Analysis of Jean-Luc Godard
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‘The auteur theory can be summarised most simply as an acknowledgement of the director as the primary and shaping force behind a film’ (Craig Keller). How is Godard’s ‘primary and shaping influence’ detectable, if indeed, it is?
The auteur theory was a principle developed in the 1950s by a group of French film critics namely: Eric Rohmer, Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard. It was their belief that an auteur was “the single individual most responsible for whatever personal expression (if any) a movie yielded up under critical analysis”. This definition has become the most universally understood of the auteur theory and therefore the one which will be referred to during this dissertation.
These critics wanted to see an end to la tradition de la qualité of conventional cinema of the 1930s and 1940s - a period coined le cinéma de papa. They viewed films produced at that time to be “literary”, “lifeless” and not “truly cinematic”. Inspired by fellow film critic Alexandre Astruc’s camera-stylo theory arguing that “filmmakers should use their equipment as spontaneously, flexibly and personally as a writer uses a pen” these young critics began to break the constraints of conventional cinema.
Prior to the development of the auteur theory, a large majority of films were produced, shot and edited in similar styles. Large studios, with fixed cameras and scriptwriters having overall control were common, thus creating a rigid style of film production. However, in the 1950s and 60s, a period labelled the Nouvelle Vague, French cinema was completely revolutionised.
During this time films moved away from the confines of the big studios and artificial lighting; to outside, using light weight Arriflex cameras which sped up the film process. During this period directors began to experiment with several new cinematic techniques whilst implementing their own personal artistic values in films. These directors came to be known as auteurs becoming the ‘primary and shaping force’ behind their films, manipulating scenes to fit their style rather than employing the traditional method of following scriptwriter’s prompts.
In terms of the auteur theory Jean-Luc Godard was seen as the truly radical auteur. By most he is today seen as one of the most innovative and artistic directors having created his own ‘Godard style’. As Godard himself suggests, “les vrais auteurs des films sont les producteurs…le cinema n’a d’avenir que si la camera finit par remplacer le stylo”. Godard epitomises a director out to challenge traditional cinema. Through such films as Vivre sa Vie: Film en douze tableaux (1962) and Une femme est une femme he began to interrogate and illuminate conventional cinema via new cinematic and artistic techniques.
This dissertation will assess the extent to which Jean-Luc Godard’s ‘primary and shaping influence’ is detectable in his films. In the main body of this dissertation I will consider Godard’s ability to implement his own cinematic style through several inventive techniques. I will consider his ability to challenge the barriers between off screen and on screen reality.
Furthermore, I will analyse his use of camera shots, editing techniques, colour and sound so as to demonstrate his pivotal influence on the shaping of his films. I will however, also argue that any kind of definition of the auteur theory oversimplifies the realities of a film making process and can therefore not be seen as a definitive theory.
Andrew Sarris explains, one of the premises for an auteur is that the director must ‘exhibit certain recurring characteristics of style which serve as his signature…over a group of his films’. I will, therefore, make reference to four of Godard’s films: A bout de Souffle (1960), Une femme est une femme (1961), Vivre sa vie: Film en douze tableaux (1962) and Le Mepris (1963) to demonstrate how Godard yields personal influence in his films.
One of Godard’s premises as a film director was his belief that realism was a pivotal part of film making. Godard believed that realism attempted by conventional cinema was “never exactly the same as reality, and in cinema it is of necessity faked”. It was therefore Godard’s intention to continually experiment with new ideas and make his actors improvise in certain scenes in order to encapsulate what he believed would be the closest thing to real life.
Following the release of A Bout de Souffle actor Jean-Pierre Melville who played Parvulesco in the film said Godard’s movie was “anything shot anyhow”. Godard himself confirmed that “on A Bout de Souffle I used to write the evening before shooting”. According to Godard, the reason for him doing this was because “I liked to be surprised. If you know in advance everything you are going to do, it isn’t worth doing. If a show is all written down, what is the point of filming it? What use is cinema if it trails after literature?” Godards obsessive need to shape the smallest minutiae made him standout amongst his peers by firmly embedding him as the autonomous force behind all aspects of the film making process.
In addition, if one reads the script of Le Mépris it clearly shows his belief in improvisation to encapsulate real life. In the thirty minute apartment scene in which Camille and Paul argue, the only direction is “man in hat. Man in towel. Blond woman. Woman in black wig. Sheets on coach. Sheets off couch. Dishes on table. Love. Anger. Contempt. Tenderness.” This therefore forced the actors to improvise in the hope that the scene would be more realistic than just learning their lines by heart.
This idea of filmmaking was revolutionary at the time and was a way in which Godard was implementing his own directional style to his movies. As Kreidel suggested in 1980 “[N]o one has yet made a more modern cinema than Godard”. For those familiar with Godard’s work the quote used above ‘anything shot anyhow’ should strike a chord. His use of the camera to manipulate scenes to exert his own artistic influence over his movies was just one of the ways in which his primary influence was detectable.
Godard employed a range of new cinematic techniques in an attempt to escape the classical idea of a passive audience. His work was heavily influenced by Bertolt Brecht’s theory of Brechtian distanciation which encouraged the audience to make their own interpretations of what they were experiencing rather than them being simply led through a piece of theatre.
Godard was influenced by Brecht’s theory in encouraging the active engagement of his audience, “he breaks the illusion of the fourth wall in order to communicate directly with the audience, usually in such an enigmatic way that he seems to be satirising the whole of communication”. In a key scene in A Bout de Souffle Michel, one of the lead protagonists, is filmed having a conversation with himself whilst driving. Traditionally this type of scene would be shot using a fly on the wall technique, Godard instead, by making Michel talk directly at the camera, creates the impression that Michel is directing his words at the audience.
Manipulating the camera lens to involve the audience was just one of the techniques that Godard employed. In the opening scene in Vivre sa Vie he utilises a very different technique - alienation. Rather than filming this scene in the traditional head-on format Godard places the camera lens behind the lead characters heads. In doing so the audience feels alienated from the conversation between the characters Nana and Raoul especially as their reflection in the mirror distances themselves even more from the audience.
In addition, Godard never films the two characters in the same shot which not only highlights the divide between the characters but also the audience from the characters conversation. As Godard himself suggests “I also converge with the theatre through language: in my film one must listen to people speaking, particularly as their backs are often turned so that one is not distracted by their faces”. By shooting this scene from behind Godard does just that. He forces the audience to interpret the scene through what they hear and not what they see. By exploiting these techniques Godard is undoubtedly heavily exerting his influence on these films as an auteur.
Godard’s use of the camera to exert a primary influence on his work often manifests itself in less obvious ways. He frequently extends the length of a single shot or slows down his camera movements to provide the viewer with adequate time to concentrate on a specific image. In Le Mépris Godard is forced to do a slow panning shot in one of the final scenes of the film when Odysseus returns home to Ithica.
Godard’s use of colour is so bold in this scene that if he quickly panned across the scene it would not give his viewers adequate time to concentrate on the composition of the colours. The scene is filmed in such a way that it adds to its artistic content. In much the same way as a writer’s style of writing changes or a painters brush strokes alter throughout their career, Godard’s style evolves throughout his films. He employs different techniques in each film but the one constant is his shaping influence on each of his works.
In conventional cinema, colour was generally used in order to increase the commerciality of films. When it was occasionally used, it enhanced the mood in separate scenes. Godard employed a far more ambitious use of colour in his work. In his first two colour films Une femme est une femme and Le Mépris he predominantly used primary colours due to his interest in “modern art: straight color, ‘pop’ art”. Godard used bold primary colours to indicate the characterisation and narrative development in his films but in such a way that it did not act upon the viewer in a directly sensual way.
In Godard’s first colour film Une femme est une femme, Angela is intent on having a child with her husband Emile. Emile however, is not so keen on the idea and appears rather blasé about the subject; he predominantly wears blue in the film which symbolises his rather laid back nature. After being repeatedly refused by Emile on the topic of having a baby, Angela goes to Emile’s friend Albert to have an affair in the hope to conceive. Albert despite being happy to oblige feels no real affection for Angela and this is shown as he mainly wears grey symbolising his disinterest in her.
In Godard’s second colour film Le Mépris, he continues the pattern of using colour to represent characters personalities but tends to also use colour to depict how characters emotions towards each other evolve throughout the movie. In the opening scene, Camille is lying in bed with Paul asking him if he loves different parts of her body. In this scene, Godard uses colour filters which are seen as a representative of what is going to happen in the film. If one considers that red symbolises love, white incertitude and blue coldness then it maps out what happens in the film, love to ambivalence to contempt.
Furthermore, Godard manipulates colour to mirror personalities. Paul the scriptwriter in the film is seen in a grey suit with blue specks highlighting his passive personality. Jerry the ambitious American film producer is mostly seen in a blue suit, red tie and driving a red sports car which in turn suggests his dominant personality and his lust for Camille. In addition, Camille is shown in several coloured dresses throughout the film so as to emphasize her continual change of emotions. Finally Francesca, Jerry’s secretary wears a red jumper in the scene when she seduces Paul which again emphasizes Godard’s attempt to symbolise emotional currents in the film.
It is important to note that several critics have suggested that Godard’s use of primary colours can also be seen as a referent to American musicals, a genre which fascinated Godard. This referent is most evidently seen in the opening credits of Une femme est une femme when bold colourful words flash up on the screen like neon lights, reflecting the lavishness of the American musical. Furthermore, other critics suggest that the primary colours are a referent to either the French flag or American flag. The extensive analysis of these critics suggests that they themselves acknowledge Godard as playing a decisive role in the production of his films.
One of Godard's most revolutionary impacts on French cinema was his use of editing. Prior to the Nouvelle Vague, directors were focused on attempting to reduce the awareness of the film making process for the audience; enhancing what directors felt was reality. They would therefore use techniques such as "continuity editing" which prevented the audience from being aware of any cuts in between scenes, enabling them to be swept up in the film.
Godard however, had a strong belief about the basics of cinema in which "mise en scéne (the content of individual shots) is continually inflected, articulated and transformed by montage (the editing that drives a film from one shot to another". With this strong belief Godard began to edit using techniques such as the jump-cut. The jump-cut was employed by Godard in his first motion picture A bout de Souffle. Due to a need to reduce the length of the film, Godard "systematically cut out whatever could be cut, while trying to maintain some rhythm”.
An example of his use of jump-cuts was in the scene when Michel, the criminal, is recognised by a police officer and therefore Michel decides to shoot him. In this scene Godard zooms in on the barrel of the gun which is about to be fired by Michel. Suddenly, when Michel fires the gun there is a jump-cut and the next image is the police officer falling to the ground having been hit. Another notable example of his use of jump cut came later in the film when Patricia is riding in a stolen convertible with Michel.
In this scene there are up to seven jump-cuts of Patricia's head, creating discontinuity in the scene in a very clear ‘Godard style’. Whilst many critics at the time found his use of jump-cut confusing and disruptive to the flow of the film; many others recognized his “jagged unruly montage heightened the jagged, unruly mood of a story propelled more by the whims of his characters than the dictates of a predetermined story," which is something evident in his film A bout de Souffle. As has been demonstrated it is clear that Godard exerted considerable influence over the editing process.
It is clear that Godard’s films are characterised by a set of stylistic methods. Principally amongst these methods is his use of sound. Prior to the Nouvelle Vague, sound was employed in film to replicate audibly the visual emotion of a scene in order to captivate the audience and make a scene appear more ‘realistic’. Martin Heidegger highlights this tradition by suggesting that viewers have become accustomed to sound’s “elegant effects” and thus treats them as real.
Godard however, firmly believed that in ‘faking’ sound to captivate the audience, one is taking away the realism that he wanted to convey in his films. A point agreed by Richard Roud who suggested that “even in the most so-called realist film, sound has always been an exception”. It was therefore Godard’s intention to restore sound so that it would captivate ‘real life’ by refusing to edit or remix any previously recorded track, which he defined as sonic realism. One of Godard’s most notable examples of this was seen in A Bout de Souffle.
Due to the sound being naturally recorded there are several scenes in the film when some of the character’s conversations are muffled by natural noises. The use of natural sound reaches a peak during the scene in Patricia’s apartment when the noise of the sirens bellowing in through the open window actually drowns out the character’s dialogue. Rather than being a distraction that takes the viewer out of the moment, the use of natural sound here, and throughout the film, only heighten the realism.
After all, in life, it would be unrealistic to sit in a room with an open window in the centre of Paris and not hear any intrusive sounds. Jean Collet praises Godard’s creation of realism through sound stating “[Godard applies] to sound the same demands as for the pictures. [He captures] life in what it offers to be seen-and to be heard-directly.”
Godard’s artistic use of sound did change in his career with the development of post-synchronised sound. Prior to the Nouvelle Vague, direct sound was used in films such as A Bout de Souffle. However, with the development of post-synchronised sound Godard was able to talk to the actors whilst filming so as to direct them and after synchronise the sound with the film footage. This also enabled him to implement his artistic Brechtian style of filmmaking in which he alienated his audience.
In the opening scene in Vivre sa Vie, Godard uses the soundtrack in ten to twenty second bursts. The scene shows shots of Anna Karina’s face at different angles. In conventional cinema, music would generally play consistently throughout this scene to highlight the emotional state. Godard however, plays it in bursts creating discontinuity in the scene as the soundtrack stops at random intervals.
As has been demonstrated, Goddard employs a wealth of techniques in his films to manipulate sound. In playing such a pivotal role, he firmly entrenches himself as the key player in his work. Rarely before had cinema seen someone wield such a crucial influence over all aspects of the film making process.
It is undeniable that Godard has produced some of the most inspiring and innovative films through his use of story line and cinematic techniques. His exploitation of light, colour, and sound, editing and alienating the audience showed Godard had revolutionised traditional French cinema and in doing so has inspired modern day film directors such as Quentin Tarrantino.
However, in using Keller’s summary that an auteur is simply the primary and shaping force of his films it is unquestionably oversimplifying the realities of the film making process. As Godard changed so much in his films compared to traditional cinema it is not possible for him to be praised for every aspect of his films creation. Godard said in an interview in 1983:
“I find it useless to keep offering the public the ‘auteur’. In Venice, when I got the prize of the Golden Lion I said that I deserve only probably the mane of this lion, and maybe the tail. Everything in the middle should go to all the others who work on the picture: the paws to the director of photography, theface to the editor, the body to the actors. I don’t believe in the solitude of…the auteur with a capital A”.
Furthermore, Godard admitted that him and the likes of Truffaut, Rohmer and Rivette whilst taking the plaudits for the auteur theory, exaggerated the significance of the theory so as to establish personal expression as one of the primary values in Nouvelle Vague films.
Several theorists have also raised doubts as to the significance of the auteur. Foulcault and Roland Barthes suggest that all creative ideas are moulded by the social and political forces that surround us. They go on to state that ideas are contrived from the knowledge that one has gained from past experiences. If one puts this in the context of Godard’s films it would suggest that Godard’s cinematic ideas and techniques were influenced by what he has learnt from past experiences.
An example of this can be seen in his indirect use of Brechtian distanciation. Whilst it is evident that he was inspired by Brecht’s idea of alienating the audience to prevent them from being passive observers can one really claim that Godards cinematic techniques were not the result of Brecht’s indirect influence? Furthermore, when analysing many of Godard’s films, Godard refers to several quotes from the likes of William Faulkner and Edgar Poe. These are quotes which could have been easily edited but instead Godard “taste for quotation” suggests that he is not the primary and shaping force in his films.
One of Godard’s obsessions as a director was his use of language and his belief that words could represent anything. Whether his characters are just mouthing words or when they say one thing and then immediately contradict it, it exhibits his desire to become a writer through his films. In doing this he is challenging the use of words and at the same time expressing his desire to be an author, similar to that of being a novelist or playwright.
He wants to aspire to the status of being a writer as though cinema is some sort of parvenu that can find legitimacy by talking about poetry of cinema and therefore elevating it to that status. Godard therefore investigated how meaningful words can express the way you feel, through his use of subtitles, language through signs and translation. Vivre sa Vie is a good example of this as the characters speak different languages and therefore need an intermediary, Francesca to put their views across.
Furthermore, in one of the final scenes of Le Mepris Camille and Jerry, despite not speaking the same language use signs to express their thoughts. Camille states that she likes to type by gesturing her fingers typing on an imaginary typewriter and Jerry who gestures his reaction to this with his hands stating that she is crazy.
One could also suggest that Godard is expressing his own views through the use of language. In certain scenes of Vivre sa Vie it almost appears as if Godard is either articulating his opinions through voiceovers or, uses the characters as mouth pieces of his thoughts. When Nana speaks to the philosopher she says “that we are all responsible for our actions, we are free, I am responsible (which she repeats five times)…you only have to take an interest in things, things are what they are, life is life.”
Furthermore, in the scene when Raoul reads an extract of Edward Poe’s book…which is in fact Godard doing a voiceover. This Godard style is also a very good alienating technique, as whether he is speaking implicitly or explicitly he is constantly reminding the viewer that he is making a film of which he is the director. So you are therefore never able to simply surrender to the naturalistic credibility of the language in films which was the case in conventional cinema. Rather he is deliberately making the viewer aware of the film making process.
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