Film & TV

Godard Speaks on Cinematic and Scientific Viruses

Filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard walks on stage as he attends the 2010 Swiss Federal “Grand Prix Design” award ceremony in Zurich, Switzerland, in 2010. (Christian Hartmann/Reuters)
The crisis and passion of Millennial cinema, explained by a sage.

In the absence of proper new movie openings, Jean-Luc Godard’s Instagram interview by Swiss filmmaker Lionel Baier, who heads the cinema department at the University of Art and Design in Lausanne, Switzerland, momentarily revives movie culture. This almost-two-hour interview has lit up the Internet.

Godard talks us through film culture’s now-paralyzed state: Owing to social-distancing shutdowns and distributors’ frozen release schedules (not just in the U.S. but across the globe), cinema is no longer a communal art. The unavoidable capitulation to television and digital streaming means we’re drifting further away from movie aesthetics and film history. The all-important spatial dimensions of bringing the world — especially the human face — intimately close are being lost, and so is the idea of larger-than-life discovery.

Who better than Godard to explain this attack on our biology and spirituality as a cultural-political crisis? He gets immediately to the point while also updating his own career history.

Godard resides in the Swiss town of Rolle, where Baier made his pilgrimage to Godard’s sunlit workspace. Baier and his small camera crew wear facial masks, while Godard puffs on a cigar, speaking past the maduro, maintaining social distance but directly addressing the coronavirus catastrophe in typically theoretical terms: “The virus is a form of communication that needs something to survive on. It needs to latch on to a host, like certain birds.”

This proposal is as intriguing as the disquisitions in Godard’s poetic lecture-collage films The Image Book, Film Socialisme, and the magisterial Histoire(s) du Cinéma. Godard uses a scientific analogy — the idea of symbiosis between microbes and humans — that breaks down a phenomenon the same way his earlier films broke down capitalism and Communism. These terms also explain our relationship to media.

Not playing a doctor, Godard hits on an important aspect of the COVID-19 crisis that pertains to language and propaganda — his long-time preoccupations. “Science too is bogged down in words and numbers. Otherwise there wouldn’t be a catastrophe like this,” he says, confessing, “I don’t know.” His summation: “I am happy to have found filmmaking. It’s sort of an antibody so to speak.”

As celebrities assemble before their quarantined webcams to fatuously repeat, “We’re all in this together,” Godard goes to the crux: “They’re not giving us any actual information. I’m surprised that they don’t give out more information.” He dares scientists to study RNA along with DNA to chart the development of the virus. As always with Godard, he calls us to challenge the source of information and the path of its distribution, which are crucial to the way that we receive knowledge and sort it out, and to how we develop our morality and our politics.

This is also the basic archetype of film culture, even when we can no longer “go to the movies” but movies (content) now seem to come at us.

The virus brings Godard back to this fundamental process. Just as he revolutionized movies with his 1960 debut feature Breathless — the most radical and most romantic film of the French New Wave — his insight now presides over cinema’s decline.

Cinema’s surviving sage, 89-year-old Godard, smiles frequently for Baier, like a slightly distracted elder who hangs in to give you some wisdom. His wispy gray hair arches over his bald spot like an accent aigu. He responds to Baier’s questions with the same calm and humor of his droll, probing, essayistic films.

There’s mutual respect if not exactly camaraderie for Baier, who directed the remarkable, semi-documentary coming-of-age film Garçon Stupide (2004). Their exchange weaves from parochial European topics and gentle memories of the New Wave to gleaming cinematic insights of a sort that you don’t get on Turner Classic Movies or Netflix.

Baier asks, “Do you work toward precision?” Godard answers, “No, I work toward doubt or passion. Joseph Conrad said doubt is our passion, passion is our duty.” That passion is almost palpable when Godard muses on how today’s film students mostly watch clips of classic movies, extracts rather than the full work of art. With rigorous honesty, Godard relates this Millennial reality to his own collage-based methods — but then the aesthete comes through in a detailed recall of Agnes Moorehead’s performance in one scene of Orson Welles’s The Magnificent Ambersons. Godard was doing research on Ambersons for his next big project, yet he felt its power. “I watched a segment up to when she burst into tears. These are historical moments as I said in The Image Book. It’s archeology.”

Godard reminds us that virus-era film culture is an occasion to renew cinematic study and passion. He indicated its urgency with a teasing innuendo, borrowed from France’s greatest romantic-comedy filmmaker: “As Sacha Guitry said, ‘It [the virus] is against us. But right up against us.’”

Armond White, a culture critic, writes about movies for National Review and is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles.

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