Jean-Luc Godard’s Détective comes late in the period of the director’s career where he was increasingly uninterested in the ordinary plot and form of traditional cinema. Unable however to find funding for the film he wanted to make, Je Vous Salue, Marie, he agreed to make a more commercially acceptable film featuring many of the biggest stars in French cinema. Like his earlier film, Prénom Carmen, Godard, in Détective, would play with his love for the style and conventions of American detective movies, but filter them very much through his own unique approach to filmmaking.
The whole of Détective takes place in one location – the Hotel Concorde St. Lazare in Paris, where the activities of a number of characters are monitored and speculated upon by a group of detectives who occupy a room where the murder of The Prince once occurred. In one of the hotel rooms is an airline pilot, Emíle Chenal (Claude Brasseur), whose marriage with his wife Françoise (Nathalie Baye) is breaking down. Françoise meets another guest in the hotel, Mr. Jim Warner (Johnny Hallyday), a boxing promoter who is setting up a big fight for his boxer Tiger Jones (Stéphane Ferrara). Also staying at the hotel, Tiger Jones is mentally preparing for his big fight with himself, trying not to be distracted from his training and chocolate bar eating by his girlfriend the Princess of the Bahamas (Emmanuelle Seigner), who walks around topless most of the time. Warner owes money from a dodgy boxing business deal to a number of people in the hotel, among them The Prince (Alain Cuny), a mafia boss whose staff appear to be running the hotel. Watching them all are the detective Isidore (Jean-Pierre Léaud), his Uncle William Prospero (Laurent Terzieff) and a young girl Arielle (Aurelle Doazan).
“To sum up. Lots of stories here, ours and other people’s. Something’s bound to happen.”, says Isidore, the detective, running around the hotel in various staff guises, watching everything that is going on. But despite all Godard’s little hints and conventional murder-mystery conventions (number 9’s on doors turning upside down, guns being brandished) nothing really happens at all until the conventional, yet incomprehensible, end of film shoot-out. The film really adds up to nothing more the a series of situations played out by a number of big stars – each of those situations certainly being of interest for how they are played out by the fabulous cast (including a very young Julie Delpy), but they never add up to anything more than the sum of their parts – rather less in fact, since Godard again seems to be trying to challenge the viewer, again using his love for detective fiction as a metaphor for how life is a puzzle that doesn’t make any sense at all – at least not in any structurally organised way. The director clearly feels that there is no longer any point in telling a story in a traditional manner, since it’s all been done before, it’s all been written before (almost all the characters in the film read books that tell the story of their lives, such as Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’ and Conrad’s ‘Lord Jim’) – and, at least as far as Godard is concerned, it has all been filmed before. Détective is therefore little more than a montage of all those movie moments - the breakdown of a marriage, the murder mystery, the mafia mob film. All these elements are well played-out by a strong cast, with plenty of Godardian absurdity and a brilliant formal structure, but it lacks the heart and personal investment of the director that even more experimental Godard films contain. In the absence of such involvement and anything resembling a coherent plot - particularly for a film that was made as a commercial enterprise - it's a bit much to expect the viewer to really care anything at all for the answers to the détective's investigations.
Détective is released in the UK by Optimum. The DVD is encoded for Region 2.
The picture quality is rather good – colour tones are strong and deep, as are contrast and brightness levels. The image is also relatively sharp and detailed. There is however slightly more grain visible than you might expect to find on the print and edge-enhancement is very evident. The film is shown at a ratio of 1.33:1, which seems to be its original aspect ratio.
The original soundtrack is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo, making use of the separation for typically Godardian bursts of classical music and other sound intrusions. It’s strong and strikingly clear throughout.
The subtitles manage for the most part to capture the tone of the film, although in a Godard film there are of course titles and wordplay that will not translate. It’s always good to have optional titles on a Godard film, and thankfully Optimum have given the viewer that option both here and on their release of La Chinoise.
There are not a great deal of extra features, although the short Introduction to Détective (4:24) by Colin MacCabe is useful, and could certainly be viewed (unlike most features that are described as ‘introductions’) before the film, to give you a taste of what to expect and how you ought to react to it. There are also a number of trailers for Optimum’s Jean-Luc Godard Collection of separately released films, including Breathless, Eloge De L’Amour and the forthcoming Notre Musique.
Godard’s Détective is not an easy film to follow, since it doesn’t really make any sense at all, simultaneously playing on cinematic conventions with an apparent murder-mystery plot and a star-studded cast, while at the same time contemptuously deconstructing those conventions to confound the viewer’s expectations. For the Godard fan though, there is a lot here to enjoy, particularly watching a star cast like this go through the Godard experience in a way that would never happen again, but, rather like Weekend, the director is at the end of another stage in his gradual dismissal of the traditional cinematic format and his lack of interest in the film other than the formal process of putting it on the screen, is clearly apparent. Optimum’s DVD release of Détective is almost barebones, but the film itself is well-presented with good A/V quality and optional subtitles.