Director: Jean-Luc Godard
Starring: Jean-Paul Belmondo, Anna Karina, Jean Seberg, Eddie Constantine, Brigitte Bardot, Jean-Claude Brialy
Running Time: 502 min total
BBFC Certificate: 15
The French New Wave. La Nouvelle Vague. It certainly sounds cool. And, to be fair, I need little persuasion to indulge in Francophilia. I love pretty much all things French; Paris, croissants, Mélanie Laurent. So when, after many years of my cinematic self-education, I began to branch out from watching mostly films in the indie-comedy-drama-with-sad-male-protagonist subgenre, I was more than thrilled to enter the world of Jean-Luc Godard, Francois Truffaut et al.
The trouble is I never got much further than Godard. I started with Breathless (À Bout de Souffle) and Truffaut’s The 400 Blows and that was that; Godard became a fascination. I’ve seen Truffaut’s Jules et Jim, and I plan on watching his Shoot the Piano Player any day now, I swear. But in between I’ve been busy watching and rewatching as much Jean-Luc Godard as possible. The French New Wave sounded cool, it is cool, but it’s also hugely important to cinema.
With BFI Southbank currently running a Godard season, Studiocanal is releasing this five-disc box set, Jean-Luc Godard The Essential Blu-Ray Collection which is hard to fault. My only complaint, and it’s a selfish one, is that it isn’t a complete collection of his early works, given that a few (Les Caribiniers and La Chinoise) aren’t as readily available, so I haven’t seen them. But, this is the essential collection, and you can’t really argue with that. While personally I prefer Bande à Part to Alphaville I’m not sure I’d argue that one should be subbed in for the other.
For fans like myself, each film looks gorgeous and there are plenty of brand new extras to keep you happy, as well as a booklet that features essays from critics and directors. While for anyone unfamiliar with Godard’s work, like my former self, these are the five films that you should probably see first. There are even short handy intros to each film in the extras from Colin McCabe which puts each one into a bit of context in terms of film history and the main themes that Godard explores.
Breathless (1959, 115 min)
What seems on the surface a simple tale of a guy, a girl and a gun, À Bout de Souffle changed cinema. Jean-Paul Belmondo as a Bogart-loving man on the run is effortlessly charismatic opposite Jean Seberg’s journalism student. As the tale goes, the original cut came in at well over two hours long, but rather than edit out whole segments Godard used jump cuts and omitted reverse shots to speed the story along, ushering in a modern style that broke away from clean, classic filmmaking.
It would become a trademark of Godard’s early works, referencing and paying homage to elements of Hollywood filmmaking, while simultaneously rejecting others. It’s no coincidence that Belmondo’s Michel, having shot and killed a police officer, is a man both infatuated with the past, and on the run from it, while Seberg’s Patricia, is an aspiring journalist (a writer, creator, artist). While the two dally with a love affair, they are ultimately incompatible, and meet very different ends.
Une Femme est une Femme (1961, 80 min)
Godard devised Une Femme est une Femme as a deliberately contradictory “musical neo-realism”, playing with the filtered elements of the musical comedy, that at times heighten realism, or take us away from it. At times the music simply goes dead, at others the soundtrack of traffic and chatter disappears, highlighting the effect that these elements have on the viewer. When Anna Karina, as stripper Angela, sings musical piece, Godard not only bathes her in coloured light, but also shows us the mechanical apparatus that is causing the effect.
The realism at the heart of the story? Angela wants a baby, her husband Emile (Jean-Claude Brialy) does not. Emile suggests that if she wants a baby so much that his friend Alfred (Jean-Paul Belmondo), who is in love with Angela, should provide her with one. Complications ensue. There is, of course, much more to it than that, and Karina, Godard’s wife and muse, is on fine form here.
Le Mépris (1963, 99 min)
One of the great films about filmmaking, Le Mépris (Contempt) concerns the production of a film adaptation of Homer’s Odyssey. Paul Javal (Michel Piccoli) is the writer hired by American producer Prokosch (Jack Palance) to commercialise Fritz Lang’s (playing himself) movie. When Paul’s wife Camille (Brigitte Bardot) spends an unexplained hour with Prokosch, an argument ensues between the couple that reveals Camille’s contempt for her husband, taking up the middle section of the film, and giving it its title.
Le Mépris examines the clashes in love and art, the differences in perspective that cause relationships of all kinds to crumble. Not only do people disagree on what The Odyssey is about, but they disagree on what kind of film they are making, artistic or commercial. All of which reflects the relationship of Paul and Camille. Fittingly, the off-screen relationship between Godard and Palance was rumoured to be as fiery as anything portrayed on screen.
Alphaville (1965, 95 min)
A precursor to the like of Blade Runner, Alphaville takes place in the titular city of the future, where human emotions, love and poetry are outlawed in favour of logic. But shot in Paris using the most modern architecture of the time, Alphaville is also a city of the present. It was the Paris of how Godard saw it then.
American actor Eddie Constantine plays private eye Lemmy Caution, who comes to Alphaville in search of a missing agent, as well as to kill the city’s creator Professor von Braun and destroy its dictatorial computer Alpha 60. In this cold sci-fi neo-noir world, it is Anna Karina as Natacha von Braun, the professor’s daughter, whose awakening to the potential of humanity and love give this film its beauty, and a its faint glimmer of hope from the midst of the shadows.
Pierrot Le Fou (1965, 113 min)
Coming at a time when his marriage to Anna Karina was all but over, Pierrot Le Fou marks the end of his early films and acts as a transition into his later political works that focused on American culture and violence (the Vietnam war has a specific presence here). It follows Ferdinand Griffon, AKA Pierrot (Jean-Paul Belmondo) who leaves his wife and children for babysitter Marianne (Karina), who has seemingly killed someone. The pair go on a cross-country odyssey, chased down by gun-running gangs, and in search of a man Marianne says is her brother.
Again, a simple plot is hardly the point, but instead a simple thread for Godard to be Godard. An early party scene sees revellers speak only in the style of adverts. Karina evades capture at one point using a trick she saw in Laurel and Hardy, pointing to the sky and punching a man in the stomach as he looks up. And there are many times where Belmondo breaks the fourth wall to directly address the audience. It’s farcical, and fun, and features one the greatest and absurd endings in film history, all shot in gorgeous tricolore.
Godard The Essential Blu-Ray Collection is available from Studiocanal on 25 January