Alphaville, Une Étrange Aventure De Lemmy Caution
(Alphaville)
1965

There are two ways to watch Alphaville. One, you think of the film as a precursor to so many sci-fi films that were to use similar themes and construction or two, take it as another one of Godard’s games with the genre system and his stand against the occidental culture. I chose the second. True, it has striking images and notions that remind one of later films like Solaris (1972, the human dimension of space conquest), Blade Runner (1982, the dystopian setup devoid of warmth) and even 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968, HAL 9000 and Alpha 60 may pass off as cousins!), but I felt that Godard never intends to show to us a conventional narrative or a genuine sci-fi thriller.

Alphaville (1965)

Alphaville (1965)

This time over, Godard pays his tribute to the stalwarts of the 20’s who defined German expressionism. The character named Leonard Nosferatu, the     film-noir like texture of the film and the whole theme of the film that echoes Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) are indications of nothing but Godard’s heartfelt homage to his idols. However, he never lets us sink into the film as the expressionist classics passionately did and constantly interrupts out attention with high-pitched beeps and occasional use of negatives that abruptly flip the colour scheme.

In the film Godard presents a world ruled by logic and precision where emotions don’t have any vitality. Poetry is extremely mysterious and malicious content and so is love. In such a place, all that matters are the absolute numbers and objective quantities. In other words, everything is commodified and its value measured against standards calculated solely by artificial intelligence. Godard explores the extremities of a fascist regime whose capitalistic policies thrive on quantity rather than quality and each person is no more than a unique number in an infinite list. Lesser didactic than many Godard works, Alphaville still retains Godard’s philosophical monologues that have become a staple in his films.

Une Femme Mariée: Suite De Fragments D’un Film Eourné En 1964
(A Married Woman)
1964

Godard does his biggest flip in style in his next film A Married Woman (1964). After all the freewheeling and cheerfulness of Band of Outsiders, Godard pulls of an intense drama whose typically French texture can make many rave about it on and on. Although a decided anomaly in Godard’s body of work during this period, A Married Woman still handles issues that had Godard going for it in the later part of his career.

A Married Woman (1964)

A Married Woman (1964)

Godard takes up the classic triangle love story and distorts it to fit his needs, as usual. It isn’t the men who are both trying for the woman, but it is the troubled central female who seems unable to decide between two men. She is treated like an object by both men, but in different ways. She, perhaps representing the entire Parisian women, is commodified by the endlessly long list of capitalistic companies with their products that implicitly try to “synthesize” the perfect woman. What’s worse is that the entire society aids it by conforming to their standard of the perfect woman. Coutard captures the leading lady Macha Méril seamlessly making her look like a soap bar or a piece of apparel displayed on a shop window, all prepped up for sale.

A Married Woman is one of the very few Godard films that prompt a character analysis in the traditional sense of the terminology. Though Godard’s characters are meant to be thought over and the on screen events they indulge in are meant to be detachedly brooded upon, there were never conventional dominator-dominated and victor-vanquished relationships. But A Married Woman is so character-driven that the film can well pass off as an Antonioni film. But that doesn’t mean that it is totally un-Godardian. You have all the typical on-the-screen text, intertitles and even the “negativized” sequences that would sprout up again later in Alphaville.

Bande À Part
(Band Of Outsiders)
1964

Godard proves that Breathless was not a fluke with his next film Band of Outsiders (1964). Band of Outsiders was the first Godard movie I saw and I had mixed reactions about it. And having watched quite a few of his films now, I understand that my perplexity was warranted in every way and that’s the way probably Godard would have wanted his audience to react. For sure, I will be revisiting it shortly and know for certain that I will gain more out of it now. Godard’s most lovingly directed work works on many levels and is perhaps his best take (or homage) on the genre.

Band Of Outsiders (1964)

Band Of Outsiders (1964)

I won’t be surprised if people rate it higher than Breathless for Band of Outsiders remains warmer and mellower today than at its time and would most probably elicit more “aaaws” than “huhs” unlike Breathless that still remains iconoclastic. A special mention for the DVD edition by Criterion – ranks among their best releases. Loaded with fantastic features including great interviews with Karina and Coutard, a gallery where Godard’s film is deconstructed stylishly and a short film Les Fiances du Pont Mac Donald (wanna bet Godard decided the title?) by Agnes Varda that is as charming as the main movie itself. A definitely great addition to your DVD collection.

With Band of Outsiders, Godard obtains a kind of inherent copyright for his work in the sense that a remake of the film is near impossible. Godard has already made a universally acceptable film with just the backdrop of Paris, literally. The gang of three is an anomaly in the relatively conservative city of Paris much like the Nouvelle Vague itself. The minute long silence (embodying Godard’s style of working), the impromptu dance (his theory of fluidity of the genre), the race through the L’ouvre (tribute to Truffaut’s Jules and Jim and a poke at the American cinema and its way of life) and the English class (well, er…, see for yourself) remain pieces of cinema to be cherished for ever. More than anything, the film is a celebration of unbridled youth, unsupervised freedom and unconventional cinema.

Le Mépris
(Contempt)
1963

Godard does not keep films and life dissimilar. His films influence his life and his life influences his films. This is manifest to the maximum extent in Contempt (1963). Godard’s divorce with Anna Karina can be directly seen from the film as Godard retains even the lines spoken by Karina during the period. And it’s probably because of this intensely personal nature of the film that the film forms a perpetual conversation in any Godard discussion. And needless to say, Godard’s incessant love for cinema shows and he pays homage to his idols with references all the way – naturally, for the film is about the filmdom itself.

Contempt (1963)

Contempt (1963)

Godard’s immense control of the medium is at its peak perhaps in Contempt. Remarkable use of room space as Godard employs empty and decaying structures that mirror the central characters’ lives. The film works on multiple levels and this genuinely multi-layered attempt gets better on repeated viewings. At one of those levels, Godard captures what men and women expect from relationships. Paul follows Camille wherever she goes but only late. Here again, with extended shots, Godard uses the screen space so effectively that one gets the taste of what mise en scène really is, not to mention his singular use of red and blue to convey deeper meanings than meets the eye.

Watching the film, I was so much reminded of Federico Fellini‘s masterpiece 8½. Both films are made by geniuses of cinema in the most troubled phase of their lives. Both films feature artists having trouble making their films, primarily due to fractured personal lives. The central scene where Paul, dressed in a toga-like costume, trying to control his wife is so strikingly similar to the surreal scene in 8½ where Guido tames women while dressed in a toga!. Both are films about making of films that are the films themselves (think over that!). Also, both of them contain one of the best film openings and endings ever. Additionally, both are intensely personal films that get better with knowledge of the situations in which they were made. And the whacker of a trivia being that they were both made in the same year!… Wierd.

Les Carabiniers
(The Riflemen)
1963

Godard first real failure looks much funnier today than it would have been at its time. Perhaps because we have realized the futility of war or perhaps because we enjoy it more. Whatever the case, Godard’s light-hearted satire on war, cinema and society remains one of his most accessible films of his early years. The film follows two simpletons who are lured by the idea of unbound wealth and drafted to serve in the war. Sure enough, they fall for the trick and go places committing the entire sanctioned massacre according to their whims, only to become the victims in the end

The Riflemen (1963)

The Riflemen (1963)

Godard’s stand against commodification of life shows its clear roots in Les Carabiniers. Also, Godard’s concerns for the position of women in the society and in the way they are treated especially as portrayed by the cinema of the west is established in a very comical way. One of the lead character asks what all he can steal without punishment during a war and keeps going “Cars? Cigarette Lighters? Chocolates? Women? Diamonds? Casinos?…” . And there is this extremely extended scene where the men show their women hundreds and hundreds of photographs of various vehicles, places and animals (and women) from across the world one after the other. It feels like Godard is cherishing (or ridiculing) the idea that cinema is photographs in rapid succession.

Made in an oddly fascinating way, that is as Keatonesque as it is Godardian, the whole film feels like a warmly delivered tribute to the masters of the past especially the silent gems of the 20’s. In probably the funniest scene in the film, Michelangelo tries to get a follow a woman who goes off-screen to undress on screen and also tries to evade a train that seems to come towards him. Given that such incidents did take place after the Lumiére revolution, it is quite possible that Godard is portraying what may be the lost innocence of cinema.

Vivre Sa Vie: Film En Douze Tableaux
(My Life To Live)
1962

After three decidedly crazy ventures, Godard shuts the mouths of critics with his next film My Life to Live (1962). More sober than all of his previous ventures, Vivre Sa Vie follows the life of a wannabe-actress who takes up casual prostitution to make ends meet. With significantly long shots that are as intriguing as his jump cuts, Godard organically captures the quotidian and empty life of his protagonist. My Life to Live is probably one of the few Godard films to get universal acclaim. Supposedly one of the most distressing shoot for the crew, especially for Anna, because of Godard’s sporadic fits of anger and frustration.

My Life To Live (1962)

My Life To Live (1962)

The film is divided into 12 segments each of which consists of an encounter that Nana has with the people she meets. Godard employs a range of film techniques – Drama, cinema vérité, newsreel and documentary – without relinquishing the staple film references along the way. Probably the most famous scene in the film, Nana’s rendezvous with Dreyer’s hypnotic classic The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) encompasses everything the film stands for. We see a shattered Nana breakdown at the trial of Joan of Arc as Godard replicates the extreme close-up, definitely as homage to Dreyer too, as if suggesting that Nana herself is like Joan of Arc – tried by the cruel society forcing her to recant her belief of a respectable life.

Godard studies his main character with religious focus. I don’t know what was running through his mind while filming Anna at various distances and angles, but I’m guessing that whatever is presented in the film is a manifestation of their personal relationship and how Godard perceived Karina. Godard’s fascination with prostitution begins here and would go on to take up multiple meanings in his future films, especially the political ones. And there is also the typically self-indulgent Godard’s philosophy that occupies a whole chapter towards the end of the film.

Une Femme Est Une Femme
(A Woman Is A Woman)
1961

Godard has a field day in A Woman is a Woman. What better genre to employ Godard’s influence of Brechtian theory than a musical! The sheer rhythm of the movie is enough to give it the instant classic status and the quirky humor just adds to the effect. More than being a novel attempt, the film seems like a celebration of the New Wave with references and homage to the biggies of the 50’s. And the wild child he is, Godard doesn’t miss out on opportunities to glorify himself too! (Émile says at one point, “I don’t know if this is a comedy or a tragedy, but it’s a masterpiece“)

A Woman Is A Woman (1961)

A Woman Is A Woman (1961)

The film flows like a dew drop on a leaf with each moment topping the previous. “Expect the unexpected” would make a great tagline for the film as Godard intentionally disorients us from any predictions. And the effect works for sure. We see Angela tossing up an omelet and gathering it after a small talk. She enters a magic chamber and gets her costume changed like that. Godard seems to elicit the craziness, or rather the magic of the medium employing such moments that not only break movie traditions as we know them but also add to the radiance of the film. Godard uses blue and red colours aptly but is nowhere close to what he would do with them in his later films.

Godard, at times, interrupts key conversations with sounds and at others, interrupts sound with conversations. So, one doesn’t follow the story line closely which is precisely what Godard wants. As a result, you can’t help but enjoy the individual and “present” moments of the film for what they are rather than connecting their relevance with the past or analyzing the direction towards the future. Anna Karina at her charming best and one can see why Godard was so smitten. It is a treat watching her dance and a restrained Belmondo accompanying her.

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HAPPY BIRTHDAY MONSIEUR GODARD!

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Le Petit Soldat
(The Little Soldier)
1960

Godard ran into controversy with the very second film he made. Le Petit Soldat got banned for graphic depiction of torture of its protagonist by both parties involved in the war against colonialism. Though very mellow and even fantastic when viewed today, it would most definitely have raised a few eyebrows especially because of the cinéma vérité style the scenes adopt. And as an interesting point, for Godard, is that he surprisingly does not take a stand at all. His focus remains his central character whose freedom and happiness have become functions of factors beyond his control.

The Little Soldier (1959)

The Little Soldier (1960)

Though a typical Godard character, I felt like watching a Truffaut written one at times. A chap full of ironies. He says that he won’t describe his torture and follows it up by exactly that. He says he will not commit a murder and flips to the other side in no time. Michel Subor’s quirky portrayal goes down as another underrated performance in the director driven New Wave. The narrative’s fluidity and emphasis on the mundane stays intact and Godard seems to assert his control over the medium with ease as he happily weaves his ideologies in the form of daring monologues.

Le Petit Soldat remains Godard first and most superficially personal statement made on film. It is not incidental that Godard himself had a childhood that was divided between Switzerland and France like the little soldier. But the film is, more importantly, of interest for its romantic significance that would define Godard’s first phase of filmmaking. Godard employs Anna Karina in the lead role for the first time and Coutard’s camera seems like Godard’s own eyes, never once stepping off her in the photo-shoot scene. According to fellow technicians, there was clearly a chemistry developing between them from the first few days of shoot. Godard’s least talked about film of his early years retains its power to charm.

À Bout De Souffle
(Breathless)
1959

Start of Breathless – End of Cinema. Infinity has been written about the film and any further writing on the film is just a formality – a formality that every film buff must perform. At a time when Alain Resnais had made the intense drama Hiroshima, Mon Amour (1959) and when Truffaut was riding high on the success of The 400 Blows (1959), fellow Cahiers du Cinéma critic Jean-Luc Godard hit the filmmaking world with Breathless.

Breathless (1959)

Breathless (1959)

The story is as simple as it gets, which is perfect for Godard’s loosely but meticulously constructed style. A man on the run, a woman on the road, a kiss before death. It is near impossible to tell anything about the film without romanticizing it. Godard’s love for cinema shows in every moment of the film as he places charming cameos of fellow New Wave filmmakers here and there. Jean-Paul Belmondo is an instant hit with his Bogart-loving borderline-misogynistic attitude and it is no surprise that he went on to become one of the most famous French actors ever. And poor Coutard’s groundbreaking techniques are overloaded to the point of nausea nowadays. And Godard’s own contribution lies in his avoidance of being analyzed by traditional methods of film criticism as he reconstructs film grammar using the alphabets created by his own predecessors. No wonder he said retorted “Yes, A film must have a starting middle and an end, but not necessarily in that order”. He, in effect, disorients traditionally trained minds by speaking in a commonplace oral language, but in an entirely different cinematic one.

I wouldn’t hesitate to say that Breathless is the coolest thing that ever happened to cinema. And most wouldn’t deny. But that isn’t what it is all about. It revolutionized the way movies were made and more importantly, the way movies were watched. Things that we now take for granted in films – the outdoor shoot, the jump cuts (incidentally begot by a runtime crisis), the fluidity of narrative and the hand held camera work – show their roots in Breathless. No one makes movies like them any more and any close attempts seem like nothing more than cheeky use of camera and scissors. To plagiarize a quote on The Lord of the Rings book, “The movie-watching world is divided into two – ones that have seen Breathless and the ones yet to see them.”