Film school students and other garden variety cinemasochists will have a field day with Lionsgate’s three-disc Jean-Luc Godard set, which contains four challenging late-career works by French cinema’s favorite troublemaker. Anyone else interested in Godard’s brand of deconstructionist commentary would be well advised to stick to — or at least start with — the director’s more canonical titles, plentifully available from Criterion (the director’s lively, comicbook-styled “Pierrot le Fou,” for instance, arrives on DVD two weeks later in a polished new edition).
While his compatriots in the French New Wave were inspired by American cinema, adopting genre and other established Hollywood conventions, Godard effectively rejected established notions of narrative. To summarize what the films in this set are about means downplaying plot description and focusing instead on their core themes — Art, Existence, God and, more coyly, “what a woman can do to a man” (Sex).
Godard himself preferred to think of these films not as stories but “cinematic essays,” which suggests the level of work demanded from audiences in interpreting the director’s artistic intentions. It also reveals the fact that Godard’s principle concern, even in tackling the Big Questions, was cinema itself. In 1982’s “Passion,” a film director experiences a creative meltdown as his frustrated producers complain that the film (which consists of live reenactments of Delacroix paintings) has no story — fitting, considering that Godard’s own method favored making it up as he went along.
In “Prenom Carmen” (1983) Godard goes one step further, appearing as an unemployed director who gets mixed up with a group of bank robbers. The finale mixes “reality” and film: cameras rolling, the hoodlums cast bystanders as extras in their charade moments before a shootout erupts. As far back as “Breathless,” guns feel strangely out of place in Godard’s films. During the robbery itself, the characters might just as well be throwing cream pies, such is the level of slapstick at play. And yet, amid the mayhem, a clueless security guard falls for the titular Carmen (invoking comparisons to the opera of the same name as their amour fou leads to sexual frustration and tragedy). All this is intercut with the sights and sounds of the seashore, where the lovers enjoy a brief respite before the demands of class, law and narrative intrude upon their bliss.
These visual digressions are typical of Godard and feature prominently in all four films. Throughout “Prenom Carmen,” he alternates between the love story and footage of a Beethoven violin recital, which raises the question of which track is interrupting the other. Later filmmakers would polish this technique (Atom Egoyan comes to mind) and develop sophisticated interwoven structures for their films in which such disconnected threads actually work in concert to enhance the audience’s emotional investment.
“Detective” (1985) strains yet another narrative convention, that of the interconnected ensemble, in which a network of seemingly unrelated characters are brought together by some unifying external device. Here, Godard focuses on various guests in a posh Parisian hotel (a detective obsessed with an unsolved crime, a married couple ready to call it quits, a boxer and his entourage, and a none-too-subtle Mafia kingpin), manipulating stereotypes instantly familiar to audiences.
It might be a stretch to suggest that “Detective” serves as a prototype for a film such as “Pulp Fiction,” but it does offer a decidedly Godardian twist on many of the ingredients Quentin Tarantino would later appropriate as his own: overt homage to classic Hollywood genres, intersecting storylines, self-conscious narrative devices and the casting of distinctive stars in stock parts. The key difference, however, is Godard’s constant insistence on keeping the audience at arm’s length (to isolate just one tactic, consider the way that he foregrounds the score to drown out dialogue in certain scenes).
Such devices are of considerable interest to the critics featured in the enlightening 30-minute documentary “Jean-Luc Godard: A Riddle Wrapped in an Enigma” included on the fourth disc of the set. Of “Detective” (surely the most accessible of the lot), New York Times critic Vincent Canby wrote, “It makes demands on its audience that will probably send a lot of people screaming into the night.” This original featurette goes a long way to making rational sense of Godard’s more revolutionary devices — or, at the very least, supplying context for appreciation.
There remains no substitute for humanism in cinema, and embroiled as he is in austere formal inquiry, Godard sacrifices the most fundamental level on which we might connect with his films: as stories about fellow human beings. The final — and most ambitious — movie included here, 1993’s “Woe Is Me,” plays on the Greek myth of Amphitryon as God assumes human form (that of Gerard Depardieu) in order to experience the pleasures of the flesh. Stepping in after a husband leaves his dutiful wife, the divine character finds himself caught in a philosophical debate with the woman — and the movie itself — about immortality, passion and art. What else is there? (Except perhaps entertainment.)