Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Letter to Jane (Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin, 1972)

Conceived as a postscript film to Tout va bien, the 52-minute Letter to Jane closes the door on Godard and Gorin's partnership and the lingering remnants of the Dziga Vertov Group. Structured around the infamous photograph of Fonda in Hanoi, Letter to Jane seeks to break down the image's symbolic meaning and every implication of Fonda's visit to North Vietnam.

Yet the most readily apparent aspect of these interpretations is the acrid tone of the two men's discussions. Perhaps this can be traced to Fonda's unease with Tout va bien, which confronted her naïve political sensibilities with all-out radical filmmaking and so offended her that Gorin ranted at her for three hours until she broke down and agreed to what ultimately amounted to a slyly minor role.

Thus, Letter to Jane too often smacks of sexist condescension. Godard used several of his '60s films to directly attack the commodification of the image of women. Here, however, the men pore over her looks seeking discrepancies between her actions, their true motivations and the effects of them on the revolution. Gorin says that, as a woman, Fonda will be more sensitive to their criticism and practically tells her to put aside her womanly hormones to engage with them. They then try to absolve themselves by saying, "We are not aiming at Jane but a function of Jane." Gorin and Godard could be dropped into the male roles of Une femme mariée or 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her without skipping a beat.

Then again, it's possible that Godard and Gorin are addressing that obsession over the female image. They break down the image's aesthetics in taking its politics to task, noting that right-wing and left-wing papers ran the photo in equal measure because it was structured by the photographer to be ambiguous. Conservatives can mock it, while leftists can celebrate it. The filmmakers hit upon something when they note how the actual Vietnamese in the photograph are minimized and not even named in the cutline. In an age where some celebrities attempt to funnel their camera magnetism into social activism, this analysis points out the true effect of a celebrity lending her voice to a cause: the cameras follow her there but only shoot her.

Some of their aesthetic analysis deconstructs the subconscious tone of the shot until one cannot look at it the same way again. Its low angle emphasizes Fonda's superiority, a point the filmmakers support by contrasting it with stills of films like Citizen Kane as if the whole film were a class lecture (and it certainly feels like one). They break down her body and facial language as if Fonda gave a performance to the North Vietnamese, comparing the look of sympathy on her face to various condescending glances of pity in paternalistic Hollywood films, suggesting that, in coming to North Vietnam to protest her homeland's imperialism, she brought that Father-Knows-Best social tone with her.

Godard and Gorin do believe in the Vietnamese cause, and they even stress the importance of answering the question, "How can cinema help Vietnamese people win their independence?" Clearly, they come to the conclusion that Fonda's visit is not the solution, and they argue she does more harm than good. As they argue, photos of the Vietnamese are of relevant people with stories, while an "American's face a function that only reflects a function." Fonda is only a symbol, interchangeable and distracting. As maddening as this harangue can be, Godard and Gorin achieve a haunting level of meditation in their close-up isolation of the only person besides Fonda to face the camera, a Vietnamese man. Out of focus to begin with, the Vietnamese looks even blurrier when blown-up, as if Fonda's presence and ostensible assistance actually turns the indigenous people into ghosts in their own home. Then, the two find the joke in the situation: by isolating this member of the proletariat in the background, Fonda makes herself into the embodiment not of the leftist movement but the oppressive bourgeoisie.


  1. Agreed on this one. The sexist tone is often infuriating, but at the same time some of the points Godard and Gorin are making are pretty prescient and interesting, especially their analysis of the role of Western celebrity in politics. Probably my favorite bit here is the part where they talk about dragging famous Western artworks around to scenes of atrocity so that the figures in the art can stare meaningfully at the horrors of the world. (That's in this one, right? As with Tout va bien, it's been a long while since I've revisited this.)

  2. I believe so. I have to admit there were moments it was hard to concentrate.

    I think the movie works better when seen in context with Here and Elsewhere, since in that movie Godard is picking on others but himself for bourgeois failings. I still think some of its attacks are justified, though.