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.


Ed Howard said...

Hail Mary is brilliant. I love the sensuality and warmth of it; far from being didactic, Godard is wrestling with religion, its meaning and importance to people with very human, worldly needs and bodies.

The Mieville short is great too. When originally screened, Godard insisted that the two be shown together, as a loose diptych about women/girls. Its relationship to the feature is incidental on a surface level, but they do make a great pairing in terms of mood, texture and themes.

Detective is just a fun and kind of minor work in the context of Godard's 80s work (only Keep Your Right Up is less satisfying). It's packed with amusing and entertaining scenes, but you're right, it's never quite added up to anything larger for me. I do like some of the individual scenes quite a bit, and the breast boxing interlude is certainly memorable and hilarious, and I love knowing that this plotless puzzle is Godard's idea of a commercial sellout. One reading I've heard that I like is that Godard populated the films with big French stars and then had them mostly stand around staring into space and uttering nonsensical dialogue, a commentary on star-packed productions and the inanity of celebrity actors. I wouldn't be surprised if that was part of it. But at this point in his career he was in the middle of a string of mature masterpieces and this one doesn't belong in the same company. As far as the quotation-laden dialogue goes, though, it's an interesting first step towards the masterful Nouvelle vague, which takes the same approach but does it much better, and somehow also manages to craft a (sort of) coherent narrative out of other people's words.

Drew said...

Yeah, I couldn't agree with you more Ed. I really loved Hail Mary, and feel strongly that the run I've watched of Passion, First Name: Carmen, and Hail Mary may rival if not surpass any 3-film run I've had in the marathon yet; something I'm definitely surprised to be saying, as I (for some reason) fully expected to not enjoy this period of Godard as much as his 60's work, which is quite far from the case. That's also really interesting about the Mieville short, they do make a wonderful pairing and that's cool Godard had them screened together.

I gotta say - I'm a bit relieved to hear someone share some of my feelings on Detective, as I was not sure whether this was a case of me missing the boat in a major way or what. I still do plan on revisiting it in the future, and perhaps knowing more of what to expect on the next go around will yield more appreciation for its entertaining aspects. The theory of it being "a commentary on star-packed productions and the inanity of celebrity actors" is quite interesting and I could very much see that being the case. Also thanks for the heads-up on Nouvelle vague having the same approach, that's one of the ones I have coming up and know nothing about, so I will keep your words in mind as I step towards that work.

Anonymous said...

cinebug said...

“Detective” by Jean-Luc Godard (1985) analyzes the changed role of humanistic (public) intellectuals in the Western societies (a trend that started around the last quarter of 20th century and, as we can see today, it intensifies in the new century), and how this change has influenced everybody’s behavior and world view. From around the 18th century Western intellectuals had a leading role in European historical/cultural development. They were people who tried to root spirituality in socio-political realities. They were carriers of democratic sensibility and tried to create a unity between culture and the masses of people, they risked their comforts and sometimes life for the sake of existential truth. According to “Detective”, it is not true anymore – intellectuals today are transformed into technical specialists hired by the social powers.
Godard represents such intellectuals in the film. One of them – a private investigator with an air of a philosopher and a poet (Laurent Terzieff with his charm of other-worldliness), but his thinking about life is reduced and flattened. His nephew Isidore (Jean-Pierre Leaud in his top performance as a comic actor) is the personification of today’s liberal sensibility (gentle and conformist) and the main focus of Godard’s tragic vision of today’s advanced societies where intellectuals betray their traditional historic-moral mission.
In “Detective” Godard offers his classification of human groups/clans today’s post-industrial societies consist of. One group filled by those who live by investing money – they are personified by an intelligent and educated married couple (Natalie Baye and Claude Brasseur – both are masters of gentle characterization, through the art of acting, of the states of the human soul). The other group is those who multiply money invested into their entrepreneurial adventures – they are personified by sports events businessman (Johnny Halliday who proved to be a very sophisticated actor).But the main clan Godard metaphorically names “mafia” – it is people who live and make their fortunes on extorting money (Godard’s Mafiosi take from people money with a matter-of-factness of tax collectors and righteousness of users of taxpayers’ funds for their personal self-enrichment through government contracts).
The film is dedicated to the analysis of relationships between these clans and to the depiction of private love life of people belonging to them). The emotional and intellectual condition of the young people is characterized by Godard through several personages including “the wise young girl” (Julie Delpy‘s first irresistible performance) – this point of the film is especially important for American viewers today to contemplate on to be able to understand better the future of US and Europe.
Please visit: to read the essays about “Detective” (with analysis of forty shots from the film) and other Godard’s films, and also essays dedicated to films by Bergman, Resnais, Bunuel, Bresson, Kurosawa, Pasolini, Antonioni, Cavani, Fassbinder, Bertolucci, Alain Tanner and Moshe Mizrahi.