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Issue 215

Jean-Luc Godard Continues to Reinvent Cinema

John Kelsey on how the French iconoclast rewrites film history, one image at a time

BY John Kelsey in Features , Thematic Essays | 30 OCT 20

In Theodor Adorno’s conception, ‘late style’, first described in his essay on Beethoven, ‘Spatstil Beethovens’ (1937), involves an extreme approach to composition, as the mythical auteur, facing death, breaks loose from the idea of mastery. Letting his work fall away into pieces, the composer begins to communicate through the gaps that open up between the fragments, like a fire that ‘breaks out and throws itself against the walls of the work’.

Jean-Luc Godard’s last three features – Film Socialisme (2010), Goodbye to Language (2014) and The Image Book (2018) – are bitter, spiny and cantankerously difficult works, each a luminous catastrophe in Adorno’s sense, often comically so: a too-late style. They are also the most formally adventurous essay-films he has ever produced – fractious to an almost psychedelic degree and deeply ironic in their performance of autonomy from the film industry. Godard pushes fragmentation to a fractal extreme, as shards of image and sound – sourced from the early days of cinema to the present – are blasted loose from narrative coherence and propelled through a sort of compositional supercollider. The screen throbs with alchemical collision, becoming a site of pure potential for something unforeseen. Godard edits directly onto analogue HDCAM video cassettes: a process that does not allow insertion of shots into the middle of a digital sequence but only pasting over existing material or forging ahead on the electromagnetic support. Doing so, the filmmaker hacks his radically broken, unscripted way forward, foregoing the efficiency of Final Cut Pro. (In a 2014 interview with Canon Europe, Godard described editing software as just another prison – one in which time disappears.) Whereas historians rely on written language to make sense of the world, Godard tunnels his way into historical time using sound and image. In this messianic and hands-on approach, history is an image that can only be revealed by shattering spectacular reality then pulling true stories from a chaos of fragments. 

Jean-Luc Godard, Film Socialisme, 2010, film stills. Courtesy: © Vega Film

This emphasis on the screen as postcinematic test site began with JLG/JLG: Self-Portrait in December (1994) and Histoire(s) du cinéma (1988–99), when Godard took up history as both a subject and a way of rethinking a practice that, in many ways, was being outmoded by digital technology. This was also when the filmmaker, in collaboration with ECM Records, began to release his films’ soundtracks – not just the dialogue but music and noises – as CDs. (Nouvelle Vague, New Wave, 1990, was the first.) And, with Éditions P.O.L., publishing the words spoken in recent films as poetic texts. Such projects have been a way of doing cinema outside of cinema, rethinking the medium from the margins, because the place itself was already lost in time. The position that begins to emerge within this experimental exile: cinema’s historical moment is over, yet it goes on in whatever strange ways it can still find. Meanwhile, in the films themselves, we witness a mutation of the medium from within its own processes, as a living history tries to reveal itself amongst the fresh ruins of cinema.

Film Socialisme is structured into three ‘movements’, the first of which is set aboard the Costa Concordia – a tourist cruise liner that later sank off the coast of Italy. The second, set at a roadside gas station, is the fractured, improvised story of a provincial family’s involvement in a local election in the south of France. And the final, essay-like section revisits the stops along the cruise’s Mediterranean itinerary as a sort of course in European civilization – from the birth of democracy (and tragedy) in ancient Greece to the atrocities of World War II and beyond. Tourism and financial debt as two contemporary modes of colonization; the channelling of voices of resistance to fascist and capitalist power; the living-death of cinema as it continues to outlast its own historical moment: these are some of late Godard’s recurring themes, which function in a musical sense too. Film Socialisme is the first feature he shot entirely on digital video, and here he uses low-fi images – harshly reprocessed with colours maximally keyed-up and riddled with analogue-tape glitches – to perform a DIY history from outside the discipline, looking back from the profound boredom of a voyage to nowhere. 

The production of this film was socialist in the sense that Godard welcomed the creative input of his collaborators Fabrice Aragno, Jean-Paul Battagia and Paul Grivas. Also socialist is Godard’s antagonism towards copyright law: like his other late films, Film Socialisme makes free use of quoted texts (the credits list 34 authors he’s cannibalized, including Walter Benjamin, Fernand Braudel and Simone Weil) and images lifted from numerous other films, including his own. He even grabs a screenshot of the FBI anti-piracy warning. (Over the FBI logo, he superimposes a maxim: ‘When the Law Is Unjust, Justice Comes before the Law.’) Subtitles in ‘Navajo-English’ mimic the monosyllabic speech of Hollywood ‘Indians’, ignoring much of what’s actually said in this multilingual film: English-only viewers are punished with a translation so scant it verges on babble. As the Costa Concordia dwarfs a Greek port with its monstrous whiteness, we almost feel time leaking out of the world. Filming just a few years before the peak of the refugee crisis, Godard seems to underline his own collusion in an increasingly unsustainable history of cultural domination: white culture is a warship disguised as a sightseeing expedition, seeing only what it devastates. Meanwhile, Patti Smith swans around the decks, busking with a guitar, and Alain Badiou lectures on the origins of geometry to an empty auditorium. These cameos are interspersed with pixelated storms of consumer-grade footage showing real passengers in the ship’s disco, casino, pool, etc. Workers clean cabins and serve drinks. Wind crackles in the microphones. Woven throughout are fragments of an historical intrigue concerning Joseph Stalin’s transfer of the Bank of Spain’s gold reserves from Madrid to Moscow during the Spanish Civil War – an act in which some of the passengers are implicated. 

Jean-Luc Godard, 2020. Courtesy: Almine Rech Gallery, Brussels/London/Paris/New York/Shanghai; photograph: Hedi Slimane 

Godard has long rejected the idea that a film should originate in a screenplay. In his view, the screenplay is more of a contractual and financial instrument, used for calculating a film’s budget and getting a green light. For Film Socialisme, he worked from a visual ‘treatment’ that looks more like a punk zine than a professional document: photocopied images cut-and-paste with hand-written notes. A couple of pages mimic a tourist brochure promoting the film’s Mediterranean voyage. And, instead of written-out dialogue, we see coded ‘work sequences’ diagramming the second movement, wherein a television news crew attempts to cover a family schism, as children organize a political campaign against their own parents. As her little brother fends off reporters with a sword, the daughter refuses the use of the verb ‘to be’. Boycotting the metaphysical traps of Western language, resistance to the political authority of adults, rejection of the screenplay’s discipline: Godard advances a micropolitical socialism that would reclaim the commons of human space and time. To make a film is to organize an image where parent and child, reporter and subject, human and animal, the global north and south communicate as equals, with all our differences and distances intact. It’s to see the contemporary world and reveal socialism at the level of its image. 

Taking us back (and forth) in time, the third movement visits Egypt, Palestine, Odessa, Hellas, Naples and Barcelona to give us: the non-Western origins of the number zero; Odysseus returning home to an Ithaca sunk in debt and riot police; contemporary students on a field trip visiting the Odessa steps of Sergei Eisenstein’s film Battleship Potemkin (1925); a Europe liberated by the US only to be dominated by the superpower during postwar peace; Weil speaking through images of women building barricades during the Spanish Civil War and the contemporary ‘movements of the squares’. Approaching its final port of call, the voice-over in Film Socialisme does not say ‘soon we will be in Barcelona’ but ‘soon Barcelona welcomes us’.

Jean-Luc Godard, The Image Book, 2018, film stills. Courtesy: © Casa Azul Films and Ecran Noir Productions

In The Three Disasters (2013), Godard jokes about James Cameron making Titanic (1997) while understanding nothing about depth. Goodbye to Language is an audacious experiment in 3D cinema and an extended joke around the technological gimmick of trying to fit depth into flatness (rather than the other way around, which is more difficult). He and Aragno jerry-rigged their own low-budget 3D system by bolting two SLR cameras to a piece of wood, which they could operate without a large crew. The results are astounding and strange, pushing the effect to breaking point as the two flat planes that normally align to create a seamless illusion of depth are split apart, causing moments of panic in the viewer’s brain. The film opens with a scene at a bookseller’s table, paperback covers swimming queasily in the fractured, multiplied flatness of Godard’s 3D. Someone Googles the author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and the Christian anarchist Jacques Ellul on a smartphone and we are deep in a political interrogation of contemporary screen space. Mocking the novelty and ‘highness’ of high-tech cinema, Godard compares the flimsiness of 3D to the inventions of the French Revolution: the civil code, decimal time, a new calendar. His own concern is to liberate the space between the self and the other: the possibility of a shared world. It’s by taking 3D in hand and turning the technology upon itself that the filmmaker can begin to work against ‘the murder of the present’. Goodbye to Language abducts a Hollywood effect and drags it off to the margins of the industry, to Rolle, where 3D can be tested as a means of seeing life on Earth, as if for the first time. 

Jean-Luc Godard, Goodbye to Language, 2014, film stills. Courtesy: © Wild Bunch

The paired cameras of Aragno’s homespun 3D apparatus are echoed by a couple and their romantic troubles, which are then repeated by a second pair of actors. By doubling a relationship in crisis, Goodbye to Language asks: how to produce a contemporary image for two? As the man and woman fail to find each other in language, their troubled communication gets weird on a screen where human mysteries surf a new dimension of flatness. The ‘3’ in 3D is represented by Godard’s dog, Roxy, who soon joins the couple and takes over the film. We follow Roxy around the wooded shores of Lake Geneva as the director improvises his own handheld shots, the seasons leaping together – a calendar out of joint. A voice-over reads the 1978 Universal Declaration of Animal Rights, as the film meditates on the open, naked experience of animal being and man’s inability to see the world. Unlike the dog, the human actors exist more as nude models than as characters. Living in claustrophobic proximity to a flatscreen television that’s always switched on, they dress and undress, shit and fart loudly. But abrupt cuts mid-sentence interrupt the scenes before anything can develop at the level of psychological realism or plot. ‘I hate characters,’ says one. Godard tries to bring 3D closer to the innocence of a dog’s gaze, sticking low to the ground and to nature. 

The Image Book is the director’s 43rd and most recent feature, and the one that feels most intensely a product and performance of his wintery seclusion in Rolle. It is also among Godard’s most extreme – and possibly final – statements on montage as the essence of filmmaking: a position he has defended since the jump cuts of Breathless. Montage is the politics of an image plus another image, an attention to distances between the self and the other and a dialectical intervention at the level of filmic materials: a poetic operation on the body of the medium. The Image Book opens with a shot of Godard splicing a strip of film and his throaty whisper: ‘Man’s true condition: thinking with his hands.’ Abrupt cuts in and out of a 2006 Scott Walker track about Orpheus’s return from the underworld are interspersed with blown-out, intensely colourized images of celluloid winding through an editing console. ‘No activity becomes art’, he says, ‘until its time is over. And then art, too, disappears.’ Here, Godard’s catastrophic-fragmentary style becomes the thing in itself, as he mobilizes elements of visual history – Vietnam War newsreels, harrowing footage of the Auschwitz concentration camp, Masaccio’s Expulsion from the Garden of Eden (1425) – to the point where The Image Book becomes a sort of cinematic noise music, using DVCAM decks as effects pedals to distort and distress his material. Godard calls it a book but it’s more like action painting, as the screen becomes a support for harsh, gestural cuts and silences within and between moving images. One of the film’s five sections gathers images of trains from the history of cinema (including the Lumiere Brothers’ 1896 The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat, which once caused viewers to flee the theatres in panic) as the motion of celluloid carries us train-like into a ‘time that’s out of time’. 

We get the feeling of technology speeding up to the point where information now outpaces our ability to see or act, as entire civilizations are left in the dust. The film’s final, and longest, section deals with the lost love between Europe and Islam, interweaving quotations from Albert Cossery’s An Ambition in the Desert (1984) with fragments of old Egyptian movies, ISIS propaganda, documentary footage of Palestinian freedom fighters and a recent video that Godard and Aragno shot around the North African coast. Godard muses on the violence of representation versus the calm within representation itself. Reading aloud throughout, he quotes from the book Images en parole (Images in Words, 2003), by his wife, Anne-Marie Miéville, as she laments her own colonization by the words of others, even when speaking to herself. The Image Book sides with the colonized and the poor, and poor cinema, which is happening before our eyes. (‘To produce is to breathe’.) As the film journeys into this land outside the gaze and the time of the West, Godard utters cigar-smoky maxims on the persistence of hope, despite everything. And then, just before the film ends, he has a coughing fit in the sound mixer, as if he’s expiring on screen.

Jean-Luc Godard, Goodbye to Language, 2014, film stills. Courtesy: © Wild Bunch

Godard’s latest films, especially The Image Book, are relentlessly shaped and informed by the up-close, bodily presence of the director and his clowning around exile and decline. With every cut and glitch, the viewer senses his fingers stabbing at the Sonosax mixer and DVCAM decks, his shortness of breath in the microphone, a direct transmission from his body in Rolle, and a Chaplinesque performance of the state of cinema under the current ‘digital dictatorship’. Godard is both generous and sly in the way he shares his waning physical and mental powers, which become a raw, vulnerable form turned outward on the screen: owning the margins as a final frontier and ‘lateness’ as the last free zone for whoever meets him out here. 

Godard’s rare interventions on social media provoke a peculiar experience of untimeliness. This summer, he popped up on Instagram TV, where he streamed a live masterclass from lockdown. He joked about short-term memory loss and the relief that comes with the letting go of words. Here was the filmmaker who once defined space as ‘the time it takes to find the other’, as he said in a 1980 interview on The Dick Cavett Show, puffing his cigar in the shared nowhere of digital real-time. It seems la politique des auteurs no longer speaks to the weird, postcinematic times in which we’re now living, when any young person can claim authorship as a right and a social status. Authors make no difference if we leave out the politics. Through a touchscreen, Godard looks back at the present: where cinema was, there we shall be.

This article first appeared in frieze issue 215 with the headline ‘Too Late Style’.

Main image: Jean-Luc Godard, The Image Book, 2018, film stills. Courtesy: © Casa Azul Films and Ecran Noir Productions

John Kelsey is an artist and writer. He lives in New York, USA.