Reviews and notes
In a rotting capitalist society, the sensitive bourgeois artist looks at the world and throws up his hands in horror, incomprehension or despair. Sometimes he will turn the pain of meaninglessness into a bitter comedy, black and twisted and gruesome. From Eliot and Kafka to Camus, Beckett and Heller, the pattern is familiar. It was the path followed, until 1968, by ace director Jean-Luc Godard.
Sometime early that year Godard was visited by a militant worker named Jean-Pierre Gorin. It was no ordinary encounter: as Godard puts it, Gorin 'knocked on my door and on my head at the same time.' Godard, most brilliant of the New Wave film-makers, had just climaxed his career in the commercial cinema with the sulphurous fire of Weekend
, that incredible nihilistic vision in which the horrors of the middle class are evoked only to be surpassed by those of a band of revolutionary hippies turned cannibalistic. For Godard it seemed there could be no place else to go: an artist's cynicism about the world inevitably turns in also upon his art. Behind the despair of Weekend lay the simple ideological assumption: that the world cannot be changed.
Skepticism about political action permeated all of Godard's work: as early as 1960, in his second film Le Petit Soldat
, it had led him to picture the Algerian conflict in terms not of national liberation but of the torture practised 'equally' by right and left. The same assumption underpinned much else in Godard's cinema: the persistent pessimism, the fragmentation of narrative whereby the city becomes a mosaic of forces oppressing the individual, the recurrent obsession with the inability to communicate, the ever more desperate search for values and meaning.
It was probably Gorin who brought Godard to see the class bias of this attitude, to perceive that he was under the spell of a world-view which interpreted the historically contingent as the metaphysically immutable. Godard, who could not bring himself to believe in the possibility of change, found himself face to face with a man who predicated his life on this possibility. Following Gorin's arguments, the May-June 1968 student and workers' revolts in France impelled Godard to break with his past. From this point on, for four years, he rejected the commercial cinema in favour of militant films made in 16mm. Most of these he co-directed with Gorin, under the collective banner of the Dziga-Vertov Group (named after the neglected Soviet film-maker and theoretician). Their search was for a new means of expression, a revolutionary film aesthetic which would picture the world in non-bourgeois imagery.
As an implicit consequence of this search, the sound track, in the films that followed, was by conventional standards heavily overloaded, wordy and didactic. Thus Le Gai Savoir
(1968), consisted of little more than Jean-Pierre Leaud and Juliette Berto sitting in a TV studio spouting Marxist rhetoric; in One Plus One
(Sympathy for the Devil, 1968), black militants recite revolutionary texts in a car junkyard. In See You at Mao
(British Sounds, 1969) a voice reads from The Communist Manifesto while the camera tracks down a motor assembly line; in Wind From the East
(1969) costumed actors proclaim the future course of leftwing cinema while sitting on a grassy slope.
Vladimir and Rosa
(1971) marked a substantial change. The didacticism was still there, the voices of Godard and Gorin intoning their dialectial truth, but there was a new lightness of tone, a not-fully-repressed sense of comedy in this guerilla re-enactment of the Chicago Conspiracy Trial. The film, however, becomes enmired in its shifting spheres of reference, to emerge finally without a specific interpretation of any concrete situation.
TOUT VA BIEN
(1972) averts this danger. As Gorin has said, it's 'a film about France between '68 and '72, an historical film. It's a film about history and its power to transform the individual.' What is particularly remarkable about it is its narrative structure. Godard has been interested, not (as his critics thought) in eliminating narrative, but in restructuring it, and the detour into polemical tracts can now be seen as a means of achieving the necessary perspective for this.
The film grapples with the difficulty of breaking with one's past, and in so doing addresses itself to a well-meaning, guilty bourgeois audience in a way which makes us feel not more guilty and hence weaker, but as people conditioned by our historical role and yet capable of changing, hence stronger. 'He and she have begun to re-think themselves in historical terms,' the commentary concludes of Montand and Fonda. For Godard the film has an unprecedented honesty and lucidity; for radicals and liberals, for all of us disturbed at the current condition of our society, it is an exciting breakthrough.
-Russell Campbell, Sequence, May 1975.
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