Learning from early Godard

Learning from early Godard

The sixties period from Jean-Luc Godard’s filmography is typically the most seen and discussed in cinephilia. But, many cinephiles in the Godard camp champion his post-sixties work which is just as good and just as influential as his sixties films. Godard’s post sixties film became even more radical, experimenting with form, and exploring ways to make films politically (as opposed to making political films) making his sixties films in relation appear to be downright conventional/commercial pictures. At the risk of continuing the tradition of championing Godard’s sixties cinema and ignoring his latter period, what follows is a brief commentary on Une femme mariée (1964) and what filmmakers can learn from it.

There is much to be learned from Godard’s early films, especially for filmmakers working on a shoestring budget with nothing but their creativity at their disposal. This might seem like a strange statement for up and coming filmmakers given that story, and the script specifically, are so crucial for low-budget films to succeed (along with getting good performances from actors with little professional experience or non-professional actors) because Godard is notorious for having no interest in telling a story. Godard is interested in experimenting with film form but within a fiction film setting.

In Une femme mariée, Godard focuses on 24 hours in the life of Charlotte (played by Macha Méril), a married woman that wants to leave her husband for her lover. This structure, or rather story restriction is another way to tell a character which makes the beginning and end of the film somewhat arbitrary. And even more extreme example would be Agnès Varda’s masterpiece Cléo de 5 à 7 (1962) which follows her lead character for merely two hours in her life. What this story restriction implies about film narratives is that they characters on screen can seemingly be given more reality to their existence because the film carves out a particular section for itself, implying a fictional existence outside the film’s narrative boundaries. Charlotte’s life began before the start of the film and kept going after end credits, Godard takes a slice of this fictional character’s existence for his film. For a contemporary reference, Hong Sang-soo’s films work in a similar way where his beginnings and endings appear to be arbitrary in this sense. Limiting a story to cover one day in the life of a character is a choice that sacrifices realism for drama (how do all of these significant events happen in one day?). Godard sidesteps this sacrifice to realism by focusing on several mundane events in the day of the life of Charlotte. This is a risky decision however because not many spectators want to watch mundane activities for 90 minutes so the challenge becomes how to make these mundane events that might have some dramatic or moral weight interesting.

Here is where Godard as the artist comes into play. To quote Jonathan Rosenbaum in an essay on Contempt (1963) “[i]ndeed, it might be argued that Godard fails as a storyteller, as an entertainer, as an essayist, and as a film critic in the very process of succeeding as an artist.” The particular artistry that Godard succeeds at in Une femme mariée is the way he films each scene and especially the way he finds new ways to film dialogue scenes.

The film opens with Charlotte moving her hand across a white background wearing her wedding ring. A man’s hand reaches toward her hand, lovingly clutching her wrist as Charlotte says in the voice-over “This is so nice.” Godard uses this image to convey immediately that this “film in fragments” is about a married woman. A simple shot but all of the information needed to introduce the audience to what the film is about is all there in the first image. This shot is purely visual and requires no exposition, dialogue, or establishing shot to get the information across. The little dialogue used in this scene is recorded in post-production and simply complements the image we are seeing. Low-budget filmmakers wanting to tell their story without spending money on shooting establishing shots or opening dialogue scenes can opt for this simpler approach to film making. Shooting and recording dialogue is time consuming, but of course very necessary for dramatic films. From my experience you never get what you want in the first two or three (unless you are Clint Eastwood). Each camera requires is approximately an hour in setup and that is not even taking into account rehearsing the scene with your actors. Low-budget film makers should find alternate ways to convey the information necessary with more efficient and poetic techniques that use images to tell the story. An interesting comparison to another film made around the same time is the one would be François Truffaut’s La peau douce (1964), a film that inspired Godard to make Une femme mariée. In many ways these are diametrically opposed in form and ideology (both are excellent in their own ways) but they do tell similar narratives that deal with infidelity. Truffaut uses a similar image during the opening credit sequence of La peau douce but then eventually cuts to a more conventional dialogue scene that introduces the audience to main character and his family life. Godard’s approach eschews these conventions and simply shows us two hands in the frame.

The general approach that Godard uses throughout this film works according to this concept: telling a story with images that is told in such a way that one could duplicate it in another art form. Conventional and commercial films are told in such a way that they are akin to filmed stage plays. Many Ingmar Bergman detractors said this about his wrote, criticizing his films for not being cinematic (this criticism does not apply to Persona (1967) or Hour of the Wolf (1968). Many critics from the Cahiers group praised Last Year at Marienbad (1961) for the opposite reason, arguing that Alain Resnais made a film that was pure cinema, telling a story that could not be duplicated in another medium. Godard, ever since Breathless (1960), has been working within this idea whether consciously or otherwise, crafting stories that are specific to the medium film. This is also why it is such an important event in cinephilia whenever Godard releases a new film and why Adieu au langage (2013) is a must see for every cinephile. Godard is a champion of the cinematic form, always pushing the boundaries with image and sound, and always succeeding in creating challenging and rewarding works of art. What we can learn from watching early, late, contemporary Godard films is how to eschew the filmed stage play approach that so many filmmakers find solace in because it is straightforward and ingrained in our cinephilic history and discover new ways to tell stories within the pure cinema approach. Future cinephilia will that much better if our directors follow in Godard’s footsteps.