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French Cinema's Reluctant Genius

Jean-Luc Godard makes incomprehensible films appreciated by tiny audiences, and he has no intention of changing.
Scott Kraft
From the Print Edition:
Michael Richards, Sep/Oct 97

(continued from page 3)

When it comes to dealing with the public, Godard can have sharp mood swings. He will spend hours with a young film student one day, and not answer his phone the next. He didn't show up for a retrospective of his work in New York, but appeared at a roundtable discussion in France on the future of cinema.

For years, he has smoked Cohibas, which run about $20 apiece in Switzerland, though he is a languid practitioner of that art. During our interview, he had to relight his cigar a dozen times, finally finishing it after three hours. Smoking expensive Cuban cigars would seem to be his only bourgeoisie weakness, and it's not one he chooses to discuss. Asked later, by telephone, to talk about his evident love of cigars, he demurs. "I'm not in the mood to answer questions," he says. His assistant in Paris explains that Godard is depressed over his film Forever Mozart. He had waited until just before shooting to write the script, as is his custom. (He also is known for encouraging actors to ad-lib their lines.)

Forever Mozart turned out to be a devastating portrait of French intellectuals wringing their hands over the war in Bosnia but doing nothing to help end it. The movie had its world premiere during a film festival in Sarajevo last year. "Before showing my film in Strasbourg, capital of Europe, I wanted to give it to Sarajevo, capital of suffering," Godard says. "It was the people of Sarajevo who inspired this film." The reactions in Sarajevo, though, were typically mixed: some in the audience praised it as evocative and powerful, while a few people walked out, finding it too dense and bloody. Godard himself couldn't make the Sarajevo opening, having been called upon at the last minute to take over the male lead in Nous Sommes Tous Encour Ici (We Are All Still Here), a film being shot under the direction of Mieville.

Most of his movies these days are funded by Gaumont, the French cinema chain, and Canal Plus, the French cable movie channel. Although his films are not box-office hits, he completes them in six weeks and they cost less than most television movies, about $2 million each, so they usually break even. "When someone gives me 10 million francs [about $2 million] to make a movie, I never say it's not much," Godard says. "I can still spend 10 million francs and do something interesting. Then you discover that it is a lot of money. Of course, if you hire 40 people and want a helicopter in the Sahara, you can't do it."

Godard doesn't think much of actors, especially those who he says are more interested in reading lines than in creating lines. He expects his actors to be willing to collaborate with him in the pursuit of art; hence his reluctance to begin with a firm script. He is, in fact, most truly at home in the editing room, which makes him something of a dinosaur in the business. "With television and computers, the art of editing has disappeared," he says. "Now there are just lawyers and agents. It's over for me. I still have the same enthusiasm, though not the same strength. It's very physically exhausting, making movies. I'm more tired."

In 1995, France marked the 100th anniversary of the first film shown by the Lumière brothers to a paying audience. In celebration after celebration, French film industry leaders have patted themselves on the back for their rich history.

Godard, ever the paradox, doesn't buy it. For him, the history of cinema is a story of failure, brought on by the pursuit of profits. "The child is suffocating under the sweets," he once told a French newspaper interviewer. "I don't see what we are celebrating. Cinema is ultra-celebrated. I think it is the celebration of an idea that has died in those who celebrate it. They want to believe it is alive, but they are the dead ones.

"Before the war," he tells me, "there was a difference between bad American movies and bad Swedish movies and bad French movies. But, little by little, America has taken over world culture. American culture is all over. Blue jeans. Cigarettes. It's too much. I think we should have the right to bad Spanish movies, not only bad American movies. I have nothing against blue jeans. I just don't like them on everyone. It's too disgusting."

That dour view of cinematic history comes through clearly in Histoire(s) du Cinema, a two-part video documentary Godard directed several years ago. The series was greeted with interest, but also bafflement, in France. In the United States, Katherine Dieckman, writing in the magazine Art in America, described it as "expansive, densely layered and elegiac--at once an idiosyncratic version of film history and a brooding autopsy of it."

In a strange way, though, Godard seems to love film's failure as well as its success. "I like everything in movies," he says. "The old Indian movies, the dreadful Hollywood production. There is such a circus. That's why I'm still well known, because I'm probably the only one who loves movies in every sense."

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