Histoire(s) du cinéma Review
For many of the directors who would come to form the French Nouvelle Vague in the late 50s and early 60s, the making of their films was to a large extent an extension of their earlier careers as film critics, many of them as writers for Les Cahiers du Cinéma. That can sound like a glib statement for what in reality was a reaction against the traditional French way of making films and going on to show that cinema should not be constrained by a set of rules and conventional subjects, but could be an artform if used productively as a means of personal expression. For some of the directors however, notably Jacques Rivette and Jean-Luc Godard, filmmaking would indeed be a form of film criticism, a continuous examination of the means by which films are made and the what they are capable of achieving.
Right from the moment in his debut film Breathless when Jean-Paul Belmondo turned, winked to the camera and uttered a profanity, Godard more than anyone however has continued to most imaginatively break down the barriers that exist in filmmaking, exposing the structure of cinematic narrative, deconstructing words, image and music, breaking film down into its component parts in order to examine the alchemy by which the holy trinity of between director, film and viewer gives birth to something extraordinary. From thought to creation to existence.
As a critic and a filmmaker, Godard realises of course that there is no greater way of examining that relationship and the power of moving images combined with sound than through the medium of cinema itself. There are few directors quite as capable as Godard of harnessing that power and conducting meaningful experiments that demonstrate the extent of that power than Godard himself, and he is at his most persuasive in Histoire(s) du cinéma, a series of eight cinematic essays made between 1988 and 1998. Fully utilising the wealth of imagery over the entire history of the cinema, Godard also examines his own relationship with the medium, adding a necessary personal investment that succeeds in taking the essays beyond mere film criticism and into the realm of memoir and self-reflection. With its sheer wealth and complexity of construction, in its collage, montage and juxtaposition, in its examination of the historical, social, cultural, political and personal impact of cinema, it would not be much of an exaggeration to say that Histoire(s) du cinéma is to cinema what Ulysses is to literature.
There is a difference however and that difference comes down to the question of whether or not Histoire(s) du cinema is art or whether it is just film criticism. Inevitably the question is a more complex one in the context of a Godard film, or indeed a TV series, and there is certainly a case that in Histoire(s) du cinema Godard uniquely innovates and elevates film criticism to the level of art. Trying to summarise in a review just what Godard sets out to achieve over the course of these 8 episodes worked on over ten years would however be pointless, since if it could reductively be put into words alone, there would be no need for what Godard does here. Even trying to break down and examine the series of individual episodes is also counter-productive, since Godard inevitably does not follow any kind of linear structure or argument, but cumulatively and through repetition of themes in differing contexts, presents the complexity of where cinema comes from, what it has achieved, what it is capable of achieving and what it is not capable of achieving.
That huge task is more or less laid out in the first episode Toutes Les Histoires, Godard taking cinema right back to its roots and the moment that it became a force to be reckoned with. From Fantômas as the birth of French cinema, to the growth and influence of Hollywood and its "dream machine", from Vigo and Dreyer to Irving Thalberg and Howard Hughes, Godard reflects on the founding fathers of early cinema. Although Chaplin is one of the first images we see, Godard largely sees the foundation of European cinema in its visionary filmmakers and the birth of US cinema with the studios and movie industry producers, a contradiction between art and entertainment that Godard examines in more detail in subsequent episodes. The heritage is taken back to the great painters, still photography and in the innovations of the early pioneers in cinema. The power that the moving image acquires becomes most significant in the post-war years where it was capable of being taken in any number of directions, having the potential to be a force for realism and truth, for art, for ideas, for pornography, being capable of telling all stories or just one story, the history/story of our world, but perhaps failing in that endeavour.
This dual meaning of the French word histoire is one of the principal hooks by which Godard examines these ideas and unfortunately, the resonances, implications and wordplay that Godard draws from it don’t work well when translated into English. In order to fully appreciate what Godard achieves in Histoire(s) du cinéma though, you really need to be fluent not only in English and French, but in the language of cinema and art. Even then, much of this will remain frustratingly obscure, its meaning and purpose difficult to grasp, particularly in the links between cinema and war, with no footnote references to the clips or images presented and blended into a kaleidoscopic montage. At other times it can feel an inspired, truly enlightening and awe-inspiring exploration of the history of cinema and the world, being both celebratory and condemnatory. It’s alive, fascinating and hypnotic, but it’s also cold and intellectual. "Neither an art, nor a technique. A mystery." Histoire(s) du cinéma demands rewatching and is consequently capable of throwing up new ideas, sparking off reactions with the viewer, presenting them with new ways of looking at cinema and the world, and allowing the viewer to form their own personal impressions. And if that’s not art, I don’t know what is.
Histoire(s) du cinéma is released in the UK by Artificial Eye. A three-disc set, the films are presented on three single-layer discs. Disc 1 contains the episodes Toutes les histories (50:49) and Une histoire seule (41:50). Disc 2 contains Seul le cinema (26:51), Fatale beauté (28:27), La monnaie de l’absolu (26:42) and Une vague nouvelle (27:18). Disc 3 contains Le contrôle de l’universe (27:30) and Les signes parmi nous (37:10). The DVD is in PAL format and encoded for Region 2.
Made for television, the series is presented in its original 4:3 aspect ratio and it looks perfect, or at least exactly how you would expect a video-manipulated montage of clips and images to look. The footage of Godard himself, most often sitting at a typewriter, looks to be shot on video and occasional video artefacts appear in the form of colour-bleed and chroma noise, but these are inherent in the actual footage. The image is perfectly stable and there are no signs of any other marks or digital artefacts.
The audio track is straightforward Dolby Digital 2.0, but it’s a strong and dynamic mix, the music used for impact by Godard managing to be overpowering when required, the narration also being clear and reverberating.
English subtitles are provided in a clear white font and are optional. Being a Godard film, the subtitles are a complex affair and if you can dispense with them, it’s better to do so, as they add a further level of communication beyond what the director attended, making it virtually impossible to read them and concentrate on the mix of music, narration, shifting visuals and overlaid text. In any case, much simply cannot be translated effectively because of the wordplay involved (the dual meaning of histoire being just one example). At times they can seem accurate, translating for example "J’ai le droit de vivre" as "You Only Live Once", when it actually means "I have the right to live", but in this case, as in most similar examples, it’s correctly using the non-literal French title of Fritz Lang’s film. The film abounds in such complexities and wordplay which cannot be reconciled in translation, but in the light of all this, the subtitles do an excellent and as full as job as possible.
The only extra features on the set is a brief Biography of Godard, covering the key stages in his career and including a filmography. Certainly this is a series that could do with some expert commentary and analysis, but why let someone else do the work for you?
A visual essay on cinema, on history, on stories, on how it is shaped by and shapes the world we live in today, Histoire(s) du cinéma celebrates the new art form of the 20th century and pays homage to its masters, lauding the means by which it can make a unique connection with a viewer. At the same time Godard condemns cinema for its misuse and perhaps even seems to blame it for the horror that exists in the world today. The series has its flaws certainly, often being obscure in its philosophy and tenuous in the connections it makes but it is never moralistic or didactic. Make no mistake though, the sheer wealth of material, the artistic, cinematic, literary, poetic and philosophical references make Histoire(s) du cinéma a very demanding work, but with the willing and knowledgeable input of the viewer, it is capable of creating a unique dialectic that truly shows the power of the combination of the moving image and sound to present ideas. Artificial Eye’s presentation of the series on DVD is outstanding, making this difficult series a very rewarding viewing experience.