In Pierrot le Fou, Anna Karina’s memorable line, “You speak to me in words, and I look at you with feelings,” provided a concise summary for Jean-Luc Godard’s detractors as he turned to radical political filmmaking at the end of the ’60s and became increasingly abstruse thereafter. That’s still the party line on the director, but it ignores the significant shift in his filmmaking when he returned to theatrical, celluloid releases in the ’80s. This shift was not a move away from the intellectual and political experiments of his Dziga Vertov Group years and television projects, but a reconciliation of the analytical techniques he explored in video with a resumed formal and thematic rigor demanded by theatrical release. In the process, some of the “feeling” of film found its way back into Godard’s work, flecking his self-reflexive devices with an identifiably human yearning.
Perhaps no film of Godard’s comeback period more immediately illustrates this than Hail Mary. A retelling of the Virgin Mary story with an emphasis on the corporeal over the spiritual, the film sets its dialectical inquiries outside of art and politics and on matters of the body and soul. At times, it could almost count as one of those “gritty reboots” so fashionable these days: When high school student Mary (Myriem Roussel) finds herself pregnant without having ever had sex, she suffers the wrath of boyfriend Joseph (Thierry Rode), as well as the harsh doubt of everyone around her. And where Gabriel appeared resplendent in the glow of heaven to tell Mary of her holy charge in the Bible, here he comes as just a raggedy, possibly crazy man, informing her matter-of-factly that she will deliver the son of God. Robbed of the sanctifying aura that makes Mary self-evidently righteous, the young woman spends much of the film trying to convince others, and herself, of her innocence and of the worthiness of the task assigned to her.
The female body has routinely played a key role in Godard’s films, but usually as a completely dehumanized symbol of capitalism: Many of his female characters are prostitutes, and in films like Une Femme Mariée, he films women’s bodies in synecdochical cut-ups of breasts, legs, and so on, as a comment on the commodification of the female form and a reflection of cinema’s own role in perpetuating that male gaze. In Hail Mary, however, the protagonist’s body is filmed without titillation or cold intellectualization, but instead a calm, unbroken view of nudity. There’s even a curiosity to some shots, reflective of Mary’s own desire to explore a body that she has yet to fully experience and has now been taken from her. Mary voices the latter concern with muted sadness while being examined by her gynecologist, lamenting that she no longer has the freedom of the virgin because she bears the responsibilities of the pregnant. That also includes the leering judgment of men, which Godard naturally renders through the image: Joseph’s lustful attempt to touch Mary leads to a shot in which Mary, not wearing panties, is cut off from the hips up, while the gynecologist’s exam occurs with Mary’s knees spread apart in the foreground as her face is out of focus deeper in the frame and the doctor reached below in a clinical invasion.
Godard’s unglamorized shots of Roussel’s nude form help to showcase an aspect of his work, particularly his later, more challenging films: his facility for gesture. Joseph’s attempts at physical connection range from possessively aggressive to halting and innocently desirous, while Mary’s feeling of her own body has the fumbling confusion of self-discovery. Even some of the shots have a gestural, felt impact over an intellectual one, as in the frequent cutaways to the moon at various stages of its cycle. There are various symbols this could represent, from the moon’s traditionally feminine coding to menstrual cycles and the advancement of Mary’s pregnancy, but primarily they work as pillow shots, albeit ones that disrupt instead of pacify. Frequent interruptions of the soundtrack of sacred music by Bach and Dvorak manage to breathe life into their historical and spiritual remove by placing them within the din of the present. Such touches factor into Godard’s various dialectical organizations, though if he’s interested in the tangible side of the story, he nevertheless offers spiritual food for thought in his central assertion, spoken aloud several times in the film, that it’s the soul that has a body to contain it instead of the body containing a soul. Godard was displaying flashes of poetic grace even in his modernist genre films of the ’60s, but Hail Mary helps remind people that his more recent, philosophical projects do not want for his softer side.
Anyone who’s explored Jean-Luc Godard’s post-Weekend work outside a well-curated retrospective is no doubt familiar with torrents sourced from ghastly VHS rips and foreign DVDs in the wrong aspect ratio. New Yorker’s previous DVD of Hail Mary was previously one of the better transfers of a post-’67 Godard film, but Cohen Media Group’s Blu-ray reveals sharper colors, more balanced flesh tones, and a general uptick in image clarity that makes the old DVD now look paltry in comparison. Equally welcome is the lossless French stereo track, which honors the director’s increasingly ambitious, complex use of sound as a means of opposing the image and sometimes even setting the audio channels against themselves.
The Book of Mary, a short film by Godard’s personal and artistic partner, Anne-Marie Miéville, that acts as a thematic precursor to Hail Mary, is included and even sequenced to play before the main feature. Miéville’s film displays several Godardian techniques used in less abstract fashion, such as divorcing parents dueling in voiceovers in a manner similar to Godard’s contrapuntal layering of audio. Yet to define the film by what it says about Miéville’s work with her husband is to ignore what a fine director it proves her to be, with judicious compositions and a wry, subtle wit. Almost as pleasing an inclusion is "Notes on Hail Mary," the film’s corresponding video project. The accompanying videos for films like Every Man for Himself and Passion are as much auto-critique as making-of, but Hail Mary gets a more straightforward behind-the-scenes doc to match the more conventional feature. These two features alone would be plenty, but Cohen also provide three subtitled interviews with Godard and a commentary between filmmaker Hal Hartley and MOMI curator David Schwartz, which covers both Miéville’s short and Hail Mary. Their chat is less intellectually minded than one might expect, but their chatty, warm exchange is in some ways preferable to a dry but thorough explication de texte, a reminder that it can truly be fun and emotionally rewarding to watch these ostensible high-minded, unfeeling movies.
Cohen Media Group push back against the neglect shown to late Godard with a beautiful transfer and copious extras.