Produced as a 90-minute episode for the French television series Série Noire, Jean-Luc Godard’s Rise and Fall of a Small Film Company exhibits the auteur’s stubborn defiance of all things conventional. The series comprised adaptations of crime novels by the French publishing imprint of the same name, with Godard having been commissioned to adapt James Hadley Chase’s The Soft Centre. Far from such an adaptation, Godard’s film concerns the pre-production stages of a television movie in which the director, Gaspard Bazin (Jean-Pierre Léaud), is dissatisfied with the crime story he’s been asked to adapt. There are more than a few shades of Godard’s Contempt here, an impression cemented by music selections on the soundtrack that invoke Georges Delerue’s score from that film. However, Rise and Fall of a Small Film Company coheres as neither a re-adaptation of Contempt for television nor a considerate examination of the difficulties of literary adaptation.
Godard has always been partial to poetic intertitles, though in Rise and Fall of a Small Film Company they’re less amusing or informative than aggravating. Ponderous phrases and inquiries, like “The Omnipotence of Television” and “Whatisart,” have no immediate relevance to the lengthy casting discussions and constant cinematic allusions encircling them. If they’re a far cry from, say, the incendiary words, “Fin de cinema,” that conclude Weekend, that’s primarily because too little of Godard’s thematic interest here lies in actually expanding on the ideas expressed by the intertitles contained within this film. In effect, Bazin’s paralysis becomes Godard’s own and vice versa, prompting a feedback-loop structure that suggests Godard is actually remaking 8 ½, except this time no one seems to really care if the film within the film gets made.
Much of Rise and Fall of a Small Film Company’s running time sees Bazin leaning over notes and photos, becoming increasingly frustrated over his TV project. He makes curious proclamations about the cultural relevance of crime fiction, asking at one point, “If we didn’t have murder mysteries, how would we fall asleep?” He even claims to be the grandson of Finnish filmmaker Mauritz Stiller, wearing that as a badge of proof that he should be making films. Godard appeases himself and his disciples rather than bolstering his own film in such moments, throwing a bone to cinephiles who know Sir Arne’s Treasure and Erotikon without a sense of what, precisely, this reference to Stiller has to do with the TV production of crime adaptations.
As is the case with many of Godard’s work, the basic premise of this film is only a means to take audiences down a series of rabbit holes—akin to what the French philosopher Guy Debord called dérive, or a rapid passage through varied ambiances. Debord thought this helped people to reckon with the conditions of urban life and spaces by jarring them lose from repetition and, thus, ideological imprisonment. Although Godard’s cinematic politics cohere rather neatly with Debord’s ideas in Rise and Fall of a Small Film Company, the filmmaker has ironically mitigated the potential weight of such an approach by straying too far from an anchoring concept.
That drifting is nearly reconciled when the film’s centerpiece sequence, in which a procession of actors walks in front of a camera reciting pieces of prose from William Faulkner’s short story Sepulture South: Gaslight, rewinds and repeats itself again and again, so that these previously anonymous faces become not only recognizable to the spectator, but even familiar. Godard discovers each person’s humanity by suggesting that empathy, or the onlooker’s ability to identify with others, derives from knowledge and experience. Rather than continue developing this premise, Godard subsequently appears as himself for a lengthy conversation with Jean Almereyda (Jean-Pierre Mocky), a producer, that covers, among other topics, why Roman Polanski gets so much money to make his films. The jarring ebb and flow of Godard’s own self-concern gives Rise and Fall of a Small Film Company a turbulence that is, finally, content to spin its own wheels.