Between the end times of 1967’s Weekend and what critics took as a resurrection with 1980’s Every Man For Himself, French auteur, titan, lion, muse, and gadfly Jean-Luc Godard spent a decade and a half decimating any standing reputation or definition of film. The films leading up to and including those within the Dziga Vertov period were filled with works that seemed to be willfully deconstructing the art form until it died on the operating table. Cultists were polarized, but it was still easy for some to appreciate his unique way of lifting the veil, even if he was passive-aggressively declaring the medium dead in the process. Others could at least relish the irony of continuing to work in the medium (if only, by definition, just barely) to show how it no longer worked, not unlike Tom Green opening up a deer and wearing his vivisected body to reanimate the animal in Freddy Got Fingered.
Letter To Jane, to bring up one single example, dwells obsessively on a single still image (removing it at least in part from its original context) and pits it against other stills, all in service of what amounts to a character assassination of one of Godard’s recent collaborators and, arguably, one of the only reasons his then-most recent project, Tout Va Bien, was even funded in the first place. In the screed, Jane Fonda isn’t the only one on trial; so is the concept of moving image and sound. Godard famously quipped that cinema was truth at 24 frames per second. Therefore, what sort of gargantuan lost cause are we dealing with when one can’t even trust one frame?
Call it a midlife crisis if you wish, but Godard rejected, um, rejectivism and made a return to (for him) narrative-based art filmmaking in the 1980s, confirmed with Passion and its successor Prénom: Carmen, both of which were well-received on the festival circuit. Passion, like so many of the one-time critic’s movies, is a meta text, a film about its own production. In Passion, Jerzy Radziwilowicz plays a stand-in for Godard. (In Carmen, Godard would perform the role of himself himself.) Radziwilowicz’s “Godard” is in the middle of shooting a wildly over-budget TV film that, from all appearances, has no plot, no characters, no action, just a series of rococo tableaux inspired by famous painters. Perhaps to save money and perhaps because no real actress would sit still for being used as mere scenery, “Godard” has to pluck extras from the nearby factory. While it’s lucky for him that nearly every worker is a young, model specimen of femininity who looks better out of a jumpsuit than in one, he also finds it difficult to keep them from returning to the subtle but persuasive pleasure of being good at their menial jobs. They get paid less in the industrial world, but they at least know what the hell they’re doing.
This is not particularly true of the main characters of Carmen (a loose, in every sense, adaptation of the Prosper Mérimée novella), whose erotic impetuousness calls to mind a rawer iteration of the bedroom sequence in Breathless. Both films can be boiled down to their linear, narrative elements, but neither are anywhere near as mainstream at the surface as his Alain Sarde-produced Detective (which he apparently directed only to get Hail Mary into production). Three separate groups of people sulk and pout and storm around in their separate hotel rooms before, slowly, their plots begin to intertwine. The fourth film thrown into an otherwise thoughtfully considered box set from Lionsgate is his somewhat more high-minded Oh, Woe Is Me, in which Gérard Depardieu plays a man who may be the Greek god Zeus. The film’s inclusion seems chiefly a means by which to show that eventually Godard’s films reverted once more into heavy theory, or at least a hybrid of his narrative and filmosophical brands.
Pauline Kael wrote in her review of Carmen that Godard is “the rare case of an artist whose command of his medium becomes more assured as his interests dry up.” Indeed, all four films collected here are interesting by default, and deepen in memory even as one battles drowsiness watching them (as I did). The details in each resonate like Nietzsche’s aphorisms rattling around inside initially impenetrable works. Passion contains a vignette in which Hanna Schygulla is shown video playback of a scene she shot (perhaps under duress) for the film-within-the-film. Though her director forces her to watch her fabricated emotions on the small screen, she finds the mere act of seeing her own performance intolerable and averts her eyes at every available moment. Eventually, the director fixes her wandering head by putting his fingers in her mouth.
In a film about a film with no real performances comes this elegant suggestion of the difficulty and delicacy of movie acting. Detective’s parallel plots seem, at first, isolated and meaningless, evidence Godard treated the project cavalierly. But there’s something sort of funny about how each room contains people in a chronological holding pattern. The detectives in one room obsess about their investigation into a murder from out of the past; a boxer, his handlers and other members of his entourage all spend copious amounts of time in anticipation of a future bout; all the while, a husband and wife do everything they can to try and avoid their own present situation. As the four films collected in this box set attest, no director wanders off the rails more intriguingly (and infuriatingly) than Godard.
They really didn’t have to do it. Lionsgate could have brought these movies out in shoddy VHS dub transfers and people would still probably suffer through them. (They’ve been doing if for years at Kim’s, according to one of the interview subjects in the set’s bonus featurette.) Thanks probably to assistance from Studio Canal, these four movies look and sound downright great. Prénom: Carmen is fairly grainy, and there is a little bit of blocking in some of Passion’s darker sequences, but overall they’re worthy representations of Godard’s reunion with cinematographer Raoul Coutard. Plus, they’re in the correct Academy aspect ratio.
There’s only one extra feature, but it’s certainly one that anyone interested in the box set will undoubtedly eat up: a half-hour critical examination of the films included in this set, with snob-friendly interviews with David Sterritt (whose enthusiasm nears Dr. Drew Casper levels), Wheeler Winston Dixon, and Kent Jones (all of whom are introduced with title featuring their own signatures.they’re just that authoritative, people).
With Criterion’s continued unwillingness to stray outside of Godard’s canonized 1960s output, you’ve got to give Lionsgate credit for putting a spotlight on his later, grumpier works.