This is slightly reductive, but it’s helpful to think about the career of Jean-Luc Godard as divisible into five distinct periods, each roughly corresponding with a decade of work. The earliest, spanning 1960 through to 1967, is usually the only period considered properly canonical—at least insofar as nearly every film produced by Godard thereafter remains completely neglected, not only by audiences and mainstream critics, but also by the institutional high guard. If you’ve seen and loved even a dozen films by Godard, there’s a good chance that each dates before ‘67, the year the legend all but fell off the map; even the Criterion Collection, ever-minting obscurities as newly essential, has so far released 11 Godard films on DVD and Blu-ray, only one of which—1972’s Tout Va Bien!, largely directed by Jean-Pierre Gorin anyway—falls outside that definitive date range. Godard has produced at least 29 features since 1967, several of which are, in my estimation, some of the greatest films of all time. Until very recently, all but four or five of them either don’t exist or are nearly impossible to track down on home video in North America. If these films don’t have a place in our cultural conversation, it’s at least in part because nobody has or even can see them.
Both in terms of how difficult it is to see and how difficult it still is to parse, Numéro Deux stands out as one of Godard’s least accessible films. But it’s also one of his most essential and, in many ways, perhaps his most exciting. Released to little notice in 1975, Numéro Deux could be called the defining film of Godard’s second and most challenging period, which ran from 1968 (the year of the French student riots and his uncharacteristic feature Le Gai Savoir) to 1978, the year before he released the comparatively conventional Sauve Qui Peut (La Vie) to broader recognition and acclaim. The riots—as well as the heavy flirtation with Maoism that resulted in one of his last pseudo-mainstream films, La Chinoise—propelled Godard toward what most believed was a kind of artistic self-destruction, the collapsing and conflation of sensibilities both aesthetic and deeply political. Rejecting anything and everything that resembled conventional filmmaking, Godard began to create from scratch a niche artisanal practice of his own, a political cinema of the highest and purest order. This meant alienating those who admired the pop-art pastiche of Pierrot le Fou or the smoldering romanticism of Le Mepris, both of which he now perceived to be nothing more than tepid commercial entertainments. To paraphrase Andrew Sarris, the birth of a revolutionary had meant the death of an artist, which for many was too high a price to pay.
By the ‘80s, of course, Godard had learned to sublimate his most extreme ideological impulses into more coherent and emotionally developed narratives, which meant that he began to once again produce feature films with a degree of accessibility—though with much more wit and sophistication than he had been doing during the 1960s. Thus many consider the ‘70s only a transitional period for Godard, a time spent underground producing nothing but experimental diversions. But, however difficult or oblique the work was, the fact is that Godard remained far too productive over these years for the decade’s output to be fairly reduced to a process of bridging the gap. And if Ici et Ailleurs, made in 1974 but not released until 1976, represented Godard’s first successful attempt to move beyond the alienating and dogmatic practices of the Dziga Vertov Group work, Numéro Deux, made and released in 1975, represents a crucial second step.
Georges de Beauregard, the esteemed French film producer who’d been Godard’s principal business partner throughout the 1960s, approached Godard in the early ‘70s with a proposition: the two would remake their biggest success to date, Breathless, under the title Breathless: Numéro Deux. But, as Godard explicates himself during the film’s disarming opening monologue, the real Numéro Deux would in fact have nothing in common with the original—except that both would be produced for a budget of 600,000 francs, raised, Godard explains, by Beauregard’s hustling. (This wouldn’t be the last time Godard detailed his own producer’s financial motivations on camera; he included an impatient voicemail message from producer Tom Luddy over the beginning of 1985’s King Lear.) Godard was only interested in revisiting his past success for one reason: He wanted to illustrate the disparity between the value of 600,000 francs in 1959 and the value of the same 600,000 francs in 1975. Numéro Deux articulates that disparity by rubbing its nose in the minor implications. We see, up close and personal, the video-production studio shared by Godard and Miéville, a far cry from Hollywood glamor (Godard pointedly compares his studio, and then his own body, to a factory; it’s a comparison the film returns to again and again); a working-class French family, stuck in the shambles of social housing, and the correlation between their dismal finances and their impoverished inner lives; and, over and over, the harsh contrast between video and film images, the former cheap but liberated, the latter fixed, expensive, and rare.
In a way, Numéro Deux unfolds as two films in one, and that duplication is important (hence, remake intentions aside, the title). The first bookends the proceedings; in it we see Godard himself, working in his studio, looking worn and weary. He stares into and around video cameras, and the monitors littered around him show us his face, soccer matches, news broadcasts, and other miscellania, their disparate soundtracks layered and blurred together. Godard’s approach here is largely dialectical (images and sounds brought fleetingly into play are granted meaning principally in relation to the images that come before and after), which raises all kinds of questions regarding the relationship between work and home life, sexual agency and familial responsibility, youth and aging, and Godard’s own relationship as author to the material he’s authoring. And while it may seem somehow softer and less acerbic than the fiercely anti-capitalist tirade Weekend, the questions it asks are still informed by a deep well of anger and discontent: “If you don’t get on with a man, you can always leave him,” one character says in the film. “But what do you do when the state, the social system, is raping you?” The anger there is palpable; it’s just delivered by a film that’s harder to pin down.
Much as they did with their simultaneous release of Ici et Ailleurs, Olive Films has done a remarkable job restoring Numéro Deux to some of its original aesthetic glory. Admittedly, my only real point of comparison here is the rather dismal, if still appreciated, Facets VHS release from the late '90s, over which this new DVD clearly offers drastic improvements. Still, the quality of the Olive DVD greatly exceeds the bare minimum they could have lazily resorted the film to (frankly, we Godard diehards would have bought it anyway), and the effort is clearly visible right up there on screen: This thing looks outstanding, particularly considering how much of this was shot on video rather than 35mm film. Its stereo soundtrack, densely layered and often booming, remains clear and robust throughout, and the images are almost entirely free of the sorts of blemishes, abrasions, and debris you'd expect of a film otherwise lost to time.
As fans of Olive Films will no doubt have expected, Numéro Deux hasn't been appended with special features of any kind. As with Ici et Ailleurs, we should be grateful that this Godard rarity is finally seeing the light of day on Region 1 DVD, but a movie this complex and heady deserves (and, in a sense, almost necessitates) at least a little supplemental material. Context enriches much of Godard's work during this period, and an accompanying essay or commentary track would have gone a long way to making this esoteric film more broadly accessible.
Numéro Deux may not be widely recognized as one of Godard's canonical classics, but this exceptional Olive Films release proves that its greatness has endured.