Much has been said about Jean-Luc Godard’s radical politics and his radical approach to filmmaking. However, people also forget to mention his earlier (better) films, which for all intents and purposes are expert pastiches of Hollywood genre films he loved.
This collection, which StudioCanal has compiled as “Godard: The Essential Collection,” is a strong slice of the films he made during the early to mid ’60s, which often starred his muse Anna Karina. They are also all genre films to some extent or another, whether it’s a drama on filmmaking such as Contempt or the hybrid of film noir and sci-fi Alphaville.
The first film in the set is of course his groundbreaking debut À bout de Souffle, which reinvigorated the form of cinema and revolutionised how you could make a crime film. It was made on a pittance, with Godard writing the script as he shot, and based on a treatment by his fellow critics-turned-filmmakers and friends François Truffaut and Claude Chabrol. Jean-Paul Belmondo plays a low-level criminal who wants to be Bogart, who becomes smitten with the American Patricia (Jean Seberg). But little does she know that he is actually a wanted man, sought for the murder of a policeman.
À bout de Souffle wasn’t revolutionary as a piece of crime filmmaking — it owes a great debt to film noir, and especially to the film Gun Crazy. It is, however, a revolution of style and process: it showed you could simply gather some friends together, shoot on the streets, and make the hippest film around. Godard used minimal lighting and a handheld camera to give it a documentary feel. They had to dub the dialogue in afterwards, but unlike Italian films of the same time it’s the same cast on-screen and in the overdubbing, and is near-seamless. It’s become known for its pioneering use of “jump-cuts,” which were only added to the film because it was too long at 2 hours and 15 minutes and Godard needed to tighten up the pace. But in the process he serendipitously created a revolutionary technique that only has been used to its full effect in later decades.
Une Femme est une Femme is very much one of the odd films out from Godard’s ’60s heyday of filmmaking. It’s a partly an homage to his love of the American musicals of ’40s and ’50s, the sort often done by MGM. It’s hardly a musical though, Godard would playful call it a “neorealist musical,” which is a contradiction in terms if there ever was one. It brings the self-conscious film references to a new extreme, so much so that he even makes playful references to À bout de Souffle and another to Truffaut’s noir-homage Shoot the Piano Player. It also was a big turning point in Godard’s career, because it was the first film he made with Anna Karina that was released. His unsung masterful political thriller Le Petit Soldat wouldn’t see a release till 1963.
Anna Karina plays the exotic dancer Angela Récamier who wants to have a child with her lover Émile (Jean-Claude Brialy); however, he isn’t quite ready. Emile’s friend Alfred Lubitsch (Jean-Paul Belmondo) also expresses his love towards Angela. The film is extremely playful, even more so than Godard’s films during this time. It’s also complete nonsense, but so charming and entertaining that it makes up for its lack of substance. Anna Karina completely controls the film and it’s certainly a film made by a man (Godard) who is head over heels for his soon-to-be wife (Karina), and they would marry during the shoot of the film. It’s also his first colour film.
Le Mépris falls into a long list of great films about the process of filmmaking. It’s loosely based on a novel by Alberto Morabia, A Ghost at Noon. Originally Godard wanted Kim Novak and Frank Sinatra, but the Italian producer was after Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastriano. This put the two of them in conflict. Eventually the producer demanded Brigitte Bardot and made Godard insert more “sexy” shots of Bardot to sell the film to the world market. The film concerns an American producer played by Jack Palance who hires Fritz Lang to direct a version of The Odyssey. He also hires novelist Paul Javal, played by Michel Piccoli, to work on the script. Most of the film deals with the conflict between the screenwriter’s artistic expression coming up against the commercial potential of the film, paralleling Godard’s own issues of the time with his producer, and the strained relationship between the producer and his wife (Bardot).
Alphaville stars Eddie Constantine as intergalactic secret agent Lenny Caution. The character of Lemmy Caution was created by pulp novelist Peter Cheyney and Eddie Constantine had played this role in dozens of previous films, so in many ways Alphaville is one of the earliest examples of a post-modern film. Caution is sent to Alphaville (Paris, for all intents and purposes), travelling in his Ford Mustang, which is oddly enough renamed the Ford Galaxy in the film. He is trying to find the missing agent henry Dickson, who is thought to have been killed by the creator of Alphaville, Professor van Braun. His mission is to find Dickson, kill van Braun, and destroy Alphaville and its fascistic computer Alpha 60.
He is assisted by the Professor’s daughter Natascha, played by Karina, who has no concept of free thought, love, poetry or emotion. There is a little homage to 1984, with a dictionary in which all words connected to emotion have been banned, a reference to Orwell’s Newspeak.
Alphaville was the first Godard film I ever saw, and I ripped it off for the shorts I made at university so many times it’s not even funny. One of the most amazing things about the film is that it was shot completely around Paris, with no spacial sets or props. But somehow Godard and the cinematographer Raoul Coutard managed to create a unique and futuristic world that has been a huge influence on filmmakers.
According to one of the documentaries ion the disk, Godard at one point didn’t want to make Alphaville, opting instead to do Bonnie & Clyde. It was due to a series of miscommunications with the producers, that luckily didn’t happen. Like many of his other films, Alphaville owes a huge debt to Jean Cocteau, and there are particular parallels with Cocteau’s classic film Orphée. The hypnotic power of Alpha 60 is also a sort of reference to Fritz Lang’s The Testament of Dr Mabuse.
Pierrot le Fou is another great film, certainly the turning point of Godard’s career in many regards. His marriage to Anna Karina was by this point pretty much non-existent and he was becoming increasing Maoist, an important factor in his films from this time onwards. It’s about Ferdinand, a.k.a. Pierrot, played by Jean-Paul Belmondo, an unhappily married man who has been fired from his TV job. Dissatisfied with his bourgeois lifestyle, he leaves Paris with Marianne, played by Karina, and they find a corpse in Marianne’s apartment. He soon finds out she is being chased by gangsters and they go on the run, with a massive crime spree between Paris and the Mediterranean in the dead man’s car.
While Alphaville is slightly political politics creep in much more in Pierrot le Fou than in previous films. It’s still just a really fun ride. It’s based on a novel by Lionel White (though this was uncredited), also the author of the book on which Kubrick’s The Killing was based. This wasn’t Godard’s first time for adopting an American crime novel without giving credit where it was due–he had done the same with Bande à Part.
Pierre le Fou is probably the best use of colour in any of Godard’s films–most of his great films are black and white. He uses pop art primary colour to extreme effect throughout the film. He would take this it’s extremes in Made in U.S.A. which even uses comic book cut-outs as backdrops at times.
Une Femme is une Femme and Alphaville have never been released on Blu-Ray before, so that’s a big draw for the set. Breathless, Pierrot le Fou and Le Mépris all have plenty of bonus features, including several lengthy documentaries. The new extras include newly filmed interviews with Anna Karina.