Monday, April 5, 2010

Godard Marathon Day 12: Passion (1982); First Name: Carmen (1983)

Passion (1982); viewing: first

My journey into the 80's films of Jean-Luc Godard started with 1982's Passion, a thoroughly bewildering yet richly emotive and beautiful film that to me felt as personal as anything I've seen from Godard yet. The movie tells, in its own elusive way, the story of a small group of characters in a little town in Switzerland, among them a Polish director (Jerzy Radziwilowicz), who is plodding through the laborious filming of a big-budget picture that is essentially made up of gorgeously composed tableaus of classic paintings and notable historical moments. The other important characters include Isabelle Hubert as a rebellious factory worker, her boss (Michel Piccoli), and his wife (Hanna Schygulla). The Hubert character begins an affair with Jerzy (the characters names in the film are actually that of the actors playing them, in an interesting meta-flourish), while the Schygulla character auditions for a role in the film and ends up in an affair with the director as well, while Michel Piccoli constantly lurks in the background as the menacing factory owner with an unnerving chronic cough.

Of course, Passion does not spell all of this out for the viewer, and I'm not even sure that I have the details above entirely accurate. It is a challenging and extremely elliptical work, and is not so much worried about narrative cohesion as it is moments of fleeting, evocative beauty and its themes of the intimate and inseparable connection between art, creation, love, and yes, passion. This is beautifully summed up in the film's most powerfully gorgeous scene, where Schygulla and Radziwilowicz sit in a room and watch the tape of her audition, and as Schygulla squirms uncomfortably with self-consciousness at viewing herself on the screen, Radziwilowicz's hand gently comes into the frame to caress and cradle her head with affection, which leads to a semi-recreation of the very audition scene they are viewing while lush operatic music plays over the background. It is a scene of almost overpowering emotion and tenderness, and it nearly took my breath away. What I experienced with Passion was a film of stunning sensual beauty about the fragility of the artistic process, but there is no doubt it's operating on many other levels I've not even tapped into yet, and it feels like a futile task for me to discuss it with much meaning after only one viewing, but it definitely left a pretty big impact on me, and is one I can't wait to revisit sometime in the near future.

First Name: Carmen (1983); viewing: second

First Name: Carmen was the first non-60's Godard film I originally saw awhile back, and to be perfectly honest, it didn't do a whole lot for me that first time. It is an adaptation of the Bizet opera Carmen (which I am completely unfamiliar with), and tells the story of Carmen (Maruschka Detmers), an attractive young terrorist who falls in love with a security guard named Joseph (Jacques Bonnaffe) during a botched bank robbery. The two share a brief and torrid love affair before Carmen tosses her lover aside as quickly as they got together, and tragedy ensues.

Despite that initial viewing underwhelming me, there were images from this film that I was unable to shake from my head, even months after viewing; the pair lying on the bank floor in a passionate embrace in the midst of smeared blood and a dormant rifle laying next to them; the Joseph character hugging a blue static screen tv in longing while a Tom Waits song plays over the soundtrack; the gorgeous shots of the beach that continuously pop in and out of the film, punctuating some of the more poetic moments. Godard himself even has some memorable moments in a delightful performance as Carmen's uncle, a "sick" filmmaker named Jean-Luc Godard dealing with cinematic exile and looking to make a comeback film. So I definitely knew something was there, and I was eager to give the film another shot with a completely different perspective, and wasn't shocked in the least to find that I enjoyed it much more this second time around. I suspect the problem for me that first time was that I quite simply wasn't patient with the film; its methodical pace and almost vignette structure lost me somewhere in the middle and I felt a strong disconnect with the characters for some reason, I just didn't care about them. This time, I was able to simply sit back and let the quiet beauty of the movie sweep me away. There is an intoxicating quality to First Name: Carmen, with its lush photography and orchestral score, and I think my patience with the movie this time allowed me to engage with the obsession of the Joseph character, to feel his pain, and thus to attach some very real emotional resonance to those striking images that made such an impression on me that first time around. The experience of watching First Name: Carmen again is precisely what I was hoping to get out of this marathon, and while I probably still like Passion a little more between the two, I certainly found it to be a deeply compelling and affecting work, and I'm pretty thrilled I was able to get this much out of it from only a second viewing. Needless to say, huge start to 80's Godard for me; these two films were really fantastic.


Ed Howard said...

Nice! Passion is a great one that I haven't seen in a long time. Even in the context of Godard's later work, though, its narrative is elliptical in the extreme; only Helas pour moi is in similar territory in terms of letting the narrative all but slip away into the ether. On some level, it's working through the same theme that was central to Godard's first 80s film, his 1980 "return" to cinema, Sauve qui peut (la vie): the loss of radicalism. It's obvious in these two films that Godard was very much affected by the failure of May '68 and the radical movement to have any broad, lasting effect. There's a sadness in them, and also in Passion a desire to return to a kind of pure aestheticism, retreating from these political disappointments — hence the emphasis on classical art in the filmmaker character's movie. I think Godard, disappointed that his politically engaged cinema, and the movement that surrounded it, petered out without accomplishing anything of substance, was trying to figure out where to go next. Passion even directly refers back to British Sounds with the scene where the audio of the workers' conversation is de-sychronized with the images; it's Godard acknowledging the limits of his political cinema and wrestling with how to keep making movies now that he's obviously less idealistic about the political power of this tool.

First Name: Carmen is just great, one of my favorites. It's so sensual and warm, much like its sister film Hail Mary, and the two films couldn't be more literal in exploring the two sides of the madonna/whore complex: Carmen is the betraying seductress, a type that's often appeared in Godard's films, while Mary is pure and chaste and spiritual. But both films celebrate female sensuality and sexuality in a big way.

And yes, Godard's slapstick turns in his 80s films are a delight. Wait till you get a load of Professor Pluggy in King Lear.

Erich Kuersten said...

Hey, you got to two of my favorites. I'd seen them both on VHS, panned and scanned, or at any rate badly blocked... it makes such a difference to see them on a nice DVD transfer because the image is the thing - there's no point watching those lovely waves in CARMEN if they're streaked up with VHS artifacts.

Seeing PASSION on DVD blew my mind, I felt I'd "cracked the code" - sort of like when I suddenly "got" Charles Mingus. Great art can wash over us and never make a dent and then one day BANG we dissolve! I wrote about my PASSION experience in 2008, here, if you want to check it out.

Drew said...

Thanks guys

Ed, the point you bring up about the sadness in these works due to Godard's disappointment with the ineffectiveness of his political cinema makes a lot of sense and adds even more poignancy to these films already ripe with emotion. There are so many touches in Passion - like the de-sychronized audio that you've analyzed brilliantly - that just befuddled me, yet the film knocked bowled me over, similar perhaps to the first time I saw Synecdoche, NY? and I absolutely can't wait to give it another viewing. There's a real possibility this could be one of my very favorites when all is said and done.

Of course everything you say about First Name: Carmen is true, it's a deeply fascinating film brimming with complexity and beauty, and the comparison to Hail Mary makes me all the more anxious for that work. King Lear sounds absolutely batty, and I definitely am looking forward to that as well.

Erich, I can't even imagine how different an experience it would have been to watch these two films on VHS. That LionsGate 3 Films set is hell of a product, the transfer on these films was absolutely gorgeous. Mingus is one of my favorites, so I love that comparison, very apt. I really wasn't ready for Passion, I dunno, I really knew nothing about it and it just had an effect very similar to what you've described, it blew me away with its spirit and artistry. Thank you so much for posting the link! This is one I'm dying to read more about, what better place to start than Acidemic!

Doniphon said...

I love both these films, although, like you, I do favor Passion a bit. I really liked what Ed said comparing it to Helas pour moi; that lack of a specific narrative drive may be what attracts me to them, I think they're two of Godard's greatest films. Agree with everyone that Godard is a great actor too -- I kind of wonder if the preposterous funny dirty things he says to the nurse and his niece are him ridiculing his reputation as a misogynist.

Drew said...

Doniphon, I too seem to be drawn more towards these films that rely less on narrative drive, I adore the elliptical style present in Passion and its emphasis on the image, and I'm really looking forward to Helas pour moi after the comparisons.

That's an interesting theory on Godard's dirty uncle character, I hadn't thought about that before but I definitely wouldn't put it past him to have had that in mind.