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Godard showing his age
on 4 May 2006
With each passing year, Godard seems even less important, even as a historical footnote. Always the least interesting and most self-aggrandizing of the nouvelle vague directors, seen four decades on a trio of his more acclaimed early films show just how little he had to say - no matter how loudly he says it - once you strip away the now-tired presentation. While Bertolt Brecht's highly stylised plays have survived the theatrical and the political movements that inspired them because at heart there's something there that matters, crucially, nothing about any of this tiresome trio of Godards seems deeply or passionately felt: it's all just attention seeking from someone who's tolerable company in small doses but a shallow coffeehouse bore the more time you spend with him.
Alphaville is one of the more watchable of Godard's infantile attention-seeking exercises, but that's largely due to Raoul Coutard's excellent cinematography of some overfamiliar Paris locations and Eddie Constantine's curiously charismatic one-note (aside from his moments of bewilderment) performance. As for content, it's as insubstantial as his usual efforts, mistaking sloganeering and casual misogyny for substance and social commentary. Old hat even in 1965, this is really little more than They Saved Hitler's Brain for people who'd never dream of going to see the real thing, though the mixture of public executions with synchronized swimming is rather neat.
For all its contemporary controversy, Le Petit Soldat is just another example of how trite Godard can be when he tries to be profound, opting for his usual formula of taking a standard-issue pulp plot, dressing it up in student politics and throwing a slew of disjointed cultural references at it (Jean Cocteau, Paul Klass, Albert Camus) in the hope that people will think it has substance of its own. No wonder he was such an influence on Tarantino, who simply exchanged Godard's philosophers and poets for grind-house schlock merchants and Asian auteurs. Yet for all the posturing, it simply shows up Godard's political naiveté: beyond noting that both left and right are as bad as each other, he seems completely ignorant of his subject matter, leaving the impression that to him the Algerian War was just a trendy T-shirt that he thinks looks good on him. If anything, rather than the self-proclaimed Marxist of later years, this is more the unashamedly right-wing racist stereotyping he favored before his political reinvention, even if he does clumsily equate French Nationalists with Hitler in one image of a hitman hiding his face behind a magazine cover of old Adolf.
Then there's the recurring problem of his misogyny and his inability or refusal to create female characters that are anything more than one-dimensional objects to confuse or destroy his male antiheroes inbetween passively listening to their endless stream-of-consciousness lecturing (women are rarely allowed ideas of their own in Godard: they exist as an audience for male mental gymnastics). Strangely enough, the once notorious matter-of-fact torture sequence just brings up even more unwelcome comparisons with Tarantino in what is little more than a grab-bag of newspaper headlines and bullet points from the Cliffs Notes version of Chairman Mao's Little Red Book - and dull with it, too. The truly beautiful Cocteau quote about death only shows up how little Godard has to offer by comparison.
Always more successful when dealing with fluff than big ideas, even Une Femme est Une Femme is just another Godard trifle that's all technique and no substance. Groundbreaking it may just have been in 1961 to anyone who'd never seen a Tex Avery cartoon or a Frank Tashlin live-action comedy, but 45 years later winking at the camera and reading out stage directions doesn't really cut it anymore, while its determined contrariness simply gets dull quickly. Even Raoul Coutard's color and scope photography doesn't really work, implying that he was one of those cinematographers best suited to monochrome. If it weren't for Anna Karina's lively performance in another of Godard's stereotypically sexist female roles or Belmondo's occasional interjections of charisma, this would be even more tiresome than it already is. Subversive? Not really, and certainly not when it comes to anything that matters. This just comes over as something a few mates thought sounded like a good idea at a drunken party.
Sadly, but predictably, actually watching the films instead of listening to the myths that have been built around them just leads to the conclusion that most, if not all of what little is good about his early films has nothing to do with Godard but his collaborators - most particularly Raoul Coutard, whose cinematography was far more influential and liberating than anything Godard 'created,' but also Truffaut, Belmondo and Karina. Even the politics and cultural references are borrowed in magpie fashion, soundbites thrown into monologues to give the illusion of depth but merely showing the lack of original thought. None of Godard's films have aged well (he admits they were purely of the moment and has said that his past films are irrelevant, but then he's notorious for changing his opinion if he thinks there's a headline in it), and in truth, none of them are really influential. The nouvelle vague was already well under way before he made his debut: he was simply the one who blew his own trumpet the loudest.
The transfers are acceptable, although Une Femme est Une Femme looks a little pallid in its 2.35:1 transfer. All films have burned-in (non-removeable) English subtitles and no extras.