Lions Gate Home Entertainment
Cast: Isabelle Huppert, Maruschka Detmers, Jean-Pierre Léaud, Gérard Depardieu
In the late 1950s and 1960s, Jean-Luc Godard was one of the pioneers of the French New Wave, a movement in French cinema that emphasized naturalism over classical cinematic form and broke away from conventional structure with innovative and daring techniques. Starting out as writers for the influential film journal Cahiers du cinéma, which was instrumental in the critical appraisal of directors such as Alfred Hitchcock and Howard Hawks, the New Wave directors (including François Truffaut and Éric Rohmer) sought to deconstruct cinema and present it in a style that removed the high gloss and carefully constructed plotlines of classical narrative to create films that were more socially honest, grounded in reality, and challenged authority. Shooting on low budgets, these filmmakers used handheld cameras, cast unknown or amateur actors, and shot on real and available locations rather than in studios. Godard's 1960 international hit "Breathless" is ranked among the benchmarks of the New Wave with its jump cuts, jazz score, and scorching young stars.
After the New Wave ended in the late 1960s and after a series of more expressly political films in the 1970s, Godard turned out a stream of more personal and autobiographical movies that were no less challenging than his early successes. Made with relatively higher budgets and featuring some of the best-known actors in France, the films of this period continued to experiment with cinematic and narrative forms, often interweaving multiple storylines and fragmented ideas into a filmic collage of deeper meaning. Lions Gate Home Entertainment has gathered four films from this period in a new box set, presenting some, if not all, of them for the first time on Region 1 DVD. Although these are not generally ranked among Godard's most memorable or canonical works, they are a welcome and fascinating addition to the digital format for their artistic merit and as products of one of the truly great directors.
Filmed in 1982, "Passion" centers on Polish director Jerzy (Jerzy Radziwilowicz) as he struggles to maintain control during production of a French movie called "Passion." Faced with uncooperative actors, nervous producers who do not understand the story, and his own troubled love life, Jerzy finds himself romantically torn between Hanna (Hanna Schygulla), the owner of the hotel where the cast and crew are staying, and Isabelle (Isabelle Huppert), a young factory worker plucked from her job to be an extra in the movie. His film seems more like a series of live-action recreations of famous Rembrandt paintings than an action-driven story, and potential distributors come and go as they find Jerzy's movie incomprehensible and unmarketable. This leads Jerzy to question the nature of movies and why they must always tell stories, while his romantic conquests struggle with their own desires: Hanna with her search for the love that her husband cannot provide, and Isabelle with her simple desire for honest work and payment.
As in so many of Godard's films, we constantly reminded during "Passion" that we are watching a movie. The main characters are named after the actors who play them, and Godard plays with our expectations of conventional narrative. There is no single storyline to follow here, and we are confronted with this truth every time someone asks Jerzy what the story of his film is. While Hanna and Isabelle's conversations provide thoughtful contemplations on love and the passion for work (a class observation that may be lost on many American viewers), it is Jerzy who takes precedence, an obvious alter ego for Godard and his ongoing exploration of cinema conventions.
While "Passion" is intriguing on an intellectual level, it is terribly sluggish and something of a chore to get through. Granted, this is no doubt the kind of anti-Hollywood film Godard intended to make, and I can appreciate that. Even from an artistic standpoint, however, the overarching themes occasionally get lost in the film's overly self-conscious style. The performances by Schygulla and Huppert are touching, but their scenes lack emotion, and if Godard intended us to identify with their problems as much as we do with Jerzy's, then he failed to create the proper balance needed to achieve this. His interest clearly lies more in the discussion of film, but without an emotional center or relatable characters, the film is weighed down by clever but vapid technique. In spite of its best intentions, the film is a frustrating, even challenging, but ultimately empty experience.
Prénom Carmen (First Name: Carmen)
"Prénom Carmen" (1983) is probably the most conventionally enjoyable film in this collection, due largely to the fact that it is the most traditional and accessible in its narrative, though that is not saying much. With equal parts heist drama and romantic comedy, the movie continues Godard's exploration of film, but this one contains much more humanity than "Passion." Godard quite literally inserts more of himself into this film, appearing as a discontented director who checks into a mental hospital to escape from the world. Carmen (Maruschka Detmers) is his beautiful niece who asks permission to shoot a movie with her friends in his seaside house. In reality, they plan to use it as a hideout after robbing a bank. In a sequence that is riveting in its blending of violence, slapstick, and romance, Carmen falls head-over-heels for a bank security guard, Joseph (Jacques Bonnaffé). Retreating to her uncle's house, they argue, make love, depart, and meet again as she and her criminal friends plan to pull off a kidnapping heist.
Once again, Godard interweaves seemingly disconnected material with the main story, this time a series of vignettes featuring a violin quartet rehearsing Beethoven. Their music, sometimes played softly and sometimes frenetically, compliments the action and the emotions of the characters beautifully. The intimate scenes between Carmen and Joseph as they struggle to find their place in society and in each other's hearts echo scenes of the two lovers in "Breathless." The lovers here are played with raw energy and fire by Detmers and Bonnaffé, and their love-hate relationship becomes a springboard for Godard's contemplation on identity and the need to be a part of something. Reflective dialogue, abrupt blasts of music or silence, and non-chronological editing emphasize the New Wave techniques that first brought Godard international attention, but they also play an integral role in visually and aurally conveying the characters' youthful confusion.
"Prénom Carmen" develops a mostly cohesive story while simultaneously drawing our attention to the cinema artifice. There is a playfulness in the technique amidst the film's sincerity, and Godard plays the medium as adroitly as the violinists play their instruments. He allows himself to be the subject of mockery in his scenes as the former director, showing a vulnerability that, on one level fits in with the depiction of the heroes, and on another becomes a kind of self exposure, a confession of disillusionment and uncertainty about his medium. He even goes so far as to use his own name in the film, thereby completely identifying himself as the lost filmmaker on the brink of either insanity or failure.
Drawing upon a multitude of genres and styles, from film noir and crime to slapstick comedy, "Détective" (1985) is a variable but entertaining experiment. A sort of "Grand Hotel" for the European art crowd, the film begins with a pair of house detectives (Jean-Pierre Léaud and Laurent Terzieff) attempting to piece together a murder mystery that took place in a French hotel two years earlier. Meanwhile, in the same hotel, boxing manager Jim Warner (Johnny Hallyday) is hounded by the Chenals (Nathalie Baye and Claude Brasseur), a married couple who claim he owes them money. Mrs. Chenal in particular keeps after him, eventually sparking up an affair, but Warner has more pressing financial issues with the Mafia that must be taken care of first. As the detectives stalk around the hotel in often cartoonish fashion, they become mixed up with the current intrigue, which has something to do with rigged boxing matches, but no one is working toward the same agenda, resulting in total chaos.
The movie focuses primarily on the love triangle between Warner and the Chenals, but Léaud's detective is a memorably bizarre plot device whose sole purpose seems to be to connect all of the characters. Seen throughout the film in various disguises, running wildly in the backgrounds of scenes in search of clues, he is reminiscent of the silent-era Keystone Cops, always in pursuit of someone or something but too bumbling to solve the case. He has no direct connection with the rest of the storylines, but by the film's end all of the threads have been weaved together so tightly that it is difficult to separate them and see what relates to what and how. It is fathomable that after multiple viewings it will be easier to sort out this confusion, but Godard clearly wants the viewer to be confused. Other characters float around in the mix, including Léaud's 18-year-old fiancée (Aurelle Doazan), a boxer who keeps threatening to knock himself out (Stéphane Ferrara), and a very young Julie Delpy as a little girl with a knowledge beyond her years.
Where "Passion" underscored the difficulties and frustrations of filmmaking, "Détective" seems to celebrate the diverse possibilities of the medium with its nods to cinema history and the changing style of action. In fact, Godard actually dedicates the film to directors John Cassavetes, Edgar G. Ulmer, and Clint Eastwood, a ploy that may be motivated as much by irony as it is by gratitude. While the shifts in tone and general chaos tend to make the film seem less focused than other works in this set, I get the underlying impression that Godard knows exactly what he is doing, and it may take the viewers several viewings to catch up with him.
Hélas pour moi (Oh, Woe Is Me)
This 1993 film is by far the most provocative and experimental of the group, taking its story from a Greek legend about Zeus taking the form of a woman's husband in order to experience physical love with her. In this contemporary retelling, Simon Donnadieu (Gérard Depardieu) leaves his wife, Rachel (Laurence Masliah), suddenly and without much discussion. Some time later, he returns to her, now claiming to be God incarnated in Simon's body. She at first does not believe him, choosing instead to confront him about their problems, but he persists in his claim. What unfolds from that point on is a perplexing, often powerful rumination on the existence of God within people and how they choose to believe. As Rachel struggles to understand how the man she has known so intimately can now be someone completely different, she is also forced to revisit the day he left her and confront her own emotional reaction.
Godard wisely allows Simon's claim to remain ambiguous rather than providing a definite answer to whether or not he is really God. Depardieu's performance is commanding from this perspective, as he creates a character so utterly human but with a hint of divinity at the same time. Masliah is also quite remarkable in a role that requires her to go from a blank slate to a torrent of emotion. In one startling sequence, Godard presents a montage of shots of Simon walking away from Rachel, all shot from the same camera angle and capturing a different reaction from her. This wordless moment communicates more about the pain, sadness, and confusion of separation than most films convey in their entirety. It is a brilliant sequence.
Elsewhere, the film retreats into frequently impenetrable twists in narrative form. Scenes are repeated with different outcomes, title cards with abstract thoughts are inserted in the middle of the action, and an unseen narrator comments on the nature of film. Like "Passion," this film starts to veer dangerously close to being almost too experimental (dare I use the dreaded word "pretentious") for its own good. What rescues it, however, is the honesty and power of the lead performances and the complex relationship established between the main characters. We come away from this film reflecting on its technique, as Godard certainly wants us to, but we are also asked to reflect upon the possibilities of a higher power and what roll it plays in our human dilemmas.
The four films in this collection are spread over three discs. "Passion" and "Prénom Carmen" share Disc 1, "Détective" occupies Disc 2, and Disc 3 contains "Hélas pour moi" and a bonus featurette. This is the fourth in a series of box sets from Lions Gate that feature lesser known works from renowned directors. Past honorees include Jean Renoir, Alfred Hitchcock, and Luis Buñuel. These sets are wonderful collections for film buffs, honoring the often overlooked works of master filmmakers and presenting them in smart transfers at affordable prices.
All of the films look just great, especially considering their relative obscurity. "Prénom Carmen" probably looks the best, with a sharp transfer and some nice-looking film grain. "Détective" and "Hélas pour moi" are a bit soft at times, but this is hardly intrusive. "Passion" looks somewhat dark, but this may be its natural appearance. All of the transfers display vibrant colors and excellent contrast. Mostly rich black levels are a plus (Godard utilized natural lighting on these films, and this often results in less than perfect images), and all four films are in their original 1.33:1 aspect ratio.
Audio on all of the films is delivered in original French mono, and it sounds fantastic. These films make extensive, often frenetic use of music and sound effects even though the narratives are dialogue-heavy. Voices are perfectly clear and audible. Music comes through loudly and cleanly without distortion. Each film is accompanied by removable subtitles in English and Spanish.
The only supplement offered is a 30-minute featurette called "Jean-Luc Godard: A Riddle Wrapped in an Enigma" on Disc 3. Critic David Sterritt, film professor Wheeler Winston Dixon, and critic/filmmaker Kent Jones provide interviews discussing this particular period in Godard's career and the films in this collection specifically. Their observations about the movies and Godard's style are fairly general and are most likely nothing that has not been said elsewhere, but it is a welcome and unexpected feature for this set. To be honest, I was quite relieved to hear from them that my bewilderment after watching these films is both common and expected.
These four movies represent an often overlooked period in the career of one of contemporary cinema's greatest innovators. Although they may not stand with Jean-Luc Godard's best or most celebrated work, they hold great significance in understanding his progression over time and his development as a filmmaker. For those unfamiliar with Godard's work, it must be said that these films are not the place to start. Begin with "Breathless" and work your way through his earlier, canonical films before jumping into these. For his devotees, this collection is a gem and an essential. In making these films available, Lions Gate has truly done a great service for the film community and continues to impress with its line of classic box sets.