Monday, March 29, 2010

Godard Marathon Day 11: Numéro deux (1975)

Numéro deux (1975): viewing - first

My final encounter (at least for this marathon) with the 70's work of Jean-Luc Godard was Numéro deux, a mysterious, haunting and epochal experimental essay film Godard made in 1975, following the dissolution of the Dziga Vertov Group and his collaboration with Jeanne-Pierre Gorin. It also marked the beginning of a lifelong creative and personal relationship with filmmaker Anne-Marie Miéville. The film begins with Godard alone in an editing room giving a somewhat cryptic monologue that seems to be a thinly veiled account of how this movie came to be made. The bulk of the rest of the film takes place in a blackened room containing only the presence of two television screens (recalling the visual aesthetic of Le Gai Savoir), which at first seem to be displaying arbitrary and random images of people murmuring sparse, poetic dialogues, before it becomes apparent that we are witnessing a family of six (mother, father, boy, girl, grandmother, grandfather) and being given an intimate glimpse into the sexual, economical and philosophical textures of their lives. The dual television screens often juxtapose multiple characters pov's and dialogues against each other, which often makes for challenging and ambiguous disunions in the visuals as we observe the members of this family and come face to face with the myriad dysfunctions that accompany them.

top: Le Gai Savoir (1969); bottom: Numéro deux (1975)

The mother and father (amidst a fight over the mother's infidelity) engage in graphic sexual activities, which are rendered cold and clinical and disturbing to watch, despite the almost voyeuristic nature in which they are presented. Equally disturbing is a scene where the parents show and explain their genitals to the curious, isolated children, presenting them as a mouth and pair of lips that kiss when in love, an analogy which works in stark contrast to the way these acts have been presented to the viewer up to this point. Godard seems to be out to mine some uncomfortable truths from these taboos and fractured relationships. Take this piece of dialogue either spoken or thought by the husband (the film is vague on this) of his wife late in the film: "I think of his mother's cunt. Why do I mind when guys stick there cocks in? I'm thinking of love. To screw and be screwed. Sometimes, she's the man and I'm the woman. Since I'm a guy, sometimes it's like I was screwing another guy." The character clearly contemplates sex as basically the opposite of how it's been described to the children; a soulless, loveless act between two interchangeable genders disconnected from their genitals and each other. Also take the grandparents, who only come into focus in the second half of the movie. The grandmother is frequently engaged in cleaning work, rarely exposing her face while ruminating on her mortality, while the grandfather, a crabby drunk, sits around thinking of days long gone and wallowing in self pity. After summing up a forty year span of his life in about two minutes, he sits at a table, naked from the waste down, and opines: "It was stupid, but that's history. It's not the movies....Sometimes I look at my prick. That's not the movies. The proof we don't have time for movies." It's a moment that stings, both because of the defeated delivery of the lines and also out of a twinge of brutal honesty, in part because one can't help but feel that it in some way might reflect Godard's own disillusionment with cinema at this point in his career.

The backstory to how Numéro deux was made is quite interesting; producer Georges de Beauregard proposed that Godard remake Breathless. Godard accepted the offer, however after Beauregard had successfully raised the funds it became apparent that Godard had no intentions on remaking his landmark cinema debut; instead he spent most of the money buying additional equipment to finish his previous work Ici et ailleurs, then upon completion of that project quickly churned out Numéro deux with Miéville to fulfill his commission. Similar to Le Gai Savoir, I found Numéro deux to be a fascinating film if only as an aesthetic object, but clearly its intrigues go far beyond that. Aside from the trenchant view of its subjects and the exploratory techniques of the filmmaking on display, the movie as a whole has an air of anxiety around it. It very much feels like something of a creative crossroads for Godard, and according to most of what I've read about the film (Ed Howard's piece over at Only The Cinema is a must read), it created the path Godard would trail creatively for most of his following career. It's of course hard for me to say I "enjoyed" Numéro deux, but it certainly held my rapt attention, and after finishing it and letting the experience marinate, I have to say I've found it to be one of the most unique and singularly fascinating Godard films yet. It somehow feels like an appropriate way for me to wrap-up my brief foray into Godard's 70's work, and I'm highly looking forward to what the 80's have in store.

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