‘Jean-Luc Godard & Jean-Pierre Gorin: Five Films (1968-1971)’ reviewed

❉ If you have never seen a full-fat Godard-Gorin joint before prepare to be…. Baffled? Bored? Attacked? Shell-shocked? Annoyed? Outraged?

“Quentin Tarantino famously called Godard the Bob Dylan of the movies, but he was also the Ornette Coleman, the John Cage, the Karlheinz Stockhausen. Even by today’s post-MTV, post-KLF sonic and visual landscape these films are, to put it mildly, hard going.”

There’s a key moment about halfway through Redoubtable, Michel Hazanavicius’ recent, breezily tragi-comic dramatization of the real-life relationship between Anne Wiazemsky and Jean Luc Godard. The whipsmart, kittenish Wiazemsky (played by Stacy Martin, the fearless young Englishwoman from Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac) is enjoying the company of her young hosts at a Parisian party when she spies her husband Godard (Louis Garrrel, complete with glasses, thinning thatch and somewhat over-pronounced lisp) deep in conversation with an equally intense, frowny young intellectual, Jean Pierre Gorin (Felix Kysil) The meeting is a significant one: the two young men will form a bond that outlives the marriage, but not the collaboration. The film ends several years later, with the three stuck in an Italian meadow trying to complete the filming of a scene from their political ‘spaghetti western’ Vent D’Est by committee, Godard clearly struggling to balance his need to be true to his collectivist principles versus his obvious urge to take charge.

It seems that 2018 is the year we have decided to remember Godard in a big way, it being the fiftieth anniversary of the student protests which gripped Paris that summer, and provided us with an endlessly watchable, endlessly resonant visual lexicon of student revolt. The gendarmerie with their white helmets, black coats and riot shields being driven back by the youthful sloganeers and situationists, all miniskirts, cheekbones and sideburns, all of it backlit by the flames from a burning Citroen DS.

In commemoration of these events (and also maybe just because they felt that these films should be presented in the best audio-visual quality available, as a permanent document) Arrow Video have released an impressive (not to say imposing) Blu-ray box set featuring five of the most significant moments in the life of the short-lived ‘Dziga-Vertov Group’. Comprising Godard, Gorin, Nathalie Billard, Armand Marco, Gerard Martin and many other collaborators and fellow travellers and named after the revolutionary (in both senses) director of avant-garde classic Man With A Movie Camera (that name itself an alias), the Dziga-vertov Group sought to break the very act of audio-visual communication apart, to question everything, to place the responsibility of deciphering their torn-up, astringent, abrasive agit-prop squarely in the eyes, ears and brain of the viewer. No longer would words, images and sounds caress and flatter: they would hector, cajole, harass, TEACH! In the words of one DVG manifesto their films were ‘simply a blackboard inscribed with the images and sounds produced by the concrete analysis of a concrete situation’!

Godard’s affiliation with Gorin and the Group came right at the height of his reputation as the with-it film-maker every intellectual hipster wanted to be. The core visual and thematic elements of the Dziga Vertov Group had already manifested themselves in his own films in the flat, pop-art stylisation and Maoist rhetoric of La Chinoise, in the cruel, gory absurdist middle-class apocalypse of Week-end, in the jarring juxtaposition of black power activism in the streets of London with the louche, druggy atmosphere of a Rolling Stones recording session in One Plus One.

Already an uncompromising conjurer of difficult, distressing, unfriendly anti-narratives who revelled in the revelation of cinematic artifice, joining with Gorin and the DVG allowed Godard to divest himself of even the pretence of commercial interests (well, not ENTIRELY…. but, more of that later) and commit himself fully to the Marxist/Brechtian dismantling of cinema itself. Week-End, his last commercially-released film before Gorin’s direct influence finishes with a title card saying ‘Fin Du Cinema’. Like Bowie at Hammersmith, Godard was saying goodbye, but only to a phase of himself. Killing the old to embrace the new.

If you have never seen a full-fat Dziga-Vertov joint before prepare to be…. well what? Baffled? Bored? Attacked? Shell-shocked? Annoyed? Outraged? Yes. All of these things are, one would imagine, desired by-products of these five films and Jean-Luc and Jean-Pierre would, one feels be delighted by any of these reactions. Quentin Tarantino famously called Godard the Bob Dylan of the movies, but he was also the Ornette Coleman, the John Cage, the Karlheinz Stockhausen. Even by today’s post-MTV, post -YBA, post-KLF sonic and visual landscape these films are, to put it mildly, hard going. The first real fruit of the collaboration Un Film Comme Les Autres (‘A Film Like all The Rest’… INHALE that sarcasm!) opens on (and stays with) a group of students, auto-workers, protestors and the film-makers themselves (is that Godard’s lisp we can hear in the mix?) as they sit in a field outside a Flins Renault Factory where a worker had been killed while protesting the previous summer. Their faces are hidden by the tall grass and insects buzz around them as they passionately discuss the events of the previous May. Intercut with these dense discussions of protest, proletarianism, the society of the spectacle and social mobility (or lack thereof) is black and white footage of the protests themselves, mostly handheld and all silent save an equally dense, convoluted voiceover throwing more Metz and Debord into the mix. The Blu-Ray really brings out the richness and texture of (uncredited, naturally) cinematographer William Lubtchansky’s images: you can practically smell the weeds, the cigarettes and the drying sweat.

British Sounds (AKA See You At Mao, the US release title) opens with a fist punching through a Union Jack and doesn’t really get any less subtle from there. Produced in part (amazingly enough) by London Weekend Television and then never actually shown on ITV (which slot would it have occupied? Just after Corrie on a Wednesday night? Or amid the farming adverts in place of Weekend World one Sunday afternoon?) It casts an unflinching eye on the British proletariat: more methodically segmented than Un Film Comme Les Autres, it begins with an extraordinary tracking shot of a car being built on an Oxfordshire assembly line by an assortment of Brylcreemed 1969-vintage blokes (one of whom looks startlingly like Eric Sykes) while a male voiceover deconstructs their social predicament in Marxist terms, occasionally drowned out by the whine of their machinery and their playful yelps and whoops, occasionally replaced by the sounds of a child’s history lesson on Wat Tyler and The Levellers (the original ones, that is). The next section sees a naked woman wandering up and down a flight of stairs as a female voice lays out the boundaries, contradictions and frustrations of female lives under capitalist patriarchy. A staged racist screed in the form of a fake party-political broadcast, is followed by the film’s most striking sequence: a lively discussion between a group of working-class factory workers about socialism and unionisation. If that sounds deathly-dull it really isn’t, if only because it features the all-too-rare sight in the media nowadays of the typical bloke on the street sounding off about his grievances with capitalism and the boss as opposed to, say, Islam or refugees.

A bunch of students from Essex University try to rewrite lyrics from the Beatles’ White Album to be even more bolshy and obvious: the temptation to sneer at their naivety may be invited, but one gets the impression that Godard-Gorin want us to see the touching seed of true revolution in them. British Sounds ends with a bloodied hand waving a red flag as a voice sings ‘We want our revolution NOW!”  Like I said, not subtle, but full of energy, anger, genuine grievance and an arresting desire to make us really spend time LOOKING at things, whether it’s an MG being built or a woman’s pudenda, complete with appendix scar.

Vent D’Est comes across like Andy Warhol’s similarly impoverished ‘western’ Lonesome Cowboys minus the campiness, although it does feature a genuine Italian western star in Gian Maria Volonte, a lot of energetic running-around and skirmishing in the Italian countryside, the liberal use of brightly-coloured paint as face-mask (shades of Pierrot Le Fou?) and torture device, Brazilian film-maker and kindred spirit Glauber Rocha pointing the way to Third World cinema (literally, at a crossroads), the luminous face of Anne Wiazemsky posing questions about who an image serves, and a long sequence in which the film abandons all sense of artifice and shows actors and technicians sitting around to discuss the use and meaning of Stalin and Mao’s faces in the film we’re watching.  Say what you like but you sure don’t get THAT level of self-reflexivity anywhere else. Well, maybe The Young Ones.

Lotte In Italia is perhaps the most typically ‘Godardian’ film of this particular bunch, reminiscent of his Parisian drama-cum- essay-film 2 Or 3 Things I Know About Her as it details the minutiae of a young Italian woman’s political awakening, her attempts to awaken and educate others, her turbulent family life and her struggle not to capitulate to consumerism. Surprising then to discover that it’s generally considered to be more Gorin’s project than Godard’s, coming across as almost a kitchen-sink character study in montage form, albeit one that is overloaded with discussions of dialectics and that obsessive need to question everything, even the film we are watching, our reasons for watching, and to pinpoint our place in society, in work, in advertising and consumer culture.

Perhaps the most straightforwardly ‘entertaining’ film of the bunch is the last one in the set, Vladimir Et Rosa. Coming on like a cross between a Brecht play and a Gallic counterpart to Spike Milligan’s Q, it revolves around a self-consciously low-fi, fictionalised recreation of the trial of the Chicago 8 featuring analogues of Abby Hoffman, Bobby Seale, David Dellinger and most memorably the notorious Judge Hoffman (here renamed ‘Judge Himmler’), portraying him as a shrill, infantile, constantly bellowing puppet of a corrupt system. As well as this Godard and Gorin put themselves in front of the camera, striding around the middle of a tennis match while carrying on a deliberately faltering, stuttering political argument, and then appearing as a cop and lawyer respectively for some heavy-handed undergraduate-revue-style political comedy. If you’ve ever wanted to know what Godard keeps in the front of his trousers….well it’s a police baton, in this case.

Dziga-Vertov Group inveigled Jane Fonda and Yves Montand for their next (and some might say most successful) film Tout Va Bien, before disbanding somewhere around a short documentary coda to that film, Letter To Jane. In their brief existence they never stopped working, never stopped thinking about film, ideology, society and the relationship between the three. Evaluating all of the material they left us is no easy task (neither is watching a lot of it, to be honest). From our Brexit/Trump-blighted vantage point at the start of a disappointingly vicious and conservative century the world as presented in these films seems like a different galaxy: a Europe where compassionate, engaged left-wing idealism flourished in the face of capitalist horrors.  But then these films are considered abrasive outliers even in Godard’s notoriously headache-inducing, text-and-idea-heavy canon. On the one hand they take a LOT of sitting through (to paraphrase David Cronenberg about his own early work), especially to a viewer who doesn’t speak French and so is burdened with ANOTHER barrier of written translation between him and an already dense and overwhelming sonic and visual landscape. On the other it’s a powerful and even moving thing to witness such commitment to a cause. If ever a set of films were ‘of their time’ these are. But they’re more than just a historical document of a time, place and unashamedly intellectual mindset that seems rarer and rarer in popular arts lately. Or maybe some of us need to look harder for the Godards and Gorins of now. But then again, Godard himself just launched his own new movie at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, via FaceTime press conference no less. He’s still out there, we just need his movies to be easier to see over here. ‘Easier’ as always, is a relative term when it comes to JLG of course.

EXTRAS: The biggie is a pretty comprehensive interview from 2010 with Godard by film-makers Pierre-Henri Gibert and Dominique Maillet. Sitting in a dowdy hotel room in a dowdy T-shirt, with a constant cigar on the go, and what’s left of his hair reaching for the sky, he speaks with frankness, wit and not a little quiet amusement about his own monumental, strange career, quantum mechanics, Brecht, Pirandello, his hatred of movies like Avatar, and his bemusement that people still like his early film Bande A Part, suggesting that if Tarantino had asked him, he could have suggested a better title for Quentin to steal for his production company.

There is also a fascinating interview with critic Michael Witt which shines invaluable light on where Godard was at politically and artistically during the period covered, his relationship with Gorin and the reasons Dziga-Vertov came together and ultimately broke apart.

Maybe the actual pick of the extras is the briefest one: a one-minute advert for ‘Shick’ aftershave which opens with a couple arguing about the news from Palestine and ends with the woman being seduced by the cool scent of Schick. Wonder why THAT was never shown on French TV?

Jean-Luc Godard + Jean-Pierre Gorin: Five Films (1968-1971)’ (UK Cat No: FCD1511) is available from Arrow Academy on Dual Format Blu-ray & DVD, RRP: £59.99. 

Become a patron at Patreon!