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The auteur Theory and Jean Luc Goddard’s work
The word “auteur” simply means author; however the auteur theory as devised by Andrew Sarris indicates a manner of reading and appraisal of films by examining the imprint of the author of the work, generally the director. Sarris uses this theory to rank the work of directors on the basis of three separate criteria: (a) technical competence (b) stylistic identity and (c) the communicability of their worldview, and on this basis, Sarris examines the work of directors and estimates their worth.(Wells and Hakanen, 1997:313). Keller points out that the auteur theory or la politique des auteurs may be summarized as the “acknowledgement of the director as the primary and shaping force behind any film.” (Keller 1930).
The term, politque des auteurs was coined by Francois Truffaut, who realized that American Directors often worked within strictly circumscribed parameters in reference to the kinds of films and the scripts they could direct, since these were often predetermined and allowed the directors little room to experiment with their own ideas. Yet, despite these restrictions, some directors such as Hitchcock were able to achieve a personal style that was uniquely their own.
The role of the director is to coordinate all the elements of production and its various stages, which ultimately affects the quality of the final product. The notion of the Director being the true author of a film first emerged through the views of Andrew Sarris, who offered the view that over the course of preparation of several films, a director may reveal certain recurring characteristics of styles or themes, which are like his or her personal signature or stamp upon the film, identifying it unmistakably as their product.
In particular, where some directors are concerned, some recurring themes may occur in all their works, or their work may demonstrate a particular world view or personal vision that becomes evident through their work. The auteur theory is especially relevant and important, as demonstrated through the work of Directors such as Jean Luc Goddard, because they bear the unmistakable personal imprint of the author, despite the plethora of external market and commodity pressures that may fashion the final products.
The objective of this study is to examine the works of French Director Jean Luc Goddard from the perspective of the auteur theory, in order to discern the unique thread that underlies this director’s work. Through an examination of four films, Une femme est une femme, Vivre Sa Vie, Le Mepris and a bout de soufflé, the unique elements in Godard’s films which set him apart from other directors are identified.
According to MacCabe (2003), Godard is one of the most important European artists of the last 50 years and the most important French poet of the twentieth century, because of the intensity of this extraordinary man’s commitment to cinema. Godard’s films demonstrate innovation and evolution, presenting cinematic techniques that have evolved through several different aesthetic forms. As Keller (1930) points out, Godard’s films have passed through various stages that have deviated from traditional Hollywood reference points and demonstrating several different forms of experimentation that reflect his own view of life and the events that transpire within it.
For example, Godard’s choice of black and white, his unabashed transmission of blatantly political views in his films and his use of a film making style that incorporates several different elements such as “narrative cadenzas, historical scrutiny, visual poetry, literary citation”, yet overall containing these within a dominant frame of contemplation. Keller (1930) also corroborates the views of MacCabe (2003) that Godard made films of great beauty and complexity, which only evolved over time into greater and more complex works of art with the passage of time.
Cinematic technique in Godard’s films
Godard’s films in effect are a systematic reflection on the notion of reflexivity in cinema. A work of art such as a film can demonstrate a distance from reality; it can be one in which the work appears to turn back and speak about itself. It heightens the sense in the viewer that what is being viewed is not reality itself, but that there is a reality that exists beyond what is playing out on the screen.
In most of his films, Godard is able to establish a clear distinction between the action and engagement as portrayed through the events of the film as opposed to inaction or disengagement from the film, which allows the process of meditating about the events (Keller 1930). The reflexivity inherent in Godard’s work is one of the recurring characteristics that surfaces again and again in his films. He repeatedly uses alternative frames of reference to present the narration in his films.
The film Vivre Sa Vie is about a woman Anna who was much loved, yet Godard creates a cinematic portrait of this woman through means other than the direct visual image; he relies upon the subjective experience that a viewer will gain about the character that is the subject of the film. He uses interviews, chapter headings, letter writing, philosophical conversations as well as reading aloud from several texts, all of which form the subtext from which the viewer derives a mental picture of the woman the film is about. Godard pieces together all these various disparate fragments together like a collage in order to derive an image of unity, a mental picture that will be different in each viewer’s mind depending upon their individual perceptions.
For example, at the beginning of the film, as the credits play out, the profile of the character Nana appears on the screen; yet the audience is not allowed to see this woman clearly because her face is in profile and she appears in a half hit, shadowed shot which renders facial clarity difficult. A quote from Montague offers a referential context, suggesting the rich subtext that is to play out during the film. The character is shot from behind, and the camera pans for a quick moment to snatch a furtive glimpse of her in the mirror; yet this glimpse is almost like an intrusion and the camera moves away quickly as if it has engaged in the forbidden act of stealing her image.
This technique recurs throughout the film; the experience of the viewer of the character of Nana is through the referential frame of others, never by viewing the character directly. The films assumes the air of an almost-documentary; the discourse creates the subjective impression of the character which the audience will gather based upon the brief glimpses and information it receives about her; information that is presented like a record of events in a documentary.
The referential frame is evident as her emotional reaction to Carl Dreyer’s La passion de Jeanne d’Arc and her identification with the protagonist is discussed, Godard appears to be injecting historical realities side by side with the narration about Nana to further accentuate the impression of a documentary and thus reality. The end of the film shows Nana standing with her head and shoulders against a wall, framed against a photograph, while her husband reads out aloud a poem by Poe titled “ The Oval Portrait”, which is the story of a man’s obsession with his wife. The entire story progresses as a painting of Nana is in process, until at the end of the film, the painter draws back and the subject of his painting – Nana – is dead.
In this way, Godard not only highlights the dangers of an obsessive love; he challenges the audience to think about the female protagonist in a manner that is different from the normal filmic view. He distances the protagonist from the viewer and allows a more subjective experience to be gained, which will be different in the case of each viewer. The apparent reality of the character as presented by her husband is further challenged at the end of the film as the audience notes in shock that she is dead.
The filmic technique of reflexivity may also be noted in Godard’s film Le Mepris, in which the director sought to present the appearance of a film-within-a-film. For instance, Godard deviates from the standard depiction of credits on the screen, rather the credits are spoken and Godard himself appears later in two scenes of the film dealing with the Odyssey. Was it Godard himself who spoke the credits since the voices are so similar? (Marie 1990:82).
The viewer never knows, however it serves to establish a link in the viewer’s mind between one section of the film dealing with the Odyssey films and the other which deals with the non-Odyssey aspects.(Leutrat 1989:71). The cinematic technique of a film occurring within a film is heightened by a scene where Godard’s cameraman is seen helming another camera that is moving towards the camera which is doing the actual filming. The impression thus created in the viewer’s mind is one of a simultaneous presence by Godard and his cameraman both on screen and off screen.
The referential function is also evident in the film a bout de soufflé. There is a series of filmic action and events that occur, yet at the same time, there is also a parallel set of events depicted that speak about the film and appear to offer an outside view that is distinct from the events taking place within the film. For example, in one of the shots, the character Belmondo in the film passes by a movie poster, which reads” to live dangerously” which is in reference to Aidrich’s W Seconds to Hell (Andrew 1987:148). A few scenes later, the filmic action occurs against the background of another film poster; this time one of Humphrey Bogart in the film “The Harder they fall”. There is a suggestion that the character is moving in dangerous terrain and the posters in the background serve in the nature of a comment occurring off screen, disconnected from the events of the film and yet offering an observation on it.
There are more such references from films and theatre that occur in the film; for example as the film moves into its concluding segment, the character of J.P. Melville in the film makes an oral reference to Cocteau’s testament d’Orphee. Subsequently, the character of Jean Seberg runs away from a detective inside a theater that is playing Preminger’s Whirlpool; she is able to successfully escape the detective. After this, she runs with Belmondo into yet another theatre and in this instance, it is Boetticher’s Westbound .
The association of movie action with posters and scenes from films and theatre which symbolize certain kinds of events results in a degree of unreality being accorded to the final moments of Godard’s film itself. For example, when the death of a character occurs at the end of the film, the audience tends to view it through the referential frame of the movies and posters that have been viewed, so that it is not tragedy, pity and fear that is inspired in the viewer but rather a feeling of filmic inevitability, as if the character has been absorbed into the referential frame of filmic reality and immortality rather than the tragic reality that is playing out on screen.
Godard successfully employs this technique of standing back from the film itself and offering a narration, observation or comment on the film that is outside the main frame of reference of the film. This is one of the recurring characteristics in all his films and is line with the Brechtian theory of alienation. Brecht’s assumptions were that we as human beings, are isolated from the world around us through the manner of language we use for instance, which is not in line with our actual experiences of the world but in effect, proceeds along a different path, objectifying the world rather than allowing it to develop out of our subjective experiences. This tends to isolate us in an area where our objective knowledge and manner of expression in an objective world is in sharp contrast to the subjective experiences we may gain.
Brecht characterizes this as follows: “Alienation is nothing but a representation, that is ‘making noticeable’’ of estrangement. (Ludwig 1972:20). Brecht suggests that the only way by which humans can disassociate themselves from this process of alienation is to withdraw and separate ourselves from this alienated experience in order to discover a more subjective way and unspoilt way to experience things and reflect upon them.
Godard is able to accomplish this feat of withdrawal from the so called reality of the film and the objective use of language in order to stand back and assess experiences in a more subjective manner, relying more upon the true response of the senses to the product rather than the kind of response that man has been conditioned to give based upon his subjective training in the world.
Godard’s career is characterized by the exploration of realism and film style. “For Godard, there is not reality and then the camera – there is reality seized at this moment and in this way by the camera” (MacCabe, 2003:79). In discussing his interest in the depiction of reality as it actually is experienced, rather than a fictional image conjured up for a viewer, Godard himself explains that he enjoys visiting a theme, place or subject after others have lost interest in it and the drama associated with it has faded, in order to capture the reality of the event as it exists (Bonnaud, 2005). He points out how images on television are manipulated, thereby contradicting the notion that the facts speak for themselves as depicted on the camera.
One example he cites is the depiction by television cameras of the exterior or the Credit Lyonnais bank while providing a voice over narration of the scandals that had brewed within those walls. According to Godard, such images are meaningless because they portray nothing of the reality of events at all (Bonnard, 2005). In most of his films, the locations in Godard’s films are driveways, hotel rooms and large stretches of barren fields, which provides an effective and realistic backdrop that reflects the grim realities of his characters’ lives, providing them the space to meditate and contemplate on their transient mortality (Dixon, 1998). His films are interwoven with references to classical literature, as in Odyssey in Le Mepris and La Passion de Jeanne du Arc, the works of Edgar Allen Poe and Montague, yet all these provide the viewer the opportunity to reflect upon the deeper philosophical truths that underlie an apparent cinematic reality.
In using such techniques, Godard appears to be questioning the reality presented by the camera. On the one hand, the events in Vivre sa Vie present the subjective portrait of a woman much loved; yet this love also kills her in the end. Godard substantiates Brecht’s assertion that humans are saddled with an outward reality that does not correspond to their subjective experiences and makes the viewer question whether the camera is really depicting the truth? The reflexivity inherent in Godard’s technique forces and presents a constant process of meditation and reflection, not only in the characters in the films but also in the viewer. Godard’s films thus appears to reflect his persistent quest for and his insatiable curiosity about reality, is it really as it seems or is there a deeper dimension that underlies what is visible on the surface?
Godard’s films thus bear the unique stamp of his own way of looking at life, the manner in which he questions the reality of what is visible, his unwillingness to accept things as reality merely because others say it is so. Godard is of the view that the digital medium offers less depth precisely because it does not permit the kind of juxtaposition of reality and reflexivity which is possible with the film medium (Bonnard, 2005).
The use of sound in Godard’s films
Godard demonstrates a great sensitivity to music and the impact of sounds in creating a cinematic experience, as depicted especially in his film “Nouvelle”, where he used music composed by Manfred Eicher (www.ecmrecords.com). In conveying his impressions about Godard’s film Vivre Sa Vie released in 1962, Eicher states that the film reveals the director’s extraordinary levels of sensitivity to image, sound and rhythm, so that it is capable of moving the viewer on a different level when the his/her eyes are closed. (www.ecmrecords.com).
A blind woman, Claire Bartoli writes about an internal cinema fuelled by the soundtrack of the film, that she must concentrate on to experience the film because she cannot see the images that go along with them. In an essay about his film Nouvelle Vague, she writes: "Godard, with large cuts of the scissors, divides the material into fragments, producing sound miniatures, as pure elements ..." (www.ecmrecords.com). She describes how Godard is able to isolate individual sounds such as the ringing of a bell or the sound of waves and rediscovers them within the context of the story that is taking place, so that it is the sound itself that fuels the emotional experience which characterizes the reaction of the viewer.
In his film Une femme est une femme, Godard utilizes a mixture of sounds in eclectic combinations to produce an impression that is deliberately discordant when viewed in conjunction with the reality. For example, around the middle of the film, the protagonist Angela sits in a café with her boyfriend and asks him to first say something false and then say something true. Then she points out in distress that his expression ha snot changed at all irrespective of whether it was the truth or a lie that he was telling.
The film in turn appears to present serious things lightly and light things seriously, deliberately deviating from reality. The story itself is about Angels wanting to have a baby which her boyfriend Emile is not prepared for, she threatens to have it with his best friend Alfred instead, he tries to call her bluff and she actually goes ahead with it only to realize that she has gone too far and has turned a serious matter into a frivolous issue.
The element of frivolity and unreality is enhanced and embellished by the sound used by Godard in the film. The entire film resonates with musical bells and whistles, there are sound effects that are over-the-top, music suddenly swells in an exaggerated and ridiculous fashion and interspersed within these are literary references. The use of sound in the film is eclectic and it almost appears as if the director is having childish fun, in producing sound effects that must change swiftly, as if they must hold a child’s attention. This yet again, corroborates the reflexivity the director seeks to imprint on his viewers.
This may be noted particularly in a scene at the beginning of the film for example, where there is some cool. Pop music playing in the background as the protagonist walks into a café. The viewer makes an automatic association of the image with the character of the protagonist as hip and cool. Then as she leaves the shop, the music suddenly stops and devoid of the sensory backdrop, the viewer is forced to revise his/her original impression of the cool young woman and sees her as just another ordinary woman walking out of a store.
But a moment later, the music starts again, as if, now satisfied that the viewer has been forced out of his/her sensory haze, the director seeks to push the viewer back into the unreality of what is playing out on camera. Godard effectively uses sound as a vehicle to force the viewer to refrain from responding to the film with stock emotions; rather he must view the film from a perspective that is different and unique.
According to Dixon (1998) Godard’s sound techniques employed in his films, whereby he layered his sound tracks with an eclectic mixture of natural sounds and classical music, with dialogues and voiceovers, which is a reflection of his vision as a film maker. Godard’s reflexivity is also evident in the soundtrack of Le Mepris, where the ancient Odyssey scenes are shot in a different kind of lighting and color and utilize different theme music, yet they are similar enough to evoke a connection between the two, which suggests that the two are linked – is the ancient day Odyssey story occurring within the context of the modern day? The musical themes of the two parallel stories are “Camille” and “The Gods”, yet the similarities in the music themes suggest similar emotional undertones in both stories.
For example, the opening chord in the film is a tritone in Bb-e, which is somber and dark suggesting something ominous that could be associated with the devil. The music in itself suggests that the tone of the film will be such that there may be a tragic outcome. This impression is paralleled in the theme music of the parallel visualization, characterized mostly by the use of strings and harps in a minor chord, which in classical music is traditionally associated with seriousness, sadness and ultimate tragedy. The nature and composition of the music in le Mepris thus highlights the allusion of the modern day playing out of the Greek classical tragedies of ancient times.
Godard describes how he visualized the scenes in the film dealing with Odyssey in Le Mepris as being lit in a manner that was much different from the main film, in order to give the impression of a film occurring within another film. Those particular scenes were to be photographed such that “the colours will be more brilliant, more violent, more vivid, more contrasted also in their organization.” (Godard 1985:146). This is in sharp contrast to the documentary style used in Vivre Sa Vie for instance where voice-overs and the spoken, poetic narrations provide only the backdrop to the tantalizing glimpses of the character of Nana that keep appearing throughout the film.
Godard was undoubtedly a Director whose films displayed his own unique stamp, and his striving to depict the emotional nuances of his characters through the utilization of the tools of sound, color and stylistic technique to convey a message in sub text that moved far beyond the actual events occurring in the films. The innate curiosity of the director about reality itself, his constant questioning of what is real and what lies beyond the reality that is apparent visually can be gleaned in his films. His attempts to convey a mood and aura are not incorporated directly into the main narrative but rather must be gleaned by the viewer through the subtle signs that exist in the sub text of the film.
Rather than making certain visual and audible elements glaringly apparent for the viewer by using close up shots for example, Godard leaves it to the viewer to subtly discern these messages, to think about the film long after seeing it in order to grasp the significance of the elements that have been presented in the film. Through this process, Godard forces the viewer to confront a hidden reality that may exist beyond that apparent on the surface.
The Brechtian alienation suggests that viewers need to revise their way of thinking and seeing things such they rely more on their own subjective experiences. This ability to instill reflexivity in the film viewing experience and force a viewer to question the reality of what he/she sees is a particular characteristic of Director Godard. His use of literature and poetry as well as filmic and theatrical allusions is targeted at promoting a reflexive experience in his viewers. His characters reflect upon life within a contextual dimension that is as rich with visual, audio and spatial clues as the cinematic material which is outwardly apparent, to present the viewer with a viewing experience that extends far beyond the visual images. The complexity and beauty of his films is enhanced by the willingness of the director to experiment with avant garde techniques and use unconventional means to convey his cinematic messages.
The director uses quitotix and unusual methods to elicit this reflexivity, especially in the film Une femme est une femme for example, where the protagonist is frying an egg, the phone rings, she flips the egg high in the air, dashes to take the phone and returns just in time to catch the egg and flip it back into the pan, thereby underlying the unreality of the images being viewed. The Director’s films stimulate thought and force a viewer to interact actively with the medium, to question what is seen and what remains unseen but can be discerned below the surface through careful observation. This is why the supporting elements in Godard’s films are so important the sound, the color, the music, the visual techniques, the editing, all enhance the messages being conveyed sub textually.
The auteur theory requires that an author’s work demonstrate an unmistakable stamp that identifies it and sets it apart. The alienation and distancing from the cinematic view, the reflexivity inherent in a Godard film viewing experience is one that is not found in a comparable manner in the work of other directors. The auteur theory is therefore relevant where Godard is concerned, because in effect, a director must exhibit certain recurring characteristics throughout his films, which are like his signature on the films. This is what Godard accomplished through the unique and experimental combination of light, sound , editing and style in every film, which promotes reflexivity and presents a multi faceted reality.
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- Bonnaud, Frederic, 2005. “Occupational Hazards”, Film Comment, 41(1): 37-40.
- Dixon, Wheeler Winston, 1998. “For ever Godard: Notes on Godard’s For Ever Mozart”, Literature/Film Quarterly, 26(2): 82-88
- ECM: Background Information”, Retrieved December 13, 2007 from: http://www.ecmrecords.com/Background/Background_1600.php
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- Keller, Craig, 1930. “Jean-Luc Goddard”, Retrieved December 12, 2007 from: http://www.sensesofcinema.com/contents/directors/03/godard.html
- MacCabe, Colin, 2003. “A portrait of the artist at Seventy”, Farrar, Strauss and Giroux
- Marie, Michael, 1990. “Le Mepris: jean Luc Godard:, Paris: Edition Nathan
- Wells, Alan and Hakanen, Ernest A, 1997. “Mass Media and society”, Ablex/Greenwood.