Léon Morin, Prêtre (1961) (aka The Forgiven Sinner)
Jean-Pierre Melville


The Forgiven SinnerOne of the two most unusual features by Jean-Pierre Melville (the other one being the incredible The Silence of the Sea (1949), also set during the German occupation of France), The Forgiven Sinner (1961), is also one of the director’s many fine films. Ingeniously mixing the flamboyance of the then nascent Nouvelle Vague, through its casting, (partial) location shoot and non-classical cutting, and the revered tradition of the European art cinema and the studio cinema of the United States, in its classical staging, expressionist lighting and production design, understated performances and non-modernist literalism, Melville, perhaps inadvertently, plays with the audience’s perception of his film. The Forgiven Sinner is set in a little town in France, towards the end of the Second World War, and tells the tale of pastor Léon Morin (Jean-Paul Belmondo, whose New Wave image is cleverly subverted here), who indirectly participates in the French resistance by sheltering Jews, and a Communist woman Barny (Emmanuelle Riva) who seems to be attracted to him. What begins as a series of witty conversations between a reasonable theist and a staunch atheist gets complexly interwoven with the politics of France at large as the characters equate, in both metaphorical and concrete senses, conscious resistance to physical temptation with resistance to imperial occupation and the guilt of desire with the guilt of collaboration. Melville’s direction, however, remains non-judgmental and brilliantly keeps remarking, through a spectacular interplay of avant-garde editing and meticulous mise en scène, the ironies underlying the characters and their situations and how, in fact, Léon and Barny are both on the wrong sides.

Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai Du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975) (aka Jeanne Dielman)
Chantal Akerman

“I used less water than last time, so it tastes better”


Jeanne DielmanChantal Akerman’s most famous film gives away all that is factual about it in its name itself. The rest of it follows what the titular Jeanne Dielman (Delphine Seyrig) does in this 23, Commerce Quay, 1080 Bruxelles house of hers, over a three day period in almost in its entirety. Using completely stationery cameras, Akerman creates a claustrophobic document of life in its most mundane form. Even with a screen time of over three hours, there isn’t much in the movie that could be fit into something called plot. That, precisely, is Akerman’s intention. Details are given with extreme reluctance and in exceedingly small measures (with hardly 10 minutes of spoken dialogue). On the first day, we witness Jeanne ritualistically moving about in her house, switching on and off the room lights, cooking potatoes for her obedient son, arranging tables, doing the dishes and making the bed. She earns by selling herself during the afternoons in her very house. All this is done by the book, if there ever was one.

It is precisely these systematic acts which become our reference for the next day. The next day follows almost the same pattern. Only that Jeanne drops a spoon and the polishing brush. Oh yes, she also goofs up the dinner! On the third day, the bank is closed, she reaches a shop before it opens, the coffee is spoilt and a button snaps off from her son’s blazer. This is all the change that Akerman allows Jeanne. What surfaces is a gradually progressive deviation from our “reference” and perhaps for the worse. Like the geometrically flawless décor and lighting of the film, which exude cheerfulness, contentment and sanity are only apparent. It is almost as if one can mathematically calculate, using these extremely small “mishaps”, when Jeanne will completely succumb to her condition. And this is the kind of gradual disintegration of sanity that many films fail to portray credibly (Revolutionary Road (2008) comes to mind first). What happens obscures how it all happens. Cinema becomes text. Although Jeanne Dielman is much more extreme in its form than the mainstream narrative cinema would require, it clearly shows that why a formal stance doesn’t merely justify the medium chosen but enhances its possibilities.

Jeanne DielmanIt wouldn’t be unfair to call Jeanne Dielman an experimental film. Where other films that deal with similar theme of urban alienation tend to bend towards the cerebral side, Jeanne Dielman is more experiential. At any point in the film, once the viewer gathers everything there is to an image, like Tarr’s movies, fatigue sets in. We start experiencing time as it is, undiluted. In other words, we begin taking part in Jeanne’s life by experiencing the savage inertia of time. The only difference is that she is oblivious to it while we, possessing knowledge of the artificial and transitory nature of cinema, are not. Jeanne doesn’t pass through life. She lets life pass through her. Not once does she show signs of emotional fatigue. She is insensitive to her condition much more than her cerebral counterparts. Except for one sequence at a button store, where she shows clear indications of mental derailment, there apparently is no outlet for her emotions at all. Apart from the perfunctory conversations with her son and the occasional visit by the neighbour, who asks Jeanne to take care of her baby (who could well be considered a miniature Jeanne) from time to time, Jeanne is completely cut off (at times literally, in the frame) from the world.

In his extraordinary article on Tarr, Kovács writes about the director’s style:

In Tarr’s world, deconstruction is slow but unstoppable and finds its way everywhere. The question, therefore, is not how to stop or avoid this process, but what we do in the meantime? Tarr asks this question of the audience, but if the audience wants to understand the question, it first has to understand the fatality of time. And in order to grasp that, it has to understand that there is no excuse in surviving the present moment: time is empty—an infinite and undivided dimension, in which everything repeats itself the same way.

Akerman’s own style does not seem far from this. Through repetitions, in gratuitous amounts, Akerman creates a film of high precision and low life quotient. In fact, everything in the film seems to exhaust itself the moment it takes birth.  Akerman repeats every element of the film – time (Jeanne’s daily routine), space (the viewer is immediately acquainted with the couple of rooms that the almost the whole film takes place in), the actors’ movement and gestures (Jeanne act of switching off lights moves from interesting to an in-joke) and even camera angles (as if the actors are passing in front of stationery cameras installed at various locations in the house).

Jeanne DielmanThe only hope for Jeanne to snap out of this vicious loop comes in the form of the final sequence in the film where she stabs to death an unsuspecting client of hers (Actually, it is never made clear if the scene takes place in Jeanne’s present or not. The man could well be her husband, whose death is talked about regularly in the film, thus, also, creating a narrative loop within the film. But considering the realities of the world, it is unlikely). This is where Akerman deviates from Tarr. Tarr seals his characters in their own existence until they fade into oblivion. His characters neither have history or hope. Akerman, on the other hand, gives her characters a past and a future. The circle in Jeanne’s life may just be a stray deadlock that had to be resolved by her action (rather, by ceasing her inaction). There is certainly a gaze at a different future throughout the film. Jeanne is expecting a gift from her aunt, which is revealed to be a dress later.  She deposits money in the bank for future use. Her aunt even urges her to migrate to Canada. Even though, a large part of the movie is concerned with her empty life, it does offer a hope for renewal.

Obviously, Akerman is far from being a romantic. It is true that she does not choose to tread Tarr’s spiral, which seems to go in circles but ends only in decimation, and concocts an open ending, thus leaving margin for hope of escape. But why Akerman’s masterwork feels ultimately like an exercise in despair is that she generalizes Jeanne’s existence. As a matter of fact, we don’t even know if the lady we are watching is Jeanne or if the building is the one mentioned in the title. By not pinning down particulars, Akerman seems to speak for an entire generation and era. Of course, the whole film could be deconstructed to unveil political, social, sexual and cultural outlook of the age, but what makes Jeanne Dielman stand out from its contemporaries is not its keen study of lives in modern times, but its ability to make us experience what every Jeanne Dielman experiences and understand why we each of us, in a way, has become a Jeanne Dielman.

L’année Dernière À Marienbad (1961) (aka Last Year At Marienbad)
Alain Resnais

“The grounds of that mansion were rather in the French style, without trees, flowers, or any plants at all. Gravel, stone, marble, rectilinear, formal, devoid of mystery. At first glance, it seemed impossible to get lost in them, along the straight paths, between the immutable statues, granite slabs, where you were, even now, losing yourself forever, in the still night, alone with me.“


last-year-at-marienbadRight from its title, Last Year at Marienbad (1961) spells ambiguity. Neither does the film refer to a place called Marienbad, nor is it sure if the events that the protagonists, X the man (Giorgio Albertazzi) and A the lady (Delphine Sevrig), talk about took place the previous year. Last Year at Marienbad takes place in an ornate French chateau and unfolds as a conversation between X and A – a very repetitive one at that (at least, that is how it looks like!). X insists that he had met A last year when she promised that they would elope if only he waited for a year. But that’s about all the information that the film provides us. We hear X and A carrying on the same conversation, in one tone or the other, for the rest of the film. We see them moving about the chateau, gazing at the mannequin-like guests who seem to be able to speak and shut up according to the whims of X and A. Resnais superimposes every possible permutation of the characters’ forms, – past, present, memories, fantasies and possibilities – appearances – in black, in white – and locations – the chateau, the garden, the room and the bar – to produce a one-of-a-kind work that turns the very tenets of narrative cinema that is builds on.

Perhaps the biggest breakthrough for Last Year at Marienbad is that it obviates the need for reality to make a film. A film, however surreal or convoluted, unravels from the viewpoint of an objective and omniscient narrator, presenting its details as truths and situating its characters in a fixed place and time. Even if it tries to dig into the psyche or the subconsciousness of its protagonists, it first establishes them as real entities in the real world and then dissolves into the other. On the other hand, Last Year at Marienbad is a cinematic materialization of the process of reminiscence. It takes place entirely in the minds of its protagonist. Any attempt from our side to bind the protagonists that we see to a tangible and unchanging reality invariably fails. That’s because what we see aren’t the protagonists, but their perception of themselves. If they wear black, it’s because that’s how they see themselves at that particular time and place. If they irrationally switch to white dresses, it is just in order to piece together fragments of their memory in a more convincing manner. In fact, we never even see the man and woman in the first place. The beautiful actors we see on the screen may just be what the characters want to project themselves as – much like our relationship with our movie stars.

Last Year at Marienbad is a study of how the human memory works. Resnais presents memory as a tool to retrieve the past. The fainter it becomes, the more possibilities it presents. When we are forced to confront it, we try to synthesize the remaining bits and pieces, blending what was with what would have been, into a coherent experience with unmarred chronology and logic. More painful that past is, more comfortable is the version synthesized – A version that is sore enough to recall those dreadful incidents, but safe enough to repudiate their consequences. The authoritative man in Marienbad consistently forces the lady to confront her past. She cooks up a rendering that eschews responsibilities. He intrudes into her edition to thrust his own. Resnais’ eternal breaking of basic editing rules here turns out to be more than a gimmick or a Brechtian technique (which is achieved because of the nature of the film itself). Because what we see on screen is a juxtaposition of two perceptions, they do not share the same cinematic space and, consequently, need not necessarily obey the rules of continuity and eye-line matches.

Resnais accentuates his film with images of mirrors – at times distorted – throughout. He supplements this practice by making Marienbad self-referential at times. The guests at the chateau try to guess out the mechanism behind the card game, which is as logic-defying as the film itself. X delivers monologues that could well be about the film itself (“Conversation flowed in a void, apparently meaningless, or at any rate, not meant to mean anything. A phrase hung in midair, as though frozen, though doubtless taken up again later. No matter. The same conversations were always repeated, by the same colorless voices.”, for one). What Resnais achieves through this combination is a series of mise-en-abymes – both literal and visual – that mirror the very nature of the human percept. Being stuck in this abysmal fractal, both the characters and the audience try to break out of it.  The lady tries to evade this “forced recollection” and hence escape her past. On the other hand, we, the audience, instinctively attempt to piece together the decidedly subjective elements into some form of “truth”.  This is one reason why Marienbad is a very unique film. Where, in the other films, we try to get into the mind of the characters, in Last Year at Marienbad, we try to come out of it. In other words, “conventional” cinema locates its characters in space and time and asks us to derive and construct their world around them. Marienbad presents us their world in totality and just asks us to locate the characters.

last-year-at-marienbadOne thing that is conclusive is that Resnais uses the chateau as a visual manifestation of the human memory. He uses parallel, rigid and clearly defined structures for the interiors of the chateau. The hedgerows in the garden are pruned to perfection and show symmetry and clarity of position and shape. Resnais’ geometry spells determination and factuality and is anything but ambiguous, like the black and white of the film. The man, who persuades the woman to walk with him through the ominous corridors and staircases of the each other’s memories, mentions at one point: “At first glance, it seemed impossible to get lost in them along the straight paths”. Unfortunately, it is only the inanimate that are static. The humans in the chateau, their relation to their surroundings, their actions, their mentality and their appearances keep changing. Like an attempt at the recollection of a distant memory, the mise-en-scene of a sequence regularly changes, filtering out the unnecessary, checking out possibilities, trying to get the perfect match of image, sound and sensation. Perhaps the term “stream of consciousness” suits Marienbad more than any other film.

To borrow a quote from the Kubrick page at Senses of Cinema: “Rare is the artist who can suffuse his work with so much ambiguity and still intrigue”.  Resnais bows. Marienbad is a complex film, probably as complex as they get. It plays around with the character’s perceptions of themselves, the audience’s perception of their film stars, their perception of cinema and cinema’s perception of itself. Loads could be written about the film from very many angles and with very many theories. I’m sure there are a thousand “readings” of the film about what exactly happened, but I feel such interpretative exercises would just go against the purpose of the film. Rather than raising the obvious question “why is this film like this?”, Last Year at Marienbad proposes another: “Why were films not like this?”. This is one film that one can safely call meaningless, because Marienbad is not a document bound by the rules of the physical world, but a sensory experience that transcends temporal and spatial barriers. And experiences needn’t always have a meaning.

To Sir, Sans Love

To Sir, Sans Love

Ever since the ultra-slow moment of lunatic ecstasy took shape in Zero for Conduct (1933), schools in cinema have always been about kids. Everything revolves around them, for good or otherwise. They have been the be all and end all through the decades no matter how complex the scripts got. Even when the films, such as To Sir, With Love (1967), had the teachers as the focal point, the protagonists were always hinged to the acts and moves of the students. Or they turned the table around completely. Some of these films would have this altruistic, uncanny, omniscient and awe-inspiring teachers where the student community is a monolithic entity that served merely as the outlet to emotions. Palm D’Or winner Entre Les Murs (The Class, 2008) (perhaps Half Nelson (2006) too, which I have not seen) breaks all these rules and formulae in a naturalistic and unforced fashion.

The Class is a film where multiculturalism is written right on the face. It does not take the issue as a matter-of-fact as the other films of the year do, but cleverly, builds a premise that enables it to confront it straight on. It does not have a script that tries to be subtle and hence be cheeky enough to implant a message or two. That doesn’t mean The Class does not have a message. It sure does and in loads. It just doesn’t try to hide it. In fact, it attempts to highlight the same. Mr. Cantet avoids the temptation of placing the kids at the edge of the frame and takes them head on (and in focus) as individuals and not as outcasts or marginal. The diversity in Entre Les Murs is not restricted to just nationality or ethnicity, In fact, it goes even beyond the disparities of language, sexual orientation and religious customs, into regions of personal likes and dislikes. To the point where the term ‘diversity loses meaning and it all boils down to individuals, who are like human islands with personalized cultural traits.

The Class presents us two worlds – one each of the students and the teachers – that exist on their own without apparent causality. These are truly independent worlds whose inhabitants have their own problems to attend to, their own private jokes and their own reasons for celebrations. The teachers are assigned a big responsibility of handling multicultural students and that too, in a not-so-reputed school. The teachers have not only to handle this responsibility carefully, but the task of gaining an identity as a teacher in spite of the school. François’ (François Bégaudeau , also the author of the book on which the film is based) personal problems only add to the complication. So do the students, who seem confused about where they belong or who they are. And the class forms the playground for both parties to work within the system and find a place and name of their own.

I believe The Class is a film that has to be watched exactly twice. It is like that stretch of time where you have just quarreled with your friend and you are recollecting what exactly went wrong, only to discover that nothing did. Both the sides and their arguments seem correct upon objective evaluation and the mess seems just like the result of a moment of misplaced subjectivity. This problem arises because the story of The Class is filtered through a highly flawed protagonist. He may psychologically be meaning good, but what his actions at the end of it seem rash and unfitting. So are the acts and intentions of the troublesome Souleymane (Franck Keita). I’m sure that we would have had a symmetrically placed opinion had the tale been told through the eyes of Souleymane. This is precisely the reason I say the movie should be watched twice – in order to understand the two sides instead of passing judgments on them or taking a complacent stand.

The Class works even on a very basic level as it explores the explosive atmosphere between the teacher and the students in the class. This is a very tricky relationship indeed. The teacher tries to cut some slack in order to encourage interaction, ease up his job and ultimately gain reputation among the students. The students being the majority, on the other hand, try to display their wit or skill and get a upper hand in this cat and mouse game. But all this is laid on the foundation of a solid principle. That the adult is always the boss. The kids in Entre Les Murs realize that and try hard to keep themselves in control whenever they can. François too tries not to overstress the principle and to listen to the children as responsible individuals. But a small perceived disturbance, lands to shatter the balance and to provide the dramatic momentum to the film. Funny that this extremely talkative film is the successor of an exceedingly quiet one at Cannes.

The other day, I saw an orphaned girl speaking on TV after she had been admitted to a institution for children. She was speaking in Hindi and was using masculine forms of speech throughout. One could instantly make out the circumstances and environment in which she spent the previous years of her life. The importance of language is a vastly underestimated one and the extinction of languages is as critical as any other issue. The Class is a very talkative film as I said but it is these very words that support its premise. The world seems to have changed so much that the demarcations between the student and the teacher become blurred. They learn French grammar and vocabulary from François. They learn words like “Austrian” and “Argentine” which seems to be much sought after. François learns terms like “honky” and what not from the kids. It doesn’t look like degradation of culture, but rather as the evolution of an alternate culture that has much to teach as the existing one does. A lot of dialectical dialog in the film has gone over my head and understanding that perhaps would help one to see the socio-cultural patterns that are established during the conversations.

There is obviously a pitfall in a situation where a director intends to make broader comments using seemingly minor elements of the film, in this case – the children. One cannot make them too simplistic that it falls laughably flat nor too elaborate such that the elements themselves lose identity (of course, there are exceptions where the intention is not to preserve the elements but to map them completely). Kiarostami’s phenomenal film Homework (1989) is perhaps the bible for directors who want to make film that refuses to compromise on any level. Like Homework, but far less perfect, The Class elicits social, cultural and political structures of the society present outside the school through the interaction and behaviour of the students.

Although there are some forced moments here and there in the film, The Class for a large part is an unpolished film. It does not provide us easy questions or comfortable answers. It carefully avoids all clichés of conventional movies that earnestly move towards a self-congratulatory climax. At the end of The Class, one might be expecting François to pin up the self-portrait of the expelled Souleymane or at least provide a symbolic close to it. No, Mr. Cantel avoids that. Nor does he sweeten anything when the hitherto quiet student insists that she has not learnt anything the whole year. Mr. Cantet is perhaps asking us to see them as they are. Some people just can’t be brought into the clockwork of the system and the system in turn should not pat itself for bringing about the change.

“The System” here may not just denote an educational institution but a larger entity that Mr. Cantet has miniaturized into the four walls of a classroom (Interestingly, “Entre Les Murs” translates to “Between the Walls”). In what may be a metaphor for France itself, Mr. Cantet uses the class to make a commentary on the authoritative mentality of the establishment that tries to impose its values upon its variegated set of inhabitants. Those who don’t conform to the standards set by the system are either marked or expelled. The students feel what the school teaches is irrelevant and outdated, the school feels the what students know is useless and fake. As the whole class – the teacher and the students – vacate the room for winter break, we realize that this ordinary room, which could well have been a hospital, a post office or a shop, was given meaning only because of the presence of the system and its constituents – like our earth that is divided by man-made boundaries with its inhabitants having to adhere to a synthetic feeling called patriotism.


Histoire(s) Du Cinéma
(History Of Cinema)


History of Cinema (1988-98)

History of Cinema (1988-98)

The candidate for this concluding part of the Godard marathon couldn’t be anything other than Godard’s magnum opus History of Cinema (1988-98) – a one-of-a-kind film that isn’t like anything seen before, even by Godard’s standards. In what I like to call “Stan Brakhage meets Sergei Eisenstein” kind of cinema, Godard completely does away with the need for a film camera as he employs loads and loads of footage from the most obscure corners of film history to express his ever-baffling, ever-revolutionary ideas and eventually reconstruct history – of art and of time itself. His editing prowess coupled with his oceanic knowledge of art and history result in a barrage of images, sounds and texts that anyone calling himself a Godard scholar, leave alone film scholar, would hesitate to come forward. Nevertheless, History of Cinema remains an immensely enriching experience for those who are game and those who earnestly try to get a whiff of what Godard is getting at.

Though the film as such is considered an eight part series that Godard gradually completed within a span of 10 years, the sharing of thematic and formal content among the film is so strong that any demarcation between the segments seems valid only for documenting purposes. Each film is as much tied to the others as it is singular – an idea that carries over to the commentary on cinema that Godard delivers – Cinema as an art that is as much connected to the preceding arts as it is unique. He regularly intersperses critical works of painting, sculpture, music and photography with entities of pure cinema as though suggesting that not only does cinema bear a definite relationship with them, but also that history repeats itself in one form or the other. As a result, the tracing of history of cinema necessitates a journey back not just to the year of the Lumiéres but much before.

History of Cinema (1988-98)
History of Cinema (1988-98)

If we had to single out Godard’s most favorite quote it has to be the misattributed Bazin one: “The cinema, substitutes for our gaze a world that corresponds to our desires”. And this is where the series kicks off. Cinema as a substitute for our dreams – the dream factory. Godard explores the meaning of “dream” as interpreted by the two functioning extremes of cinema then. He presents the occident interpretation as one that had converted cinema into a portal offering an alternate reality, a second life, to the audience whose “dreams” were the fodder for the larger-than-life images that the films projected -one that continues till date. He crosscuts this with the adversarial position taken up by the Russian giants whose visions/dreams of the society after the 1917 revolution were the primary driving force that prompted the directors to make films that could make audience act and think, not get addicted to. Godard contrasts these notions and movements and laments the death of the latter while reconstructing fragments from pivotal moments of history and cinema.

In the centenary film Lumiére & Co. (1995), the filmmakers were asked a question: “Is cinema mortal?” If Godard had been asked the same thing he would have most probably said that cinema is already dead – killed almost as soon as it was born. In History of Cinema, Godard puts forth the idea, or rather the bitter truth, that cinema had infinitely more potential to influence history than any of its predecessors, but was ruthlessly narrowed down to a medium that tells “stories”. That, in an attempt to reproduce reality to utmost perfection, filmmakers have put on it a fake fabric of synthetic morals and eventually pulled over it a world of spectacle so as to mask the blunder. He argues that cinema could have prevented unfortunate tragedies and averted genocides rather than merely crying over damages dealt and observing helplessly the misery of its subjects.

History of Cinema (1988-98)
History of Cinema (1988-98)

And in resonance with this ideology, instead of bemoaning what is lost and what could have been, Godard anticipates the death of cinema (He apparently asked Henri Langlois to burn the archives). Death, so that it can rise again from the ashes. “Art is like fire. Born from what it burns.” says Godard and that is precisely what he desires – Cinema to go down with all its exploitations and restrictions and rise in its purest form. Back to infancy, so that it can learn everything out of free will, without rules and without vanity.

Having said that, Godard also calls for a preservation of cinema and hence a preservation of history, for cinema has recorded both beauty and atrocity with equal emotional bias, if not with justice. True that cinema has always been a runner-up to history, but at least it has mirrored history to some extent. But unlike traditional methods that document history as a direct function of time, Godard attempts to reconstruct history as seen in retrospect. He utilizes existing film fragments to fabricate various histories of film – the one that was and the ones that weren’t but could have been. He examines how cinema could have been made independent of historical accounts and even made to influence them. In essence, he projects history backwards to uncover the history of projection. Godard examines such dualities in a number of places in the film – Infancy of art and art of infancy, newness of history and history of news and reality of reflection and reflection of reality – employing a variety of footage ranging from newsreels to pornography.

Godard elucidates this servile relation that cinema bears to history using images of dictators and authoritarians. He highlights how the visual medium itself is being manipulated by a few people in power and how in turn, modern cinema manipulates the audience. Godard reproaches this moral policing and expresses his disapproval of the hypnosis that the TV-driven audience is subjected to. He appeals for a cinema that provokes but doesn’t direct, a cinema that gives you options but doesn’t select one, a cinema that makes you think and doesn’t think for you and a cinema that is only complete with its audience. As he quotes in one of the segments, “Cinema does not cry. Cinema does not comfort us. It is with us. It is us”.

History of Cinema (1988-98)
History of Cinema (1988-98)

There is an intriguing recurrence of the image of human hands in the film. Godard urges artists to think with their hands – their real tools that have the potency to both create and destroy, to beautify and to horrify, to document and to change. He argues that these are the instruments capable of changing and redefining history and it is the weakness of the mind that hinders the possibility. This motif is punctuated by quintessential Hitchcockian and Bressonian images of hands and their gestures that carry with them an air of graceful individuality. And amidst this theory, Godard expresses his deep admiration for Hitchcock and Rossellini (especially Rome, Open City (1948)).

It is naturally impossible to grab every reference and idea that Godard throws at us. Hence, History of Cinema becomes a film that one should watch multiple times with considerable spacing. Without doubt, uncovering each layer of its text, sound and image to see how Godard has constructed the history of cinema, just in order to rebuke it, is a progressive task that becomes possible only with much exposure to all the six arts that precede cinema. I, for one, am going to visit the film every year trying to gain something more out of every time and get a glimpse into the esoteric world that is Godard’s.


That brings me to the end of the series. This has been one heck of a ride for me – exploring a world that almost no one talks about. I must thank everyone who has been visiting the blog, especially Nitesh, Ed and Shubhajit who have presented some very interesting and illustrative facets of Godard’s ever-baffling works. And Godard himself, for I’ve never become so tired after watching a film. To get a measure of that, I spend around 3 hours watching an 80 minute film! His films extract so much out of you that following 1% of Godard is much more enlightening than absorbing 100% of the others. I do hope that I get my hands on more of his films some time in the future.

Of course, I have missed out on more than a dozen worthy Godard films and shorts including Here and Elsewhere (1976), the bizarre Keep Your Right Up (1987), the radical King Lear (1987), and the more recent Our Music (2004). I hope I can cover them in the Flashback series or elsewhere.

Till then, au revoir and a happy new year,
Le Petit Soldat

Éloge De L’amour
(In Praise Of Love)

In In Praise of Love, Godard focuses on a single topic for discussion – that of preservation of history. He debates the validity of preserving history using media and the replacement of memory by technology. Additionally, he raises questions about Hollywood’s methods of representing history and argues that the industry manipulates history in order to make the audience sympathize or react but never to indict the guilty. There are also some hard-hitting statements made about the history of the United States that are readily controversial. And these questions in turn bring up the conflicts between image and reality, documentation and re-creation of history and proprietorship and openness of history.

In Praise Of Love (2001)

In Praise Of Love (2001)

The film is marked by extraordinary cinematography with the first half of the film taking up a neo-realistic character. Godard achieves complete distancing and passivity of vision that the Italian pioneers could never achieve. The second half of the film literally changes tone with its excessively saturated Wong Kar Wai-ish colour palette and expressionistic style. In some ways, In Praise of Love is Godard’s version of Wings of Desire (1987). He films the past in colour and the present in monochrome as if suggesting that the variegated experiences and stories of the past have now lost their colours and been demarcated by black and white regions – like what a child sees. This absence of an adult’s vision that plagued the very nature of revolution seems to have made history a matter of pop culture.

This creation of extraordinary out of the ordinary, refusal of cinema to act as a social mirror and one-dimensionality of perception about history, Godard suggests, is decidedly a result of the years of training of the audience’s minds by the films of the west. There is a fantastic sequence where we see a theatre that is screening both Bresson’s Pickpocket (1959) and the Wachowski siblings’ The Matrix (1999). Though both the films deal with the notions of fate, free will and existential imprisonment, the popular choice seems be the spiced up version.

For Ever Mozart

For Ever Mozart is one of Godard’s most complex films. This is true of all his films that have a seemingly coherent narrative, but For Ever Mozart surpasses all its companions into a realm that only Godard has the access to. But by no means is it a self-indulgent film. While the whole world of filmmaking is crowding the narrow lane defined by the “rules of success”, Godard wallows alone in the vast unexplored stretches, taking his gigantic leaps and pondering on the barrenness of the field. Until someone gives him company and learns his language, I can just guess.

For Ever Mozart (1996)

For Ever Mozart (1996)

For Ever Mozart, on the outset shows us two threads the first of which follows a group of self-proclaimed theatre artists out in Yugoslavia to put up a play amidst the frustrating war situation around. The second thread, the more accessible one, involves a director with an urge to use filmmaking as an art (wanna guess who?!) against the wishes of his producer and audience. He believes the director to be the father and the actor to be the mother of any play and sure enough, after much labour by both the director and his actress, they deliver the film of their dreams. But what does the audience want? Terminator-4. This creates a tautology of sorts within the film between the two threads. One depicts the struggle of art to survive within the harsh realities of the world whereas the other portrays the battle of art with its own subverted form – Cinema among wars and war among cinemas.

There is a magical scene at the end of the film, perhaps Godard’s best. We see an anachronistic image of Mozart performing amidst an audience that is clad in jeans, chewing gum. The mute Mozart invites a layman to assist him in his concert. The director ascends to the hall with difficulty via a stairway (to heaven?) after which he retires. Is Godard suggesting that a time will come where art will be a commodity of the public and not just for the public? To steal from the film itself, “It’s almost nothing or… something I don’t know“.

JLG/JLG – Autoportrait De Décembre

Godard’s influence of Van Gogh shows in his next film JLG by JLG: An Auto-portrait in December. Made largely inside his room, JLG/JLG looks like a home movie like some of his films of the late 80’s. The film seems to take place during the editing of Godard’s interesting reworking of the Greek legend – Oh Woe is Me (1993). Godard makes it clear that the film is only a self-portrait, not an autobiography – not an objective account of his psychological motivations, but an introspection that is subjective and only skin-deep.

JLG By JLG (1995)

JLG By JLG (1995)

The most interesting aspect of the film is that we get a glimpse into Godard’s daily life, which by itself is quite extraordinary. We see what he reads –  a huge private library which stores some of Godard’s most famous quotes that have enthralled audience through the decades. We see what he speaks – as we have seen before through his various quirky characters. We see what he watches – the films that find their way into almost all of his movies in the form of references and posters. And we see what he thinks – like the relationship he conjures up between stereo speaker system and the Star of David. His financial difficulties clearly show up as we even see an official raid into his shabby household. These claustrophobic images are intercut with paradisaical images of the winter that seem to bear a strong relationship with Godard’s own mental landscape during that period.

Although all this gives the feel of an honest documentary observing a day in the life of a filmmaker, it is, like most of Godard’s filmography, an essay that presents as many ideas as its predecessors and provides a commentary on larger issues hidden beneath the veneer of the quotidian events that we see. Godard begins with his favorite theme of individualism versus the community (crystal and smoke, according to him), moves on to the regular issues of truth, image and fate and finally takes up an elegiac tone that shows a clear yearning for the past carrying over from his previous films. And who wouldn’t be disarmed by a film whose closing quote reads “A man, nothing but a man, no better than any other, But no other better than him.

Les Enfants Jouent À La Russie
(The Kids Play Russian)

The Kids Play Russian employs the same (lack of) structure as Germany Year 90 Nine Zero and forms the last part of what I would call Godard’s Elegy Trilogy (wow! that rhymes!). This time it’s Russia, the head of the family, the massive Redwood tree that has fallen. Godard suffers a one-two slap with the fall of the USSR and his angst shows. The impressionist images are replaced by the mesmerizing surrealism of Dovzhenko and literature replaces the music of Germany 90. However, he does go a step further and probes what should be the future course of the country, still crying out “We will not change”.

The Kids Play Russian (1993)

The Kids Play Russian (1993)

Godard calls Russia the birthplace of fiction and emphasizes that a history of Russia would most definitely reflect the history of fiction itself. And hence, fall of the USSR (rather communism) means the fall of fiction. He traces back the history of image projection as the first Franco-Russian alliance and calls his relation to Russia as the last one surviving. In that sense, Godard himself is the Lemmy Caution of activist cinema – once a visionary, now undone. He employs the fictional figures of Anna Karenina and Prince Andrei to represent Russia and its plight hereafter. He imagines what they would be doing if they were alive during the collapse of their motherland. But again like all three films of the series, the film is one that is built on hope and promises.

The final image of the film captures a borderline-wild Godard continuing to work in his recording room, lit partially by the harsh light. More than “The show must go on” attitude, what shows here is “And miles to go before I sleep” mentality that has kept Godard afloat amidst his larger-than-life troubles in both his personal and professional life. A sexagenarian with fractured relationships, doomed ideologies and whose only redemption is in Cinema, pushing forward with more vigour than ever – only a few images can be more moving than this. The Idiot will go on. So will Cinema.

Allemagne 90 Neuf Zéro
(Germany Year 90 Nine Zero)

And I thought Godard didn’t have a masterpiece. Once more after many years, Godard follows Lemmy Caution (remember Alphaville?), now the “world’s last spy”, after the collapse of communism in Germany and the breaking of the wall. If Alphaville was The Return of the Jedi, Germany 90 is the Revenge of the Sith.  In the first film, Lemmy was a virus eluding the clutches of the supposedly omnipotent Alpha 60 whereas here, he is a lone warrior meandering unharmed in the bigger Alphaville and the sole survivor of a species that would soon be extinct. Evidently a requiem for what Godard considers the death of Germany, Germany 90 is perhaps the best contender for the adjective “sublime”.

Germany Year 90 Nine Zero (1991)

Germany Year 90 Nine Zero (1991)

Tinged with a slight green throughout, the film juxtaposes images of sincere yearning by a man whose raison d’être has been questioned with fleeting sequences from the classics from the early expressionist German cinema. Godard classifies music, love and poetry as belonging to socialism alone and as languages not understood by the new world. Though elegiac in tone, the film is uncharacteristically (for Godard) hopeful in actuality. There is a definite promise of restoration in the form of Dora, the symbol of Germany in the film, and the assurance of “music after life”. On a lighter note Lemmy comments “You have to admit, Marx did triumph. When an idea is born among masses, it becomes a material force. That’s one way of looking at it.

Lemmy Caution who represented all that is living and all that is human in Alphaville represents all that is lost and destroyed in Germany 90. The recurrent images of exile crucifixion and torture may be for the whole of socialism itself, whose pro-mass approach was nailed down by the elite bourgeoisie. Now as Lemmy walks alone through the remains of the now- nonextant world, we see what Godard is referring to by “solitude of history” – Lenin icon amidst Greek ruins, people moving towards the west in blue cars, machines resembling dragons almost swallowing Lemmy, history books being sold as souvenirs. The fugitive events that shook the world seem to have single-handedly made Godard’s political period a thing of arthouse circuits. It is more than solitude of history, it is solitude of Cinema.