Though made just before Jean-Luc Godard entered his polemical Dziga Vertov Group phase, Le Gai Savoir is arguably his most austere film. It rolls out on the thrum of an electronic warble that washes over all other sound and is befitting of the pitch-black void in which the actors recite snatches of dialogue at each other. Émile (Jean-Pierre Léaud) and Patricia (Juliet Berto), presented as descendants of philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Congolese Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba, respectively, debate politics in dialectical terms. The film’s stark compositions and empty backgrounds ensure that there’s no distraction from the pair’s intellectual discourse.
Le Gai Savoir’s radically restricted frame speaks to a desire by Godard to “return to zero,” to strip cinema of its bourgeois formalism in an attempt to make the art form match the fervor of political engagement among young pople at the time. The filmmaker toys with the notion of destroying to rebuild, frequently intercutting montages of a makeshift alphabet book with letters corresponding to images and words with political contexts, like V represented by Vietnam. In typical Godard fashion, however, some of the terms are more abstract and evocative, such as S standing for “son,” the French word for “his,” a broad possessive that holds major importance in the larger communist and socialist debates around private property versus collectivization.
The film stridently flouts its political beliefs but not without a certain sense of humor. Émile and Patricia regularly enact dialogue in a call-and-response format that reinforces each person’s thoughts but also slyly suggests a copycat mentality of young radicals merely regurgitating polemics instead of internalizing them. Indeed, the film around them openly posits words as an “enemy” of truly revolutionary thought, and the more the two talk, the further they get from any sense of understanding, instead getting caught up in the innumerable contradictions inherent to any conception of a sociopolitical system completely divested from current institutions and socialization.
Godard’s use of montage up to this point in his career had resembled the run-on thoughts of a prodigy incapable of finishing one sentence before leaping to the next thing on his mind. The playfulness of his editing is still evident here, though flecked with a greater sense of ambition, one devoted not merely to capturing the frantic speed of Godard’s own mind, but of a larger ethical and political engagement of cinema and society.
Godard even acknowledges the inadequacy of one person to capture all of this, not only because of the pressures of the system (wiped images and sounds throughout are attributed to government and media censorship), but the inability of socialist praxis to be realized by one person. “This film is not the film that needs to be made,” Émile says of the entire project, believing that fellow cinematic insurrectionists like Bertolucci and Straub-Huillet will tie up the loose threads. That no one film is that summarizing film is both the great antagonist and the epiphany of Godard’s subsequent filmography, making Le Gai Savoir as important to his filmography as Breathless.
With its blacked-out soundstage and frequent reliance on still photographs and TV broadcasts, Le Gai Savoir is a barebones film, but Kino Lorber's disc nonetheless calls attention to its subtle beauty. The black levels of the backgrounds remain stable throughout, while the colors on the actors' clothing pop under the bright key lighting. The audio is consistently clean save for the frequent moments where Jean-Luc Godard inserts shrieking noise from tape manipulation or archival speeches, and the sharp, instant crescendos of these moments are captured in all their blistering intensity.
On his commentary track, critic Adrian Martin provides a wealth of background detail pertaining to Godard's cryptic, highly personalized set of references and in-jokes, including all those insulted and denounced throughout this work of rigorous self-criticism. Martin even clarifies the jolting moments of beeped-out sound as Godard's pithy response to the censoring of his script's more libelous statements. Martin offers many interpretations of moments and overall threads in Le Gai Savoir, but he also offers more puzzle pieces for viewers to consider when analyzing the film. The commentary feels like a university lecture in the best way possible, providing listeners with additional, grounding information while inspiring independent thought.
The disc also comes with a short video from cinematographer Fabrice Aragno, who shot Godard's Film Socialisme and Goodbye to Language. The video re-edits Le Gai Savoir into a series of superimpositions, making the film seem like one of Godard's more recent, even more radical works of deconstruction. A booklet contains essays from singer Richard Hell and critic Adam Nayman that each dig into the host of classical and contemporary references that inform the film, as well as the aesthetic and philosophical continuity within Godard's work to this point and for the remainder of his career.
Jean-Luc Godard's film is ground zero for his post-1967 oeuvre, and a great A/V transfer and outstanding critic commentary make Kino's disc an essential purchase for fans of the filmmaker.