Commentary Magazine

For and Against Godard

Seven years ago, I published a long piece on Breathless which may well have been (and, apart from brief reviews, was almost certainly) the first serious criticism in praise of Godard in English, and during the course of which I invoked comparisons with A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Les Demoiselles d'Avignon. Recently, I was present at a lecture by a film critic on Godard at which the critic—he is an intelligent one—compared Godard with Picasso, called him “the artist of the second half of the 20th century,” and declared Weekend to be about “the history and pre-history of the universe,” Before the lecture, I had asked the critic if he liked Weekend. No, he said, he didn't actually like it, but, in the course of seeing it numerous times, he was starting to.

This is about par for the course. Even Homer nods, but not, to judge from current cant, Godard; and, in such ardently Godardite camps as Sight and Sound (in which ardor flamed after initial coolness), one often feels no more is needed than the latest title and synopsis to prepare the ritualistic rave. The sense of ritual is quite real, and twofold, for so far has Godard come to be seen as the film maker as exemplary figure, ushering in the new sensibility, rather than as an individual artist of (naturally) inconsistent achievements, that a point granted against Godard now seems to carry with it a loss of ground for all of cinema from its new-found eminence. Godard is the one film maker about whom one must have a position, and usually an extreme one, and one would need to have something like superhuman confidence in one's own powers of judgment not to feel pressured onto the bandwagon by one's awareness that all the intelligent critics, Susan Sontag chief among them, are already there, passionately on Godard's side, leaving it for people like John Simon and Stanley Kauffmann to attack under a flag of outraged philistinism from the rear. Yet to have mixed feelings, to admire some things in Godard's work while rejecting others, is not to have no position, but only an un-histrionic one. As of this writing I have seen thirteen of the fifteen feature-length films he has completed, and I have deeply divided feelings about Godard, feelings bordered on their extremes by the highest admiration and an intense aversion, but mainly falling somewhere in between.

When I wrote about Breathless, I had seen no other of Godard's films (none other, at that time, having been released in the United States). Recently, I saw Breathless again, and, despite the complicated reservations I now have about Godard's art, I found it no less a masterpiece than I had at first, its freshness undiminished by the extent to which its innovations have been cannibalized by commerce, much as Brando's performance in On the Waterfront has withstood all onslaughts of imitation and parody. Nor was the renewed excitement of it, so strong as to take me by surprise, simply a case of being bound by my previous critical investment in the work, though I have, in fact, seen only one Godard film which I admire more—his second full-length film, Le Petit Soldat, which I saw for the first time only after having seen all but a few of the films Godard had made since.

Even if they cannot quite persuade one to join the committed, the scatological vituperations of a John Simon do provide a chastening illustration of the folly in ignoring the argument that it is foolish to criticize Godard for not doing what he nowhere intends to do. The lecturer I heard described Godard's style as essayistic, a word I thought taken aptly until I realized it was being extended to validate every inconsistency of the films as imaginative fictions in the name of the freedom of direct address. It is true that Godard is not a narrative artist, though he makes extensive use of narrative fictions in his art; Godard's art is essayistic in that he has innovated the most supple, lively, and brilliant expository style in the history of films, but one needs to remember in this that an expository style is no less (and, in many respects, more) bound by canons of coherence and integrity than a narrative one. Unless, of course, one is appealing to the new sensibility and the future, in which case anything goes, because who can tell that it may not.


There is, of course, another word which has been used to sanction everything in Godard's work that is digressive, jarring of tone, “unreal,” unbelievable, and self-conscious in calling attention to the films as films; that word is “Brechtian.” It would be interesting, I think, to trace the progress of that word, especially in its application to films, from description to sanctification, but that subject is beyond my scope here, nor is it my intention to denigrate Brecht. Brecht is, I think, a great artist (who, like Homer, nods, as witness Galileo) but, unlike Godard, preeminently a narrative artist and a poet, whose celebrated theatrical devices were intended to cool off plays of great dramatic fire for didactic purposes, and, contrarily, to enhance their power by the tension created between style and substance (with the contradictory effect possibly not an intended one). Godard is an artist of essentially cool temperament, in whose work Brechtian devices function, at their best, as paradoxes and conceits, and more often as mannerisms; his most self-consciously Brechtian film, Les Carabiniers, is not only, to my mind, by far his least successful but also the most advanced case of Brecht in the head—of Brecht as a lifeless concept—that I have ever seen. Among films, only Kurosawa's Yojimbo has seemed to me truly Brechtian, and this not in any of its trappings but rather in its ironic view of “human nature”—it is Brechtian in spirit, in the way in which such affinities become truly meaningful. In Les Carabiniers, characters and events in which there has been not the slightest investment of imaginative energy are endistanced by Brechtian devices. It is like a distance taken on empty space.

Les Carabiniers is, admittedly, an extreme case; a work aping Brecht in its totality, like a bad dream of Mother Courage. Elsewhere in Godard devices which might be called Brechtian, such as the use of titles and of the actor turning to the audience in direct address, are employed to brilliant effect, but also to strikingly different effect from that to which similar devices are put in the work of Brecht. Though the plot-revealing titles which serve as chapter headings to the episodes of My Life to Live may superficially resemble similar features in Brecht, their effect in Godard's film is not to diminish suspense but rather to intensify pathos, being a formal equivalent to the deterministic universe in which the prostitute heroine is enmeshed without her comprehending it.1 Similarly, the profusion of interpolated “titles” from billboards, magazine advertisements, etc., in The Married Woman, although frequently providing a commentary on the action in a sense that might be described as Brechtian, provides far beyond this a context, an ambiance, for the heroine's affectless dislocation; indeed, these “titles” become, in this film, an element as tangible and animate as the characters themselves. And when the actors in Masculine Feminine turn to the camera and begin to speak to us, the action is interrupted and our interest in it temporarily distracted, but the sense achieved is of a cinéma-vérité interview in which the subject reveals itself, and, while the critics may go on about the paradoxes of art and life thus embodied, the immediate effect is of an increased involvement with the characters' “reality.”

If one would be foolish to ask Godard to be what he essentially is not, and if he is not Brecht, then what is he? Essentially, a film by Godard is a patchwork of action held together by an intricate, tensely strung network of ideas and associations and by the urgent charge of the technique. Even in his best films, the action seems somewhat randomly distributed through the work as a whole, lacking in that sense of structural necessity which one traditionally apprehends in most great films and works of literary and dramatic art, however episodic in character, and through which one perceives the work's essential unity. In part, this is only to say in a more descriptive way what I have already said: that Godard is not a narrative artist, something which most of his admirers and even Godard himself have been quite willing to concede. My films have a beginning, a middle, and an end but not necessarily in that order, Godard has said, though, like many of his recent pronouncements, this tends to sound considerably more impressive the less one attempts to look into it.


Yet Godard's best work does have a unity, a unity of theme and of thematically interwoven ideas. The life and energy of a Godard film is preeminently conceptual, and this, despite the great vividness and brilliance of detail, in a way that tends always toward abstraction. Godard's films have been frequently contrasted to Antonioni's, usually to make a point the reverse of which I think is true; for, though it is easy to discuss Antonioni's films with reference to large generalities about the failure of communication (and despite the fact that much of The Red Desert does conform to just such a stereotype), a film such as Eclipse seems to me marked rather by its extreme concreteness, by the way it resists the attempt to abstract some general meaning from the materiality of the characters in their shifting relationships to one another and to the objects they imbue with their emotional resonance. Eclipse is about its protagonist couple; Breathless is about the styles of life its protagonists embody and the destinies these styles imply to the extent that one is hardly aware that its climax is psychologically implausible, so much is it conceptually necessary and inevitable.


Pauline Kael has somewhere spoken of Antonioni as a director of surfaces, and, though the phrase was intended pejoratively, it is possible to extend its meaning to describe one of the most impressive qualities of his films: their fidelity to the texture and solidity of the material world. In this sense, Godard might be called, not always happily, a director of depths; at least, he could not be said to be concerned with surface verisimilitude. Where his films attain the abstract power of a Breathless, this lack of concern scarcely matters and, indeed, can be felt as a strength and a freedom, as in Le Petit Soldat when the protagonist, walking along a crowded street with a gun in his hand to commit political assassination, goes unnoticed by the passers-by in a way that is superficially incredible but is given a metaphorical Tightness by the film's accelerating thematic movement. (Paradoxically, the scene happens to have been filmed with a hidden camera recording a real street, real people, and their actual failure to react to what was happening.) Conversely, when this power is lacking, Godard's films have seemed debilitated even when most successful as straightforward narrative, as in Band of Outsiders in which the abstract rigor is sacrificed to a failed lyricism, or Alphaville in which the intellectual complexities and great plastic beauty of the film's surface are unable to redeem the Luddite tract at its core.


If it is true that the richness of Godard's best work derives in great part from its density of ideas, it must be added that the ideas, too, move toward their furthest limits of abstraction; to that point where, abstracted from argument or context, they can be employed for their poetic reverberations. (The play of ideas in La Chinoise is, perhaps, an exception to this.) I have in mind, especially, the use Godard makes of literary ideas and of the quotations from literature with which virtually all his films abound. Like everything else in Godard, these do not always work, but when they do, as in the quotation and paraphrases of Cocteau's ruminations on death from Thomas the Imposter in Le Petit Soldat, the effect achieved is of a crystallization and prismatic dispersion of the theme. But beyond their particular resonance within each individual film, the literary quotations and allusions become cumulatively an expressive parallel to the recurring attempt of Godard's protagonists to arrest something sustaining, however fragmentary, from the chaotic flux of their culture, both high and low, the latter represented by the repeated references to other movies.2 Much like Pound, Godard ransacks and appropriates all culture to serve his immediate ends, and, though the effect of this can descend at its worst to mere pastiche, it is, as in Pound, almost always accompanied by a freshness of technique and an innovative excitement of a kind probably unmatched in the medium since the days of the silent film masters. Indeed, Godard's films have come increasingly to take on the aspect of a compressed stylistic history of his medium in their combination of natural settings and natural lighting with a revival or, rather, reinvention of the two lost traditions of the silent film: montage, freed from didactic rigidity in the expressive collages of Breathless and Le Petit Soldat; and expressionism, given a new sensuousness in the flattened space and primary colors of Contempt and La Chinoise. In fact, in the prolific impact he has had in revolutionizing and synthesizing ideas of film style, there is probably no one with whom Godard can be compared since Griffith. There is, however, another comparison of a different sort which Godard seems almost consciously to be inviting in his most recent work, and through which one may see, in part, what Godard is not.


I have spoken of the essence of a Godard film as a patchwork, and Godard has himself subtitled one of his films, The Married Woman, “Fragments of a Film Shot in 1964,” though, ironically, these words are used to characterize what is perhaps the most symmetrically structured of all of the films he has made. In the course of a strenuous defense of Godard in Partisan Review, Susan Sontag has attempted to justify the fragmentariness, formlessness, and disunity of Godard's films head on, without denying the accuracy of these words as description, and again with the determination to meet Godard on terms confined by his intentions.

But there is, finally, a point beyond which such argument cannot go: the point at which one must attempt to appraise the intentions themselves, and, with this, to understand that, even if it were true that traditional concepts of artistic unity are no longer viable, it does not necessarily follow that disunity is endowed with aesthetic worth. Yet, even short of arguing this, one may feel Miss Sontag's terms do not define the issue precisely. Where Godard's films fail is not in formlessness; Breathless is structurally weak yet a spectacular achievement in its more than compensating virtues, whereas The Married Woman achieves something like formal perfection at the exorbitant cost of the earlier film's vitality; nor is it in what Miss Son-tag has called their “intermittent” plots, a less unprecedented phenomenon in films than she seems to believe. Films as diverse as Eclipse, Dovzhenko's Earth, Vigo's L'Atalante, Renoir's French Can-Can, and Ford's Wagonmaster have used plots more or less as pretexts, to be intermittently taken up and abandoned, while their main developmental movement lay elsewhere. When, in Pierrot le Fou, a violent cops-and-robbers plot is intermittently grafted onto the study of an intellectual's disaffection, one is troubled not so much by the intermittence but by the grafting: by the failure of the plot to relate organically to the theme.


It is not intermittent plot but intermittent imaginative energy that seems to account for the peculiar impoverishment of so many passages of Godard's work, that gives his work its fitful, partially uncreated quality. In part, this may be owing to Godard's improvisatory methods, though the extent to which he actually relies on improvisation has never been made clear; no one expects that even a great improvising artist—Ornette Coleman, for instance—will not on occasion perform erratically. Of Godard's films, only Breathless and Le Petit Soldat seem to spring from a unifying vision which infuses all their parts, however discursive, with an equal power so that, despite their narrative intermittence and stylistic fragmentation, they possess a unity of conceptual movement which is beautifully shaped and modulated; and probably Contempt alone, though more seriously flawed a work, has a coherent, overarching action capable of containing the film's ideas and feeling.3 Where this organic power wavers, there may be substituted an application of force as in the violent interludes of Masculine Feminine; and where it is largely lacking, a Godard film might be redefined as a patchwork of anecdote and unassimilated references held together by will and marked by the director's personal intrusiveness. For it is almost unvaryingly true that Godard's films are at their most powerful wherever the director is furthest from addressing us in his own voice, the voice that is so insistently present in the harangues and hippie-guerrilla agitprop of Weekend.


In Weekend, as perhaps never more clearly before, one sees together what Godard is, what he is not, and what he is in the act of trying to become. The opening section, with its Swiftian conceit of modern civilization finding fulfillment in a riot of horrific highway carnage, is brilliantly stunning; both typical in the way it has its life as idea and atypical in the way it derives its intensity not from a complex of associations but rather from the relentlessness with which a single idea is pushed to its furthest extremity—incidents escalating from the frustrations of minor collisions to ever bloodier and more casually regarded spectacles of orgiastic destruction.4 To this point, the film's meaning is fully made metaphor, but the director has intentions which take him beyond this, and increasingly we hear Godard's own voice articulating them; first, in the twin monologues on the Third World, which, more than anything else, evince how quickly the cinéma-vérité-like interviews which seemed so fresh and vital in Masculine Feminine and only slightly less so in La Chinoise have hardened into stylistic mannerism; and then in the depiction of the new life of guerrilla warfare in which we are confronted finally with Godard as propagandist for the revolution.


Speaking on the Berkeley campus shortly before he made Weekend, Godard remarked, “I think an idea is a theoretical weapon and a film is a theoretical rifle”; soon after Weekend, he was advocating art by group, and urging his audience at the premiere of his new film in London to demand the refund of their ticket prices so as to send the money instead to the Eldridge Cleaver Defense Fund, having only a few weeks before announced his last-minute cancellation of a speaking engagement with the message: “Go out into the streets, find the poorest man, pay him my fee, and speak instead to him of sounds and images.” My point in mentioning this is not to belittle the particular causes or sentiments involved nor to argue in general the internal inconsistencies and futility of such postures—Eric Bentley has done this better than he apparently now wishes he had in the first part of his essay, “The Pro and Con of Political Theatre”—but rather to note the extent to which such commitment has had its palpable effect on Godard's art. For, if the notion that art is a weapon has never demonstrably altered the world, it has altered the art of its adherents. And what one sees in the direct addresses on the Third World and hortatory depictions of life among the new revolutionaries, quite beyond their naiveté as actual politics, is the propagandist's traditional impatience with art itself in Godard's deliberate rejection of those elements of his art from which it has drawn so much of its richness. Where were once the vivacious character-revealing monologues of Masculine Feminine are now monologues which reflect a reluctance to imagine character at all; where were once the complex meditations on the inescapability and inescapable tragedy of political involvement in Le Petit Soldat are now recruiting posters for the new life punctuated by titles like “Arizona Jules.” Where was once Godard is now neo-Eisenstein.

Perhaps nowhere is this development in Godard's work more strongly sensed than in the images of death which pervade his films, and on which almost all end. Stylized as those images are in Breathless or in My Life to Live or Contempt, they are invested still with the impact of death as a reality in a sense that is increasingly lost to such later work as Band of Outsiders and Pierrot le Fou, in which death is conceived directly as an abstraction or conceit, unmediated by any imagination of death in its reality. I spoke earlier of the abstractness of Godard's films, but, in his best work, the pull toward abstraction is always exerted against some element of concreteness. Breathless is dense with ideas about death, but when, early in the film, a man is killed by a car and Michel walks over to see what happened, crosses himself, and continues on his way, the thing itself seems, here as throughout, never far away. When Arthur dies with exaggerated gestures in Band of Outsiders, there are elaborate, echoing cross-references without a compelling embodiment. We are given the depths, but deprived of the surfaces.

With Weekend, this tendency comes full circle, for, as though unwilling to trust that the harrowing black comedy of the film's first section is sufficient to arouse his audience, Godard goes on to stage a real slaughter of real animals. Again there is the application of force in the absence of power; and again, despite Godard's incomparably greater intellectual complexity and suppleness of style, one is reminded of Eisenstein. As with Eisenstein, art is sacrificed to the exigencies of didacticism, but, as with Eisenstein, an exigent didacticism becomes both a virtuous armor and an alibi. For one needn't feel repelled by such activity as a failure of humanity to see that it is also an artistic failure; reality by default of the artist's imagination.

There is a sense in which, as Robin Wood has suggested in an article in New Left Review, all of Godard's films until Weekend, strikingly different from each other as they are, can be seen as embryonically present, both stylistically and thematically, in Breathless. In all the films, alienated protagonists attempt to wrest for themselves a coherent identity and an epistemology from the fragments of their culture and its debris. “A person ought to feel unified,” says Belmondo as Godard's alter ego in Pierrot le Fou. And, as in the case of Resnais, different as he and Godard are in almost every particular, one sees in such moments an epitome of how the artist, especially one practicing self-consciously an art of highly developed technique, can make, of his own artistic weaknesses, his subject.


Godard is, I think, an artist with serious weaknesses. He is also one of the handful of stylistically innovative geniuses to have worked in films, and an artist whose first two works are among the masterpieces of his medium. None of Godard's subsequent films (of the full-length films he has made before Weekend, I have not seen Made in U.S.A. or Deux ou Trois Choses) seems to me quite as consistently good as these—though Contempt falls just short of them, and my admiration for Masculine Feminine, and for such intentionally lighter works as A Woman is a Woman and La Chinoise, is considerable. In writing on Breathless, I tried to show, in detail, how a particular Godard film works; here, I have been concerned rather with what seem to me the general tendencies of Godard's work seen in its entirety. Inasmuch as current writing on the subject seems mainly to divide into the passionately pro or con, this piece has been against Godard; against, at least, the unqualified adulation of him. Otherwise, even where I take exception to a number of the characteristics of his work, I would like not to think of it so. There is much, especially in Godard's most recent films, which I reject or dislike, but nowhere, apart from Les Carabiniers, are these feelings unmixed with admiration. I go now to each new Godard film with a certain skepticism, even an anticipatory resistance, as well as some anxious expectations of the work's difficulty, but never without an anticipation also of immense intellectual excitement of a kind that Godard has virtually introduced into films singlehandedly. For this achievement, one must have admiration, even while acknowledging what may be the defects of its virtues. To eulogize indiscriminately both defects and virtues is only to bring all praise of Godard into disrepute.


1 This reading of the film is at considerable variance with that of Susan Sontag in Against Interpretation who takes the heroine's words—“I think you are always responsible for what you do. . . . And free.”—at something like face value, although they are contradicted by all the events of the film culminating in the heroine's stunningly abrupt death during a casually violent quarrel between two pimps about who owns her. Indeed, the film's main force and extreme poignancy derives, I think, from just this contradiction between how the heroine conceives herself and what happens to her; this is intensified by our being deliberately deprived, in the manner of the nouveau roman, of any psychological interpretation of character and event through which this contradiction might be resolved.

2 Apart from their use in Breathless, the references to other movies seem to me among the least assimilated and weakest elements of Godard's films, as in such things as the flash title, “Arizona Jules,” in Weekend—a meaningless transposition between the “Arizona Jim” of Renoir's The Crime of M. Lange and the title of Truffaut's Jules and Jim. Since those who don't “get” such allusions may feel defensively that they have failed to penetrate to some level of profundity and those who do are invited to self-congratulation, these things have tended to be praised as wit by the only persons who might be capable of knowing better.

3 Though this action may be taken over from the Moravia novel from which Contempt is adapted, it is clearly made Godard's in all its details, the film's failure stemming from the burdens that are placed on one's sharing Godard's conviction that Fritz Lang is a great artist and on one's being able to believe that the film within a film evokes great art; both of these elements exist in the work as imaginatively uncreated assertions.

4 As my language may indicate and as is strikingly announced by the long erotic monologue with which Weekend begins, the film's identification of destructive with thwarted sexual energy is unmistakable.

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