Monday, May 12, 2008

Movies: Godard's 60s Festival

Film Forum recently offered a festival of Jean-Luc Godard's 1960s films, and I will write about the ones I saw not in the order that they were made, but in the order that I saw them. I didn't go to Breathless, which I had already seen twice (once at home at my mom's behest, on video, when I was 15 or so, and once in college for a Philosophy course on Existentialism in Literature and Film), to 2 ou 3 choses que je sais d'elle (Two or Three Things I Know About Her), which I'd patiently sat through a year or so ago, also at Film Forum, without comprehending to which mysterious female the title refers (Paris? The brunette?), or to Contempt, which I'd seen the month before, also at Film Forum (surprise). The list of attended features in the order I saw them, then, and with instant opinions, is as follows:

1. Pierrot Le Fou (1965)--Belmondo is even better in color; why can't I incorporate this kind of madcap fun into my life?
2. Une Femme Est Une Femme (1961)--Women are the most obnoxious creatures; I must be more careful not to act this way.
3. La Chinoise (1967)--This is the most hilarious boring movie I've ever seen, but only because of my assigned reading at Universities.
4. Masculin féminin: 15 faits précis (1966)--The trailer was better, and promised a dynamism the film itself lacks.
5. Sympathy For the Devil (1968)--Even young Mick Jagger's hotness cannot save this absurd project; I wish I hadn't remembered that it was screening tonight, and anyway I don't even like the Stones.

If you're not bored yet, read on. I will now be discussing each at some length, before coming to a general conclusion.

Jean-Paul Belmondo is Pierrot Le Fou; Anna Karina is Marianne Renoir. She shows up to babysit while he goes to an absurd cocktail party with his Italian wife. Everyone converses in advertisement copy while the lights change color. Later that night, he drives her back home and we find out that they had an affair a few years ago. She is somehow involved in arms dealing (in the lightest, most amusing way possible—her mod apartment is scattered with rifles; seems her brother dragged her into it), and she and Pierrot, after a bout of romance, kill an arms-related intruder with a wine bottle, hop in his car, and motor out into the countryside to make their escape. Bonny and Clyde-ish hijinks ensue; they are being sought by Pierrot's wife, the arms dealers, and most likely the police, and they steal a number of cars along the way. They take a walk in the woods and dance on fallen tree trunks. They stop for awhile at an abandoned seaside cottage, where Pierrot spends all of their money on books (he's a sort of devil-may-care intellectual, the swoon-maker for the wannabe-anarchist philosophy majorettes) while Marianne takes walks by the shore, bored-bored-bored with the sudden domesticity (they keep a pet fox and a parrot, and eat out of tin cans, but that is suddenly the extent of their adventures). When they need money, they paint their faces and put on an amazing charades-style rendition of the Vietnam War for a group of American Navy men. Ultimately, she leaves, double-crossing him to take up with the arms dealers again (turns out her "brother" is actually her lover). Possible moral? You can't beat the demise of youth.

As far as I'm concerned, to say that A Woman is a Woman is another way to say that a woman is annoying. Anna Karina is Angela, a burlesque girl who lives with her boyfriend and wants to have a baby. Jean-Claude Brialy is Émile, her live-in boyfriend who does not want to have a baby, at least not now. Jean-Paul Belmondo is Émile's friend Alfred, who is in love with Angela and will do whatever he wants. They all sing, this being a kind of snark-free mock musical. One of Angela's co-workers gets her a little fertility monitor, and the girl tries and tries to seduce her man, who will have no part of it, much more interested in mealtimes, the newspaper, and riding his bicycle around their living room. Angela locks herself in the bathroom with Alfred, but has no intention of going through with any kind of affair, although Émile has all but given his blessing, so great is his detachment to her twaddle. The best scene (the only good scene?) is one in which the couple goes to bed, but aren't talking. Although they aren't talking, they still want to insult each other, and so one goes to the bookshelf, carefully chooses a volume, and points at words on the cover in order to deliver a wallop. The other retorts. Soon, they are both in front of the bookcase in their pajamas, plucking titles to huffily carry back to bed and stick in each other's faces. Ultimately, after a thorough wracking, he concedes. Possible moral? Women are annoying, and babies are stupid, but you will likely end up with both, even if you put up a fight.

The character cast of La Chinoise consists of a small group of university students on summer vacation (Jean-Pierre Léaud as Guillaume being the most recognizable); they are holed up in a borrowed apartment where they paint communist slogans on the walls, listen to Radio Peking, and give each other lengthy lectures on the different aspects of Marxism. At the beginning, one of the group is beaten up by the European Socialist group (apparently the Euro set isn't radical enough for these kids—it's all about Mao. One wall of the apartment is lined with countless hollow-looking copies of his tiny red book, to which they refer constantly). By the end, another one has committed suicide after threatening to do so throughout the entire film. Ironically, one of the girls, with darker, larger, and more exotic features, wears a housekeeper's costume and seems to be their maid. Each morning, the group does regimented calisthenics on the balcony, chanting quotations from communist literature to keep time. In the middle, one quits and moves out; a cameraman (presumably Godard?) then interviews him at length as he sits dipping his baguette into a bowl cafe au lait. He's left because of a fall-out over violence; one of the girls has decided that terrorism is the only answer and wants to begin by blowing up the university; eventually, the claustrophobic apartment gives way to a scene in which she sits on a train, discussing her ideas for change with Francis Jeanson, who, at his age, has more wisdom to offer than she is prepared to hear (you mean to say that blowing up the university is not the answer to all the world's problems?!). Soon, the summer has ended; everyone goes back to school, and bourgeoisie return to their apartment and wash the slogans off the walls. This is the talkiest film I've ever seen, and I don't recommend that anyone but the hardest-boiled intellectuals watch it. Possible moral? Optimism is innocence is naivete; sometimes charming, sometimes tedious, but luckily always temporary.

Masculin féminin turns out to be a kind of Woman is a Woman recap, but without the burlesque, the babies, or the bicycling indoors. There is singing, though; the fay Jean-Pierre Léaud is Paul, and his object of affection is Chantal Goya as Madeline, a kind of French, brunette Marianne Faithful, who is recording her first big single, a whispery pop-folk ballad that matches her brown bangs and neat sweaters. The best part of the film is at the very beginning, before Paul has become Madeline's boyfriend, when he follows her into the women's bathroom and awkwardly demands a date while she combs her hair and powders her nose. Also, quite sweetly, Madeline at one moment asks Paul to bring the car around while she does an impromptu radio interview. Paul asks what car? and she demands that he be steal one for her, just like Pierrot Le Fou would. Godard has a habit of referring, in his films, to his other films, cementing his own importance, as it were, to contemporary French culture (what could be more timely than a reference to a Godard film?!), and it generally comes off as more clever than obnoxious, particularly thanks to self-referentiality being all the rage these days (plus, it gives the audience a moment to congratulate itself for catching the reference). But these moments aside, the film is longer than it needs to be, interspersed with meandering interview sequences on masculinity and femininity, during which Godard's presence behind the camera is unignorable (Paul's pimply friend (Michel Debord) chats up Madeline's roommate (Catherine-Isabelle Duport), trying to suss out whether she will sleep with him as she munches on an apple, a banana displayed prominently behind her.) Possible moral? It's hard to be a young woman; it's harder to be a young man; and it's even harder to put together a decent movie about something this vague.

Sympathy For the Devil marks the spot where I draw the line when watching "art films;" it is a documentary of sort—a recording of the sessions during which The Rolling Stones recorded their famous song by the same name, as they work out the the percussion and finally decide to include the can't-imagine-the-song-without-em "woo-woo-oo"s. In order to break up the monotony (it can't possibly be in order to illustrate some theme, because there is a complete lack of cohesion), these sequences are intercut by others, unrelated to the band or music: a Russian peasant girl, for example, wanders through the woods while a film crew follows her around and a director asks her a series of semi-inane questions. Also, a group of young black men hang stagily around a junkyard piled with used vehicles, spray-painting Pantherisms on the sides of cars, reciting from books by LeRoi Jones and Eldridge Cleaver, and (again?!) conducting an interview. If you read up on the film, any reviewer more engaged than I am will tell you that it's a portrait of 1960s counter-cultural strategies or some such (probably valid) rot. But for the average movie-goer, it remains a lengthy series of disconnected nonsense. Possible moral? My kathi roll, which I had snuck into the theater to much on, was a lot more interesting.

Take-home: Unless you went to NYU Film School, Godard is sort of over-rated. What credit he gets usually belongs to Jean-Paul Belmondo. He's precious, fay, twee, tedious, and more intellectual than thou; in a way, that makes him an original hipster, for which I suppose he deserves some credit. I realize that this post is basically sacrilegious and generally makes me sound far less intelligent than I am, but I'm okay with that. If you're going to learn French, do it for Resnais before you do it for Godard, that's all.

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