Jean-Luc Godard

Douglas Morrey,
Jean-Luc Godard.
Manchester University Press, 2005.
ISBN: 0 7190 6759 6 (pb)
(Review copy supplied by Manchester University Press)

In its essentials, my experience with Godard is, I believe, far from unusual. First captivated by the cultural insight in Masculin feminin (France/Sweden, 1966), then awed by the Brechtian method and ideological criticism in La Chinoise (France 1967), I was stunned by Week-end (Italy/France 1967) when I saw it at the San Francisco Film Festival in 1968. I was there with a friend, who is now a prominent film critic. He was as astounded as I was. We discussed the film on the entire hour-long drive home, not sure what to make of it. As we pulled up to his apartment, we concluded that the film was astonishing and great.

Then came films like British Sounds (UK 1969), Wind from the East (France/Italy/West Germany 1969), Pravda(West Germany/France 1969), and so on. Before long, I, like many others, gave up on Godard. The more severely and ironically intellectualized his films became, the more he seemed brain dead. Promises of a return to the withering ideological interrogation of La Chinoise or the demonic vitality of Week-end were unfulfilled: e.g., Tout va bien (Italy/France 1972), Passion (France/Switzerland 1981), Prénom Carmen (France 1982). Nevertheless, the suspicion lingered that maybe post-1968 Godard was just over my head. If only a brilliant English-language critic would come along to make sense of Godard after Week-end.

Douglas Morrey may be that critic. The reason I’m unsure is that I have almost as much difficulty navigating his book as I have had grasping late Godard. It is not that it is a poorly written book. It is well written. It is thorough: as far as I can tell, every film Godard made gets at least a few pages. The films are carefully observed, and often closely described. And the book seems well researched.

Morrey frames his inquiry with what for me was a new but essential point, that for Godard cinema was a paradox in more ways than one. As intellectual as his own films are, as a critic he preferred simplicity, e.g., Nicholas Ray’s 1957 Bitter Victory (France/USA). His statements on film echoed Bazin as much as they did the Russians, and he cited Bresson as an influence on him as profound as Brecht’s. He thought film revealed reality by showing that it was not there (i.e., up on the screen).

The book is well grounded in scholarship. Morrey comfortably cites the occasional classic or modern philosopher such as Hegel and Merleau-Ponty and just about every major deconstructionist and post-modernist. In his discussions of individual films or issues surrounding them, he invokes numerous critics, often to adduce a view contrary to his own. One example I found especially rewarding is his discussion of charges of sexism against Godard. His conclusion that women’s detection of sexism in Godard and men’s discovery of a new appreciation of the female are both true does not come across as weasely but rather as insightful – true in the sense, say, that the contradictory claims that Rick and Ilsa in Casablanca (USA 1942) had sex while we watched the beacon for two seconds and that all that happened is that Ilsa explained why she didn’t show up at the Paris train station are both true.

Morrey’s descriptions of screen action are usually succinct. He helpfully analyzes the thirty-minute domestic scene in Le Mepris (France/Itally 1963), observes that Godard’s characters are trapped in the logic of citation (having little authenticity of their own), notes that in the opening conversation of Vivre sa vie (France 1962) we see only the backs of the talking heads, and emphasizes the images of circles in Hail Mary(France/Switzerland/UK 1983).

I would have been helped by more such description. Although Morrey’s account of Godard’s infatuation with Simone Weil illuminates the films of what has been called Godard’s “cosmic period” – PassionPrénom Carmen and Hail Mary – when Morrey ventures into critical or philosophical discourse he often mires the reader in densely referential prose. One contributing factor to this result is his decision to quote French writers in French, and put the translation in a footnote. This becomes a problem for the reader not fluent in French; there are by my estimation several hundred such quotes. On one page (13) alone, I counted nine. The reader unsure of his French has to glance down to the bottom of the page and back up so often that he loses Morrey’s train of thought. Using the English translation in the text and putting the French original at the bottom of the page would have made Morrey’s arguments easier to follow. Another factor might, of course, be that Godard himself is sometimes impenetrable, as Morrey comes close to acknowledging on one occasion: “The unprecedented complexity of this montage [in Histoire(s) du cinema (1988-1998)] means that we will be unable to describe in sufficient detail here even a single sequence from this epic film series that runs for four and a half hours” (220).

For me, the most intriguing speculation about the cause of the book’s difficulty is that Morrey has not sufficiently distanced himself from Godard to know how to translate him to those less knowledgeable about Godard than he is. Morrey is not an idolator of Godard, but he seems to proceed by an almost parallel method: too many quotes, too much analysis compared to supporting description, just as Godard too often alludes to talk and to action rather than showing authentic versions of either. Godard’s endless quotations act as a thick bramble patch prohibiting access, a defense for an increasingly solipsistic world-view sensible only to him. At times one can get a similar impression of Morrey. He can seem as isolated from others (readers, in his case) as the revolutionaries of La Chinoise, and when he extols Tout va bien (1972) for “restoring to revolutionary politics a sense of fun, a sense of the giddy excitement that could, and should, accompany the destruction of the capitalist regime,” we sense not only nostalgia for the Godard of Week-end but also an identification with the hippie guerillas of that film dining on freshly roasted bourgeois flesh. Luckily, there is plenty in this book that, with work, is accessible, interesting, and insightful, enough to make reading it if not fully satisfying at least worth the effort.

D.B. Jones,
Drexel University, USA.

Created on: Saturday, 2 June 2007

About the Author

D.B. Jones

About the Author

D.B. Jones

D.B. Jones is Head of the Media Arts Department at Drexel University in Philadelphia. He taught at La Trobe University in the early 1970s, is the author of two books on the National Film Board of Canada, and has written and/or directed numerous films, among them the Australian experimental feature Yakkety yak (1974).View all posts by D.B. Jones →