Godard Mon Amour is appalling and entertaining. Writer-director Michel Hazanavicius, who made the atrocious, Academy Award–winning silent-movie pastiche The Artist, now takes on the legendary Nouvelle Vague (French New Wave), the cinematic outpouring of the 1950s and ’60s that was history’s last great international film movement, with this bio-pic about one of its prime figures, Jean-Luc Godard. Hazanavicius runs amuck through Godard’s ’60s toy shop of visual puns, youthful sexuality, and political fervor, which, even when travestied, is still charming. No contemporary filmmakers have caught up with Godard’s innovations: his multicolored credit graphics, pop-art facial close-ups, jump-cut edits, his simultaneous fetish and critique of film methods that turned theory into film itself. They can only imitate him — usually poorly. This film proves, as Martin Scorsese told Projections magazine critic Gregory Solman, that Godard remains “ahead of all of us.”
Hazanavicius adapts the memoir Un an après by Godard’s second wife, actress Anne Wiazemsky, who was the granddaughter of Nobel laureate François Mauriac. Her account of the year in which they made the film La Chinoise (she was 17, he 37) provides the film’s voice-over narration. Wiazemsky, portrayed by Stacy Martin, first gives a précis of Godard’s cultural standing, and for anyone who cares about movies, her rhapsody is intoxicating:
The future belonged to him. He was respected worldwide. Adored by Jean Renoir as well as the Beatles, Fritz Lang, and the Rolling Stones. Unanimously regarded as the most gifted of his generation. He was the Nouvelle Vague. Jean-Luc Godard. His very name embodied a certain idea of cinema. Indefinable, wild, fascinating, funny, unpredictable, disconcerting, political, charming, impertinent, young, free. And I loved him. . . . This man who had revolutionized cinema shook me up and was about to revolutionize himself.
Originally titled Le Redoutable (meaning “formidable”), Godard Mon Amour portrays Godard’s intransigent rascality as a man and an artist, attempting, like Wiazemsky, to come to terms with genius rather than understanding it. Godard doesn’t have to be a nice guy for one to love his films or love what he did for cinema. (When presenting Godard’s 1959 debut feature Breathless in film-history classes, I tell students, “You owe the way you watch movies and popular culture to Godard whether or not you know who he is.”)
Hazanavicius occasionally switches from Wiazemsky’s perspective to Godard’s as if providing counterpoint, though without the spirit of Godard’s ground-breaking intellectual restlessness. This totally superficial approach benefits from its echoes of an era and its distinctive look. Hazanavicius attempts to reproduce La Chinoise’s imagery (clean light and bright pastels), an embarrassingly literal response to the varied palettes that Godard achieved with also-legendary cinematographer Raoul Coutard for each new film venture. More directly than anything in The Artist, Godard Mon Amour implies that Godard’s movies were his life. Hazanavicius = Facetious.
The shift from La Chinoise’s almost tactile optical-art tactility to the photojournalism tableaux of A Married Woman to the lush widescreen vistas of Contempt confuses Godard’s vision of sex and marriage with the nature of his own sex life and marriage. Decades later, these open-mouth orgasm parodies don’t challenge what is now clichéd in music videos and TV ads because the bold concentration of newly sexualized imagery was possible only when taboos still existed and Godard was challenging them — they became the text of his narrative while also changing conventional cinematic form.
Hazanavicius once again misconstrues real life, art, and creativity. It isn’t necessary to believe that Godard behaved like Jean-Pierre Léaud, the French brat extraordinaire who, as star of Masculin féminin, idealized Godard’s ardent innocence. This half-charming conceit lowers Godard to Hazanavicius’s level. The film’s other major fault is that Stacy Martin looks more like thin-faced Chantal Goya (co-star of Masculin féminin) than the actual ruddy, plump-cheeked Wiazemsky. As the maestro, Louis Garrel escapes catastrophe by converting his usual sullen sensuality to that of a bespectacled roué. His most worthy line chides Wiazemsky: “Stop saying I’m Godard. Godard doesn’t exist. I’m just an actor playing Godard.”
What absolutely doesn’t work is Hazanavicius’s nostalgia for the May 1968 political demonstrations in which Godard and other bourgeois filmmakers sympathized with protesting French workers, eventually shutting down that year’s Cannes Film Festival in a fantasy of proletarian solidarity that presaged his break-up with Wiazemsky. Those protests eventually proved futile (typified by Godard’s spiteful verbal attack on an elderly veteran at a restaurant), yet Hazanavicius’s focus panders to today’s facile leftist activism without identifying the rebellion’s self-centered motivation. That was the true point of the great La Chinoise, in which Godard outwitted his own political romanticism through his instinctive perception of the naïveté of Maoist youth.
Readers who are unfamiliar with Godard’s art may be intrigued by the actual films and discover the amplitude of his thoughtful creativity, which spun him into ever more radical experimentation before coming out the other side, refreshed.
Hazanavicius almost exposes that political superficiality when Godard is told that “to defend Mao, you’re sitting on a pile of corpses” or when shots show Godard running from cops in slo-mo, or constantly breaking his eyeglasses with one lens missing (as in Breathless, Bonnie & Clyde, Chinatown, and Baby Driver). These instances of limousine liberalism can be enjoyed as roman à clef, but they should also crack open the prohibited topic of political-artistic ambivalence — such as the class paradox of Godard insulting a chauffeur as “a peasant.” Rebel Godard gets seduced by a brainy acolyte, Jean-Pierre Gorin (played by Félix Kysyl), to “live the revolution.” Together they created the doomed Dziga Vertov Group, a collective named after the Russian formalist filmmaker. Yet Hazanavicius denies us the amazing, confounding truth that Godard’s own Sympathy for the Devil (One Plus One) amounts to a more effective epic on the quiddities of ’60s rebellion than the Dziga Vertov films.
Readers who are unfamiliar with Godard’s art may be intrigued by the actual films and discover the amplitude of his thoughtful creativity, which spun him into ever more radical experimentation before coming out the other side, refreshed. Godard, the moral and spiritual beacon, has been forgotten by critics and Millennial filmmakers in favor of his sexy, alluring surfaces.
For the uninitiated, Hazanavicius’s lite approach to Godard’s prickliness recalls those insufferable Woody Allen fans who request “charm and lightness” but don’t appreciate Godard’s profound cinematic poetry. Other minor filmmakers, such as Arnaud Desplechin and Olivier Assayas, would surely have portrayed the era and temperament better, as in England Is Mine, the moody, meandering Morrissey bio-pic, which had more respectful rigor regarding the life experience of a complex artist. Still, even a bad film about Godard shakes up the dull movies surrounding it. Being reminded that an artist’s genius sometimes contradicts his humanity has the effect of a wake-up call — even though Hazanavicius reduces the innovator who changed the world to film-buff inside-jokes. The possibility of personally connecting to a moral, political, and spiritual vision is ignored to simply declare: All is kitsch. Godard Mon Amour exemplifies this dire moment in film culture’s devolution.