Jean-Luc Godard helped spearhead the French New Wave movement of the ‘60s that in turn inspired and invigorated an entire generation of filmmakers, most notably the ‘New Hollywood’ generation of the 1970s: Francis Coppola, Brian De Palma, Martin Scorsese and particularly director William Friedkin (The French Connection, The Exorcist, Sorcerer).
Godard’s a difficult filmmaker to box and label, he’s not content with resting on his laurels and since the ‘70s has continually experimented with new media and formats. Digital has freed him somewhat, allowing him to mess with images in new and interesting ways. In the last few decades, he’s contented himself with producing ‘visual essays’ in preference to just pumping out the standard narrative films.
This, his latest, was awarded a ‘Special Palme d’Or’ at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival. It’s very much in keeping with his Histoire(s) du cinema, which was an epic 8-part video project that Godard started in the 1980s and completed in 1998. Running at nearly five hours, Histoire(s) du cinema examined the concept of cinema and how cinema reflected the 20th century and indeed, how the 20th century itself is perceived through the medium of cinema.
The 87-year-old Godard’s new film is very much a continuance on those themes. It has ‘sections’ that deal with different ideas, one with the West’s notion of the Middle East, over which Godard’s gravelly, booming voice discusses Albert Cossery’s book An Ambition in the Desert, a fictional story of an emirate that doesn’t produce oil and hence, is untouched by western influence.
During this section Godard assails us with images from Egyptian cinema, ISIS YouTube footage and newly shot street scenes, which are all digitally smeared, distressed and manipulated to intentionally deform and abstract the images. Godard utilises scenes from so many films, it’s almost impossible to recount them all. Imagery from such disparate films as John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln, Sergei Bondarchuk’s War and Peace, Hitchcock’s Vertigo, Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard as well as Godard’s own works like King Lear, Weekend, Alphaville and Pierrot le Fou, all are grist for his intellectual mill.
Deliberately jarring in its execution and purposefully raw, amateurish and provocative, Godard’s musings and ruminations are certainly interesting and fascinating to a point, yet the grinding assault on your eyeballs reaches Guantanamo levels of mental torture after 90 minutes. Such cinematic naval-gazing may hold appeal for hardcore fans of his filmic essays, but Godard’s deliberate corruption of the narrative form makes this almost indigestible, showing that what might be the toast of Cannes, is simply an inscrutable and pretentious wank. As Werner Herzog once said: “Someone like Jean-Luc Godard is for me, intellectual counterfeit money, when compared to a good Kung-Fu film.”
With all reports pointing to a box office disappointment, it looks like James Cameron [pictured with Rodriguez and producer Jon Landau] may have dodged a bullet when he passed Alita: Battle Angel for Robert Rodriguez to direct. But the Tex-Mex filmmaker wouldn’t have it any other way.