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.

Nouvelle Vague
(New Wave)

Watching New Wave, it felt like a Tarkovsky film, especially Nostalghia (1983) at many places – may be because of the organic pace and camera work of the film, may be because of the very presence of Domiziana Giordano (and the horses!) or may be the hypnotizing locales of Italy, I don’t know. But the film surely echoes some of the elements of the Tarkovsky classic for Nouvelle Vague is essentially a yearning for the past and nostalgia of la dolce vita of yesteryear.

New Wave (1990)

New Wave (1990)

The basic premise of the film follows a rich couple Richard and Elena, visibly dissatisfied with their lives, attempting to search for that elusive object called happiness and hence trying to discover their place on earth. They assume roles of the dominating and the dominated in turns Yet again, Godard crafts a film that works on so many levels that it becomes intensely personal in more than one way. Richard and Elena may be representing the French New Wave and traditional cinema respectively as they try to find their own place and struggle to accept their mutual existence. So the film on one level becomes a superficial study of how the New Wave affected established cinema and vice-versa. With characters named de Sica, Mankiewicz and Aldrich, this argument seems plausible, but one shouldn’t restrict the film to a mere interpretational exercise, again a Tarkovskian trait of the film.

The regular intertitles read “Things, not words” and this is exactly what the film seems to be following. Godard bids adieu to his immensely talkative pair of periods, for the events around the world have made words completely futile. He places the images in the driver’s seat such that the basic feel of the film prompts one to classify it as elegiac. Coming soon after the twin collapse of East Germany and the USSR, Nouvelle Vague will be remembered as a befitting farewell to the most revolutionary ideology in the annals of mankind and the most subversive period of filmmaking in cinema history.


Godard continues to play with the genre after a long time and this time it is the detective/thriller/crime genre. Loaded with quintessential elements like the omnipotent mafia head, the leaf of the tree who tries to make it big, a washed up pugilist, the disguises, the 666/999 room number gag and much more, Detective is a scribble-pad for Godard who floods it with a deluge of in-jokes, Shakespearean references and crossover lines. And as with all Godard films that have traces of a story line, it is the very narrative that makes one struggle to either cruise over the fragmented crust of the film or to penetrate into what is both demanding and enlightening.

Detective (1985)

Detective (1985)

Many feel that Detective is one of the weakest links in Godard’s filmography, but I found the film to be the most iconoclastic film by Godard since Breathless (1959). Till Detective, Godard had been objecting the conventions used for representation in the medium and attempted to concoct a genuinely independent form of expression and interaction whereas here, he objects the nature of the medium itself. He did meditate about the idea that the camera is a tool that always captures the past in his earlier films but in Detective, he breaks even that intuitive notion and “records the future”. The detectives are investigating a supposedly unsolved murder but the very murder happens as they are digging. What’s more baffling is that the audience is placed in the shoes of the detectives, they are made to see all that they see and hence are made to witness future – all this in the typically self-reflexive Godardian way.

And the effect isn’t just a perplexing one. Completely different from the Brechtian estrangement theory but achieving the same result true only to the seventh art, Godard appeals for a genuine detachment from the medium and a complete abandonment of belief on cinema and its images that we’ve grown to accept as truth (Le Petit Soldat?). At the end of the film one feels both dissatisfied for wasting such a great murder plot and disillusioned after having his/her perceptions shattered. And obviously, Godard’s intention is the latter.

‘Je Vous Salue, Marie’
(Hail Mary)

Godard’s most controversial film to date, Hail Mary, takes him to areas he has never tread before. He covers a wide range of interconnected topics that include the questions of chance versus calculation in human evolution, man’s civilization and the subsequent invention of art and science, his understanding of nature and his lost love for fellow beings. Godard elevates the audience to the status of God as we alone watch Mary’s most private moments as the camera looks down upon her.

Hail Mary (1985)

Hail Mary (1985)

Though loaded with lots of Christian symbols and allegories (the virgin birth, the forbidden apple et al), Godard doesn’t restrict the film to a mere reworking of the religious text. He goes beyond the ideas of individualism and class struggles and ponders over the very existence of mankind, the preternatural and the relationship (or the absence of it) between them. In one of the early sequences in the film, we see a woman named Eve blindfolding a person named Pascal as the latter tries to solve the Rubik’s cube. Is Godard saying that there is surely a force beyond the reaches of science that stands silently behind man, who is blinded by the restrictions of reasoning, aiding him as he tries to rationalize the mysteries presented by the natural and the supernatural? May be. We see Joseph, always spotted with dark, blind man’s glasses, trying to decode the enigma of the virgin birth and even trying to confirm the presence or absence of God as he tells Mary “At least say you don’t love me. I can’t stand this silence.

A recurrent question in the film asks if the soul is trapped in the body or is it the other way round. Is Mary carrying the divine child or is it the very presence of the child that shuns her from the quotidian joy of femininity? Is Jesus’ suffering for the people more vital than Mary’s sacrifice to complete the prophecy? What is the cost of divinity? Does Mary become a woman because of the birth or only after it? Is the final image of Mary using a lipstick a sign of freedom and return to mortality? I can only speculate.

Prénom Carmen
(First Name: Carmen)

Godard’s version of the never-ending saga of femme-fatales and heists is decidedly the looniest film of the period. Godard is at the peak of self criticism in First Name: Carmen. Also serving as the comic relief in the film, we see him and many other artists who consider themselves revolutionaries admitted in an insane asylum. Godard however, is perfectly fine and may just be commenting on his emigration to Switzerland. He calls himself “sick and washed-up”. He refers to Van Gogh, who also became crazy and intolerable towards the end of his life, and may be he saw the self-portrait coming a decade later. He discusses how art is taken as a cover for crime and how Godard himself has become a catalyst for that. And the height of it all being that he uses an abacus for calculation, overtly classifying him as anachronistic, outdated and starry-eyed.

Carmen (1983)

First Name: Carmen (1983)

He intersperses the narrative with extended sequences of a band of violinists practicing Beethoven whose themes mirror those of the ongoing sequences of the other thread. He uses the sound in the film to guide the imagery in some stretches and in others, lets the images define the route for the sounds. It is at the end that the two threads meet and both the sound and the images take the lead. And using this tug-of-war between them, he knits his narrative that as usual deals with subjects seemingly out of scope – law and religion, male and female perspectives, treatment of working class and more.

There may not an intentional connection at all, but having known Godard a bit, I couldn’t help spotting a political subtext to the film. Godard may well have written Joseph and Carmen with an inclination to socialism and capitalism respectively. Carmen tells Joseph “If I love you, it is the end of you”. Joseph, though aware of the destructive nature of the relationship, is lured by the (capitalist) lust and agrees to take part in the crime. Godard feels that he has become an accelerator for this decadence. And the closing duel between the leads and its result may just be Godard’s glimmer of hope.