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The role of nature in Godard’s films has been widely commented upon, and often with great lucidity. This is a consequence of the fact that ever since Godard “returned” to commercial filmmaking in 1979 with Sauve qui peut (la vie) (Every Man for Himself), his films have been brimming with images of nature–of waves crashing on and against beaches and berths, of forest and fields, of the camera gazing restlessly at the sky. Elsewhere, nature and culture appear thoroughly imbricated or, in the least, contrasted with one another. In terms of mise-en-scène, this manifests not only in Godard’s penchant for staging sequences outdoors, but also for using windows, doorways, and balconies as framing devices, whereas his montage routinely juxtaposes natural scenes with urban settings. 

Yet the tendency to claim nature as a dominant paradigm for understanding Godard’s late output is incomplete because it enforces an urban/rural periodisation that does not map as neatly upon his body of work as some might suggest. In fact, Godard’s films from the 1960s and 1970s are equally inundated with images of the natural world. These explorations of nature were the crucible in which Godard’s militant politics were shaped during the course of the 1960s. It is here that one witnesses his politicisation not only as a continual movement from the city to the country, but also, and more specifically, into a savage state of uncultivated nature which is coded as an idealist space of regenerative, if not revolutionary potential

Despite a critical consensus regarding the primary role of nature in Godard’s representational priorities, there is little agreement about how to assess its political ramifications. For Colin MacCabe, Yosefa Loshitzky, and Richard Brody, Godard’s return to commercial filmmaking and purported embrace of nature is best understood as a shift from the city to the country, an opposition in which the former is understood to be a site of dynamic sociopolitical change and the latter a space of placid contemplation, if not reactionary conservatism. MacCabe, for instance, writes that the Godard of the 1960s was above all an urban filmmaker whose sojourns into the country in Les Carabiniers (1963), Le Mépris (Contempt, 1963), Pierrot le fou (1965), and Weekend (1967) rendered that space “alien territory.”1 While MaCabe refrains from issuing a judgment of value to this change, Loshitzky and Brody frame it as repudiation not only Godard’s peculiar brand of cinematic politicking, but of politics more generally in favor of “metaphysics,” if not “mysticism,” and an understanding of “art” as a refuge from modernity.2 

By contrast, Daniel Morgan, Christopher Pavsek, and James S. Williams more convincingly argue that Godard’s interest in nature is demonstrative of a belief that the experiences engendered by the natural world are inextricable from those of aesthetics, history, utopia, and therefore, politics. Morgan avoids the crude binary separating nature from modernity by sensibly discerning that the latter, by definition, irrevocably touches the former.3 Pavsek argues that Godard does not so much repudiate the utopian political imperatives that animated him during the 1960s as work through those commitments just as they appear to recede into the horizon of historical possibility.4 And Williams sees in Godard’s overall body of work a continual struggle to actualise “an impossible ideal: the coming together of the ethical and aesthetic and political, such that they may finally slot together as one in perfect formation.”5 

Despite the theoretical richness of Pavsek, Morgan, and Williams’ insights, the representation of nature in the films Godard made during the New Wave and under the aegis of the Groupe Dziga Vertov (GDV) remain a conspicuous absence. If we are to take seriously the political dimensions of Godard’s interest in nature and its cinematic representation, then we must rethink the formative role it played in the films of the ‘60s and early ’70s where images of the natural are not “alien” afterthoughts but central to their shape. 

This is an especially urgent task when considering Godard’s unruly interweaving of aesthetics and politics because the continued efflorescence of scholarship on the filmmaker persists in framing the GDV, when discussed at all, as a “political detour” massively overdetermined by doctrinaire hectoring and misguided, if not monstrous, political commitments. Williams, for one, claims that Godard is “his most radical not when he is explicitly political,” sees the films by GDV as “a dead end of revolutionary montage,” scorns them for having “never fulfilled the revolutionary function that they were designed for,” and describes the director as possessing “the fanaticism of a religious convert [intent on] squeezing himself dry in an entirely alien political logic.”6 Elsewhere, Rick Warner’s important work on Godard as an essayist acknowledges how the cultural resistance and formal experimentation exhibited by the GDV prepared the filmmaker for future enterprises, but nonetheless dismisses the films as “[descending] into a suffocating dogmatism that runs counter to essayistic thought.”7 Implicitly prioritising the text, the competing voices that bombard spectators over the soundtrack, they neglect the image, which in cases such as Un film comme les autres (A Film Like Any Other, 1968) and Vent d’est (Wind from the East, 1969) is shaped almost entirely by their outdoor filming.

The other reason the films of the GDV cannot be so easily bracketed as radical tourism is because Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin, his primary collaborator at that time, understood their practice as the political sublation of Godard’s previous aesthetic adventurism through collective creation. Godard would flippantly refer to his New Wave films as “dead corpses”, and there was intense pressure during the late 1960s to understand his post-May transformation as an irrevocable repudiation of both the legacies of French auteurist criticism that he had helped inaugurate, as well as his position as an individual auteur within international art cinema.8 

But Gorin shrewdly understood the collective’s “new unity” as effecting an “epistemological rupture” (in a provisionally Althusserian sense) that could ignite “the revolutionary potential in aesthetics that Jean-Luc brought to his previous films,” a point underscored by Godard’s concession that Weekend, Pierrot le fou, and Deux ou trois choses que je sais d’elle (2 or 3 Things I Know About Her, 1967) had some “positive things.”9 

In what follows, I want to trace—with broad strokes given considerations of space—how representation of nature in the films of the ‘60s and early ’70s complicates our understanding of nature in Godard’s work more generally. Not only that, I also want to show how it informs the development of the GDV’s unique blending of aesthetics and politics. And I will achieve this by focusing on one particular cinematic trope that pervades several films: lateral movements where the camera tracks, pans, and/or cranes from land to water and sky. These movements can be right to left or left to right, they can move diagonally across the space or snake through it in a curvilinear fashion, and they may crane up or down. This particular type of camera movement recurs in Le Mépris, Pierrot le fou, Weekend, and Vent d’est (although there may be other examples). And it is reflective of changing representational relationships between nature and modernity, between material mooring and transcendental ideals, between culture and politics. I will conclude by assessing how such camera movements reappear in Tout va bien (1972), Godard’s previous “return” to commercial filmmaking with Gorin as his collaborator. 

Understanding Godard’s aesthetic and political transformation along these lines demands a reassessment of the conceptual criteria employed to account for his later representations of nature, namely “the sublime” and “the beautiful.” Morgan highlights how Godard’s treatment of nature can be understood in iconographic terms, and he argues by way of interpretations of Prénom Carmen (First Name Carmen, 1983) and Soigne ta droite (Keep Your Right Up, 1987) that such representations correlate Marxist-Leninist “dogma” with the “sublime”, with things that are overwhelming, such as the sky and the sea; it is a master-narrative separate from the contingencies of individual existence.10 This, according to Morgan, is in contrast to “the beautiful”, which is rooted in the earth, the ground, and evokes the banalities of everyday life, if not existential malaise.11 

I find this association of Marxism with the sublime to be counter-intuitive (even if it is true to Morgan’s particular interpretations of these films) precisely because Marxism in general and Marxist cinematic praxis specifically are distinguished, in Pavle Levi’s words, by “the human subject’s general pursuit of a unity of thought, matter, and action, of critical-theoretical thinking and practical labor.”12 Therefore, if we treat the sublime and the beautiful not as fixed categories but rather iconographic modalities, we may better understand how Godard marshals them for political purposes. To this end, their plasticity is demonstrated by the films of the 1960s, which invert the paradigm Morgan establishes. Le Mépris and Pierrot le fou, for instance, arouse a restless existential aspiration to the sublime, which is indicated by concluding images of the sky and the sea that eradicate the representation of the individual. By contrast, Weekend and Vent d’est, which are explicitly political in their orientation, take place almost exclusivity outside and incarnate revolution as a materially moored and embodied activity expressed by forests, fresh water and ironic evocations of “beauty”.

I have no wish to conclusively resolve the multifaceted, if not maddening, contradictions at play here. Rather, in an Althusserian spirit true to the GDV, I offer only some notes guiding my investigation. 

The first example I will consider comes at the end of Le Mépris. A lateral camera movement follows Paul (Michel Piccoli) as he walks across the villa’s roof from right to left towards the production of The Odyssey. Elements of the architecture almost immediately block whatever access we may have had to the protagonist and contrast sharply with the rocky seascape’s azure sky. As Paul continues onto the villa’s roof, indices of the production’s mechanised mode of artistic creation begin to appear. Odysseus charges on-screen wielding his sword from screen-left, flexes to the sky, and then exits screen-right; as he leaves, a propman crosses his path in the foreground, moving in the same direction as Paul, highlighting the already omnipresent historical anachronisms that pervade the film as a whole. Eventually, the entire production comes into view and Paul positions himself to converse with Fritz Lang (playing himself). The widescreen frame refuses to privilege their dialogue, and instead relegates them to the center-right portion of the composition with the remainder of the shot occupied by the crew. The camera holds this framing for roughly forty seconds as they speak, only moving once Paul leaves. Coutard partially follows Paul’s exit by reversing the original movement towards the production, panning right, then dollying back. After “Action!” is yelled, Coutard’s camera tracks forward along a diagonal perpendicular to the tracks on which the diegetic camera rolls; it then “aligns” with the diegetic camera, panning left and taking in the sublime Mediterranean vista; we are overwhelmed by its grandeur as the film asks us to contemplate an existential void. “Silence!” cries Godard, who plays the assistant director in the film-within-the-film, which of course breaks the silence. The music swells. The film ends.

Le Mépris

In this single shot, Godard touches on a variety of topics. At the time of the film’s completion, he wrote, “When I think about it, Le Mépris seems to me, beyond its psychological study of a woman who despises her husband, the story of castaways of the Western world, survivors of the shipwreck of modernity… whose mystery is the inexorable lack of mystery, of truth… Whereas the Odyssey of Ulysses was a physical phenomenon, I filmed a spiritual odyssey: the eye of the camera watching these characters in search of Homer replaces that of the gods watching over Ulysses and his companions.”13 

There is a clear existential predicament at work here. The characters suffer because they have the material expectation of non-suffering; their lives lack mystery because their material and psychological needs are supposedly met by modernity. But modernity’s gifts can only partially compensate for the ultimate alienation it offers. What I find especially interesting is how Godard likens his camera to the Gods; in its movement towards a transcendent position, it evacuates all reference to the human form. Yet this transcendent vision is hardly the metaphysical ruse that would be so easily dismissed by a generation of “materialist” film theorists (like Jean-Louis Baudry). Not only is it worth stating the obvious point that Godard, as is his wont, refuses to disavow the means by which the camera mediates this sublime vision of transcendence. More pointedly, our position is the consequence of a complicated camera movement that takes more than two minutes to execute, and the pivot to the sky is clearly born of an earthbound perspective whose gravity we feel as we aspire towards transcendence, something which here can only manifest as a consequence of mechanical, cinematic vision. What is more, Godard’s ironic call to “silence” is consonant with Peter Wollen’s observations about the filmmaker’s “radical Romanticism” whereby “silence [functions] as the only true communication, when reality and representation, essence and appearance, irreducibly coincide: the moment of truth.”14

Pierrot le fou’s conclusion by the Mediterranean repeats almost verbatim the pertinent features of Le Mépris in its treatment of the sea as an icon of existential alienation. But it also marks a transformation. Medium close-ups of Pierrot’s (Jean-Paul Belmondo) face covered in sticks of red and yellow dynamite and his hand attempting to extinguish the fuse that will blow him to smithereens give way via a cut to an extreme long-shot of the explosion itself. It is as clear a representation of existential dread confirmed as can be imagined. Distant and detached, Coutard’s camera languorously pans from the smoldering cliffside to an unending sea illuminated by a blazing noonday sun. Over the soundtrack we hear Marianne (Anna Karina) whisper “Eternity”. “Just the sea,” responds Pierrot. The camera’s movement ends in medias res with the sun poised to obliterate its field of vision, and therefore our own.

Pierrot le fou

If we might tentatively find ourselves lost in the sea at the end of Le Mépris, then Pierrot’s conclusion is more destabilising. The cut, in particular, interrupts the continuity of experience so prioritised by the former’s long takes and signals nature’s total indifference to Pierrot’s condition. This is compounded by the mechanical nature of the camera’s movement from land to sea. Whereas the camerawork in Le Mépris provided a putative facsimile of embodied motion (long-takes plus movement through navigable space), the camera here lacks terrestrial mooring; although obviously positioned on a bluff across the way, its placement on the land remains outside its field of vision. Pierrot thus intensifies what was inchoate in Le Mépris. Both aspire to the sublime by means of movements from the land to the sea and the sky. Both treat the sea and the sky as natural icons representing existential anxiety, if not transcendental obliteration. And both use the alienating experiences of individual characters to make the leap from the particular to the universal. And while there’s no doubt a politics to these evocations of the sublime, they are not political in ways that will characterise Godard’s subsequent output. 

Weekend and Vent d’est share this iconography and camerawork while politically and stylistically remaking them. They also exemplify an overall movement across Godard’s œuvre from the city to the country, a point which does not signal the repudiation of politics but rather its emergence. Take Weekend. The entire thrust of the film is to jettison Corinne (Mirielle Darc) and Roland (Jean Yanne) from their modern, urban milieu into an increasingly harsh wilderness. As they traverse this nightmare landscape of savagery and death, the couple find themselves progressively divested of the material objects that make them modern—their car, as blunt an emblem of technological mobility as can be marshalled, explodes in a horrific accident whose main casualty is Corinne’s Hermès handbag; they beg for food; their clothes tear and stain with blood; they’re forced to walk, piggyback, and hitch rides with an increasingly outrageous assortment of characters until they’ve descended so far into barbarism that Corinne, without a hint of irony, devours her husband during a hippie-cannibal-revolutionary collective’s orgy-feast. 

The “Language of October” sequence exemplifies the land/water dynamic I have been describing. Taking place after the hippie-cannibals have killed Roland and captured Corinne, this complicated shot runs almost three and a half minutes and is comprised of left to right dolly movements, pauses, pans, reframings, and the retracing of previous motions that follow, more or less, the armed rebels as they patrol their wooded base. In marked contrast to Le Mépris and Pierrot, the vegetation blocks the sky and only provides the briefest glimpses of the water. Furthermore, the soundtrack is anything but silent and is instead crowded by off-screen exclamations from Lautréamont’s Maldoror about the sea timed to an unrelenting 4/4 backbeat courtesy of a rebel drummer pounding his kit by the side of the lake. 

Weekend

As the sequence comes to a close, the filmmakers rest their camera on the percussionist and then crane above him to gaze upon the lake. But this representation of water is unlike Le Mépris and Pierrot le fou. Instead of unobstructed vistas of sea and sun, we find an overcast sky and a murky body of natural water. Grimy, dark, and colorless, it lacks the promise of an infinite horizon. And though the camera elevates in a potentially transcendental gesture, the canopy limits its ascent and results in an ironically picturesque landscape of what is, ultimately, apocalyptic despair. While Le Mépris and Pierrot le fou may have tempered their transcendental visions by showing the process by which we transition from land to sea and sky, Weekend more or less refuses it. Radical politicking—even if equivocally endorsed—is thus shown to be a fundamentally material process involving bodies quite literally devouring each other. 

This brings me to Vent d’est, a militant Western produced by Godard with the GDV alongside a coterie of French and Italian radicals. Widely understood to be one film history’s most unrelenting critiques of cinematic illusionism and the culture industries that sustain it, what has been heretofore unobserved is that this critique almost completely disavows representations of the modern world in favor of beautiful, often uncultivated, exteriors that recall less the classics of revolutionary cinema (say, the Soviets or Brecht) than Ophuls, Renoir, or even Griffith. 

The “primitive beauty” associated with the natural world has been partially discussed, notably by James Roy MacBean and more recently by Rosalind Galt, as a paradigm for understanding Vent d’est’s counter-cinematic strategies.15 This occurs more precisely through the film’s transvaluation of land and water iconography, above all in the famous sequence in which the “seducer” lures audiences into the illusions of a filmic Eden. As this passage begins, we hear the film’s “revolutionary voice” advocate, “Struggle against the bourgeois notion of representation.” Soft, shallow focus images of wildflowers appear followed by a shot of Cristiana Tullio-Altan dressed in her bourgeois best while wielding a camera and presumably filming blossoms akin to those just seen.

The filmmakers cut to black, breaking the flow of representational images, and then expose the camera apparatus and sound recordist positioned within a sylvan glade replete with waterfall. Over the soundtrack, the “revolutionary voice” tells us that we are about to meet “the seducer”, described as “a character from a Western, from a psychological drama, a police film, or a historical film. It doesn’t matter.” The young Italian actor Fabio Garriba next appears in a shallow-focus close-up, looking directly into the camera, and positioned on the banks of a “babbling brook”, a pun that indicates the nonsense he will soon spout. In Italian, he describes being in the dark of the auditorium and does not so much seduce as harass a “good-looking chick” sitting in the theatre who he would like to “screw” to join him on-screen. “There’s lots of green. Blue skies. The air is clear,” translates the “revolutionary voice.” “Don’t you believe it,” he rhetorically asks. “Then come here, you morons.”

Vent d’est

As if in response to his command, the camera zooms out and pans left to reveal a vast landscape receding with an abundance of perspectival depth that confirms his pitch. A waterfall descends into a secluded cove, swimmers dive into its waters, and we’re told it’s a “wonderful summer day” full of “sunshine” and “truth”. MacBean sees here a “complex restructuring of space” that “literally invites us into the image all by itself,” appreciates it as a critique of Bazin’s advocacy for depth staging and understands the sequence as a whole to be “nothing other than a sales pitch monologue aimed… at the audience, which is flirted with, coaxed, and cajoled into coming up onto the screen to join the ‘beautiful people’ for a little sex and leisure amid beautiful surroundings.16 

Vent d’est

The effects are even more trenchant in light of how they transform the iconography and camerawork from Le Mépris, Pierrot le fou, and Weekend. The zoom, in particular, ironises the “transcendental” views of Le Mépris and Pierrot le fou by offering them up as ersatz approximations of the cinematic sublime, a point reinforced by the absurdly hilarious diver in the background. Indeed, if we hear in Weekend that “the horror of the bourgeoisie can only be overcome with more horror,” then we might say that Vent d’est caustically fulfills this mandate by implicitly joking that “the beauty of the bourgeoisie can only be overcome with more beauty.” The whole thing is a farce; it mocks not simply “movies,” but the existential aspirations toward cinematic transcendence that Godard explored earlier in his career in favor of the GDV’s unique brand of Marxist-materialism. 

For Glauber Rocha, who not only appears in Vent d’est but whose The Lion Has Seven Heads (1970) is something of a kindred spirit with it, this is a “desperate beauty, born – imperceptibly – of the exhausted intelligence of poetry.”17 “Desperation” result is a kind of lacerated film, or a cinema of representational negation.

Vent d’est

Anyone who has seen Vent d’est can attest to its sharp editing, abrupt camera movements, title cards, colour fields, and chaotic soundtrack; it also features footage scratched, perforated, and torn beyond nearly all recognition. These are clear assertions of filmic materiality that contrast with sublime seascapes or even obstructed vistas. 

While such interventions materially tear apart the image and its representational capacities, Vent d’est as a whole does not negate the idealist, indeed ideological, connotations often ascribed to nature. The move from the city to the country is a clearing ground for Godard, a “return to zero” (as he was fond of claiming); nature therefore functions as a space of radical regeneration, an idealist space of fantasy and myth where distinctions between knowing and unknowing, thought and action, revolution and barbarism were subject to far-reaching revision. 

Godard’s explorations of nature with and beyond the GDV are thus consonant with the frontier mythologies that informed the genre they’d hoped to deconstruct: the Western. Here, the primary antinomy is the separation of civilisation from wilderness. Civilised peoples must “regress” into the so-called primitive wilderness in order to cleanse themselves of modernity’s alienating effects and establish new forms of social praxis.18 It is therefore unsurprising that Gorin told Antoine de Baecque in 2008, “For the image, we privileged a ‘return to Griffith’, something primitive, a form of beauty simple and cinematographic, the murmur of wind through the branches.”19

Vent d’est (nor Weekend, for that matter) can not fully envision cinematic revolution outside these myths, can not acknowledge the very idealism at the heart of its merciless materialism. Nature, therefore, was neither alien to nor an afterthought of Godard’s work from the 1960s. Rather, it was an iconic modality for working through political, ideological, and existential contradictions which could not be adequately reconciled owing to the historical particularities of the moment.

This brings me to Tout va bien, its position in within the wider context of late-60s politicking in France, and the ways its camera movements continue and complicate the trajectory I have established. By the early 1970s, police repression and the resulting outlawing of gauchiste organisations meant the lingering effects of May and June ’68 had all but withered save for isolated pockets of radical resistance. The dissolution of the GDV coincides with this diminution of left politicking. The inability to consolidate solidarity with the Third World in the form of Jusqu’à la Victoire (Until Victory), their film on the Palestinian Revolution, and the decision to return to the commercial cinema’s frameworks of production and distribution for Tout va bien revealed the limitations of the political cinematic praxis they pursued at this point in time. Its commercial and critical failure to ignite a New Left front of social, political, and cultural activity symbolically signified the closure of the broad-based popular politics that May-June inspired even as it sought to re-energise them.20 

The lateral tracking shots that Godard and Gorin employ throughout Tout va bien encapsulate its equivocal stance regarding the need to discharge May-June’s lingering energies while simultaneously admitting their practical-political inadequacies. The film’s climactic rebellion of militants storming an over-sized supermarket, declaring its goods to be free, and fomenting such a disturbance that riot police enter the scene to repulse their actions renders this plain. Significantly, it takes place entirely indoors, thereby voiding one polarity of the nature/modernity dialectic that Godard worked through across similar camera movements of the ’60s even as Gorin acknowledged its indebtedness to his collaborator’s past practice (“the supermarket scene is a travelling shot, and is a pure homage to Jean-Luc by me…”).21 Staged and photographed in a single, ten-minute take not unlike Weekend’s colossal pile-up of cars or the automotive assembly line that opens British Sounds (1969), Godard and Gorin’s camera surveys the events while gliding along a horizontal track. Unlike these shots from Weekend or British Sounds, however, which unfold as uni-directional movements from left to right, the filmmakers here move from left to right and back, three and a half times (Left to Right, Right to Left, Left to Right, Right to the Center) in order to transliterate the geometric axis of left-right political orientation onto a cinematic plane that meta-critically comments upon the events that transpire. 

As the sequence begins, the camera moves from the left to the right. Checkout line conveyor belts propel purchased goods towards consumption while aisles of merchandise extend into the furthest recesses of the image’s depths. The implication is that the individual and familial satisfaction of material needs under the logic of late capitalism pushes politics towards the conservative right. Concurrently, we witness Suzanne (Jane Fonda) tour this scene of consumption and hear her explain its alienating effects. “A large sales outlet, and social theatre at the same time,” she describes. “Everybody’s shouting… except the audience. They pay and pretend to keep their mouths shut. No one addresses them yet. Outside the factory, it’s still like a factory. No one talks to anyone else. They’re all waiting for new actors.” As if in response to her call for “new actors”, a mob of leftwing militants appears on the horizon and barrels down an aisle, causing the camera to stop its rightward momentum “in its tracks” and reorient its motion to the left, indicating social disruption as a catalyst for a return to new left politicking. But Godard and Gorin’s camera does not endorse this action. When the militants “liberate” these goods by declaring them “free” the camera once again begins its rightward tilt, accelerating its momentum commensurate with the mob’s growing energies. This tilt to the right, in fact, reveals that police have now descended upon the supermarket to re-establish order, demonstrating that “unprincipled” disruptions of this sort reinforce state power. In this climactic confrontation, the camera once again reverses direction, travelling from right to left, but leaving the motion incomplete, concluding in the center as hostilities continue unabated and unresolved, a stalemate that ends in the impasse that is liberalism’s sociopolitical “propriety”.

Tout va bien’s final sequence further encapsulates its equivocal heart by returning outside in order to again draw upon the nature/modernity dualism Godard had so suggestively employed in the recent past. But this is not the kind of exterior that Godard so profitably explored earlier. Rather, a camera mounted upon a railway track moves from right to left through a dilapidated urban waste-space. It nonetheless keeps with the supermarket sequence’s structural left-right motif, here more specifically suggesting history’s inexorable trajectory towards emancipation.22 And yet everything in the camera’s field of vision conspires against what this linear structure implies: chain-link fences and brick walls literally obstruct vision and figuratively occlude historical progress; uninviting zones of industrial refuse offer the image’s only points of entry; and an overcast sky extends a muted pall over the landscape. Where Le Mépris and Pierrot le fou blinded our vision with noonday suns, Weekend used the forest to block our aspirations towards skyward transcendence, and Vent d’est parodied all of the above, Tout va bien ironically places the sun on the soundtrack which sings “It’s sunny in France” (“Il y a du soleil sur la France”).

Tout va bien

Despite this, the camera still moves; whatever the stultifying conditions of contemporary left politics, the utopian aspiration of revolutionary emancipation persists in the individual who remains oriented in a material world subject to social and political transformation. As Tout va bien’s final camera movements unfolds, we hear snatches of off-screen dialogue, above all between an unnamed man and woman.  “Each his own historian,” she speaks. “Me, you, him, her, us, all of you,” they chant as one. To begin at the end, to begin again, Tout va bien ultimately suggests, is to reorient the self in relation to the other; to reconceive how one relates to the collective in order to “think oneself historically” and thus to understand history as a set of social relations mutable to the exigencies of an as yet undefined political praxis and not, ultimately, the out of reach aim that Godard’s later associations of history with the sublime might suggest.

“Return to zero” was the mantra summarising Godard’s political cinematic aspirations. It was a challenge to conventional modes of commercial filmmaking in favor of collective creation, a critique of the classical realist text by discontinuously reducing film style to its component parts (i.e. images and sounds), and an inquiry into the multiple determinations influencing film language’s historical development. It was also indicative of a series of displacements – from city to country, from land to sea and sky, from modern cinema to its purportedly primitive past, from the image’s imaginary plenitude to its material substrate – that continually revealed the impossibility of returning to a point of unvarnished origin, the tabula rasa that nature itself promised. While the representations of the natural world in Weekend and Le Vent d’est partake of Euro-American myths about nature as a space of savage wilderness and Edenic rejuvenation, the point, as the omnipresent camera makes clear, is that they were always and already spaces vulnerable to the human subject. 

If, in the final instance, we understand the “zero” as “nature,” then the materiality of Godard’s much vaunted “materialist aesthetics” comes into sharper relief: not simply an anti-illusionist deconstruction of heretofore sacrosanct cinematic codes nor a refusal of representation and signification as idealist mystifications, but more exactly the dialectical oscillation between concept and form where the cinema is always both imaginary signifier and material machine.

Endnotes

  1. Colin MacCabe, Godard: Portrait of an Artist at Seventy (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2003), p. 262.
  2. Yosefa Loshitzky, The Radical Faces of Godard and Bertolucci (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1995), p. 89; Richard Brody, Everything is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard (New York: Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt and Company, 2008), p. 473.
  3. Daniel Morgan, Late Godard and the Possibilities of Cinema (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013), p. 23.
  4. Christopher Pavsek, The Utopia of Film: Cinema and Its Futures in Godard, Kluge, and Tahimik (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013), p. 11.
  5. James S. Williams, Encounters with Godard: Ethics, Aesthetics, Politics (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2016), p. 10 (emphasis in original).
  6. Ibid., pp. 11, 31.
  7. Rick Warner, Godard and the Essay Film: A Form that Thinks (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2018), p. 84.
  8. Regarding “dead corpses”, see Kent E. Carroll, “Film and Revolution: Interview with the Dziga Vertov Group,” in Focus on Godard, ed. Royal S. Brown (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, Inc., 1972), p. 61. Jean-Paul Fargier’s comments from 1972 are emblematic of the political urgency to separate the GDV from Godard’s previous output. “The signature Dziga-Vertov Group,” he writes, “marks practically and theoretically a radical rupture with the bourgeois ideology of creation: meaning is no longer attributed (to) an originating and original auteur, but to a Group – a term which designates less a collection of people than an objective political line. This work in a “collective” signifies the political transformation of a bourgeois director (he was progressive) who just before May ’68 still defined himself as a sort of self-employed sniper, an ‘essayist of the camera…’” See Jean Collet and Jean-Paul Fargier, Jean-Luc Godard (Paris: Éditions Seghers, 1974), p. 97 (my translation, emphasis in original).
  9. On a “new unity”, see Le Groupe “Dziga Vertov”, in Jean-Luc Godard par Jean-Luc Godard, ed. Alain Bergala (Paris : Cahiers du Cinéma-Éditions de L’Étoile, 1985), p. 342; on “revolutionary potential” see Christian Braad Thomsen, “Filmmaking and History, Jean-Pierre Gorin interviewed,” Jump Cut 3 (September-October, 1974), np (my emphasis); on Godard’s positive valuation of his previous films see Carroll, “Film and Revolution,” p. 61.
  10. Morgan, Late Godard, p. 86, 93
  11. Ibid., pp. 93-94
  12. Pavle Levi, Cinema by Other Means (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), p. xiv.
  13. Jean-Luc Godard, Godard on Godard, trans. and ed. Tom Milne (New York: Da Capo, 1986), . 201
  14. Peter Wollen, “Godard and Counter-Cinema: Vent d’est,” in Readings and Writings: Semiotic Counterstrategies (London: Verso, 1982), p. 89.
  15. James Roy MacBean, Film and Revolution (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1975), p. 119-120; Rosalind Galt, Pretty: Film and the Decorative Image (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011), pp. 178-180.
  16. MacBean, Film and Revolution, pp. 126-127.
  17. Glauber Rocha, ‘O último escândalo de Godard’ in Manchete, n. 928, 31 January 1970, translated and republished, https://www.sabzian.be/article/godard’s-latest-scandal
  18. Richard Slotkin, Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century America (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1992), p. 14.
  19. Gorin cited in Antoine de Baecque, Godard, biographie (Paris, Bernard Grasset, 2010), p. 458.
  20. MacCabe, Godard: Portrait of an Artist at Seventy, pp. 233-234.
  21. Martin Walsh, The Brechtian Aspect of Radical Cinema (London: BFI Publishing, 1981), p. 121.
  22. Godard and Gorin’s implicit invocation of “the train of history” draws upon a rich lineage spanning both literature and the cinema. See Annette Michelson, “The Wings of Hypothesis, on montage and the theory of the interval,” in Montage and Modern Life, ed. Matthew Teitelbaum (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1992), 74-81.