Hard to believe that Jean-Luc Godard, one of the pillars of the French New Wave, soon will be approaching his ninetieth birthday. Godard has been a respected, controversial player on the international film scene since those who now qualify as senior citizens still were in grade school. In recent years-- no, actually, in recent decades-- Godard’s films have been free-form collages: exploration of ideas that challenge the nature of traditional cinematic narrative. Whether you take to his work or not, Godard remains an inspired creator who still has much to say about art, society, and human relations.
Godard is of course best-remembered for directing BREATHLESS, released in 1960, and for almost single-handedly paying homage to the then-recently-deceased Humphrey Bogart. Who can forget the iconic sequence in BREATHLESS in which a young Jean-Paul Belmondo, playing a petty criminal, stares at a movie poster outside a Paris cinema. The poster features a head-shot of Bogart. The film being screened is Bogie’s last, a 1956 release titled THE HARDER THEY FALL. In BREATHLESS, the Belmondo character thoughtfully ponders Bogart’s mug and then utters the actor’s nickname-- BOGIE!-- to no one in particular.
But Godard did not segue from BREATHLESS to pure abstraction. This is evident in two of his challenging mid-to-late-1960’s features, which Kino Classics recently released to home entertainment. Both are overtly political, and both represent the era’s radicalism as it enveloped the lives of a certain segment of French youth.
The first is LE GAI SAVOIR (JOY OF LEARNING), which centers on two college-age young adults who meet each night on an empty stage and discuss the state of the world. It is a film that can be interpreted in every which way, depending upon your own background and political views and what you bring with you to its viewing. Given the time in which the film was made, one of the issues dealt with is a definition of what then was labelled the “cultural revolution” and what it means to be a revolutionary. Then there is LA CHINOISE, a loose adaptation of The Possessed, an 1872 Dostoyevsky novel. Here, a group of idealistic young Marxists-Leninists share a Paris apartment and go about spouting revolutionary dialogue and how they scheme to take what they refer to as “revolutionary action.”
For sure, both films are fascinating relics of the era, but there is an eerie connection to the present day. At one point, one of the characters in LA CHINOISE profoundly declares, “Revolution is a violent uprising, when one class overthrows another...” and “Seriously, if I were brave, I’d dynamite the Sorbonne, the Louvre, the Comédie-Française...” Here, one only can compare this young woman and her comrades to your standard-issue 21st-century terrorists who actually are blowing up buildings and slaughtering innocent civilians. For indeed, there is so much more that can be said about these films, how they mirror the moment in which they were made and how they may be observed and interpreted in the present day.
Rob Edelman has authored or edited several dozen books on film, television, and baseball. He has taught film history courses at several universities and his writing has appeared in many newspapers, magazines, and journals. His frequent collaborator is his wife, fellow WAMC film commentator Audrey Kupferberg.
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