Between November 1969 and September 1970, Jean-Luc Godard, along with co-director Jean-Pierre Gorin and camera operator Armand Marco, travelled to Jordan, Lebanon, and the West Bank to film what was then referred to as Jusqu’a la Victoire, or Until Victory, a project funded by the Arab League about the struggles of the Palestinian people. Months of protracted, emotionally detached shooting in the Middle East, finally interrupted by the events of Black September, lead in turn to years of protracted, intellectually confused editing in Paris, where Gorin and Godard had no clear idea of what they wanted their final product (or products) to be. By mid-1972, Godard had abandoned Until Victory, deigning instead focus on new, unrelated works, including the politically charged Brechtian short Vladimir and Rosa and Tout Va Bien!, the only definitively successful feature he and Gorin managed to produce during their years as an inseparable duo. It wasn’t for a further two years still that Godard would revisit the footage he and Gorin shot in the Middle East, and it would take another two beyond that for the footage to see the light of day in any form whatsoever—and it would be in a form quite unlike what they’d once had in mind.
In 1974, Godard and Anne-Marie Miéville, his colleague and romantic partner, moved from their Paris residence to a small apartment just outside the city of Grenoble, in the southeast of France. The two brought piles of expensive video recording equipment, intending to establish a sort of home base for what would be their new production company, which they called “Sonimage” (a portmanteau combining “son,” the French word for “sound,” and “image”). Godard and Miéville would go on to produce several memorable, audacious films under the aegis of Sonimage, including Numero Deux, Comment Ca Va?, and the six-hour, 12-episode television miniseries France/tour/detour/deux/enfants, but not before first drastically reconfiguring and reimagining Godard and Gorin’s Until Victory, which until then remained unfinished. By ‘74, Godard and Gorin had decided to go their separate ways, but Godard had found a more fruitful filmmaking partner in Miéville; her distinctive artistic temperament and assertive authorial voice worked both with and against Godard’s own, and that friction resulted in some of the most challenging, thoughtful work of his career.
A stifling and somewhat toxic influence of radical left-wing politics had not only informed but actually defined Godard’s output for over half a decade, and while many of the films he produced during that period continue to fascinate and confound, precious few, if any, are in the same league as early coups such as Contempt and Pierrot le Fou. The film that Godard and Miéville would produce in the wake of Until Victory‘s failure, released to small and largely hostile audiences in 1976 as Ici et Ailleurs, is a radical, acerbic, and completely remarkable work of deconstructive self-criticism, and if it’s not remembered as a great film, if it’s indeed remembered at all, it should still stand, for Godard, as an important first step away from propagandistic abstraction and toward a recalibrated, newly reenergized approach to filmmaking. If the perception remains that Godard’s career “got back on track” with the release of Sauve Qui Peut (La Vie) in 1980, rest assured that Ici et Ailleurs is, perhaps more than any other, the film that got him there. Whether it’s recognized as such or not, Ici et Ailleurs is the first film to signal the reemergence of one of the cinema’s major talents, and it should be cherished as such.
Miéville’s contributions, of course, account for much of the noticeable evolution of Godard’s craft. Together in their video-production room in Grenoble, the two took to reevaluating Until Victory as it had been intended to be released, and the hour-long Ici et Ailleurs consists principally of the two analyzing and deconstructing the work as it unfolds. What results is a meditation on the nature of sound and images, the filmmaking process, propaganda, war, and presumptive authorial control. Godard interrogates his own work and the intentions and desires he’d clearly imposed on the reality before him, questioning his right to sculpt a real war into a vision of one. Miéville, even more fascinatingly, interrogates Godard, criticizing his methods and motivations. In the film’s most interesting sequence, Miéville examines footage of a young Palestinian woman reading revolutionary platitudes aloud into the camera, observing that the woman selected was both young and beautiful, and essentially attacking Godard for presenting artifice instead of life. In 1970, Godard and Gorin went to make a political film with a predetermined agenda; they filmed staged readings and attempted to graft their own ideology atop a cause and a people with their own. That would be have a problematic and, more alarmingly, a completely dogmatic work of trumped-up propaganda. Recognizing this allowed Godard, with the help of Miéville’s critical eye, to distance himself from his myopic methods and instead engage with the material with seriousness and sophistication.
Along with the newly reexamined 35mm footage shot in the Middle East, Ici et Ailleurs includes a wealth of material shot on video in Grenoble four years later. A working-class French family watching television together is framed as the “here” to the Middle East’s “elsewhere,” and in this video, as well as more abstract sequences filmed in the Sonimage studio, it’s the “and” that bridges these places which comes to be the focus. For Godard and Miéville, sites of conflict and revolution are brought into the home by way of television, and the mediating effect of the format can either bring us closer to the world or alienate us from it, depending on how it’s used. Miéville suggests, in one of the film’s most politically suspect (or morally repugnant?) sequences, that the Palestinian terrorists responsible for the massacre at Munich should have demanded that the media broadcast images of the Black September massacre in exchange for the lives of their Israeli hostages; no harm would have resulted, she explains, because it would “be silly to die for an image.”
It’s images and sounds that have real political import and power (an idea Godard had toyed with in British Sounds years earlier and would return to again in 2001’s In Praise of Love), and it’s the degree to which viewers interrogate and understand those images that determine their influence or control. Ici et Ailleurs is a successful argument in favor of that sort of interrogation precisely because it so willingly interrogates itself, searching and questioning and never accepting the obvious. That’s also why claims of ideological backwardness on the part of Godard or Miéville never really hold water; such claims fail to take into account how open the film is about its own self-doubt and self-criticism. Arguments are made and then retorted; images are shown and then sworn off. The cinema, in at least a small way, would never be the same again.
"Sonimage" was the aegis under which Jean-Luc Godard and Anne-Marie Miéville produced this and several other works, so, as you might expect, the quality of the sounds and images is of the utmost importance to Ici et Ailleurs. It's one of the great tragedies of modern cinema that the overwhelming majority of Godard's late-period works languish in unreleased obscurity, available only via sub-par VHS transfers and bootlegs of mysterious origin, so to have a film as vital to his corpus as this restored to its original visual and aural glory is an occasion to rejoice indeed. Though not presented in HD, Olive Films has done an exceptional job preserving the original look and feel of Ici et Ailleurs for its debut on Region 1 DVD; it's safe to say that other than perhaps its fleeting theatrical run in France in 1976, the movie has never looked or sounded better than it does here. Frequently oscillating between 35mm film shot in 1970 and videotape shot in Grenoble in 1974, Ici et Ailleurs has no one defining visual style, and Olive's transfer captures the often jarring differences between shots and scenes with no noticeable dips in quality throughout. And of course, like many of Godard's films during this period, Ici et Ailleurs has an extraordinarily rich and dynamic stereo soundtrack—one that, thanks to Olive, Godard fans can now finally hear in its intended form. (A quick recommendation: play this film very loud. The juxtaposition between silence and noise was of great interest to Godard, and volume is central to one's appreciation of his methods.
As has been typical of Olive Films releases, Ici et Ailleurs includes no features whatsoever; other than a handsome front cover and a boilerplate interactive menu, you're buying this DVD for the movie alone.
Godard fans will be forever indebted to Olive Films for releasing one of the director's most challenging but least-seen films, even if the DVD itself hits shelves sans special features.