Jean-Luc Godard DVD Collection Vol. 2 Review
Warner’s second set of Jean-Luc Godard films is an intriguing collection that clearly shows the director’s progression between 1965’s Pierrot Le Fou, with its playful Nouvelle Vague leanings, an incipient political commentary and self-reflective gaze on filmmaking that would come more to the fore in 1966’s Made In U.S.A, and the further exploration and extension of the reach of cinematic narrative in Prénom Carmen (1983). What each of the films has in common is their playful disregard for naturalism, refusing to present the viewer with an empty entertainment, constantly keeping them aware of the artifice of the filmmaking process and demanding their complicity in engaging with the film on another level entirely. Although there is a tendency to regard Godard’s films with academic seriousness, Godard’s wicked – and sometimes obscure – sense of humour shouldn’t be overlooked, particularly here in these three flights of fancy.
Pierrot Le Fou
About to set out for the evening with his wife, Ferdinand (Jean-Paul Belmondo) discovers that the girl who has been engaged as babysitter, is actually Marianne (Anna Karina), a former lover he hasn’t seen in five years. They each drop their attachments and take off on the road together, across the country towards the South of France and Italy. They take off without a care in the world, but eventually have to come to terms with the differences that lie between them – Ferdinand’s love of abstraction and poetry against Marianne’s love of the concrete and money. Both of them love the idea of ‘life’, but the reality of living is something different. Eventually Marianne persuades Ferdinand (or Pierrot as she calls him despite his constant reminders that it is not his name) to embark on a risky enterprise to gain a great deal of money from her brother Fred.
Although he had made some superbly accomplished films during his 1960’s Nouvelle Vague era – arguably reaching perfection with Le Mépris in 1963 – Godard has never seemed so entirely at ease and in control of every single element of his craft as he is in Pierrot Le Fou - effortlessly interweaving all his thoughts, ideas and obsessions about filmmaking up to that point, playing around with colour and sound, with plot and artifice, with political comment and social critique and above all, imbuing it all with a glorious sense of fun and love for the medium. And it shows in every single frame of Pierrot Le Fou - a perfect balance between art and entertainment, drawing the audience into its attractive, colourful, lyrical world only to subversively sweep the carpet away and force the viewer to confront their own reactions to the cinematic artifice that is being presented to them. The film is visually poetic, Godard throwing in images, references, quotes, paintings, comic strips, cartoons – not randomly (well, occasionally randomly, just to keep the viewer on their toes and to see what random effect it will produce) – but to create a deliberate and specific impression, whether it’s the romance of a randomly inserted musical number (and even here Godard is much more at ease with the format than the self-conscious archness of his 1961 film Une Femme Est Une Femme) or the playfulness of a Laurel and Hardy-style slapstick routine. The film projects through this rich mixture the impression of a carefree insouciance, the excitement of freedom, of being able to take these wonderful characters anywhere and do whatever he likes with them. Even Godard’s contempt for consumerism and capitalism – a hatred that would ultimately explode in his 1967 film Weekend - is treated here with playful scorn, a character at a party speaking in nothing more advertising slogans (even Ferdinand, arriving at a petrol station, asks the pump attendant to “put a tiger in his tank”), and a playful sideswipe at the American actions in Vietnam. Pierrot Le Fou sees Godard at a peak – one of a number of peaks often matched by equally deep lows in a long and productive career – and one that is most accessible for the viewer to see just how capable, exciting and innovative a director Godard can be.
Pierrot Le Fou’s colourful 2.35:1 image is given a clear, bright anamorphic transfer here. It’s a little bit hazy in one or two places and a bit soft on occasion, but this is probably more to do with the conditions of the original material, as often it is relatively clear and sharp. There are some minor artefacting issues, a moiré effect on narrow lines, clothes and window grilles, slightly jagged edges and a tendency to shimmer. Reds are a little bright and tend to bleed. Overall though, colours are warm and strong and there are few marks or scratches to speak of. The audio – a Dolby Digital 2.0 mono mix – is a little on the harsh side, but clear and strong enough. Subtitles are a bit on the large side (see below) and are fixed on the print – they cannot be removed. They do reasonably well for the most part at translating Godard’s freewheeling, punning and rhyming, but eventually give up trying to translate the snippets of poems and wordplay in Ferdinand’s notebooks. There are no extra features, just a rudimentary scene selection option.
Made in U.S.A.
Set in an alternate-universe fictional location of Atlantic-Cité, Made in U.S.A. is a typically oblique Godardian blend of political intrigue and self-referential humour in the guise of a nominal thriller plot. Paula Nelson (Anna Karina) is a journalist who has been covering the war in Morocco who has just returned to Atlantic-Cité. She has received a telegram from her one-time fiancé Richard, but when she arrives there she finds that he has been killed. Following various leads, while under surveillance herself by the police and other mysterious figures, she attempts to find out who killed Richard.
“It’s like being in a Disney film starring Humphrey Bogart. A film with a political message”, Anna Karina remarks at one point in the film, and indeed, with its mysterious figures in cars, North African connection, murky police activities and other-worldly absurdity, Made in U.S.A. is like a Technicolor version of Le Petit Soldat set in an Alphaville universe. But the self-referentiality of Karina’s comment also alerts us to the meta-fiction construct of the film that looks ahead to Godard's breaking down of the artificial construct of the movie that would come to its definitive destruction in Weekend, the director thereafter seeking new ways of presenting his ideas on film. Not only do the characters often refer to themselves as characters in a film, in one scene they attempt to make an inventory of every object in a barroom, deconstructing the film down into mere words on a page. Godard continually alerts us to the fact that words are a fictional construct that both his film and political ideologies are built upon – characters type poems, read books, quote from books, indulge in wordy political discourse and sloganeering (again prefiguring the bold intertitles and political messages of La Chinoise and Weekend) – but just because they make coherent sentences, doesn’t mean they have validity. However “fiction triumphs over reality”, Godard’s film tells us (is there really any need for film criticism when the film is as self-reflective and self-analytical as this?) and the film meanders through its obscure plot to a notional ending. What is the purpose of all this, you might ask? And well you might…
For a barebones disc, Made in U.S.A. is nonetheless very impressive. “The weather was good enough to shoot a colour film”, Karina comments in voice-over at one point and there is indeed every evidence of how much attention has been applied to the colour schemes in the film (red, white and blue feature prominently). The picture quality is almost perfect here – an anamorphic 2.35:1 transfer, the colours leap off the screen in their stunning compositions and arrangements. A slight blue tinge to edges could be seen on one or two occasions and a faint flicker of macro-blocking once or twice, but otherwise the film looks simply stunning. The sound is reasonably good - a complicated Godardian soundscape (jet planes obscuring words here and there) rendered functional in a straightforward dull mono soundtrack. Subtitles are fixed, but player-generated – ie. they are not burnt onto the print or fixed to the transfer (they disappear in fast-forward mode), but there are no means of switching them off either. They are appropriately sized. The translation works reasonably well, occasionally loosely, but as usual they over-do the swearing. “Un sale con” does not mean “a fucking idiot” – sale means “filthy” – and this kind of translation is particularly out of place when the words come out of Anna Karina’s mouth. There are no extra features, just a basic scene selection option. If you get nothing else from Made in U.S.A. than the beautifully photographed glamour of Anna Karina running through a colourful film, then it would still be worth it – the film and the DVD really do look that good.
Godard takes the self-referential nature of his films a stage further in his 1983 film First Name Carmen, himself acting as Jean Godard – a famous film director who is locked-up in a mental institution, pretending to be sick, but in reality avoiding the world and the responsibilities of making films. He is visited by his niece Carmen (Maruschka Detmers), who wants to borrow his video equipment and his empty seaside apartment to make a film with some friends. However, she and her friends are looking for a hideaway from a bank robbery they are about to undertake. During a shootout, Carmen falls in love with one of the security guards, Joseph (Jacques Bonnaffé) and he joins their gang as they prepare to kidnap a wealthy industrialist.
As Mike Figgis observed in his assessment on the extra features of the Artificial Eye release of Weekend, music plays a vital part in Godard’s films and, before his latest feature Notre Musique (2003), Prénom Carmen is perhaps where music is the most important factor in determining the whole structure and tone of one of his films. Prénom Carmen is a jumble of ideas, influences and inspirations – the film operates on at least two levels (three if you want to include the usual conceit of the Godardian meta-narrative – the film director drawing it all together), combining an 80’s cinéma du look aesthetic (a Diva-style plot and Betty Blue levels of full-frontal nudity) with musical, literary and philosophical ideas. There are various allusions to Bizet’s opera, not least in the title of the film, but also in the surface plot and the fatal love affair – the gang of bandits, the outcast police guard who throws his lot in with them for the love of a predatory woman, the symbolic presentation of the roses – a barman even whistles a melody from the opera and there are one or two instances of dialogue being taken from the libretto. The underlying direction of the film however relies more on the secondary character of Claire, a girl Joseph is in love with, but who is not his girlfriend. She is a musician in a string quartet which is rehearsing a Beethoven piece which can be heard as backing throughout the film. The pace and tempo of the film is therefore dictated by the moods and rhythms of the piece – tragic, comic, violent, mysterious and sometimes improvisational, abstract and meandering – reacting additionally to random literary quotes Claire throws into the mix. The film does attempt to tap into filmmaking as an abstract, sensory experience, on the same level as a musical piece, but apart from a bold experiment into drawing together a different variety of elements and allowing them to dictate the structure and direction of making a film, Prénom Carmen never seems to cohere into anything purposeful or meaningful and its wilful obscurity can make it a very frustrating experience.
Disappointingly, Warner haven’t given the 1.66:1 transfer anamorphic enhancement. The image is rather soft and some mild grain or mosquito-net noise artefacts can be seen throughout. The colours look quite good however and tones are cool and clear in a very 80’s manner, although some VHS-like cross-colouration can be detected. The print is also free from marks or scratches and apart from a very slight blurring in movement, there are no really noticeable artefacting or macro-blocking problems. The Dolby Digital 2.0 mono audio track is adequate, clear throughout, but never really impressing. It occasionally sounds a little bit echoing, but these characteristics are doubtless down to the audio recording itself. Subtitles are fixed on the transfer and cannot be removed. They appear with a transparent border and are clearly readable. There are no extra features. Overall, this is a fair, if in no way exceptional barebones transfer.
As a selection of Jean-Luc Godard films and in their presentation on DVD, the Jean-Luc Godard Collection Vol. 2 is both a rewarding and a frustrating experience. Some may find the films in this collection a little bit too clever for their own good – wavering between playful brilliance and wilful obscurity, being little more than empty experiments with the form that have nothing important to say and are weighed down by the director’s political baggage (although never to the extent of most of his later period films). Pierrot Le Fou is certainly the most perfect little film in this collection and just for that – to see an important director working at the height of his abilities with a dizzying brilliance and alarming ease – and to get some idea of where he would take this ability in his subsequent films, this is a worthwhile and intriguing set of films. The DVD presentation is equally frustrating – with stunningly beautiful colourful anamorphic scope transfers of Pierrot Le Fou and Made in U.S.A., a non-anamorphic transfer of Prénom Carmen, fixed subtitles and no extra features of any kind. It’s a bit of a mixed bag, but if you are a fan and happy to see these films in decent barebones transfers, then this is a pretty good collection.