Thursday, April 8, 2010
Godard Marathon Day 13: Hail Mary (1985); Detective (1985)
Hail Mary (1985); viewing: first
Hail Mary is Godard's controversial 1985 modern retelling of the story of Mary and the Immaculate Conception as found in the New Testament. The film stars Myriem Roussel (the deaf, nude extra from Passion and the violin player from First Name: Carmen) as Mary, a fairly typical teenage girl who plays basketball for the school she attends, works for her father's gas station, and dates Joseph (Thierry Rode), a dropout cab driver who doesn't have much going for him. One day a mysterious stranger named Gabriel arrives via plane to inform Mary of the news that she will become pregnant, a monumentally difficult pill for her to swallow, seeing as how she is a virgin and is in a strictly chaste relationship with Joseph. The film then deals with Mary and those close to her attempting to reconcile this impossible situation and Mary's apparent role in God's plan.
I was mildly surprised and rather pleased at how gracefully and tactfully Godard approached this subject matter. There are all kinds of routes this material could have taken, turning it into some kind of anti-media or anti-religious statement that could have mirrored the type of didactic stuff Godard was producing merely a decade earlier. But 80's Godard had something different in mind, and wisely keeps the events and their ramifications concentrated solely on the small group of characters who are directly affected, creating a quiet intimacy and beauty to the story that is underlined by the gorgeous visuals. The film frequently cuts away from the story to show images of sunsets, rippling bodies of water, flowers swaying in the wind and a luminous moon, and their incorporation gives the film a certain meditative quality that beautifully contrasts the emotional tumult experienced by Mary. And Roussel is a revelation as Mary; I enjoyed her in her previous two appearances for Godard just fine, but here she brings emotional intensity and depth to the role and delivers a performance as capable as any given by a leading lady for Godard before. Hail Mary is - like the previous two Godard's I've seen from this decade - deliberate, reflexive, philosophically complex, and slow - but never boring; it is in fact quite fascinating. I particularly loved the ending: we flash forward a couple of years in the future as Mary and her son Jesus stroll in the park, when Jesus suddenly runs away, shouting that he is off to take care of "his father's affairs." We then see Mary in a gas station parking lot, embracing her sexuality for the first time as she applies pink lipstick to her mouth, and the final, haunting shot lingers on her vibrant, colored lips, uncomfortably pooched into an awkward, quivering oval shape.
I also want to note that the version I saw was preceded by a wonderful short feature directed by Anne-Marie Mieville titled Book of Mary, which deals with the daughter of a recently divorced couple and her experience commuting back and forth from her father's new apartment. It's a poignant and sharp little movie that in its short running time deals with the subject of divorce in a more thoughtful and realistic way than a multitude of feature films concerning the same topic have.
Detective (1985); viewing: first
During post-production on Hail Mary, Godard embarked on a more commercial offering for producer Alain Sarde with the intention of box office success that would in-turn help pay for Mary. That film ended up being Detective, an homage to retro detective themed movies and novels. The plot (and there is only the slightest remnants of a "plot" present in Detective) concerns a variety of people staying in a hotel and the different situations and mysteries they're all mixed up in. These include: a trio (Aurele Doazan, Jeanne-Pierre Leaud and Laurent Terzieff) investigating the unsolved assassination of someone named "The Prince" that occurred in the very hotel room they are staying in two years prior; a couple (Nathalie Baye and Claude Brasseur) attempting to collect a debt from a boxing manager (Johnny Hallyday) who is himself indebted to the mob and has a fixed fight coming up; and a Mafia boss (Alain Cuny), who wonders around the hotel with his crew threatening everyone.
I'll be perfectly honest: this one just didn't engage me. It's tough to pinpoint exactly what went wrong; the threadbare plot wasn't an issue for me (Passion was probably even more elusive in its narrative, and I found that an utter masterpiece), but something about this movie just felt so jumbled and tough to digest. It is quite possibly the most verbose Godard film I've seen yet, almost obnoxiously so at times, and apparently the vast majority of dialogue spoken in Detective is quotations and literary citations. I wish I'd known that before I watched it, I wouldn't have strained so hard to make heads or tails out of what everyone was saying and trying to connect the dots. The casting by all means looks inspired on paper, but I just felt a kind of distance between the camera and the characters, almost as though Godard detested having to work with a more mainstream collection of actors, and refused them the intimacy and care he so often affords his actors. And the performances themselves were fairly tepid and restrained I felt, just lacking in some kind of spark. Johnny Hallyday being an exception, his sad, soulful eyes were a perfect match for the faux pride and defeated body language of his character who finds himself trapped in a potentially fatal corner. There are certainly things I liked here; the hotel setting recalls Resnais at times and lends itself to some really striking imagery. As always, Godard does some interesting things with image and sound experimentation, and the dense barrage of allusions to past cinema and literature ensures that there will be more to gain from repeated viewings. And I do plan on revising Detective sometime in the future; I'm at the point now where I find Godard too fascinating a director to simply write-off any one of his movies after a single viewing. But as far as first viewings go, the movie just felt scrambled, hard to keep up with, and uninspired compared to these other movies from the 80's that have been wonderful. It ultimately left me with not much to hang my hat on and unfortunately resulted in one of the lesser experiences I've had in the marathon yet.