Jean-Luc Godard was pretty much undeniably the filmmaker of the 1960s, with an extraordinary run of creativity during which he made 15 feature-length films (À Bout de Souffle to Week End) in seven years. However, the seeds of his next phase of filmmaking were already being sewn with films like La Chinoise and Week End. Things were about to change in May 1968—for France and also for Godard’s filmmaking.
May 1968 was a massive cultural and political milestone of massive rebellion in France, and incorporated all elements of the radical left, from the Communist party to the Situationists and anarchists. Godard ended up becoming a devout Maoist, which wasn’t uncommon amongst leftist intellectuals in France at the time. Chairman Mao created a form of authoritarian Marxist-Leninism, and ended up being arguably the destructive dictator in history (his policies ended up killing more people than Hitler and Stalin COMBINED!) Godard thought that the Charles de Gaulle, then the French president, was authoritarian. How naive he was to choose Mao as a better model.
During this period he would start making more and more experimental films that challenged the notion of what a film is, and he desired to achieve “making political films politically.” This all came at the same time as he formed the Dziga-Vertov cinema collective with Jean-Pierre Gorin. The most notable film (and arguably only real film) to come out this collaboration and time was Tout Va Bien, which incorporated his agitprop Maoist crap with some remnants of narrative filmmaking. It also starred two massive movie stars: Jane Fonda (at the height of her powers after winning the Oscar for Klute) and the French star Yves Montaud.
Fonda and Montaud play the married couple Her and Him. She’s a radio journalist at the Paris American broadcasting service, and he is a French filmmaker, who before May ’68 wrote scripts for Nouvelle Vague directors. He has also turned down a chance to adapt a David Goodis detective novel: Truffaut and Godard were avid fans of Goodis and other pulp writers, and Truffaut actually adapted Shoot the Piano Player, which is one of his best films. Montaud’s director is now directing commercials because it’s “more honest.” Maybe this is a swipe at Truffaut—Godard and Truffaut were still friends at this point, but their friendship was souring. By the next year, 1973, it would be permanently over due to conflicts over politics and filmmaking.
Godard, like Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorsese, was a cinematic sponge and would reference his films and also the films he loved. Tout Va Bien is probably best remembered for two set pieces: one during a strike at a sausage factory that Her and Him witness, and a long tracking shot at the end in a supermarket. Godard, like most French filmmakers and critics, was a long-time admirer of Jerry Lewis, and the strike sequence is an overt reference to Lewis’ The Ladies Man, which shows the factory cross-sectioned like a children’s dollhouse. This is a classic example of a Brechtian alienation device, and Bertolt Brecht is referenced in the dialogue numerous times.
The other big set-piece is an overt reference to Week End, where a long tracking shot shows the chaos in a grocery store that falls into looting, punctuated by the police and even a person trying to sell his political pamphlet. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out what Godard is trying to say there: Capitalism is evil, the revolution has been commercialised, etc. However, despite Godard bitching about the bourgeois, it becomes increasingly boring (especially as he himself was actually as bourgeois as you can get.) It ends up being a fascinating insight into his mindset at the time, even if he his conclusions are ultimately vapid and misguided for the most part. The film is helped enormously by two great actors and enough visual inventiveness to mesh into something more satisfying.
The same can’t be said for the utterly condescending pretentious Maoist wankfest which is Letter to Jane, which serves as some kind of “bookend” to the film. It’s Godard and Gorin examining through their Maoist ideology a picture of Jane Fonda during her infamous trip to Vietnam, and they aren’t even using the picture that got her the nickname “Hanoi Jane.” It’s the longest 50 minutes I’ve ever sat through, and its conclusions are juvenile and stupid. At one point they even call John Steinbeck a “future fascist,” which was an ultimate WTF moment. Give me Godard when he made films with a sense of fun and a lease for life like Alphaville or Bande à Part.
The disc also includes interviews with Godard and Gorin, Godard’s is from the ’70s and Gorin’s was filmed in the early ’00s.