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Name: Dan Sallitt
Location: New York, New York, United States

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

60s Godard via Le Petit Soldat

I don’t love Godard’s Le Petit soldat - I don’t know why: I want to, and feel as if I should – but I’m fascinated by it. It’s the closest Godard has come to being a pure stylist: one can almost imagine that he was a director for hire on a relatively commercial project, and that he turned in work which didn’t completely alienate his producers. For this reason, it lays bare aspects of Godard’s approach that, though always present, are less conspicuous in his other films because of the sheer density of creativity. I’m far from a Godard expert, but I’ll put in my two cents about how his 60s films work for me.

Topic #1: How Much Can You Undermine a Story and Still Have It Function As a Story? The torture scenes in Le Petit soldat, which are the structural center of the movie, get a lot more screen time and attention than Godard usually gives to structural centers. This is probably why Soldat feels more mainstream than other Godard works.

But one couldn’t mistake the scenes for the work of any other director. Immediately one notes that Godard wants to flatten the tone by removing, not just emotional highs and lows, but even references to them. Subor’s voiceover does a lot of the flattening: he discusses his torture in cool, analytical terms, mentioning pain only as a catalyst for his thought processes. And the images of torture inflict on the audience few signs of Subor’s discomfort. I believe that we hear no cries and see no anguished facial expressions.

We see this flattening again at the film’s other emotional high point, the ending. I won’t spoil it, but exactly the same techniques are used: the voiceover is tipped in the direction of detachment, and we aren’t shown grief or pain. However, the ending is unlike the torture scenes in that Godard shortens it almost to the vanishing point with ellipsis and truncation.

This second example is closer to Godard’s usual handling of narrative in the 60s period. It’s a fairly general practice for him to skip quickly and elliptically over scenes that would be narrative high points in a mainstream production. In addition to the ellipsis, the scenes are flattened emotionally as well. Far from feeling that big moments are being pulled away from us by the ellipsis, we often can’t even spot the climaxes as climaxes because of the flatness. Pierrot le fou is a good example of a Godard story that is potentially a thriller, but that has been systematically deprived of all narrative urgency, so that the progression of the action story is little more than facts thrown at the audience in passing.

Of course, Godard doesn’t always move quickly. He can dawdle with the best of his art-house contemporaries. But the storytelling moments that demand deliberation and emphasis in commercial cinema are usually weakened in his films.

Because Godard uncharacteristically takes his time during the Soldat torture scenes, the flattening of storytelling affect is easier to spot.

Topic #2: Men Are a Lot Like Cameras When They Look at Women. Soldat slows to a contemplative crawl during the scene in which Subor takes photos of Anna Karina. This fascination with women was well-established even at this early stage of Godard’s career. (The short that played with Soldat in Film Forum’s "Godard’s 60s" retrospective, 1958’s Charlotte et son Jules, is suspended in such a moment of contemplation from beginning to end.) Typically in this period, scenes devoted to visual contemplation of the female lead are so protracted and laden with emphasis that they bend the film’s meaning, giving centrality to a love interest who might play a marginal role in a commercial version of the same story.

Godard's fascination with women is often presented explicitly as a gender gap. The male protagonist expresses misgivings and insecurity about, as well as desire for, the woman, either in dialogue or in voiceover. Whereas the woman has a more centered demeanor: she is carefree, content, not especially focused, and enjoying her status as spectacle. If the man is harsh to the woman, it generally does not affect her mood. The man usually raises questions about what is going on inside the mind of the woman, questions that force the conclusion that the woman cannot be known, either to the man or the camera.

It is not lost on Godard that the audience is staring at the woman exactly as the male lead does. And it often happens that the woman will turn her attention directly to the camera instead of to the man, with the same flirtatious insouciance. The reflexivity that stalks every frame of every Godard film seems to take on a special gravity here: filmmaking may be a game, but the fascination and the mystery of the woman are not.

One can judge this fascination in different ways. The word "essentialism," not a compliment in gender studies, comes to mind. And Godard’s fascination with women often seems to be just a hair’s breadth away from anger and hostility. But I confess that my love of his films is closely associated with his fixation on the otherness of women, and the films that move away from this fixation usually engage me less. Godard’s love/hate gaze across the gender gap is the place where the rubber meets the road, where his pleasure in filmmaking most sympathetically makes contact with his engagement with life. The maleness of his 60s stance, the lack of distinction between women and what women make him feel, would be a handicap if he were a philosopher. But an artist needs an angle, a gimmick, an entry point to human experience.



Blogger Vadim said...

The funniest thing no one in the theater laughed at: "I will not describe the torture, as it is fairly monotonous." Cut to: exterior tracking shot of the UGLIEST BUILDING EVER.

Didn't care for this much either.

May 7, 2008 2:04 PM  
Blogger Dan Sallitt said...

Vadim – yeah, that line is kind of amazing, isn’t it? It’s tantamount to saying, “I don’t want to deal with this.” Moments like that strongly suggest that the indirection of Godard’s style is born of a psychological aversion to affect. Which isn’t a criticism in itself: I’d say that all style is born of some pre-artistic psychological motivation. Perhaps one can think of Godard’s career as an evolving attempt to find (maybe sometimes to simulate) a connection to the life of the emotions.

I actually do like Soldat, though I can go only so far with it. I’m trying on the idea that the gravity of the subject matter doesn’t quite integrate with Godard’s characteristic desire to throw the film to Karina.

Last night I revisited Pierrot le fou, which I think has nosed out Vivre sa vie as my favorite Godard, and which recapitulates some of the subject matter of Soldat. Once you start seeing Godard's desire to flatten affect, it jumps out at you everywhere, starting with Belmondo's muted reaction to Fuller's speech (which moved Godard on the set) and continuing to the death scenes at the end. But the film leeches emotion from the periphery: from Duhamel's beautiful score, from the somber poetry in the voiceovers (often set to music), to the lovely colors and compositions.

As I thought about the procession of bloody corpses in the film that our protagonists don't react to at all, it occurred to me that Godard's inventiveness with form probably goes hand in hand with his aversion to emoting. Godard famously said about his movie corpses "It's not blood, it's red" - and of course he's right. But maybe this fruitful insight came more easily to a guy who didn't care to react strongly to the sight of blood.

One last thought, which attempts to connect this post's two topics: Godard allows Karina so much more emotional reaction ("J'en ai marre!")in Pierrot than he does Belmondo - to the extent that she sometimes seems to be in a movie and he seems to be watching her movie. It's probably generally true that Godard's actresses get to express more emotion then his actors.

May 10, 2008 9:12 AM  

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