminating chapters in this large “section” are Maureen Turim’s precise dissection of particular moments in Vivre sa vie, composer Kareem Roustom’s analysis of Michel Legrand’s score for Une femme est une femme and Kline’s astute account of adaptation, poetry and allusion in Bande à part (Band of Outsiders, 1964), and Thomas Odde’s chapter discussed later in this review. So in many ways the best essays in this book are either those that look closely at specific moments in Godard’s films or light on a particular idea or theme. I’d also like to single out Grace An’s analysis of La Chinoise (1967) as one of the few essays in the collection that attempts to properly look back at one of Godard’s works from another point in time and explore its legacies and limitations.

A Companion to Jean-Luc Godard book review

2 ou 3 choses que je sais d’elle (1967)

As I’ve probably already made clear, one of the understandable limitations of this book is that it largely reinforces the critical orthodoxy in relation to the various phases and stages of Godard’s career. The two long chapters that cover Godard’s work from the late 1960s to the late 1970s are both welcomingly accessible, carefully opinionated and attentive, but have to do a lot of legwork in adequately accounting for the often difficult to see and widely criticised (even loathed) output of this period. Both chapters examine Godard’s role as a collaborator, with Jean-Pierre Gorin and Anne-Marie Miéville respectively, and explore his increasing fascination with leftist politics, theories of communication, education, sociology and alternative modes and film and television production. Marc Cerisuelo’s account of the range of projects Godard worked on in the period immediately after Week-end also sees key connections to the group of films he made between 1966 and 1967 and their increasingly communal, sociological and formalist/structuralist orientation. Cerisuelo’s adept analysis places Godard within and outside various timely political, social, cultural and theoretical (e.g. Althusser and Brecht) influences and explores his journey across this under-discussed and, as the writer argues, “sometimes very arid” (p. 296) lacunae in his career. Cerisuelo’s discussion of these heady and often critically maligned films is leavened by a willingness to apply critical judgement, evaluation and distinction. His analysis certainly makes me want to look at Godard/Gorin’s Lotte in Italia (1971) and Vladimir et Rosa (1971) again (“the least serious and most joyful of the films” [311]) – not something I had thought likely. But it also prompts me to stick to my guns in assigning Vent d’est (Wind from the East, 1970) and British Sounds (1970) – films I have viewed several times each over the years – to the dustbin of my own particular filmgoing “history”.

Unsurprisingly, considering his attention to Godard’s work after the first flush of the nouvelle vague, Michael Witt’s following account of the video work of the mid to late 1970s made in collaboration with Miéville such as Six fois deux (Sur et sous la communication) (1976) and France/tour/detour/deux/enfants (1977) is an attentive and appreciative analysis and (necessary) description of one of the least studied (at least in English language criticism) and known periods of Godard’s career. In his long essay, Witt goes some way towards placing Godard and Miéville’s work geographically, theoretically and aesthetically. One of the few problems of this chapter is its inability, and perhaps even unwillingness, to untangle the various contributions of Godard and Miéville to these extended and ambitious works. Miéville emerges as something of a ghostly presence that hovers over the latter sections of the book. This problem is accentuated by the very minimal discussion of discussion of a number of the films and videos Miéville worked on as writer or co-director: Sauve qui peut (la vie), Prénom Carmen (First Name Carmen, 1983), Soft and Hard (1985), Le Livre de Marie (1985, a companion to Je vous salue, Marie [Hail Mary, 1985] on which she alone is credited), 100 ans de cinéma: Deux fois 50 ans de cinéma français (2 x 50 Years of French Cinema, 1995). Witt’s detailed discussion of the monumental and genuinely exploratory Six fois deux (Sur et sous la communication) (1976) and France/tour/detour/deux/enfants (1977) does go some way towards addressing this deficiency and usefully examines the motivations for and preoccupations of Godard’s “shift” to video, television, information theory, journalism and the broader practices of communication at this time.

Witt’s essay is also one of a series of chapters in the book that discusses aspects of location – in this instance, Godard and Miéville’s move to Grenoble and the pointed vacating of the cultural “centre” of Paris – and geography. The most successful of these focus on specific locations in Godard’s work, while the least successful – Amie Siegel’s sketchy and underdeveloped “Factories and the Factory” – play too loosely with a particular motif or set of associations (in this case Godard and Warhol). Nevertheless, one of the most surprising and illuminating contributions (“The Children of Marx and Esso” by Thomas Odde) fruitfully explores the motif of the petrol station in Godard’s cinema, framing a series of what he calls “petroglyphs” as symptomatic of a set of broader concerns with popular culture, colonialism, capitalism and the military-industrial complex. This kind of surprising focus, connection and observation is also evident in other essays such as John Hulsey’s discussion of the use of remote microphones – through which Godard directed and instructed his actors or “models” – in 2 ou 3 choses. Hulsey helps to locate the film’s peculiar formal style – stilted, slightly uncomfortable, and featuring presentational addresses to camera – that gives it such an affective, appropriate, even alien tone. But in other essays these connections are more prosaic and less illuminating: Fabien S. Gérard’s nonetheless decent account of the influence of Godard on Bernardo Bertolucci; Martine Beugnet’s discussion of the correlations between Godard and Laetitia Masson; Emily Macaux’s somewhat pointless and extremely dated reading of Le Mépris through the rubric of Linda Hutcheon’s useful but schematic early 1980s theorisation of postmodernism (Godard as a postmodernist avant la lettre – who knew?). In light of the already extensive amount of critical writing on Godard’s great film-on-film – including Jacques Aumont’s near definitive essay, “The Fall of the Gods: Jean-Luc Godard’s Le Mépris”, published in Susan Hayward and Ginette Vincendeau’s French Film: Texts and Contexts – it is disappointing that only one of the three essays dedicated to it here truly earns its place (Ludovic Cortade’s nuanced and ambitious discussion of André Bazin, modernity and landscape).

A Companion to Jean-Luc Godard book review

Histoire(s) du cinéma (1988-1998)

Although some of the most illuminating essays are to be found in the book’s last third, this, in many ways, is the “companion’s” most piecemeal and ill-defined section. As discussed earlier, Histoire(s) du cinéma casts a long shadow over this section of the book, as its does over almost all accounts of the last 30 years of Godard’s career. But one of the more surprising absences in this book is any kind of sustained analysis of Godard’s work in the 1980s, after his so-called “return to cinema”. The two key essays that cover this period (other than the various discussions of Histoire(s) du cinema, a large-scale, multi-part work that started to see the light of day at the end of this decade) are adventurous and evocative accounts of two of the characteristically rhapsodic and stringently obtuse works of this era: Passion (1982) and Je vous salue, Marie. Murray Pomerance’s typically attentive analysis of the former goes some way towards capturing its peculiar admixture of attraction and repulsion, affect and distance, movement and stillness, while also providing one of the few passages in the book that truly holds to account Godard’s motivations and sense of judgement (the director’s infamously prickly and mercurial character, as well the outrageousness of some of his assertions, rise to the surface elsewhere without being adequately explored or examined). Pomerance positions Passion – a film he plainly admires – as a belated critical response to François Truffaut’s La Nuit américaine (Day for Night, 1973). The strength of Pomerance’s analysis is his ability to find the words to critically describe Godard’s elusive film while also bringing the director to task for his bold, unfalteringly critical and ungracious comments on Truffaut’s film.

David Sterritt’s analysis of Je vous salue, Marie is one of a series of essays that looks at Godard’s work – or a particular film – through the framework of a specific philosopher, theorist or critic. Although not always entirely successful, Sterritt’s ambitious essay places one of the director’s most difficult and ineffable works alongside the writings of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, specifically the concept of the body-without-organs. This essay is paired with Daniel Fairfax’s balanced, upfront and knowing discussion of “Godard the Hegelian”, counterpointing approaches to the director’s work that might seem contradictory (Deleuze is commonly discussed in relation to Godard but is often see as working “against” Hegel). Nevertheless, as Fairfax astutely notes, Godard himself was rarely afraid to work across contradictory and competing discourses, and Hegel’s approach to the philosophy of history has many key connections to Godard’s late oeuvre. As Fairfax also notes, equal space could also have been given to Godard the Adornian, Godard the Benjaminian, Godard the Langloisian, Godard the Deleuzian, et al.

The final suite of essays in this book doesn’t quite rise to the challenge of Pomerance, Sterritt and Fairfax’s analyses. In many ways this is the weakest section of the book, with several of the essays not providing much more than a description or blow-by-blow account of a particular film. Moreover, too many of the films of this 25-year-period aren’t accounted for in this “section”, including such important works as Nouvelle vague, Hélas pour moi (1993) and Éloge de l’amour [In Praise of Love, 2001] – though this is not the fault of the authors. That said, the three essays that draw widely upon JLG/JLG, an important if underappreciated work from the mid-1990s that this collection renders almost canonical, do provide some significant insights into the aesthetics of Godard’s late work, as well as the complex and guarded ways in which it draws together history, politics and autobiography. Of the three essays focused on Histoire(s) du cinéma, Kriss Ravetto-Biagioli’s close analysis of several particularly emblematic moments in Godard’s magnum opus, is by some distance the most astute its appreciation of the complex play of history, appropriation, cinema and representation that define the work. The final essay by Irmgard Emmelhainz on Film Socialisme (2010) also provides an apt summary of the strengths and relative weaknesses of this collection. Her analysis dextrously explores a series of contexts in which to place Godard’s second-last feature (to this point in time, anyway) but is sometimes a little plodding and literal in its structure and analysis.

Conley and Kline’s introduction also leads us to expect that some of the writers in this collection will directly explore their personal relationship to Godard’s work and how this might have shifted over time. My own first encounters with Godard’s cinema in the 1980s move across an initial encounter with Alphaville on TV while still at high school (I must be honest: I was intrigued but perplexed), a fairly comprehensive introduction to the 1960s work at film societies and repertory cinemas in Melbourne, and enervating battles with such late-1980s films as King Lear (1987) and Soigne ta droite (1988). But there is actually very little in this book that is concerned with such personal itineraries or the broader influence, circulation and dissemination of Godard’s work (say in the United States, in universities, in South America) beyond its initial French release or television broadcast.

A Companion to Jean-Luc Godard book review

Adieu au langage (2014)

A Companion to Jean-Luc Godard is a testament to the ongoing critical fascination of the director’s work over almost 60 years. It largely contents itself with renewed close attention to the work itself – fair enough – and its placement within particular cultural, social, political, aesthetic and ideological developments and frameworks. It is an important and truly substantial contribution to this field that still leaves open an almost endless set of possibilities for the further exploration of the historical, subcultural and truly transnational influence of Godard’s work and its continued circulation in cinemas, on DVDs, at museums, through downloads, etc. It is these inevitable gaps and fissures – as well as the overall high quality and expansiveness of the essays in this volume – that give proof to Conley and Kline’s claims that Godard is the most important and influential filmmaker of the last 50 years. Inevitably, this often fine if understandably uneven book needs to be read alongside such works as Godard on Godard (edited by Tom Milne), Richard Roud’s Godard, For Ever Godard (edited by Michael Temple, James S. Williams and Michael Witt), the magisterial Jean-Luc Godard: Son + Image (edited by Raymond Bellour with Mary Lea Bandy), David Sterritt’s The Films of Jean-Luc Godard, the biographies by MacCabe and Brody, etc. 2 But it is also a book that needs to be read in relation to or in companionship with the films and videos themselves. There are no real boundaries between cinema and criticism in Godard’s work, and the ultimate test of this book is that it will make you want to go back and revisit much (though certainly not all) of his prodigious output. The impossibility of encapsulating Godard’s tumultuous and combative career is reinforced by this weighty, prodigious but, thankfully, far from authorative volume. The fact that Godard has released two films – a section of the portmanteau work 3X3D (2012) and Adieu au langage (2014) – that explore and test the material, aesthetic and even ideological capacities of 3-D since the compilation of this book, further suggests that this journey may still have some way to go before reaching its conclusion.

It should be noted that I am the editor of another book in this series, A Companion to Robert Altman, published in June 2015.

Tom Conley and T. Jefferson Kline (eds.), A Companion to Jean-Luc Godard (Wiley-Blackwell: Chichester, 2014).

 

Endnotes

  1. Colin MacCabe, Godard: Portrait of the Artist at 70 (London: Faber & Faber, 2005). Richard Brody, Everything is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2009).
  2. Tom Milne (ed.), Godard on Godard (New York: Viking Books, 1972). Richard Roud, Jean-Luc Godard (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1968). Michael Temple, James S. Williams and Michael Witt (eds.), For Ever Godard (London: Black Dog, 2004). Raymond Bellour and Mary Lea Bandy (eds.) Jean-Luc Godard: Son + Image 1974-1991 (New York: MoMa, 1992). David Sterritt, The Films of Jean-Luc Godard (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999).

About The Author

Adrian Danks is Associate Professor of Cinema Studies and Media in the School of Media and Communication, RMIT University. He is also co-curator of the Melbourne Cinémathèque and was an editor of Senses of Cinema from 2000 to 2014. He has published hundreds of articles on various aspects of cinema and is the editor of A Companion to Robert Altman (Wiley-Blackwell) and American-Australian Cinema: Transnational Connections (Palgrave).

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