Thursday, March 25, 2010

Godard Marathon Day 10: Tout va bien (1972); Letter to Jane (1972)

Tout va bien (1972); viewing: first

Tout va bien was the final feature film produced from Godard's collaboration with Jeanne-Pierre Gorin under the name of the Dziga Vertov Group. With its respectable budget and the presence of two stars cast in the leading roles, it was the closest thing to a commercially viable film Godard had made since Week End. Tout va Bien begins cleverly, citing its Brechtian influence during the opening credits with a voice repeatedly calling scene numbers and clapping the slate, eventually cutting to a hand signing a series of checks while two directors in voice-over (Godard/Gorin?) discuss various aspects of getting a political movie made. We are subsequently introduced to a couple (Jane Fonda, Yves Montand), she an American reporter living in Paris with her lover, a former director who's been relegated to commercial work. One day the couple visit a meat factory to conduct an interview with the manager, only to find him imprisoned in his office by the workers who have gone on strike. The couple become briefly trapped in the manager's office as well, and eventually the movie shifts its focus in the second half to a time in the future focusing on the couples struggles, both with their rapidly deteriorating relationship, and with their individual existential anxieties during the volatility of '72 France, where the echoes of the events of May '68 are still extremely palpable.

There are many extremely interesting things going on in Tout va bien, among them the daring mise-en-scene, which removes the fourth wall from the factory setting, rendering it a cutaway and showing all of the activities taking place inside at once. There is also a phenomenal back-and-forth tracking shot towards the end that nearly outdoes the famous one in Week End; this one taking place in a large supermarket that at first seems to be highlighting the mechanical nature of consumerism before turning into a stark outburst of violence and revolt. There are also unfortunately some stretches of tedium where Tout va bien feels ponderous and lacking in Godard's typically poetic visuals. Of course the movie indulges in Godard's leftist leanings and Maoist beliefs and becomes quite talky in spots that were a little too trying for me. Something about the film also felt antsy to me as it jumped all around; I wish it had sustained more of its ideas, and also developed the relationship between the Fonda and Montand characters more (they are actually quite good in their roles). Despite the emotional disconnect I felt with the couple, the film is at its best when it's drawing parallels between their relationship and the tumultuous political climate of France post-May '68. These moments are poignant, sobering and inspired, and by far the most successful and emotionally resonant achievements of the picture for me.

One of the more interesting things I read about Tout va bien in its (surprisingly little) section from Richard Brody's book Everything Is Cinema is that Godard had actually been in a motorcycle accident and month long coma prior to shooting, and was really only involved in the development of the film on a conceptual level. Gorin himself did the majority of hands on directing, and perhaps this accounts for the overall lack of, I dunno, spark(?) that I felt while watching the movie. Something was definitely missing here for me, visually speaking and just with its overall feel and energy. While Tout va bien didn't completely work for me, and doesn't really inspire me to rush and seek out other Dziga Vertov Group works, I am glad I watched it because, as I've said previously, you can always count on a film with Godard's name attached to be at least interesting, and on that level Tout va bien has a lot going for it.

Letter to Jane (1972); viewing: first

Probably not the best thing to watch while on the verge of falling asleep (as I was), Letter to Jane is a 50 minute follow up to Tout va bien that focuses on a photograph of Jane Fonda during her controversial visit to North Vietnam, while Godard and Gorin talk through voice over throughout the duration of the film and scorn Fonda for not entirely clear reasons. Their critiques link the photo to everything from Tout va bien and its central question (what is the role of the intellectual in a revolution?) to the class struggle to capitalism and so on. It is analytically dense, going so far as to break down the blocking of the photograph into symbols of the respresented countries politics. It also analyzes the faces of both Fonda and the anonymous Vietnam man in the background and compares them to other notable mugs such as Marlon Brando, Renee Falconetti, John Wayne and Richard Nixon in an attempt to figure out why exactly Jane Fonda's face in the photo lends itself to separation while the Vietnam's remains a part of its surroundings.

There's not a whole lot for me to say about Letter to Jane; it is obviously quite didactic and was a bit of a chore for me to sit through, even at its slim running time (being tired of course made it more difficult). This isn't helped at all by the fact that Godard and Gorin are both speaking English here in consistently monotonous drones that quite simply aren't that rousing to listen to, despite the fact that a lot of the time they are actually saying some compelling stuff. The film is aesthetically and formally interesting however, and does make a good companion piece to Tout va bien, and certainly should be of some interest to Godard fans. Once again, didn't completely do it for me, but glad I watched it.


Erich Kuersten said...

I saw Tout Va Bien at the old Cinema Classics film club in the East Village, with my argentine socialist girlfriend, so it at least had a cool context, but the print was old and the colors had run to pinks and blurry browns, making it an even more tedious chore than it might be at home. Oh well.

P.S. did you see I linked your Godard fest on Acidemic?

Drew said...

Hey Erich! No I hadn't seen your generous link over at Acidemic yet - my daily blog-perusal maybe the biggest casualty of this marathon so far - but I greatly appreciate both it and your kind words!

That's a shame about you seeing a crappy print of Tout va bien. Even when these Godard's can be at their most trying, his compositions and use of primary colors that pop right off the screen normally gives the viewer something to hold onto at least visually. Take that out of the equation, and yeah, I can see how this might have been a bit of a trying experience.

Joel Bocko said...

I found Letter to Jane incredibly dynamic and riveting, while also pretty nasty and mean-spirited (they are most likely reading way way too much into the photo and in the process saying as much about their own intellectual distance as about that of their subject, but it makes for a kicky head trip if one's into that sort of thing). I thought it was more interesting than Tout va bien to be honest.

Btw, fucking awesome banner photo. Pardon my French but it's just such a great image - took me a moment to realize what it was, and then I liked it even more (that's probably one of my favorite passages of Sopranos, and I love the fact that Chase never "explained" it).