The Aging of the New Wave
It was a historic event of sorts. The twentieth anniversary of the birth of the French New Wave, or Nouvelle Vague. What? Twenty years already? was the reaction of the French public, but not of the Nouvelle Vague’s founding fathers. The world had changed too much. Their temporary alliance had been shattered long ago. There was too much bitterness. No longer considered a unified or even coherent movement except perhaps abroad, the group would hardly have gathered in fond recollection. But as it happened, in the fall of 1980 the vagaries of movie production brought about the nearly simultaneous release in Paris of the latest films of François Truffaut, Claude Chabrol, and Jean-Luc Godard (the last after a silence of ten years). A Nouvelle Vague outrider, Louis Malle, also had a new movie, and another, Alain Resnais, had produced a major effort just a few months before.
The press could hardly have been expected to miss this appointment with destiny. French critics, with twenty years to have thought it over, came up with more sensible evaluations of the movement than they had been capable of producing in the first frenzy of discovery—particularly the team of the newsweekly L’Express, which, in coining the phrase Nouvelle Vague, had given the movement a name, one of its main assets.
It had not been a homogeneous group to start with, united perhaps principally by an adolescent passion for the cinema. At first, amateurs inspired by an ardent and sometimes moving sincerity, they made “little” films without stars or carefully written dialogue, shot in natural surroundings away from studio sound stages. Then each took his separate path. Like other successful directors they now make films with stars, on sound stages, from written screenplays. They also make snide remarks about each other’s movies. Godard and Truffaut, in particular, have exchanged charges of the most deadly acrimony and are no longer on speaking terms. All nearing fifty, they have melded into the “quality” wing of the French movie business, become Grand Middle-Aged Men of the French cinema. But is this all there is to be said about this band of febrile Young Turks who twenty years ago so seized the imagination of the world’s film audiences?
Without tracing the artistic growth (or shrinkage) of each member of this famous group, I would like to provide something of the political and social context in which they evolved. In America, of course, they were seen as emerging in an almost complete social vacuum. But even in France it was not widely realized how closely their appearance was tied to the return to power of General de Gaulle and the creation of France’s Fifth Republic.
I think no one will quarrel with my statement that de Gaulle was a single-minded, ardent supporter of French greatness in all fields. He wanted a “new” French cinema, a “great” French cinema, a French cinema admired throughout the world. And if the arrival of this new French cinema coincided exactly with the rebirth of France under the Fifth Republic, so much the better. When an old-line representative of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs leaned over during a special screening of Truffaut’s The 400 Blows and asked de Gaulle’s newly appointed Minister of Culture, Andre Malraux, if they should really send this film as France’s official entry to the Cannes Film Festival, the answer was: “Mais oui! Mais oui!”
France has special provisions requiring that the entertainment tax paid by customers at movie ticket windows be returned to the film’s producer, and also a quite extraordinary procedure for encouraging artistic excellence whereby outright grants out of tax monies are given to ambitious, quality film projects—grants which in the era of moderate-budget “small” films could occasionally amount to half the film’s production budget. The Nouvelle Vague benefited greatly from this kind of government support.
To get back to de Gaulle: when France’s great skiing champion, Jean-Claude Killy—winner of three gold medals at the winter Olympics of Grenoble in 1968—was asked if he had been nervous before his spectacular tour de force, he laughed and replied, “Less nervous than de Gaulle.” And if de Gaulle wanted France’s skiers to be admired the world over, how much more did he want its film-makers to win gold medals in the grand slalom of the international movie world—provided, of course, that they didn’t rock the boat politically.
Judging by their social backgrounds, the members of the Nouvelle Vague would not be thought predisposed to boat-rocking. By and large, these backgrounds ranged from well-to-do to frankly rich. Godard is the grandson of a Swiss banker, Chabrol’s father was president of the National Association of Pharmacists, Malle is the scion of a celebrated French industrial dynasty. The only one of the group to qualify as even lower-middle class was Truffaut and he, through his passion and seeming vulnerability, had a talent for ingratiating himself with powerful protectors. He married, in any case, the daughter of a wealthy French film producer, who financed his first films. (In other interesting marital alliances, Resnais married the daughter of André Malraux and Godard the granddaughter of François Mauriac.)
There is some irony in the fact that while in America fevered young critics were saluting the greatness of a country like France where film critics were able to make movies, in actual fact France’s best critics never made films at all, and those who did had money, theirs or their families’ or their wives’ families.’ In any event, the “window of opportunity” was not open long. A dozen or so new names slipped through, but after two or three years the commercial fad for the starless, small-budget movie was over and it became as hard for a new director to get started in France as it had ever been before.
It would be a distortion, however, and demeaning, to label the Nouvelle Vague simply a politically toothless band of well-to-do young enthusiasts. Indeed, as the radicalism of the 60′s unfurled, Godard, of the original group, and perhaps half of the outriders and skirmishers and latecomers to the movement revealed, or developed, radically left-wing opinions. But at the moment of the group’s inception, in the late 50′s and very early 60′s, it was deeply apolitical. An immediate payoff for its Gaullist patrons was that, while France in those years was in the last and most violent throes of the Algerian war, not a single one of these “revolutionary” directors (with the ambiguous exception of Godard and his The Little Soldier) would touch the Algerian war with a barge pole. Nor did they march in the streets, or carry posters, or even sign petitions. Chabrol recalls a meeting when the Nouvelle Vague’s leaders were gathered in one of their homes listening to a “murky” speech by Eric Rohmer (My Night at Maud’s, Claire’s Knee), of which all he can remember is the conclusion: “We must vote for Pinay!” (The equivalent would be a gang of artistic hotheads gathering in America in the early 50′s to listen to a plea for Robert A. Taft.)
But the watchword of the movement, accepted at the time, was Truffaut’s lapidary phrase: “A man votes. The artist does not.” On the face of it, a magnificent statement about the responsibility of the artist to a higher truth than mere political advocacy, the maxim actually conceals a deep-seated feeling on the part of the speaker that movies are really more important than the sort of thing people vote for. This in turn has as a kind of left-handed corollary the belief that a man can have a full experience of life and culture by simply going to the movies. Chabrol has said, “When Truffaut arrives in Bogota, the first thing he does is find out what’s playing at the nearest movie house.” In the longer view, the leaders of the Nouvelle Vague, exhibiting a huge and obsessive displacement from art in general to the cinema alone, were the spiritual descendants of such French aesthetes as Jean Cocteau who, working on Diaghilev’s Parade with Picasso and Eric Satie, could in 1916, in the middle of a vast carnage in which millions of soldiers were to die, cry out: “The battle for Parade is the greatest battle of the war!”
But in view of what was to come, much turns on what is understood by “apolitical.” It is often said that most so-called apolitical people are in fact passive conservatives. But “conservative” has more than one meaning, depending on what is to be conserved: the traditional values of a national culture, or mere respect for social convention—which could itself be shifting rapidly under the pressure of events. It was clear that in the early years of the Fifth Republic it was people simply called “conservative” who rallied to de Gaulle. But earlier—in 1940? Did most French “conservatives” give their hearts and souls to de Gaulle’s Free French or to Pétain’s collaborators with Nazi Germany? It turned out that most conservatives of the time were of the conformist, short-sighted, uncourageous sort and went with Pétain and collaboration. It is a sinister precedent for today, when the new form of the appeasement-collaboration mentality is called Finlandization, or, perhaps more accurately, self-Finlandization.
The Algerian war came and went in France. But although it brought a governmental crisis, de Gaulle, and a new constitution, it produced nothing like the moral convulsion engendered by the Vietnam war in the United States. It is my view that despite all the talk of the past being forgotten (in France as elsewhere), and the young knowing nothing of history, the decisive and searing experience that marked the French soul for a generation, even to this day, was the conquest of France by Nazi Germany and, even more so, its massive, humiliating, collaboration with the enemy during the Occupation.
The centerpiece of the Nouvelle Vague’s return in France this fall was François Truffaut’s The Last Metro, a story of the Paris theater under this same Nazi Occupation. It received ecstatic critical praise and, more unusual for Truffaut, was a giant box-office hit, leading all other French-made films released in Paris during 1980, several notches ahead of even that luminous import, The Empire Strikes Back (which will give an idea of the size of its audience). I must stress that the facts of French collaboration with the Nazis are very well known: unmistakable to survivors of the period, available in the years immediately following the war to those who read books, and shocking the conscience of even those who get their historical information from films with the appearance ten years ago of Marcel Ophuls’s The Sorrow and the Pity. For further enlightenment, there have also been several books and a documentary film devoted specifically to collaboration in the show-business world—a chilling spectacle.
We see little of this in The Last Metro. The Truffaut film is both clumsily written (by Truffaut and his former script girl, Suzanne. Schiffman) and ineptly directed. Its acting is wooden. Its power to evoke the feeling of Occupied France—so overwhelming in Louis Malle’s Lacombe Lucien—is nil. The suspicion therefore hangs in the air that the movie’s success is due not to intrinsic merit, but to the fact that, in some essential way, it has been telling French audiences what they want to hear.
The film’s opening sequences—in which the wartime blackout seems to be very spottily observed—shows us boy (Gérard Depardieu) flirting with girl (Andréa Ferréol). Girl turns out to be a lesbian, the delightfully humorous results of which can be imagined. But after all, are we not in the mad, irrepressible, lovable world of show business, war or no war, Occupation or no Occupation? Arriving at the (fictitious) Théâtre de Montmartre, at which Depardieu is a new actor and Andréa Ferréol the set designer, we come to the real beginning of the story. A star of French stage and screen (Catherine Deneuve) is preparing to act the leading role in a new play at her husband’s theater. Next we learn that the husband, a Jew (Heinz Benent), has fled abroad, only to discover a few moments later that he has not fled abroad at all but is hiding in the cellar of his own theater, adroitly monitoring rehearsals through the ventilation ducts, and managing in the end to direct the play successfully after all. So with a comic stagehand here, a little surreptitious necking between lesbians there, and even an incipient liaison between the star and her leading man, life goes on despite the stacks of German military caps in the cloakroom, until the Liberation comes and all walk happily in God’s sunlight once again. Around this thin story Truffaut has woven a dozen subplots intended to convey the warp and woof of the times, France under the Occupation.
Thus there is a lovable young Jewish girl, wearing a large, yellow Star of David, who runs back and forth bringing the actors their costumes, because her costume-maker parents, with their foreign accents, are afraid to leave home. (Catherine Deneuve, of course, would never agree to drop any Jewish associates.) This same Jewish girl later succeeds in coming to the play’s opening night by simply covering her Star of David with a scarf. There is also a Jewish fireman, cheerfully on duty backstage, also emblazoned with the yellow star of shame, showing us Jew and Gentile in happy cooperation, Frenchmen all. To celebrate opening night, the cast goes to a nightclub filled with German officers, where the star performer sings with embarrassing feeling, Bei Mir Bist Du Shayn—a Yiddish song and instantly recognizable as such by any German—thereby “putting one over” on the Nazi occupier. To be allowed to continue acting, Depardieu, reluctantly, signs an affidavit that he is not Jewish, but redeems himself by obscure Resistance talk and, in one of the film’s high points, punching out a collaborationist anti-Semitic theater critic who has condemned the play.
We are made aware that there are nasty Nazi collaborators out there, of course. The central characters read press notices condemning the “Judaized” French theater and listen to dementedly anti-Semitic radio broadcasts. At one point Catherine Deneuve explodes: “Who are these people? Yesterday they were nothing! Today they rule France.” But in the cozy little world of our theater all are patriots, all love Jews, none seeks to advance himself by currying favor with his Nazi masters. When Depardieu announces histrionically, “I am leaving the theater to join the Resistance!” Deneuve finally yields to him, garter-belt to the fore. “Yes! Yes! Yes!” she whispers. Evil may or may not be banal (pace Hannah Arendt), but in this complacent film, filled with patriotic goody-goodies, it is a considerable rarity. The only interesting or complex role, played by Jean-Louis Richard with an eerie sanctimony, is that of the collaborationist theater critic. Rest assured, he loses an eye in the bombardment of Hamburg, and dies of cancer in Madrid, punished by man and God.
It is extraordinary that Truffaut, in his comments on The Last Metro, has presented himself as the courageous reporter of the squalor of Occupied France. “Even ten years ago I don’t think the film would have been taken well,” he has said, placing himself alongside the author of The Sorrow and the Pity, as one who bravely reveals the sordid truth. Given that the French entertainment world has been singled out over and over as particularly replusive in its collaboration with the Nazis, Truffaut’s film, to the contrary, is a shameless whitewash. When star Deneuve cries, “Who are these people?” she gives the impression that the Germans had to sweep the gutters of Paris to find vermin low enough to do their bidding. But in fact the list of French theatrical and literary collaborators was glittering and star-studded, a real “A” list which included Drieu la Rochelle (France’s Scott Fitzgerald) and Sacha Guitry (France’s John Barrymore) as well as—ranging from the feverishly anti-Semitic through the “Pétainist” to the merely opportunistic—Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Henry de Montherlant, Jean Giono, Arletty (star of Children of Paradise), Danielle Darrieux, Vivianne Romance, Marcel Carné, and many more. The list is long and disturbing. It was as if America had been conquered by the Nazis and William Faulkner, Hemingway, Clark Gable, Bette Davis, John Ford, Frank Sinatra, Lana Turner, and Ava Gardner had rushed to embrace the Nazi conqueror, invited him into their homes, or beds (when appropriate), toured Germany (to promote “peace and friendship”), and flown about in Goering’s private plane. It would have been a national humiliation in America, and France was no different.
To continue the comparison: the most famous intellectual among the 30-40,000 Frenchmen executed for collaboration was Robert Brassilach, a brilliant young 30′s writer, journalist, and editor, raised to great heights by the Germans as editor of the famous pro-Nazi weekly, Je Suis Partout. To find a very approximate equivalent, one can try to imagine the collaboration of, say, Time-Life with the Nazis, followed by the later execution of Henry Luce by firing squad. Would this have been considered the elimination of a mere “nothing”? The crackle of the executioners’ rifles would have been heard in every town in America. And so it was in France.
So by giving the impression that the collaborators were simply vile nobodies, showing us in the foreground a band of Paris theatricals of truly exemplary patriotism, idealism, and philo-Semitism, and sprinkling the whole copiously with rose-water, Truffaut has provided in The Last Metro an intensely flattering picture of France under the German Occupation. Small wonder that crowds of his compatriots are flocking to see his movie. First of all, it tells them that “life goes on.” Yes, the horrid Nazis rule France, but boy still flirts with girl (romance), the substitute theater director is homosexual (tolerance), and would not dream of usurping the hidden Jewish director’s position (honor). Room is even found for that staple of French literature, theater, and cinema, the classic sexual triangle (Deneuve-Depardieu-Benent), and what better example can there be of the permanence of French values than that?
There is little mystery about what this movie tells the audience. France and the French are indomitable. Even conquerors as ferocious as the Nazis could not crush the love of freedom in the French heart, or stamp out France’s humane values, liberté, égalité, fraternité, seasoned with joie de vivre.
At one point two Gestapo agents suddenly appear backstage at the theater and prepare to search the cellar where the Jewish director is hiding, but the extended arm of a roly-poly stagehand prevents them from passing. The Gestapo men fume with bellicosity, gesticulate like villains in a bad silent movie, but the lovable arm does not budge: they shall not pass. One wonders if Truffaut has given any thought to what it would take to stop two murderous Gestapo agents on the scent of their prey. The whole film exists on this level of reality, that of a patriotic daydream.
François Truffaut is not a sophisticated political thinker. His gift has always been for autobiography, particularly for the experiences of his adolescence and very early manhood. When it comes to behavior in the fully adult world his talent thins out. He has little power of imagination and his sense of how people behave in circumstances he has not witnessed himself is often, as I have said, drawn from movies. I suspect, for example, that the notion of the hidden Jew in the cellar was suggested by The Diary of Anne Frank (the film, not the book); the idea of a stage director secretly guiding the performances in a stage production by a comparable device in the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers musical The Barclays of Broadway; and the florid declaration of a minor actress’s naked ambition by the character of Anne Baxter in All About Eve.
To a man who draws his knowledge of the world from such sources I would not want to attribute more conscious political intentions in this film than would seem reasonable. I am sure that Truffaut is aware that his country at the moment is following a policy of benign accommodation with both the Soviet Union and OPEC. (He says its policy is not “pro-Arab,” only “pro-oil.”) In the political pages of journals in which he reads mainly the film reviews he might even have come across the world “Finlandized.” But I think it extremely unlikely that he sees any connection between his new film and France’s reported Finlandization. I think it equally unlikely that the film’s audiences make a conscious connection. But the connection is there for those who want to see it: any blunting of the memory of the degradations of the Nazi Occupation, or any “soft” romantic denial of the Nazis’ grim ability to crush the spirit of nearly all who fell into their grasp, represents a decline in the awareness of what it can ultimately be like to fall under the domination of a totalitarian state.
It is interesting to note in this connection that French publishers’ autumn lists for 1980 suddenly carried no fewer than eleven sizable new novels set in the period of the Nazi Occupation, many written by authors not yet born when the war ended. It’s the latest rage. The black hours of national shame, the savagery of the jackbooted victor, have now suddenly become comfortable, the background for romantic fancy. Something seems to be in the air.
Claude Chabrol is another “apolitical” Nouvelle Vague member of the go-with-the-flow sort, his career checkered even by Nouvelle Vague standards. Fallen to the level of an ordinary commercial director, he has done little of artistic merit over the years. But 1980 was heralded as his return to his real sources, the simple provincial villagers who were the subject of his first film, Le Beau Serge. For another rage has been sweeping France as well. Five years ago Montaillou, a scholarly study of village life in the Pyrenees district of France in the 13th century, reconstructed from the records of a local Inquisition, became a surprise best seller. And Le Cheval d’Orgeuil, a simple memoir of village life in backward Brittany at the beginning of the 20th century, also published in the mid-70′s, has turned out to be France’s best-selling book of the entire decade.
Chabrol, seizing the opportunity, chose this book as the subject of his movie. The film’s title, literally “The Horse of Pride,” is drawn from a Breton proverb to the effect that a man too poor to buy a horse can always mount his pride, a more eloquent equivalent of our own notion of “poor but proud.” The title is a good one in that the film is indeed an effort to portray the virtue and even nobility of the life of poor peasants in a Breton Arcadia. Gaelic-speaking, heavily illiterate, pre-industrial Brittany was of course no Arcadia, and the mighty cultural struggle which shook it, pitting the militantly anti-clerical republic against the royalist Church, is barely touched on.
Although the film was given a sympathetic reception by both critics and public, the final verdict of both audiences and press seemed to be that Le Cheval d’Orgeuil was prettified and bogus, the beautiful peasant costumes too clean, the characters too simple and cheerful. So the urge to find serenity in the secure values of a distant national past—a psychological perennial particularly acute at times of doubt and moral turmoil—has yet to find gratifying expression in the French cinema.
Then there are the True Believers, those film-makers associated with the Nouvelle Vague, or who came up in the succeeding years, who in time became firmly committed to the goals of the radical Left—never as neatly demarcated in France from ordinary Communist fellow-traveling as it was in the U.S. of the New Left and its Port Huron Statement. With America in retreat, and France doing so much to ingratiate itself with both the “socialist” and “third” worlds, should not the French radical Left be putting out flags?
Alain Resnais is an unassuming director in that he gives full credit in the creation of his films to the authors of their screenplays. His anti-nuclear-bomb (and anti-American) Hiroshima, Mon Amour is as much the work of Marguerite Duras, the novelist, as of Resnais, and his Last Year in Marienbad is probably even more the work of the novelist Alain Robbe-Grillet. Resnais has made films on other subjects, but has been quite reliable in his anti-Americanism (although he loves to visit the U.S.) and in his general soppiness about all figures from the “Left,” whether they be anti-nuclear Japanese, Spanish Republicans in exile, or Leon Trotsky. (Trotsky is portrayed in his Stavisky as a character somewhere between St. Francis of Assisi and Gandhi.) Recently, however, Resnais has fallen under the spell of Henri Labor it, France’s exponent of that modish school of pop zoology which explains man’s behavior, apparently so civilized and complex, as proceeding directly and ineluctably from the animal within him. Resnais’s new film, Mon Oncle d’Amérique (on which Laborit collaborated), in addition to receiving high praise from the press and splitting the top award at Cannes with the new Kurosawa film, was almost as big a commercial success in the spring of 1980 as Truffaut’s The Last Metro was in the fall.
The title, again, requires explanation. “An American Uncle,” in jocular French parlance, is a lost relative who has made a fortune in some far-off place, dies, and unexpectedly leaves his fortune to a nephew at home. By extension it means any marvelous windfall, and in Resnais’s picture, somewhat tortuously, it seems to mean the dream of happiness. The characters in Mon Oncle d’Amérique think they are pursuing happiness, but repeated, labored cross-cutting between the human characters and white laboratory rats instructs us that human behavior is really no different from that of rats.
I cannot express the tedium with which one beholds first a businessman in a tense situation, then a rat receiving electric shocks in his cage, in order to be instructed on the sound track that the rat gets pretty nervous too. A man leaves his wife? We see a rat leave a cage where he is receiving shocks to enter a cage where he does not receive shocks. And, mirabile dictu, when shocks are coming in from all over, a rat who takes out his frustrations by fighting and subduing other rats somehow feels better about things. Hence, human aggression.
The film ends with a plea that we learn more about animal psychology the better to deal with this accursed human lust for dominance. Although the whole story has taken place in France, the last image in the movie is a long, almost doting shot of the bombed-out Charlotte Street area of New York’s South Bronx—presumably the most extreme example of man’s aggressiveness to man.
Dismissing the idiocy of the Charlotte Street ending, and the title’s cheap-shot secondary meaning (“If there’s no happiness, there’s certainly no happiness in America”), the film is based on a pessimistic psycho-zoological determinism completely at variance with almost every shade of leftist-liberal thinking. The followers of that other laborer in the vineyards of animal psychology, Robert Ardrey, are certainly adamant conservatives. Resnais’s film, throwing up its hands and saying in effect, “What do you expect? We’re all just rats,” brings to mind the old religious cleavage in political theory, with believers in the concept of Original Sin almost by definition on the Right, as defined at the time, and those believing in the Perfectibility of Man on the Left. (The French press responded roughly according to this old alignment, with the centrist, pro-Atlantic L’Express having nothing but praise for the film, the leftist Nouvel Observateur expressing reservations about its simplism, and the New Left Libération uttering a cri de coeur against the “molecular destiny” it offers—“No uncle!” it cried in dismay. “No America!”)
Called on to defend his pessimistic views of human behavior, Resnais would probably answer with some variant of, “All men are rats, but some are more rats than others,” no doubt adding that the film closes on an optimistic note. Nevertheless it is a peculiar view of human nature for an ostensible advocate of the perfectibility-of-man to be espousing. There is no doubt in my mind that the attitude is related to the latent yearning for authoritarianism of any description among so many members of the radical Left. Its appearance in Resnais at the very time his country is coming more and more under the influence of an authoritarian power is perhaps just coincidence. No doubt the predisposition existed in him all along.
Louis Malle (The Lovers, Murmur of the Heart), though also nearing his twentieth anniversary as a movie director, has taken himself out of the French cinema by moving to America, where his recent flaccid films (Pretty Baby, Atlantic City) have little relevance to what is going on in his home country. This is a true abandonment of French cinema at a key moment by an extraordinarily talented director, two of whose brilliant earlier films had been closely connected to the Nazi Occupation. His Lacombe Lucien, superior in every way to The Last Metro, had dealt openly with the case of a young French collaborator, and his Le Feu Follet (translated in the U.S. as “The Fire Within” but which actually means “Will o’ the Wisp”) was an adaptation of the famous novel by Drieu la Rochelle, France’s most celebrated literary Nazi, who committed suicide as the Allied armies approached Paris in 1944. But perhaps Malle’s expatriation to America, and his recent marriage to Candice Bergen, are statements in themselves.
An even more curious case is that of Constantin Costa-Gavras (Z, The Confession, State of Siege), the French Left’s most accomplished and effective maker of didactic political melodramas. His latest film, Clair de Femme, a success of late 1979 in France, turns completely away from politics. A faithful adaptation of a love story, with pretensions, by the late Romain Gary, it is a kind of Magnificent Obsession or Dark Victory, in which those who suffer (Yves Montand and Romy Schneider) find solace, and perhaps even salvation, in love.
Meanwhile, Claude Sautet, who up until now had been the king of this kind of higher soap opera in French cinema, has produced a far better film of the genre in Un Mauvais Fils, a story of reconciliation between son and father. Worth mentioning too as a frisson of the 1980 fall season was Loulou by Maurice Pialet, another talented director who has never aspired to making political statements. A slice-of-life film of peculiar veracity of feeling, it demonstrates the disruptive power of female sexual avidity—a classic French theme and certainly socially conservative, but not perceived as such by audiences, or perhaps even by the director. Claude Lelouch (A Man and a Woman), for his part, is working on a huge, quadri-national, generational chronicle inspired by his love of music.
So, among the historic leaders of contemporary French cinema, one has fled into an artificial past, one into pop-zoology, one into soap opera, and one has simply fled to America. Others have continued to make the non-political films they have always made. Only François Truffaut, probably France’s best known film-maker abroad, has touched on political questions, producing to great public acclaim a movie which leaves audiences with the feeling that, under the Nazi Occupation, their country lived through an hour which if not absolutely its finest was still passably fine. Oddly, perhaps puffed up with his new position as a custodian of France’s historical greatness, Truffaut has just committed what as far as I know is the first openly political action of his entire life by signing a statement in support of Poland’s Solidarity group. But I should point out that in this gesture he does not differ in any important respect from the attitude of the French government (or indeed that of the United States) insofar as he would be unlikely to favor any military defense of the Poles if they were to stand their ground and fight.
It seems unfair to turn a man’s noble words against him in this way, but the whole affair is very strange. Truffaut, who remained totally silent on the Algerian war, the Vietnam war, the Hungarian rising, the Prague Spring and later Soviet invasion; on repressive societies ranging from China of the Cultural Revolution to Latin America; on Solzhenitsyn, on Sakharov; on the violent antagonism in the Middle East (although his children are half-Jewish); and even on the violent turmoil in his own country in 1968 is now, amazingly, waving the banner of Lech Walesa. My unprovable suspicion is that, inspired by the pieties of his own The Last Metro, he is expressing its wishful underlying thesis that autocracies can never extinguish the spark of freedom in the human spirit, or some such Bastille Day sentiment, and that by extension the Soviet Union, with all its tanks and nuclear missiles, cannot hold in check the thirst for liberty of a free people aroused. But, this being Truffaut, you can never be certain he isn’t drawing his inspiration from Cornell Wilde’s Chopin in A Song to Remember.
But what of the last of the Founding Fathers of the Nouvelle Vague, Jean-Luc Godard—the only one to have naively mistaken the group for a politically revolutionary movement? To give a feeling for Godard’s personality I will only recall that when he gave up the cinema a decade ago after Tout Va Bien (starring Jane Fonda), he declared that he would not return Until the Palestinians had marched in triumph into Jerusalem. The way ahead for the cinema, he also said, would be for everyone to make films and send them to friends like letters. I offer this as evidence of Godard’s sense of the achievable.
To understand Godard’s latest film, it helps to bear in mind that a major turning point in the history of the French Left occurred in the weeks preceding the general legislative elections of 1978. France’s Socialist and Communist parties, having come together in a laboriously wrought common front for the presidential election four years before (which they of course lost), suddenly fell out with a vengeance. Communist attacks on the Socialists became more and more violent and it became obvious that, for as far ahead as could be seen in this heavily ideological country, the Left had no chance whatever of coming to power. For many months there was a pretended mystery about the Communist-Socialist break, but it wasn’t long before skeptics were suggesting that since President Giscard d’Estaing had moved sharply away from the “Atlantic” spirit with which he entered office, Moscow had no desire at all to see him defeated. And now even François Mitterrand, head of the French Socialist party, has stridently declared that the Communists and Giscard d’Estaing are copains comme cochons, literally “pally like pigs”—a far more insulting version of “thick as thieves.”
For those French sympathizers of the Soviet Union prepared to bide their time, the prospect of France gradually becoming ever more accommodating toward the USSR, and ever more detached from the West, could be quietly gratifying. But for someone of the rabid revolutionary temperament of Godard, who craved, as it were, to see the tumbrils roll, the knowledge that in the foreseeable future he could not possibly hope to witness a “real” revolution in France might have been a great disillusionment. Whatever the cause, his Sauve Qui Peut (La Vie) is a work of consuming bitterness and despair.
Once more the title calls for explanation. Sauve Qui Peut (literally “Let him save himself who can”) is the standard French expression for “Every man for himself.” The addition of La Vie in parentheses emphasizes, in case there could be any doubt, that what is at stake when every man is for himself is survival. Hence: The ship is going down. We are in the last desperate scramble. There is no longer any hope of saving (establishing) the good, humane, just society, and now even the life of each individual wretch is at stake.
The film takes place in Godard’s native Switzerland. Paul Godard (the real name of the director’s father) is a Swiss bourgeois, who works for Swiss television. His girlfriend, Denise Rimbaud (Natalie Baye), leaves him to milk cows and ride her bicycle in the country. But Paul (Jacques Dutronc) cannot bring himself to leave the city (apparently shot in Geneva but intended to be Anywhere, Western Europe). He has a summary, colorless encounter with a prostitute, Isabelle (Isabelle Huppert), who, the reverse of Paul’s girlfriend, has left the country to advance herself in the big town. Paul has two cool, restaurant meetings with his ex-wife and thirteen-year-old daughter, who wears a Palestinian kefiya as a neck scarf and, judging by the way she stares at her father balefully, hates him quite a lot. Paul’s character is not elaborated. Things happen to him. He is passive. At the end of the last, uneventful, meeting with his wife and daughter, Paul inadvertently steps in front of an automobile and is killed. This is the end of the picture.
The only other character whose story we follow to any degree is Isabelle the prostitute, who, revealing the great secret of the profession of selling one’s body to the vile middle class, tells her younger sister, “All they really want is to humiliate you” (although this was certainly not the case with Paul). We are shown a couple of highly stylized (and unerotic) scenes of prostitution in which humiliation by monstrous bourgeois could arguably be claimed to be the point, although Isabelle does not seem to be on a much higher moral level herself. When her sister aspires to follow in her footsteps Isabelle demands 50 percent of her take.
Although Truffaut has not progressed a jot in the cinema art since his quite simple beginnings, and is still totally incapable of producing the dazzling effects of the great virtuoso directors, Godard over the years has acquired considerable technique, and Every Man for Himself, as the film is called in English, is a steady barrage of freeze frames, staccato cutting, and projected mental images, going both forward and backward in time—to the point where it appears that Godard is using the technical tricks to cloak a very thin story.
But the film’s most revealing element is Paul’s memory-relationship to the revolutionary or radical Left icons of the 60′s. For no apparent reason he suddenly says with great disillusionment to his daughter’s gym teacher, “Look at Castro. Now all he can do is complain that those dumb Cubans don’t work as hard as Americans.” Later we hear the voice off camera of Isabelle the prostitute saying, as if to explain why Paul is such a wreck, “Look at his heroes. Castro, Malcolm X, Angela Davis, Herbert Marcuse. . . . All losers.” She later returns to Castro to vilify the Cubans further, unquestionably reflecting Godard’s own disappointment at what his former hero has become. “Washington and Moscow have gotten together to keep Castro going, but if he gets into real trouble, he won’t have a pot to piss in.” This is obviously Godard’s own view of, first, the high hopes and, then, the miserable achievement of Fidel Castro.
Even passing over the notion that Washington has actively conspired to prop up Castro—which might come as a surprise to Frank Church and even George McGovern—Paul and the film’s director find it unbearable that the Castro regime should depend in any way on the Soviet Union: Castro should presumably be free like a giant condor to sweep and wheel above the mountains and seas of Latin America, filling the heavens with the beating of his wings! A world in which Cuba depends on Soviet subsidies is a world in which Paul Godard—and possibly Jean-Luc Godard—cannot live. The film, in short, is a work of black despair produced by the failure of the 60′s to deliver the millennium.
What Every Man for Himself is clearly saying is that in the miserable, soulless world in which we live only the despicable grande bourgeoisie and its prostitutes can survive, with perhaps a few marginal types in the nooks and crannies. The film has been praised to the skies by about every critic in France, only a minority of them seeming to catch a note of pessimism. Those who did attributed Godard’s gloominess, variously, to a true analysis of the rotten society in which we live (these tended to refer to Godard’s “intransigent moralism”), to Godard’s near-death in a motorcycle accident a few years ago (his mother had died in an automobile crash in 1954), or to a wonderful quality he had of “pure” despair. With some adjustments, I reject none of these explanations out of hand as explanations of Godard’s personal morbidity, but his film plainly presents despair as a consequence of the disappointed hopes of the 60′s.
A subsidiary interpretation of Every Man for Himself is that women are stronger and less scrupulous (or perhaps less finicky) than men. In fact the film devotes so much time to Isabelle’s power of survival, with such strong emphasis on her inner spirit being untouched (mental projections of serene lakeside sunsets) while she rents her body to the contemptible bourgeois, that one begins to think that perhaps this is the Way Ahead: we should all rent out our bodies while preserving the sanctity of our inner selves. Of the other women in the film, Paul’s ex-girlfriend is possibly happy with her cows and bicycle in the country (although Godard’s assigning her the name Rimbaud—the great runaway—cannot be without meaning), while his young daughter in her Palestinian scarf might even be the hope of the future (no girl who loves the PLO and hates her dad can be all bad). For Paul, in any case, there is no future. He is run over and killed by a car in which our new prostitute, Isabelle’s younger sister, is riding. As he lies dying on the street his ex-wife and daughter walk off coldly, the ex-wife saying, “Let’s go. It’s no concern of ours.”
Strong, callous, unprincipled women are a consistent element of Godard’s work. His very first film, Une Femme Coquette, in 16 mm, is the story of blithe deception by a woman. In Breathless, Patricia (Jean Seberg) betrays Michel (Jean-Paul Belmondo) to the police, who gun him down in the street. In Pierrot le Fou Pierrot (Belmondo) is driven to suicide by a conscienceless woman. In a host of Godard’s other movies, women scorn, harry, bully, abuse, and betray men, while Godard’s attitude remains ambivalent. Does he admire or fear these women? It is entertaining to think that a hundred years ago in France, Godard might well have joined Alexandre Dumas fils, Emile Augier, and the other “masculinists” (as they were called at the time) who issued dire warnings of what mischief women would cause if, given too much freedom, they were turned loose on society. But the lines are drawn differently today. Instead of being a bitter, defeated masculinist Godard is a bitter, defeated revolutionary.
As I have said, Godard and Truffaut are no longer on the best of terms. Godard has said contemptuously of his former comrade in arms, “Truffaut never made a good film in his life,” and “Now he’s a court cinéaste.” Truffaut has answered by accusing Godard of jealousy. Godard, too, has now fled France and is living in his Protestant Switzerland, where in a bizarre turn of events there is now more street radicalism than there is in Paris. He has accepted two new assignments: to serve as a television consultant to the government of Mozambique, and to shoot, perhaps on videotape, a script which in a novel procedure will allegedly be used as the basis of casting and financing for Francis Coppola’s projected Bugsy Siegel. Jean-Luc Godard has accepted employment as Francis Coppola’s cinematographic advance man.
It is a curious paradox in France that the voices that have fallen politically silent are among those that were once the most shrilly anti-capitalist, anti-bourgeois, and anti-American—exactly the voices one might have expected to hear raised, at least if one were to draw a parallel with France of the 30′s, when the drumfire of attacks by the French far Right against the corruption and decadence of the Republic (called la gueuse, “the slut”) never let up. But if there are strong parallels between the appeasers’ and collaborationists’ France of four decades ago and the self-Finlandized France of today (Die for Danzig? Die for Afghanistan), there are notable differences as well. The decline of radical, anti-establishment films is evident everywhere, but it is only part of the precipitous decline in enthusiasm for radical change throughout the entire French Left: among the intellectuals, at the universities, in the labor movement. The ardor of French intellectuals for Marxism has wilted pathetically. Some of this has quite likely been the result of the Communist-Socialist split, but one suspects that something even more profound is involved. It might well be that many of these anti-capitalist zealots were the offspring of liberal pathology, engaged in political theater and psychodramas, and now that a cold wind is blowing from the East and they feel the chill in their bones they realize that they never really wanted their country to follow the Soviet road after all. Whatever the cause, the piercing anti-Western voices in the cinema are silent.
The stunning exception to my general picture of evasion and silence and hollow reassurance in the French cinema is, of course, Godard. Frustrated utopian radical though he may be, he is more honest and forthright than the other ideologues. Godard has looked down the long road into the future and seen that the world he dreamed of and called forth so passionately cannot be. He has said so as plainly as he can in his latest movie. Asked where he stands now he answers wryly, with some modesty, “Je cherche un metier” (“I’m looking for a profession”). There is a certain irony in the answer, but there it is. Jean-Luc Godard has come to the end of the line. He is drifting, has lost his hope of influencing events. Whatever happens now, he’s out of it.
An interesting view on the Godard film was expressed to me recently by a high French government official, who felt the movie wasn’t really pessimistic at all and suggested an alternate, “poetic” reading of the title as Qui Pent Sauver Sa Vie, “(He) Who Can Save His Own Life.” He saw the film as a kind of survival manual. “You can’t be passive like Paul,” he said. “You must be active like Isabelle (the prostitute).” I had found a certain strain of this in the movie but pointed out that it meant Godard’s formula for survival was to prostitute yourself to the powerful. “But she knows how to preserve her inner sense of worth!” the official objected, at which I was glad to modify the survival formula to: “How to prostitute yourself to the powerful while preserving your inner sense of worth.” Feeling I was addressing myself more to the official’s views than to those of Godard, I offered an even clearer formulation: “It is better to live on your knees than die on your feet.” This ended the conversation.
Those who do not realize the seriousness with which “art” movies are taken in Europe should know that the rating given the last film of the late Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini was decided by personal intervention of French President Giscard d’Estaing, and that the rating for Japan’s remarkable The Empire of the Senses was the subject of heated discussion between Giscard d’Estaing and West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt at one of their semiannual meetings. After grave debate with both the French President and Prime Minister, Malraux’s successor, Culture Minister Michel Guy, although fully warned, made the issue a question of conscience, issued the Japanese film the equivalent of an “R,” rather than an “X,” certificate, and was obliged to resign in consequence. The matter was considered an affair of state.
I have had this experience with Truffaut myself. When I saw him after his first extended stay in Los Angeles—source of so much of his imaginary life—and asked him what he thought of the place, he told me what films had been on.