Portions of Godard's Le gai savoir were filmed before he jetted off to London to muck about with the Rolling Stones, but the final product definitely has a post-May '68 feel to it. In context, Godard's minimalist movie serves to flesh out some of the vague ideas behind Sympathy for the Devil, and it takes the unfinished conception behind the splintered rockumentary to an extreme: with this film, the director wanted nothing less than to shatter the make-up of cinema, proof that Week End's final title card was not a declaration of fact but a statement of intent.
Made just before Godard entered into the often-contested (and even-more-often ignored entirely) Dziga Vertov Group, Le gai savoir represents the artist's attempt to "return to zero," to compensate for the lack of home video by making a film that essentially rewinds his other films. Using his two favorite revolutionary actors, Jean-Pierre Léaud and Juliet Berto, Godard roots the film's (in)action in a dark studio, pitch-black but for the gentle stage light that illuminates the two actors. They introduce each other as the descendants of Rousseau (Léaud) and Lumumba (Berto) and immediately launch into polemical discussions that reconstitute politics around art in Godard's usual fashion. Then they splinter off, agreeing to monitor the relationship between sight and sound in three phases for three years, first simply observing, then critiquing and finally acting upon their theories. Only now do the intellectual touches of the director's previous works seem tame: at least they came in the form of aesthetically beautiful and narratively spry movies.
By far his most confounding and layered work to that point, Le gai savoir exists in a fractured state, jumping between the two actors in the studio to jarringly bright still photographs and bustling, candid shots of people on the streets. Sounds overlap. Images are drawn on, recolored, juxtaposed and then folded into the audio. The only prop in the studio with the actors is a clear, plastic umbrella that they intermittently wave about while they speak in a manner that breaks up every sentence between the two of them.
All of this reflects Godard's deconstructionist attitude, even the umbrella, reduced to a basic, transparent outline. A critic, of course, breaks down a film into its various elements and discusses each and how they relate to the film as a whole. As such, there may be no better example in Godard's canon to illustrate his contention that the best way to criticize a film was to make another. Le gai savoir takes this idea past the point of film and into society: early on, he displays still photographs with letters written on them as if teaching the alphabet, albeit one whose examples are relevant and political (i.e. Vietnam for V); he echoes this later when Léaud's Emile rants about the illustrated words in a child's dictionary might display terms like "soap" for 'S' but neither "sex" nor "syndicate." The O's in words scribbled onto the screen are emphasized through underlining or capitalization, stressing how much they look like zeroes. Even the back-and-forth between the actors played over these photos and illustrations takes on a quality similar to those instructional cassettes used in languages classes for reading comprehension.
So, is Le gai savoir a lecture? Well, yes, but compared to the didacticism of Sympathy for the Devil, Godard returns to his playful self. The mood of the film is, despite the headiness of its objective, appropriately childish. Godard even brings in a kid to play a free association word game as Berto and Léaud lob words from off-screen for the boy to respond to. It's unclear whether the actors are actually speaking to the boy, unlikely, even, considering he somehow knows to say the word "October" in connection with "Revolution" despite being no older than 10 (he also links "Chinese" with "Earth," playing into Godard's Maoist fascination by implying that the nation's people are attuned with the planet). Then the director and actors do the same with an old, half-deaf man, and the nature of the game equalizes the old man's experience with the young boy's innocence by limiting the players to simply saying what first comes to mind.
The dominant force behind the film is, naturally, Godard's gift for montage, here reverted to its foundations in Russian political cinema. I cannot hope to have picked up anything but a fraction of the various juxtapositions of images, sounds and writing, but the overall effect of the constant cutting is a surprising cheekiness that showcases the director's wit in the midst of his polemics. A picture of a nude woman in a magazine pops on the screen, with the word "Freud" written by her head and "Marx" written, well, a little further south, inverting the popular perceptions of the aims of the two thinkers and hilariously positioning Marx as the man of "action," as it were. Lyndon Johnson and Charles De Gaulle are routinely paired with Hitler and Stalin through images and dialogue, making them all into false prophets who abused the public trust, the only difference separating them is that the people can actually rise up against Johnson and De Gaulle where the others brutally crushed dissent. The most brilliant moment involves Berto, clad in a period dress, reading nonsense in front of a backdrop of comic book characters as Léaud, wearing contemporary clothes, reads aloud coherently. Seemingly random, this one scene contains numerous dialectics, between classical and pop art, lingual meaning and gibberish, and the old (the dress) versus the new (Léaud's modern garb).
"Theoretically, these two sounds have nothing to do with one another," Berto says of some noises Godard assembles, and Léaud completes the thought by adding "But they could eventually have a connection." That idea propels Le gai savoir, which uses its minimalistic foundation not to completely destroy the cinema (though it ultimately ends in blackness with only a whispered narration to suggest that the film is still playing) but to stage a film of infinite possibilities. Berto and Léaud are often obscured in shadow because they are merely symbolic, Berto of theory, Léaud of revolutionary action. But the people on the street, the comic books, the war photographs? Those are all crisp and beautiful, even when horrific, and the director's editing of them makes the movie come alive even when you're tearing out your hair to pinpoint it.
"This film is not the film that needs to be made," Godard confides in us in his closing whisper, already chastising himself for his shortcomings in trying to capture the world, his political zeal and a buried optimism in a spare 92 minutes. What he wants of Le gai savoir instead is for the film to show him the path back to the beginning, to the vantage point where he can see all the trails cinema forged for itself. Only then, only by following the paths back and studying them along the way, can he make a new one. There it is in a nutshell: Le gai savoir is a half-meta, half-literal visualization of Jean-Luc Godard as the ultimate cinematic trailblazer.