October 2008

Arts & Letters

Contempt

By Adrian Martin
Richard Brody’s ‘Everything Is Cinema’

In 2003, the veteran independent director Nigel Buesst made a documentary, Carlton + Godard = Cinema, about a small band of film-makers clustered around the Melbourne University Film Society from 1965 to 1975. Enterprising figures had scraped together enough money and resources to make a bunch of short films; their inspiration came primarily from the French New Wave, which had surged since 1960, and especially from the work of Jean-Luc Godard (Breathless, Contempt, Alphaville). Buesst's memoir shows how this buzz of activity intersected with trends in theatre, how it laid the ground for some striking feature films in the '70s (Bert Deling's Pure Shit), and how it clashed with institutions of the time - in particular, the Melbourne Film Festival, which had sometimes studiously ignored Godard's ever-changing work.

For Australians, this is a fascinating, long-buried piece of cultural history - one of those stories that shows local artists engaging with trends from abroad, rather than gazing inwards at their nationalistic navels. But you will not read about it in Richard Brody's enormous biography of Godard, Everything Is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard (Faber, 701pp; $69.95). Nor will you find much about Godard's influence on independent film-making and cinema theory in Italy, Russia, Germany, Spain, the UK, Taiwan ...

Brody is a film critic for the New Yorker, and Everything is Cinema is definitely a New Yorker's view of Godard. The book springs from a peculiarly American projection of French culture: the France of Sartre and Bernard-Henri Lévy, Brigitte Bardot, May '68, Truffaut, the Resistance. It is also at pains to document Godard's impact on the US, particularly on those revered critics Andrew Sarris and Pauline Kael. This dual focus leads to many distortions. Godard is no longer someone who interacted with such film-makers as Poland's Jerzy Skolimowski, Italy's Bertolucci, Germany's Fassbinder or Georgia's Sergei Paradjanov. In Brody's account, Godard is mainly on planes between France and the US - at least until he relocates to Switzerland. But the Switzerland of this book is just a picture postcard of lakes and restaurants; not the living, breathing, troubling society that Godard depicts in his films.

This is the second Godard biography to appear in English, after Colin MacCabe's rather staid Godard: A Portrait of the Artist at 70 (2003). It is, in some respects, an improvement: nearly everything Godard - or JLG, as he calls himself - has made since the '50s is documented, and his rocky personal life is more or less detailed. The book's most praiseworthy aspect is undoubtedly its evaluation of Godard's later contribution to the Seventh Art. Flying in the face of so many superficial accounts that cruelly cut off Godard's career at 1967 (the spectacular auto-da-fé of Weekend), Brody seeks to enshrine works such as 1987's King Lear (a true film maudit, starring Norman Mailer and Molly Ringwald!) and the extraordinary Histoire(s) du cinéma series, made between 1988 and 1998 (a collage of treated clips best savoured on DVD).

The problem lies elsewhere. It is commonplace these days to assert that biography is fiction, but Brody's effort comes off as more fictional than most. The book has a frightful coherence: as if, early on, Brody decided on his neat interpretation of Godard, and then set about researching only that which would prove it. He has interviewed a significant number of Godard's associates - many more than MacCabe did, but still only a fraction of the hundreds involved in the director's prolific career. A different ledger of interviewees might have produced quite a different portrait. For Brody, alas, has an axe to grind. Like John Fuegi in his seething The Life and Lies of Bertolt Brecht, Brody has at some point switched from adoring fan to investigative reporter, and moral judge. His book tries to nail Godard, sensationally, on two counts.

The first is anti-Semitism. The evidence for this is, in my view, particular only to one period in Godard's life, and the book's wholesale expansion of it into a magic biographical ‘key' is highly dubious. No public statement by Godard, and nothing explicit in any of his films, incontrovertibly backs up Brody's claim. What do exist are several accounts of racial slurs made by Godard: in his Correspondence 1945-1984, Truffaut recalls that in 1973 Godard called the producer Pierre Braunberger a "dirty Jew" when a deal between them fell through; and Jean-Pierre Gorin, Godard's collaborator during his Maoist period of 1968-72, has said that when he asked for money due him from their production company, Godard replied, "Ah, it's always the same thing, the Jews come calling when they hear the cash register" - prompting a rift between the two that lasted several years.

Those are dreadful, damning details. But when Brody reaches for a handy quote from Lévy - who has had relatively little direct contact with Godard - that the film-maker is "an anti-Semite who is trying to be cured" and prone to the periodic "seizure of anti-Semitism", reportage begins to resemble pop psychoanalysis. Brody proceeds to weave a lifelong web that ranges from the alleged Vichy sympathies of Godard's family members to references and allusions in his recent productions, such as In Praise of Love (2001). In his work of the latter half of the '80s, though, Godard meditated deeply on matters arising from the Holocaust, and he is no revisionist historian. His empathy with murdered Jews is palpable; he has mined the writings of Jewish poets, mystics and theorists, including Walter Benjamin and Hermann Broch. At the same time, Godard has criticised Israeli politics and expressed sympathy for the Palestinian cause, in films ranging from Here and Elsewhere (1976) to Notre musique (2004).

Brody tracks a set of references - sometimes vague, allusive or contestable - to the flagrantly anti-Semitic collaborator Robert Brasillach in Godard's life and work. The Godard family, it is asserted, mourned Brasillach's execution in 1946; the phrase "our pre-war" in Godard's JLG/JLG (1995) echoes a 1939 memoir by the writer; and the ‘testament' letter Brasillach wrote in prison shortly before his execution is, in part, recited in In Praise of Love. Brody is mangling a lot here, conjuring guilt-by-association, and he displays little comprehension of Godard's ‘dialectical' collage method of employing deliberately contradictory texts from across the political spectrum (as Godard once said, "I just quote them, I don't own them").

Brody's second charge is more bizarre. Godard has never been shy about admitting that he has fallen for many of the women who appear in his films (in addition to the several he married), nor that these relationships have sometimes been pretty one-sided. Brody hunts down a number of these women, including Bérangère Allaux, whose persistent rejection of Godard leaves him, at a histrionic high point in the book, "wandering desperately through the streets" in search of her. This is hardly a new situation: a director's passion (reciprocated or otherwise) for a much younger, newly discovered star. But Brody is sniffing for something nastier, more perverse. And he finds it - to his satisfaction, at any rate - in the story of Camille Virolleaud, who was nine when Godard cast her in the experimental TV series France / tour / détour / deux / enfants (1977). Virolleaud believes she was bullied and mistreated by Godard during the filming (she retrospectively describes its effect on her as "hyperviolent"); and when she saw the series on TV, she disliked the manner in which Godard showed her naked - although this was a fully professional, consensual production, endorsed and encouraged by Virolleaud's mother.

Everything Is Cinema insinuates that, from the mid '70s, Godard was increasingly consumed by perverse desires for young (even pre-pubescent) women, and that his behaviour toward them tended to the abusive. Again, there is scant evidence for this claim, and Brody casts every which way for clues, engaging in crazy misreadings of the films. No feminist analysis of cinema has ever been as fanatically politically correct as Brody is here: he takes almost every scene in Godard's films that depicts men sexually exploiting women - and there are plenty, from 1962's Vivre sa vie (la vie) on - as proof not only of Godard's darkest private intent, but also that the women before the camera were being "degraded", rather than simulating degradation. Yet the vast majority of women featured in Godard's films have made no such complaint: Isabelle Huppert, for instance, who played some of the most apparently degrading situations in Sauve qui peut (1980) and Passion (1982), tells Brody that she found acting for Godard "artistically gratifying".

On matters of sexuality beyond hetero-monogamy, the book is almost comically prudish: Brody rages from on high against the libertarian sexual politics of French intellectuals in the '70s and the supposed destruction of humanist values such carry-on entailed. He even wonders whether the "shock effect" of Godard's project on the young Virolleaud is "emblematic of what was left of 1968". This is one area where Brody's forced Sartre-Godard parallel might have helped him, especially when he reaches the later period of Godard's life and his fluid, long-term union with the film-maker Anne-Marie Miéville, for Sartre's personal life likewise demands a less moralistic biographer.

Brody bites off more than he can chew by attempting a critical biography, an evaluation of the films in lock-step with the life story. An early piece of Godard's film criticism is interpreted as staking out the future director's commitment to "a traditional nineteenth-century novelistic and naturalistic approach to character" - making it tough to grasp how he quickly became cinema's arch modernist. More damagingly, Brody sees the interpenetration of art and life in Godard's career as the sole way to understand and grade the work: if the film is a cryptic love (or hate) letter to a leading lady, it's great; if it's about something as unromantic as global politics, it's inert, uninteresting. No wonder that the Godard who emerges from these pages seems hermetic and solipsistic, while his films are anything but.

Richard Brody laments, especially in the latter stretches of his tome, that Godard is a forgotten, under-appreciated artist. But today Godard is a ubiquitous culture hero, thanks to DVDs, the internet and an unending stream of books and articles in every language. Is there any arts student - in the West, at least - who has not been initiated into the Godard cult? Brody overlooks educational institutions, disregards all critical writing on his subject beyond first-release newspaper reviews, and seems almost wilfully ignorant of the frequency with which Godard's work is screened, analysed and worshipped in the world beyond the offices of the New Yorker. Fortunately, despite this latest biographical straitjacket, Godard still belongs to us all.

Adrian Martin
Adrian Martin is an associate professor at Monash University, and a film and arts critic. His books include Phantasms, Once Upon a Time in America and Movie Mutations. @AdrianMartin25

Cover: October 2008

October 2008

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