Still angry after all these years

January 16, 2004

For more than 40 years Jean-Luc Godard has amazed, delighted and sometimes infuriated us. Now 73 and still making films, Godard is the avant-garde filmmaker of the world. Nobody, but nobody, can compete with him. That cantankerous man is in charge. He recently said that he nowadays makes films for 100,000 people. I don't know where he gets his figures from. I fear they may be on the high side - at least in the cinema halls.

But perhaps, in terms of the audience, it is a question of quality not quantity. When they showed JLG/JLG at the National Film Theatre, a Frenchwoman sitting next to me shouted, groaning with pleasure: " J'aime Godard! "

This is the first serious and substantial biography of Godard in English.

It weighs in at 333 pages, plus 100 pages of critical apparatus. But then its author, Colin MacCabe, is an academic first and a film producer second.

MacCabe was able to speak to some of Godard's family, friends and colleagues, but not to the man himself, even though they had made some documentaries together. Inevitably, this distances the biographer from his subject. For me, the book is at its most interesting when it deals with Godard's childhood in Switzerland. His family were, and still are, well-to-do Protestants; and when one remembers some of the hard judgements Godard has made over the years, such as the well-covered falling-out with his old chum Francois Truffaut, one has the impression that his background is not just Protestant but Calvinist. He now lives again in the place in which he lived as a boy, on Lake Geneva, in the sleepy town of Rolle, where he has a state-of-the-art studio/workshop shared with his partner, Anne-Marie Mieville.

During the early, difficult Cahiers du Cinéma years in Paris up to the making of A Bout de Souffle ( Breathless , 1960), Godard comes across like an older version of the boy at the centre of Truffaut's Les Quatre Cents Coups . A Bout de Souffle made Godard world famous and set him on his road.

MacCabe offers a lovely detail: the lead, Jean-Paul Belmondo, did not want to do the film - new filmmaker and all that. Imagine if Godard had not been able to talk him into it.

The film also starred Jean Seberg, whose role established Godard as a director who worked extremely well with women. He is a great admirer of the Japanese director Kenji Mizoguchi; there exists a photo showing Godard visiting Mizoguchi's grave. Mizoguchi is possibly the greatest director of women. Godard must have seen his films again and again in Paris at Henri Langlois' Cinémathèque . And then he met and married Anna Karina, with whom he made some of his most marvellous films. My favourite of that period is Vivre Sa Vie , in which Karina plays a prostitute and has one of the great scenes in cinema: she sits in a cinema watching Falconetti in Dreyer's La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc as tears stream down her face.

I was surprised when I looked at the excellent filmography compiled by Sally Shafto at how many black-and-white films Godard has made. Because now his admirers know him mostly as a supreme master of the daring use of strong colour and the complex use of sound; in some of his later films he uses up to 30 simultaneous soundtracks.

A trademark of Godard's work is that he detests narrative. He has said that when you tell a story you put yourself at the service of the government; and this is not meant as a compliment. But the lack of narrative means, too, as MacCabe knows, that Godard expects you to work while watching his films. And it can get tough because sometimes, especially in the later films, there is so much to see and listen to that you are thrown.

In his fairly recent Histoire(s) du Cinéma , a huge work giving his view of the cinema, I defy anyone to describe what is going on at a first viewing.

And as he has got older Godard has become more daring and a bit froid . He says: "I wish I could do a normal picture, normally, but with me, I don't know why, it's not possible."

In my view, Godard is today on top form. He has not run out of ideas, and he is helped by being a supreme self-promoter. And yet, as I follow what he does and read MacCabe's book, I think there is a tragic aspect to Godard's career. I see his later films as an invitation to viewers to enter into a dialogue. But nobody does - nobody dares.

This is not quite true. A few people have worked successfully with him: Jean-Pierre Gorin during his militant Grenoble period and now Mieville, which seems to be a very fruitful collaboration. Jacques Rivette, an old friend from Cahiers du Cinéma and, like Godard, still making films, thought that the only way to criticise a film was to make another film. But for that you have to be very interested indeed in the other person's work.

In his last chapter, his most personal, titled "Envoi", MacCabe frowns on Godard's anti-Americanism, which is there and has been there ever since the Vietnam war. In one of his more recent attacks, Godard goes for Steven Spielberg and his abomination Schindler's List . I am with Godard here. The question is simply, what can you and what can't you show in the cinema? Godard knows; Spielberg doesn't.

MacCabe believes that Godard is one of the greatest of modern French poets.

I am not so sure. Godard reads voraciously and quotes with passion and abundance. He is not really a poet but a pamphleteer in the great French tradition. Always angry, always aggressive, then suddenly he produces a ray of light and absolute beauty. In his way, a modern Voltaire?

Years ago, in Berlin, when we talked cinema non-stop, we used to say that nobody loved Fritz Lang as much as Lotte Eisner. Godard does not lend himself to such adulation. He is too prickly, too forbidding. And yet this book is a labour of love. Will he read it? I wonder.

Andi Engel is a director of the film distributor Artificial Eye, which has released several films by Godard and is preparing the DVD edition of his Histoire(s) du Cinéma .

Godard: A Portrait of the Artist at 70

Author - Colin MacCabe
Publisher - Bloomsbury
Pages - 432
Price - £25.00
ISBN - 0 7475 6318 7

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