Friday, April 16, 2010

Godard Marathon Day 15: Nouvelle Vague (1990)

Nouvelle Vague (1990); viewing: first

Godard's Nouvelle Vague is a wonderful film, a rich tapestry of music, image and language whose grace and invigorating sensual beauty are nearly unparalleled in the director's oeuvre. Once again, as is the case with most of these later Godard films I've watched, there is a narrative present in only the loosest sense of the word. This time it primarily involves two characters, a man and woman played by Alain Delon and Domiziana Giordano. The Giordano character knocks over Delon in the street with her car, takes him in, and the pair become lovers while staying at her beautiful summer estate. One day the two go out water skiing, the man falls in the water and she let's him drown. Some time passes, and Delon reappears (as either the dead man resurrected or the dead man's brother). The two jump right back into their romance, this time with Giordano taking a more passive role in the relationship and Delon a more dominant one. Once again they return to the lake, and it is now she who falls into the water. This time, however, there will be a different outcome.

Of course, following the "plot" is not critical to experiencing Nouvelle Vague. This is a film to be admired and felt on a sensual level, and it never let's you forget that as William Lubtchansky's elegant photography fills the frame with opulence and beauty at every turn. Much like Hail Mary and First Name: Carmen before it, Nouvelle Vague trains its eye towards nature in all its glory, incorporating many images of rippling waters, trees swaying in the wind, brooding overcast skies and so on. I think part of what made this movie so enjoyable for me was that I was able to let go of any expectations of following a coherent narrative fairly early into the viewing, and simply allowed myself to take in the majesty of the images and the rich textures and moods of Manfred Eicher's amazing music, whose incorporation marks somewhat of a return to classicism for Godard, who here opts for a sweeping, cinematic score instead of simply sampling classical and pop music for the soundtrack as he had done with his last handful of films.

The third important component in this film of course is the dialogue, which is entirely made up of literary quotations and texts from various works throughout the history of literature, including Hemingway, Shakespeare, Faulkner, Dante, Bataille, Schiller, Lacan and Chandler, amongst others. This of course recalls 1985's Detective, which likewise used literary quotations for a majority of its dialogue. In that film however, the dialogue, for me, seemed to work merely as a way of injecting novelty into a muddled and disjointed premise that never added up to a compelling whole. Whereas in Nouvelle Vague, it is a key component to what Godard seems to be going after, a literary function of his plan to - as Richard Brody writes in his book Everything Is Cinema - "reconceive the history of cinema, and his place in it, as a biblical allegory". Whether Brody's take on the film is accurate or not (I also like Jonathan Rosenbaum's piece which describes the film as "a meditation on the end of the world"), there is no denying that Nouvelle Vague is a late masterpiece from Godard, a carefully crafted work of art that filters and refines the beauty of the world through its abstract eye and provides a powerful cinematic experience of lucid, overwhelming splendor.


Erich Kuersten said...

my Argentine ex-wife was always raving about this movie, but there was so little mention of it back in those days I thought she was making it up... is it available anywhere? Your review made it sound quite scintillating.

Drew said...

Erich - I downloaded my copy online, but it appears as though Cahiers du Cinema released a double disc Nouvelle Vague/Passion set on PAL some years back.

But yeah, I strongly recommend catching this one however you can. It's definitely my favorite of the post-60's Godard I've watched along with Passion, and probably one of my favorites overall. Gorgeous stuff.

Ed Howard said...

Great writeup, Drew. This movie should be among Godard's most challenging based on its high-concept formalism, but in fact it's surprisingly entertaining and engrossing despite the way the narrative keeps slipping away, lost in a sea of borrowed language. It's striking, of course, that Godard is able to tell a story that's even this clear using only other people's words, and make it emotionally resonant if not always clear in its details.

It's worth noting that the soundtrack to this film — the complete soundtrack, with all dialogue and music and other sounds — has been released as a CD, and it's amazing how well the sound design in this film stands up even without the images to accompany it. Godard has always been as interested in sound as in images, and has thought, perhaps more than any other director, about the relationship between these two components of cinema and the relative balance that should exist between them. But this is the Godard film where the sound comes into its own, reaching symphonic levels of sophistication. The relative unimportance of what's being said frees up Godard to truly treat the words as just another element in the sound mix, and the result is a sublimely musical soundtrack where words, music, and noise weave together beautifully. I've always loved the way he borrowed Hawks' "dead bee" gag, too.

Incidentally, I can highly recommend the Cahiers DVD; the second disc, with Passion, has been rendered unnecessary by the Lions Gate box set, but the Cahiers double feature is still the only official way to see Nouvelle Vague on DVD.

Drew said...

Thanks Ed! I've heard about the complete soundtrack getting a release, and it's fascinating to me that this work is able to remain solid and engrossing without the presence of its images. I suppose that's a testament to the craft that went into this fascinating film that, as you point out, seems to be the apex of Godard's cinematic soundscapes. It's certainly one of my very favorites so far.

I was also wondering where that dead bee bit came from, thanks for clearing that one up for me!

Ed Howard said...

Specifically, the dead bee line is quoted from To Have and Have Not, where Walter Brennan's character repeats it throughout the film much as it recurs here. I love how Godard's quotes work perfectly well when you have no idea where they come from (as most of the ones in this film function for me) but acquire even more resonance in relation to their original source.