When it was announced that the Cannes Film Festival would show “Redoubtable,” a biographical drama about Jean-Luc Godard written and directed by Michel Hazanavicius (“The Artist”), and that the movie would focus on the relationship between Godard and his second wife, the actress Anne Wiazemsky (it’s based on her roman à clef), the interest of almost every cinephile heading into Cannes was piqued — though for reasons that crept into the realm of guilty pleasure. Godard himself wasted no time giving the movie his seal of approval by declaring it “a stupid idea.” And whether or not it was Hazanavicius’ intent to tweak the legendary New Wave director, one of the film’s central attractions was how flippant and impish and downright gossipy it sounded. A biopic! About Jean-Luc Godard’s love life! Given the holy pedestal on which a lot of people still place Godard, what could be less…reverent?
The surprise of “Redoubtable,” which turns out to be a lightly audacious and fascinating movie (if not exactly one to warm your heart), is that though it is, in fact, structured around Godard’s marriage to Wiazemsky, its real subject is his life as an artist — in particular, the way his relationship to filmmaking got turned on its head during the crucial period of late 1967 and ’68, when he was drawn into the national spasm of protest that was May 1968 and became obsessed with “revolution,” to the point that he shed the skin of the filmmaker he’d been in his glory days.
Hazanavicius views this period as a sea change in the history of cinema: the moment when Jean-Luc Godard slipped through the looking glass, never to return. (For some of us, he slipped through it around 1965.) But one reason “Redoubtable” winds up as a bit of a comedy, though it’s played for straight-faced realism, is that it grasps — accurately, in my book — the dysfunctional gears and pulleys in Godard’s head that pushed him to make his fatal break with spiritually connective art.
The Godard we see in this movie still has the charisma of an owlish brainiac raconteur, but he’s bitter and combative, the ultimate Debbie Downer, a pill of self-righteous testiness. (Nothing throws a wet blanket on a party, or even a mass student revolt, like talking about how the world hasn’t gone Maoist enough for you.) The perversely funny insight of “Redoubtable” is that it’s all, deep down, about Jean-Luc’s ego. On some level, the movie tells the story of the ultimate psycho career crisis.
It starts near the end of ’67, before Godard and Wiazemsky are married, but when they’re already the kind of lovey-dovey beauty-and-the-professor couple who could exist, perhaps, only in France. Jean-Luc is played by Louis Garrel, who with his broad face and grave scowl is actually less handsome than Godard was in the ’60s (usually, in artist biopics, it works the other way around), but he does a decent enough impersonation of Godard’s poker-faced egghead quizzicality.
Jean-Luc never takes off his tinted glasses (though one of the film’s running jokes is that they keep getting smashed), and the reason is that they’re a not-so-subtle advertisement for his celebrity. He claims to want a Marxist society, but he, of course, is the Great Godard, the one who reinvented cinema and made it bold, fast, alive, unpredictable, and visionary, and Anne (Stacy Martin), who’s just coming up in the world as an actress, idolizes and adores him.
In Hollywood, if you’re a famous director dating a milky-skinned 19-year-old hottie, you’re a cliché. But in this case, the 19-year-old is a freckled student of philosophy who soaks up the cutthroat pensées that make up the 37-year-old Godard’s conversation. (He discusses things, but mostly he mansplains.) Stacy Martin, wearing what we think of as an Anna Karina-in-“Masculin Féminin” bob, actually looks more like Karina — Godard’s first wife — than she does Wiazemsky, but she’s vibrant, with a gift for acting passive and letting you see the thought bubbles popping beneath.
Jean-Luc seems like he should be a happy camper, but he’s miserable, maybe with good reason: He’s still a legend, but the demimonde of Parisians who once embraced his films is starting to have second thoughts. No one likes his latest headache-inducer, “La Chinoise,” a didactic satire of radical youth culture that manages to be pro-Mao and anti-radical, with “dialogue” that’s like overchewed deconstructionist cud.
At the premiere, there are walkouts and people sleeping, and the next morning it’s a mild shock for us to see how upset Jean-Luc is at the withering reviews. It’s not just that he made a bad movie (every director makes bad movies). It’s that the whole Godardian austerity has become more extreme and less joyful, and it’s no longer in sync with the culture. During a protest march, a young woman comes up to Jean-Luc and asks why he doesn’t make movies like “Breathless” anymore; a cop makes a point of saying that he and his wife loved “Contempt” (from four years before). Godard is like Woody Allen being told that people miss his early, funny films. What’s now missing from his work isn’t just the sprinkles of comic irony — it’s the whole romance of cinema.
The dramatic motor of “Redoubtable” is Jean-Luc’s extraordinary reaction to this situation. Instead of doing what almost anyone would do, and striving for a course correction, he adopts a posture of rigid purity and righteousness about the very notion of what it means to be popular, all as a way of saying: “If the audience no longer likes my films, it’s because there’s something wrong with them.” It’s really his self-hatred speaking. He will now declare himself a born-again artist, trashing even the films that made him famous, all as an act of barely submerged pride.
Hazanavicius sprinkles “Redoubtable” with playful gambits that wink at some of the conceits from Godard’s ’60s films: titles that contradict what we’re seeing, a black-and-white sequence that reduces lovemaking to body parts, a starling burst of negative imagery. The classic films, in a way, are present, yet I wish that we saw a little more of the ebullience that went into them. The film’s tone is eager, fine-drawn, exploratory, but even though the mood remains relatively light, the story being told is unabashedly dark.
Hazanavicius has zeroed in on the period of Godard’s most extraordinary personal and aesthetic hypocrisy, and he shows how the two worked in tandem. During the May ’68 protests, Jean-Luc shows up at conventions of students, but mostly to compete with them — and they hate him for it. (They’ve got his number.) And his radical-chic moral calculus is myopic. He’s capable of standing up and comparing the Jews in “Palestine” to the Nazis — but if that’s really his yardstick, why does he revere Chairman Mao, who was a genocidal sociopath? His politics, along with his pathological loathing of mainstream culture, are really a form of personalized fascism, and that’s why, in the end, he uses his ideological obsessions to push Wiazemsky away. She’s not “pure” enough for him either. She gives him every chance, but there’s a reason their love dies, and it’s the same reason that Godard, after 1967, burrowed into an art of mostly untouchable obscurity. “Redoubtable” is the story of a filmmaker who fell out of love with the world.