BY Ela Bittencourt in Film , Opinion | 22 JUN 23

Where Is the Spirit of Jean-Luc Godard in Contemporary Cinema?

Florence Platarets’s new documentary on the late auteur inadvertently asks whether Cannes Film Festival has lost its taste for radical politics

BY Ela Bittencourt in Film , Opinion | 22 JUN 23

Each year, huge crowds descend on Cannes Film Festival. Rushing to screenings past stupendous queues and security checkpoints – crossing police-cordoned streets in Cannes is an artform – feels like riding a runaway train. To reflect on cinema’s commitment to the world around it, one would first need to jump off the train. In 1968, Jean-Luc Godard did just that. He brought the festival to a halt, demanding that it be cancelled to show solidarity with students and workers who were striking, protesting the war in Vietnam, occupying universities and building barricades.

The filmmaker’s gesture is poignantly captured in Florence Platarets’s new documentary, Godard by Godard (2023), which screened in Cannes with a 20-minute trailer for his unrealized last feature, Phony Wars. Reflecting on this year’s festival slate, I found a number of films that, to varied extent, answered Godard’s call to ‘let the world in’, as he says in the documentary’s archival footage. Or, as American film critic Richard Brody wrote in his obituary of Godard for The New Yorker last year, films that felt ‘both personal and grand, innovative and political, engaged with the overt crises of the moment’.

Godard By Godard, 2023
Florence Platarets, ​​​​Godard by Godard​​​​, 2023, film still. Courtesy: the artist

The complexities of art and life entwine with issues of labour in Victor Erice’s Close Your Eyes (2023), a feature about a film director haunted by his unfinished project. The precarity of film work captured by Erice is a reminder that, while the Cannes party blitz escalates year after year, most jobs in the industry are still poorly paid. Erice, who made his last film 30 years ago, did not attend Cannes this year; instead, he published an open letter in El País, in which he questioned the festival’s treatment of filmmakers and the selection process – itself a defiant gesture à la Godard that, for an instant, parted the curtains on the festival’s storied, yet often opaque, ecosystem.

Aki Kaurismäki, the wryly comic chronicler of the Finnish working classes, returned with another tale of forlorn lovers in Fallen Leaves (2023), a story in which the news of the war in Ukraine constantly filters in as radio soundbites – the only direct reference to contemporary politics that I spotted in Cannes. Although neither of the above-mentioned films bristles with Godard’s sardonic, contagious nonchalance, these veteran filmmakers, nevertheless, continue to rejuvenate.

Wang Bing, Youth, 2023
Wang Bing, Youth (Spring), 2023, film still. Courtesy: the artist

Godard’s cinema retained its vigour by often focusing on the lives of the young. In this vein, I found the greatest gesture of solidarity in Chinese director Wang Bing’s documentary Youth (Spring) (2023), which follows the lives of textile workers in their 20s living in communal housing. With its patient gaze, Wang’s film conveys a profound empathy for their plight; its latter portion captures them organizing and bargaining wages with their bosses, risking their livelihoods.

The stirrings of revolt against social oppression are also keenly felt in Arabic and African cinema, particularly in stories by or about women. In Tunisian director Kaouther Ben Hania’s hybrid docudrama, Four Daughters (2023), two siblings reckon with the radicalization of their older sisters – and with sexual abuse. Ben Hania stages a cathartic reconciliation between mother and daughters, in a generational rift that exposes how trauma victims may incarnate the chauvinism that they suffered. The personal is also political in Amjad Al-Rasheed’s debut, Inshallah a Boy (2023), the first Jordanian feature in Cannes, in which Mouna Hawa plays a widow who fights her in-laws and defies patriarchal Jordanian law to keep her apartment and custody of her daughter.

Four Daughters, 2023
Kaouther Ben Hania, Four Daughters, 2023, film still. Courtesy: the artist 

While the predominantly patriarchal contexts of the Nouvelle Vague left little room for women, Godard had notable female collaborators: from his partner, filmmaker and writer Anne-Marie Miéville, credited for How Is It Going? (1976) and Here and Elsewhere (1976), to screen icon Anna Karina, who starred in eight of Godard’s films between 1960 and 1967, and film scholar Nicole Brenez, who conducted research for The Image Book (2018). Yet cinema remains an environment where women who speak up against abusers are antagonized. This year, the refrain of sexual abuse felt particularly pointed. When the director of Cannes, Thierry Frémaux, called out actor Adèle Haenel for her criticism of Johnny Depp’s presence at Cannes – given the accusations against him of domestic abuse – and lambasted her ‘crazy [cognitive] dissonance’, he might unwittingly have captured what many women experience in Cannes, knowing that predatory behaviour is not the exception but, sadly, still the norm, and that, while the festival promotes stories on the topic, its on-the-ground politics are wanting.

Johnny Depp at Cannes 2023
Johnny Depp attending the opening ceremony of Cannes Film Festival 2023. Courtesy: Getty Images

Meanwhile, the most aesthetically insubordinate film I saw in Cannes, Lisandro Alonso’s Eureka (2023), wasn’t slated in the main competition – begging the question of how much appetite Cannes still has for the experimentation that marked Godard’s filmmaking. At a time when ecology and climate change turn our gaze towards non-human perspectives, Alonso ingeniously adapts the point-of-view (or, should I say, flight) of a migratory bird, which takes us from the historical past (namely, American westerns shot on Indigenous territories) to the present-day social realities of Indigenous communities in Pine Ridge, Dakota, then to the Brazilian Amazon in the 1970s, when Indigenous lands were being carved up by the Trans-Amazonian Highway.

Alonso’s sweeping narrative might not hold up entirely to the exigencies of analysing each geographic and social reality with the same critical acuity – and yet, very much like Godard in his anti-militarist, anti-imperialist films (Far from Vietnam, 1967, and Here and Elsewhere, 1976, come to mind), Alonso attempts to create a dialectic between Western and non-Western narratives. Alonso’s uniquely dreamy stance, and his attempt at critical distance, left me hopeful that cinema can still strive to fulfil what Godard, as quoted in Godard by Godard, coined as his dialectics: ‘The world is a dream; the dream is the world.’ For cinema to dream, it must dare to be tainted with, and enriched by, contemporary conflicts.

Main image: Victor Erice, Cerrar Los Ojos, 2023, film still. Courtesy: the artist

Ela Bittencourt is a critic and cultural journalist, currently based in São Paulo, Brazil.