Like writing a traditional biography about James Joyce, composing a conventional symphony in honor of John Cage, or painting a realistic portrait of Picasso, directing a standard narrative feature about Jean-Luc Godard risks alienating the very audience that would consume the — yes, I’ll say it — product. Squaring experimentalists into familiar forms insults their genius.
Or does it? Commerce and art have been commingling at least since Andy Warhol stranded together their DNA. But I never thought I’d see the day when Godard — the radical film theorist turned director, the renegade curmudgeon of the French New Wave, the polemical poet of world cinema — would receive a $13 million biopic with a star (Louis Garrel) in the main role. Yet Michel Hazanavicius’ Godard Mon Amour exists, and it even screened in the main competition in Cannes, the very festival Godard helped shut down 50 years ago in the midst of the May 1968 riots.
Godard would hate idea of such a folly. In fact, the 87-year-old auteur has said as much, without having seen the film, telling an interviewer in 2017, “Oh, to even hear about it — do not want to! I do not like it. Although, in fact, do not care. Stupid idea, stupid.” So much for mellowing with age.
His purists have a right to be wary. The opening voice-over narration constitutes a cringe-worthy commercial concession, a way to introduce 21st-century laymen to Godard’s importance that reduces him to a movie-trailer summary. “He was adored by Jean Renoir and the Beatles, by Fritz Lang and the Rolling Stones. This man who revolutionized film 10 years ago … was about to revolutionize himself.” That noise you hear is the collective groan from thousands of cinephiles the world over.
Indeed, those for whom Godard’s increasingly militant brand of anti-cinema is the be-all and end-all of movies will hate Godard Mon Amour, with its plebian over-the-shoulder shot-reverse-shot edits, its acquiescence to traditional character psychology, its self-conscious deployment of many a Godardian trope: the jump cut, the intertitle, the fragmented use of montage, the tracking shot of a nude female body.
These are imitations of the master’s work, to be sure, but at least Hazanavicius appears to be having fun, which can’t be said for most of Godard’s own post-’68 wilderness, during which the movie is set. The film dramatizes Godard’s transition from art-house darling to inscrutable revolutionary, chronicling the tepid response to his overtly political La Chinoise, the May 1968 riots that accompanied its release, and Godard’s retreat from narrative in favor of his Maoist experiments with the Dziga Vertov Group. (“When are you going to make funny films again?” implores a fan who spots him at a protest, echoing the famous extraterrestrial entreaty from Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories.)
Much of Godard Mon Amour is about Godard’s justified fear of his own poserdom, of being a revolutionary thought leader while enjoying the comforts and privileges of a cosseted celebrity. “Godard is a consumer product,” screams a disruptive student at one of Godard’s campus appearances. “Like Coca-Cola or Mickey Mouse!” Godard, who worshipped youth and detested the generations he has since aged into, comes to believe this line of thinking, and so do we. At worst, he comes across as an infantile hypocrite, which helps Hazavanicius’ case: Godard Mon Amour is no hagiography.
This period of Godard’s life coincided with the beginnings of his tumultuous 12-year marriage to actress Anne Wiazemsky (Stacy Martin), whose memoir, Un Après, is Godard Mon Amour’s source material. At 19 years old to Godard’s 37, Wiazemsky was certainly the director’s type: Boyish and pretty with a shoulder-length bob, Martin plays her as a spitting image of Anna Karina, Godard’s first movie love on and off the screen.
At first, Anne is an elastic extension of her husband’s politics and ambition, supporting him through the lackluster reception to La Chinoise and sponging up his socialist worldview, until she begins to see through his empty provocations and phony personas, and self-actualizes.
As a dysfunctional-relationship movie, Godard Mon Amour offers little we haven’t seen on the familiarity-breeds-contempt front. But as a self-reflexive comedy, it’s full of inside-baseball bon mots. In one of his self-negating, cinema-is-over screeds, Godard says, “Godard doesn’t exist. I’m an actor playing Godard,” which, when spoken by Garrel, is certainly true. Later, Jean-Luc and Anne, both wandering their house in their birthday suits, discuss the artistic merits, or lack thereof, of nude scenes.
Too precious? Perhaps. But the recurring gag about Godard breaking his glasses whenever he joins a protest works every time. Even the real Godard might begrudgingly admire it; it’s precisely the sort of joke that would pop up in films by Jerry Lewis or the Marx Brothers, Godard’s most praised of American artists.
Godard’s own movies, too, appear in the subtext of Havanicius’s film. From furniture to advertising signs, the production design echoes the director’s palette of bold primary colors with wit and style. There are visual references in Godard Mon Amour to Contempt, Masculin-Feminin, Two or Three Things I Know About Her. And those are just the allusions I noticed — for the Godard fan with a sense of humor, Godard Mon Amour is a veritable Easter egg hunt. But if his devotees are as prickly as the man himself, most will remain hidden.
GODARD MON AMOUR. Director: Michel Hazanavicius; Cast: Louis Garrel, Stacy Martin, Berenice Bejo, Gregory Gadebois; Distributor: Cohen Media Group; not rated; in French with English subtitles; Opens today at Movies of Lake Worth, Movies of Delray and Coral Gables Art Cinema