Godard Mon Amour (Michel Hazanavicius, 2017) 3 out of 4 stars.
Whether or not one has a favorable opinion of iconic French director Jean-Luc Godard – creator of such classics of the 1960s New Wave as Breathless, Contempt and, my personal favorite, Alphaville – I would imagine that Godard Mon Amour, the new film from Michel Hazanavicius (The Artist), requires some kind of a position on, or knowledge of, the man and/or his work in order to engage. Going in cold will not work. If, however, one has even a light acquaintance with his output – particularly that of his initial flowering as a filmmaker – then this movie should provide delights aplenty, even if the whole doesn’t quite cohere into something truly profound. With a committed, stylized performance from lead actor Louis Garrel (My King) in the titular role, the film is the perfect simultaneous homage and takedown of its subject.
I must confess to not appreciating Godard’s œuvre beyond the 1960s with the same zeal I feel for his early movies, though even that later material has its occasional appeal. Despite my interest in the work, I have never explored the man’s life. And perhaps that’s for the best, at least according to his portrayal here. Pretentious and pedantic, overbearing and constantly argumentative, the Godard that emerges here is a real pain in the derrière, to friend and foe, alike. As Godard Mon Amour opens, he has just fallen in love with his lead actress in La Chinoise (1967), Anne Wiazemsky (an appropriately gamine-like Stacy Martin, The Last Photograph), and she with him. They’re 18 years apart in age, but she admires his uncompromising vision and he, her youthful charm. By the end of the story, which follows the trajectory of their relationship from these enchanted early days through its dissolution in 1970 (though a divorce wouldn’t be finalized until 1979), the things that attract will soon have repelled. And so it goes. Still, even Hazanavicius seems to find Godard as increasingly tiresome as does Wiazemsky, or at least the Godard of that period, crafting what feels like an elegy for the younger artist left behind.
For the Godard of 1967/1968 is at a major crossroads. Nearing 40, he no longer carries the same weight of radical youth with the rising generation of social revolutionaries. Paris is on the verge of the violent student protests of May, 1968, and his own movies, now subject to harsher critical appraisal than before, leave him dissatisfied. It’s a good time to lash out at everyone: intellectuals, faux intellectuals, fellow filmmakers, the bourgeoisie, the working class, his wife, anyone who doesn’t get him, etc. Worried about becoming a bore, he ensures that very reality by boring even himself. Still, the impish intelligence that made him a darling of the avant-garde is always present, lending hope to the idea that, maybe one day, we’ll get (a new and improved) Godard back. Nevertheless, that’s no way to build a marriage.
The original title of the movie, in French, is “Le Redoutable,” which refers to a cutting-edge nuclear submarine in trial deployment at that time; it’s a vessel that movies implacably forward, much as Godard was trying to do. And though I have never really liked the director’s post-1967 work, I have always admired his constant push to reinvent himself, however misguided the results. In that vein, the true joy of the film is its constant self-referential use of many of the techniques made popular by Godard and his New Wave peers, which include: direct address of the camera, clever chapter headings, text on and within the frame, symmetry of composition, long tracking shots, overtly expositional voiceover, and more. Beyond these, Hazanavicius adds the hilarious recurring motif of Godard tripping and falling, losing his glasses, which are then crushed, leaving him blind, over and over. It’s the perfect metaphor for a man who can’t see past his own nose. All of this also helps lend this story about a wet blanket a blast of fresh comedy at every turn. Godard may be tedious, but the movie about him is most definitely not.
[In French, with English subtitles.]