It must have been spring 2018 because that was the last time I was in Paris. I had been invited to a lecture; My hotel was near the Saint-Sulpice church, which I had never visited before. And in that vast cathedral my heart began to pound, for as I walked beneath those vaulted ceilings and past the candles and still life scenes of the Mortification and other citizens waiting to receive Communion, I felt as public as possible what I was in should feel in this eighteenth-century building: the smallness of man and the great invincibility of God.
It was like stepping onto a goth soundstage, those moments spent in Saint-Sulpice, but I couldn’t place the film; In any case, the gothic there belonged to Orson Welles and not to Jean-Luc Godard, the city’s leading filmmaker about cities. For a time it was interesting to imagine what Godard would have made of the room; He had already spoken a great deal about Catholicism and the Gallic spirit Ave Maria (1986), another work by the master, takes on a canonical text – cinema as a form of rewriting, just as performance is a form of rewriting of the original text.
As far as I know Godard, who died last week at the age of ninety-one, never filmed in Saint-Sulpice, but of course he had the stars of his Miraculous Band a part (1964) walk through the Louvre to kill a little time, even if time killed them. With three young actors at the peak of their beauty and allure – Anna Karina, Sami Frey and Claude Brasseur – this film, Godard’s seventh feature film, is ostensibly a homage to gangster films, but to me it’s about how youth doesn’t know itself and how this confusion of energy and intent looks like when it plays against history – in large buildings like the Louvre. In fact, the city itself was something of a muse for the director for many years before he moved to Grenoble in 1974 and then Switzerland in 1977, and he photographed its ‘dead’ parts – its museums and libraries and the river – along with his ” new ones”, including its cafes, which are littered with pinball machines, jukeboxes and noise.
When I think of Godard’s early work, I think of his use of sound as much as anything else, including all those car horns and cash registers that are not just the sounds of modern life but, in Godard’s hands, become additional characters in his films Mid to late sixties. Think of the extraordinary tracking shot in the underrated supermarket Everything is going great (1972). Oranges, coffee, oatmeal, paper towels, meat are checked out and bought at breakneck speed while Jane Fonda, brilliantly cast as an American reporter named Suzanne, goes back and forth watching the trade at work. Certainly, early in her career, Fonda had been used as a commodity herself to some extent, and in a way Everything is going greatshe is both an American reporter and herself, or more precisely, a self-discovery: Everything is going great was filmed a few years after turning her back on Jane Fonda, the cinematic object, to become Jane Fonda, a serious performer and activist. Godard’s brilliant awareness is that we are not just watching a story, but also watching its stars – whether Karina, Marina Vlady, Anne Wiazemsky, Fonda or Paris – as their respective identities, their true selves, merge with the fiction we create of them the fiction that sex and commerce have made of them.
In Godard’s early films the character is destiny, but in later masterpieces such as King Lear (1987) Sign is text – someone says his lines. Indeed what is Godards King Lear but a series of utterances about Shakespeare and the father’s failure to understand not only the daughter but her young and delicate world? If I close my eyes I can still cry when I see Norman Mailer’s daughter Kate Mailer step into the frame, sit down and flip through the pages of a manuscript, presumably by her father, the Literary Big Daddy of them all. Godard’s side is so sensitive to a girl trying to decipher her father’s language; and is that language really him, or is he really – Mailer, Lear, all those old men – not “just” in the pages of a book, but in the body that helped make them his own?
King Lear is also Godard’s commentary on his own mortality; before that, he left actors like Karina and Belmondo to talk about their times, expressing the limitations and freedoms of youth, while keeping a low profile from what’s going on, but in Lear He valued himself, especially when it came to women, who always provided the intellectual and emotional framework for his films. Of course, Paris was just as “elle” as Vlady, the star of Two or three things I know about her (1967), was. This film is filled with whispers—Godard speaks softly to us offscreen about Vlady, a woman who is both a character and herself—and gossip about the changing face of Paris.
Like those of Atget before him, Godard’s images can initially appear “boring” – colorful but flat, a series of words standing for a human tableau – but this boredom is based on the director’s sense that the narrative is a mystery, that is not worth guarding. Cinema is a gift insofar as it enables representation – the betrayal of secrets – frame by frame, actress by actress. In fact, Godard’s women – from Karina to Isabelle Huppert to Hanna Schygulla and many more – have the unique honor of knowing that cinema is a lie almost always – if we are to believe in lies. Truth is far more remarkable, just as this or that person is far more remarkable than character.
But Godard knew people needed metaphors too, and what better way than for Karina to think she’s Nana, a sex worker, in Vivre sa vie (1962), even if Nana feels like Falconetti, who plays Joan of Arc, and later wants to become a philosopher? Words give us the power to say who we think we are, while the camera tells the audience who the person speaking the words really is. Nana lives in an old culture but is full of new ideas about existence, possibilities and how to undo what was done to her because she is a woman. Unlike in the later films, where Huppert and others express the director’s cheerful cynicism, Karina was the wound in the heart of hope, and for the years he was with her – the couple were married from 1961 to 1964 – Godard gave himself and Karina fought the power of hope.
On my last day in Paris that winter afternoon, the same afternoon I was going to Saint-Sulpice, I passed a café and stopped briefly because Anna Karina in her trademark Fedora was sharing a little Pernod with her husband, the director Dennis, had berry. She did all the Parisian things – smoked, drank – and when I came to her table to pay my respects, Mlle. Karina said, ‘My husband is American too. Please sit down.” The hour or so I spent in her company showed me what Godard saw in her in the first place and why they needed each other: to give the body ideas and the body to ideas. That’s what cinema is about.