click to buy “La Chinoise” at Amazon.comSix years ago, in the pages of this journal, former director of the Melbourne International Film Festival Geoff Gardner described the DVD distribution of Jean-Luc Godard’s films as both “spotty and, really, rather irrational” (1). He had a point, at least at the time. There were, back then, according to Gardner, only five of Godard’s films available on DVD: one in Britain, four in the United States and none at all in Australia. Slightly more than spotty, if you ask me, even for the time.

Thankfully, things have changed since the humble days of 2001. There are now a number of works by Godard available on DVD, covering the length (if not quite the breadth) of his polymorphous career (including, if one counts the inclusion of Letter to Jane: An Investigation About a Still (1972) on the Criterion release of Tout va bien (1972), his Dziga Vertov period – though this remains decidedly underrepresented otherwise). Here, in Region 4, we have been lucky enough to benefit from the combined efforts of Madman and Umbrella Entertainment, which, in little more than eighteen months, have released seven Godard films on DVD, only four of which had been previously available (two on Criterion releases). From Madman: La Chinoise (1967), released May 2005; Vivre sa vie: film en douze tableux (1962), June 2006; Masculin féminin: 15 faits précis (1966) and 2 ou 3 Choses que je sais d’elle (2 or 3 Things I Know About Her, 1967), both November 2006. From Umbrella: ‘Je vous salue, Marie’ (Hail Mary, 1985), March 2006; Bande à part (1964) and Sympathy for the Devil (1968), both October 2006.

This is a fairly eclectic and, one might say, representative series of titles, in the sense that, taken together, they can be seen to form an image – however skeletal – of Godard’s career trajectory. Watching these titles in close proximity, one can’t help but become increasingly aware of the continuities – the proclivity for quotation, the thematic centrality of prostitution, the critical concern with the pictorial representation of women, the ever-evolving (maturing?) political values, the unparalleled invention of forms – inherent in the Godardian corpus. Vivre sa vie and (especially) Bande à part, with their pæanic quotation of Hollywood cinema and bursts of sometimes achingly affective lyricism, begin to give way in Masculin féminin: 15 faits précis, 2 ou 3 Choses que je sais d’elle and (especially) La Chinoise, showing signs of stress (and shortly thereafter going underground) in the face of Godard’s increasingly radical politics. Such politics, of course – those of the Marxist-Leninist-Maoist persuasion – come to the fore, post-Week End (1967), with its famously apocalyptic closing titles – “Fin du cinéma/Fin du monde” – and (especially) post-May, in the wonderful Sympathy for the Devil. From there, Godard disappears, one assumes – or at least one must in response to the unavailability of the films – into a black hole of commercial unviablity. The films of the Dziga Vertov period, pedagogic and tinted red as they are, and the television and video works of the 1970s, remain, criminally, both unreleased and unseeable (except in dubious dubs online): these are Godard’s un-films, so to speak, repressed as much in Region 4 as they are elsewhere in the cinescape. Regardless, the filmmaker resurfaces – and his lyricism along with him, more painterly than before – in the 1980s, the decade represented here by ‘Je vous salue, Marie’ (1985). As for the 1990s and 2000s, Region 4 still lacks its ‘late’ Godards, though we might do well to assume they’re coming.

Le paquet

The first of the discs to be released, Madman’s La Chinoise, is a modest, but promising, little package – a featherweight in terms of features, but an exciting sign of things to come. Released, as each of the ensuing Madman releases would be, under the company’s “Director’s Suite” label – its haut couture wing, so to speak – the disc’s packaging, done in the Director’s Suite house style, is particularly attractive. Lined with silver trimming, upon which there appears a faint motif of film festival laurels, the disc’s striking cover image, blood red and given the texture of newsprint, shows Guillaume (Jean-Pierre Léaud) behind a chest-high pile of little red books, one of which he holds up in a clenched fist. Flanked on either side by female arms, which also hold up books, Guillaume is the very image of stoical revolutionary youth, the rays of a red sun seemingly bursting forth from his body at the centre of the image. The disc’s back cover includes a series of quotes from disparate sources – from Time Out, from Michael Brooke, from Pauline Kael – and a piece of mindless, throwaway trivia (“Godard is one of the leading directors of the French New Wave”). Inside, there’s a director’s biography, which, impressively, will change from disc to disc depending on the film and the context in which it was made, and a truncated filmography. There’s also a quote on the inner right-hand cover, just above the disc, which has all the air of an Entertainment Tonight sound-byte (from the release of Vivre sa vie onwards, these quotes will all be Godardian aphorisms). Across the board, the packaging of the Madman releases, not to mention the disc menus, are beautiful works of graphic design in and of themselves: the covers of Vivre sa vie and 2 or 3 Things – the former a hot pink, the latter awash in turquoise – are particularly striking, as are the Indian yellow menus on Masculin féminin.

click to buy “Bande à part” at Amazon.comThe covers of the Umbrella releases are bland by comparison. Those of both ‘Je vous salue, Marie’ and Bande à part, for example, consist of grainy, cheap-looking frame enlargements; only Sympathy for the Devil, as if in answer to the Warholian treatment of Nana (Anna Karina) on the cover of Vivre sa vie, shows any creativity of design, but even its hand-tinted Mick Jagger seems muted when forced to contend with the loud colours and dynamic forms of the Madman releases.

This, one might argue, is neither here nor there: it’s what’s on the disc that counts, not how it’s been packaged. But is this really (or at least completely) the case? As designer Chong Weng-Ho wrote recently of rock ’n’ roll album covers: “Artwork – art, even – on the covers lent another kind of glamour to the project of rock ’n’ roll; if it was art on the outside, then a hint was dropped of what lay within.” (2) One need only think of the Criterion Collection and its consistently striking cover art – the covers of Warui yatsu hodo yoku nemuru (The Bad Sleep Well, Akira Kurosawa, 1960) and Le Cercle rouge (Jean-Pierre Melville, 1970) come instantly to mind – to get a hint of the effect that packaging has, not so much on the film inside, as on the authority – the level of cultural value – bestowed on the DVD release itself. Clearly, in the same way that many Criterion Collection releases have come to be regarded as the definitive release of a film (despite the fact that Criterion itself often re-releases its own titles), Madman can be seen to approach each of its discs (and its Director’s Suite titles in particular) as a kind of cultural event or ‘statement’. As we shall see, the high quality and academic air of its special features – such as the Criterion-esque inclusion of a twenty-page, full-colour booklet with 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her – add to the overall feeling that each of the Madman releases is to be considered ‘the’ release – the full stop, so to speak, at the end of the R4 page. In this way, I think, the company might even be seen to have its sights set on being the Australian answer to the Criterion Collection. Umbrella, by comparison, appears to have much humbler ambitions, despite the quality and originality of some of their special features (at least those on Sympathy for the Devil and ‘Je vous salue, Marie’, if not so much on Bande à part). It is to special features that we now turn our attention.

Usages spéciaux

If packaging goes some of the way toward asserting the ‘authority’, so to speak, of a DVD release, then the quality and tenor (not to mention the sheer number) of its special features can be seen to concrete it – or otherwise. The special features on these seven discs, varying in both quality and utility, can be broken down into roughly three categories: audio commentaries (and one academic essay); trailers and short films; and everything else (the usual throwaway promotional stuff, with a couple of nice surprises).

Les commentaires

In terms of commentaries, there are five to choose from: Senses of Cinema co-editor Rolando Caputo, speaking to half an hour’s worth of Bande à part; former Melbourne International Film Festival director James Hewison, delivering a feature-length commentary on La Chinoise; and, with the hat trick, Adrian Martin, whose commentaries on Vivre sa vie, Masculin féminin, and 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her deftly interpenetrate one another, each informing and enriching the others’ analyses, and further entrenching the feeling of continuity – the sense of this being series, a collection – that exists between the Madman titles. As previously mentioned, there is also an essay, written by CTEQ annotations editor Adrian Danks, which comes in a little twenty-page booklet inside the cover of 2 or 3 Things.

click to buy “Vivre sa vie” at Amazon.comMartin’s commentaries are far and away the most illuminating of the five, if occasionally given to repetition (an inevitable and I think forgivable result of his attempts to point out as many examples of certain key ideas as possible). Curiously both rhizomatic and centralised in their structure, these commentaries are, on the one hand, all-encompassing surveys that try to deal with the films as they exist and function within a complex network of associations. Martin’s comments are informed, in equal measure, by philosophy, sociology, formalism, auteurism, cinema history, production histories and popular trivia. On the other hand, they are usually grounded in a key idea or concept as well, which Martin uses as a critical entry point into each of the films. Hence, in his commentary for Vivre sa vie (in which he is unfortunately cut-off mid-sentence at the very end of the credits), the centrality of textual quotation – the idea of the quoted text as a formal structuring device – is borrowed from Susan Sontag’s famous essay on the film (3), and is returned to time and time again (perhaps prompting that aforementioned feeling of occasional repetition). In his commentary for Masculin féminin, with that film’s manifold instances of interview and, in the infamous case of Mademoiselle 19 ans (Elsa Leroy), interrogation (or is it torture?), the key idea becomes Godard’s inquiry into what Nicole Brenez has called “the forms of the question” (4): the ways in which questions find form and take shape in Godard’s cinema.

In the case of 2 or 3 Things, Martin’s commentary, pivoting on the idea of the film as a transitional, almost schizophrenic, work, is supplemented by (and in turn supplements) Adrian Danks’ essay, “The Space Between Things: Godard’s 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her”. Though both commentary and essay cover some of the same ground (the theme of prostitution, the broader sociological critique, the problems of language, representation and communication), both can also be seen to offer their own unique insights into the work. Martin, for example, however briefly, evaluates the role and nature of performance in the film, highlighting the often overlooked and “extraordinarily dexterous” performance of Marina Vlady, which can be seen to operate across numerous levels or strata of representation at once. Danks, meanwhile, vis-à-vis a discussion of modern urban design and the Internationalist style of architecture, connects the film to Jacques Tati’s Playtime (1967), drawing parallels between two otherwise exceedingly different films and their comparable critiques of both consumer culture and the redevelopment of Paris.

Rolando Caputo’s commentary on Bande à part, which plays over the top of selected fragments of the film in a special feature called “Images Apart”, is less in-depth and theoretically inclined than any of those by Martin. This is no doubt partly, but probably not exclusively, a result of his commentary’s abridged length, which doesn’t allow for much elaboration. One gets a sense of the formal introduction in Caputo’s discussion of Godardian genre experiments and the production methods of the early nouvelle vague, though this informed and considered ‘simplicity’ – if one can call it that – is, in itself, no bad thing. Indeed, insofar as “Images Apart” was presumably intended as an introduction to Godard and his work, it serves its purpose well: everyone needs to start somewhere, after all, and Caputo’s commentary is as good a place as any. (5)

Hewison’s commentary, however, while serviceable, is also the weakest of the five. On the one hand, its efforts to situate the film in its political and historical context are both informed and informative; on the other, Hewison offers comparatively little critical insight into the film’s formal operations, which he nevertheless praises as revolutionary. Additionally, where someone like Martin often struggles to include, not only everything he himself wishes to say, but also that of countless other commentators, Hewison’s commentary seems critically hermetic and curiously littered with pockets of dead air. This is perhaps its greatest shortcoming: for all his attempts at political contextualisation, Hewison ultimately fails to situate La Chinoise in terms of critical and theoretical debates about cinema – debates which Godard’s films not only take part in, but, in many ways, define.

Les films courts et prévisions

Three of the seven discs include early short works by Godard: with Vivre sa vie, Une histoire d’eau (1961), which Godard directed with François Truffaut; with Masculin féminin, Charlotte et son Jules (1960), a one-acter featuring Jean-Paul Belmondo, which looks forward to the famous bedroom scene at the centre of À Bout de souffle (6); and, with 2 or 3 Things, Charlotte et Véronique, ou Tous les garçons s’appellent Patrick (1959), which, for my money, is the most entertaining of the three. Ultimately, however, as Colin McCabe rightly notes, “it would be foolish to pretend that [these early shorts] have much more than historical interest” (7). Nearly all of them (Charlotte et Véronique perhaps excepted) feel overly long and betray a certain lack of understanding in regards to the exigencies of the short form – or more likely, as McCabe suggests, a dissatisfaction with it: “a short film”, Godard once remarked, “does not have the time to think” (8).

Much more interesting, if only for their relative marginality (at least in comparison the films listed above), are two other short works included as extras. A fourth short film, Anne-Marie Mieville’s Le Livre de Marie (1984), is bundled in with ‘Je vous salue, Marie’, which it both predates and should, ideally, precede. Particularly affecting is the film’s penultimate scene, a montage of intense gestural and rhythmic power, in which Marie (Rebecca Hampton) dances to Mahler’s 9th Symphony. Spinning around, punching at the air and writhing about on the floor of the living room, Marie finally collapses in exhaustion and grief. This, not only at her parents’ separation, but also, more fundamentally, at the change – the terrifying necessity of change to life – which it implies: “Nothing can stay the same. It becomes … it becomes different.”

Interesting also, though it may seem bizarre to highlight it at all, is the trailer for 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her. Presented without audio (“let me tell you in silence 2 or 3 things I know about her”), the trailer compresses into two-and-a-half minutes what the film will spend eighty delving into more fully: namely, the ‘her’ that is (or at least was) mid-1960s France. The trailer is an essay (or is it a diagnosis?) written in images of Mondrianian colour and intensity, and supplemented by handwritten text on white card. One can’t help but be reminded that that the trailer is as open to complex formal experimentation as any short or feature film and that it need not serve as a mere advertisement, but can, in fact, be a manifesto in and of itself. Indeed, the trailer for 2 or 3 Things, I would argue, stands on its own in the same way that Alfred Hitchcock’s trailer for Psycho (1960) and Stanley Kubrick’s for Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) have been seen to. (The trailers on the other discs are unfortunately less interesting.)

Usages divers

As with most DVD special features, there’s still a lot of miscellaneous debris, down there towards the bottom. Image galleries are never particularly exciting, especially those with a paucity of production stills (why, pray tell, watch a slide show of frame enlargements when one can just as easily watch the moving frames?). Meanwhile, self-serving propaganda – trailers for other Madman and Umbrella releases – always strikes me as mildly insulting.

Sympathy for the Devil

However, one of the discs – Sympathy for the Devil – has three special features that are decidedly unique. There’s Richard Mordaunt’s Voices (1968), which, with its one-on-one interviews in broken English with the quietly feverous post-May Godard, is the only behind-the-scenes featurette on any of the discs. There’s One Plus One (1968), the film that Sympathy was meant to be before Godard’s producers took it away from him and – the fascists! – changed its title and jazzed up its final scene. Indeed, in One Plus One, Sympathy’s gloriously reflexive and, yet, still-lyrical finale (Godardian lyricism’s last gasp before the ’70s?) is subtly but significantly altered. The core of the scene (thankfully) still remains: an actress playing a female militant in red shoes (Anne Wiazemsky) is gunned down on a beach, surrounded by a film crew, before being spattered carelessly with red paint from a bottle by Godard and raised into the air on a camera crane. Her motionless body, arm outstretched, dangles in midair, flanked by two flags – one black, one red – while the squeaky narration of Sean Lynch intones: “Yes, it was all a waste of time. I’ve got to do something, got to get out of this place. So long.” Gone in One Plus One are the grace notes: the variously coloured filters, applied to the final image, flickering across it in time with the beat of the Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil” – which is also gone, never to be heard in its entirety in what has been referred to here as (what else?) Godard’s “Director’s Cut”. (One is reminded of Adrian Martin’s assertion in the commentary of 2 or 3 Things that prostitution is “for Godard the basic metaphor which explains society”: Sympathy, by including “Sympathy” more or less in full, in spite of Godard’s wishes – i.e., as a product for consumption, as if the film itself were little more than an advertisement for the song – prostitutes itself; One Plus One, in contrast, refuses to.)

The third of the unique features warrants a personal anecdote (for what is cinéphilia if not biographical?). I will never forget the first time I saw Sympathy for the Devil, on the big screen at the Melbourne International Film Festival in 2006, when no less than half the audience – presumably disgruntled Stones fans – walked out. Slowly but surely, with surprising consistency, the cinema was emptied like a bucket with a hole in it. The remaining patrons included a few clusters of bewildered Stones fans, who had stayed seated in stubborn loyalty to Jagger and company, and a spattering of smug Godardians, who secretly coveted Anne Wiazemsky and made unfunny jokes about cinemarxism. Imagine my delight, then, when I discovered that, as if in response to the supposed unpalatability of at least fifty per cent of the film to their target demographic, Umbrella have included a special feature on the DVD that allows the viewer to skip over Godard’s Brechtian political tableaux at will and simply watch the scenes of the Stones in the studio. I’m not being smarmy about this at all. I think it’s a very good idea.

2 ou 3 commentaires récapitulatifs

We are clearly in a better place now than we were six years ago, though, just as clearly, much still remains to be seen on these shores, not to mention elsewhere. This is not the place for a political rant about the wilful blind spots, fuelled by commercial imperatives and interests, which pop up endlessly in discussions about what films do and do not get distribution, both theatrically and on DVD. Suffice to say that’s there’s much to be seen. I’m not going to hold my breath.

For the moment, however, happily, Madman and Umbrella have delivered a truly excellent series of DVDs, thoughtfully authored and generously supplemented, admirable despite the occasional flaws. They have delivered some high-quality ‘packages’. However, underneath the special features, the films – the stuff that really matters – and each of these, in and of themselves, must surely be considered a welcome addition to the collection of the card-carrying Godardian.

Click here to order La Chinoise from  Amazon.com

Click here to order Vivre sa vie: film en douze tableux from  Amazon.com

Click here to order 2 ou 3 Choses que je sais d’elle from  Amazon.com

Click here to order ‘Je vous salue, Marie’ from  Amazon.com

Click here to order Bande à part from  Amazon.com

Endnotes

  1. Geoff Gardner, “The Godard Streak Or Absence Makes the Heart Grow Fonder”, Senses of Cinema, No. 15, July-August 2001, accessed December 23 2006.
  2. Chong Weng-Ho, “Cover Story”, Meanjin, Vol. 65.3, p. 140.
  3. Susan Sontag, “On Godard’s Vivre sa vie”, Moviegoer, No. 2, Summer/Autumn 1964, p. 9.
  4. Nicole Brenez, “The Forms of the Question”, in M. Temple, J. Williams and M. Witt (Eds), For Ever Godard (London: Black Dog Publishing, 2004), p. 175.
  5. It should be noted that sound quality is somewhat tinnier on the Umbrella commentary than it is on those of the Madman releases. I have been assured that moves have been made to address this technical shortcoming for future recordings.
  6. Colin McCabe, Godard: A Portrait of the Artist at Seventy (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003), p. 92.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid.