Monday, April 25, 2011

Numéro Deux (Jean-Luc Godard, 1975)

Numéro deux represents Godard's first fully successful attempt to include the elements of his previous films into a cohesive whole. Ironically, it may also be his most abstract and jumbled film yet. Shown entirely on video monitors (even the two establishing shots showing Godard in his studio contain running images on screens), Numéro deux takes his Brechtian distance to a new extreme, creating such an aesthetic distance that the cold abstraction of his characters can be attributed as much to the blatant falsity of it all as it can to Godard's philosophical and political musings.

And yet, the film represents the best-yet examination of Godard's obsession with the line between discussing politics and embodying them. Despite its formal minimalism -- employing nothing but static shots of video monitors themselves displaying solely static shots -- Numéro deux at last emerges as the true heir to the poetic 2 or Things I Know About Her, a film that partially informed every Godard film that came after it, as well as a further exploration of not only the ideas behind the Dziga Vertov Group but of the reasons that collective failed. It represents a better meditation and autocritique than Here and Elsewhere, and somewhere in its brutal asceticism is a poetry I'd begun to think Godard lost.

After a brief play with images on two video monitors, the film cuts to Godard in his editing suite giving a monologue about his move from Paris to a smaller home outside the city, which then leads into a discussion of money and the difficulty of financing movies. Purportedly, Godard made this film when the producer of his landmark debut, Georges de Beauregard, proposed that the director remake that film. Godard agreed but naturally had no interest in returning to Breathless. Instead, he used the money to get the equipment needed finish Here and Elsewhere, then made this movie, which examines a French family suffering a bourgeois implosion. Not exactly a jazzy genre exercise.

With voyeuristic still shots of the family in their social housing complex, Godard takes the contradictions and metaphors of his monologue and examines them in action. In his speech, he referred to his editing studio as a factory, where he is both boss and worker, a semi-equal but nevertheless distinct dichotomy that speaks to socialism as it turned out, not in its fully egalitarian utopian model. For the film's subjects, their bodies are themselves machines in a factory; I don't know of a film with a less romantic vision of sex.

The young couple between the other pairs of the film -- two children, two grandparents -- use sex as an empty means of power and brief pleasure. The father caught the mother with another man, but only one part of him reacts with anger. Another part is turned on, and his internal struggle occasionally explodes in physical and sexual violence against his wife. Yet he still idealizes the act: in bed, Pierre and Sandrine compare men and women. Pierre romantically speaks of woman as a river crashing into the shore that is man. Known for washing away the shore, the river does not receive much consideration for the effects of the shore upon it, limiting its graceful flow and span. Sandrine's views of Pierre are far less rosy: she notes that she sees his ass every morning when he goes to work and leaves her to do chores and his dick when he comes home expecting some action.

These harsh, clashing dualities comprise the film's philosophical conflicts, as well as its aesthetic framing. Using two monitors, Godard juxtaposes sight and sound against each other, creating jarring miniature compositions. Before the film turns to the family, Godard experiments with the two screens, juxtaposing news broadcasts concerning revolutionary activity and Establishment crackdowns of same with light TV programming, suggesting television's capacity for indoctrination and how it's used to retard mental growth and independence with endless fluff. Anne-Marie Miéville, who co-wrote the film but did not share a direction credit, speaks in a voiceover as these two screens keep going, discussing how all images, including those in a film, are manufactured just as TV images and ads are. At one point, she drifts into a tangent where she speaks of Numéro deux as if it were a coming attraction, thus exposing how film can be its own advertisement. She also amusingly wonders whether the film is political or pornographic, placing the two as flip sides of the same coin.

Tempering these comparisons and dualities is a written-in admonishment to this dialectical approach. "Why do you always ask 'either/or?'" ponders Miéville. "Maybe it's both at once." Though the characters of the movie often talk politics, the true focus is on the mundanity of their lives, hence the presentation through the smaller scope of television. From their quotidian routines come questions on many of the same topics Godard explored with the DVG, delivered without the collective's polemics.

Despite the stark framing, Godard clearly put care into his compositions, and they betray some of the higher ambitions of this essay film. He shows the grandmother doing chores, her head either cut out of the frame or so far away we cannot read it. He then lays a monologue on top of these images of her reflecting not only on mortality but feminism. She speaks bitterly about gender struggle as the video shows her ironing and cleaning, and one gets the feeling that she's voicing a suppressed cry she never got to vent to another person. The grandfather, far more steeped in self-pity, summarizes his life (one that coincides with various radical movements and their failures) as he sits nude from the waist down, his own chilling conflation of the death of rebellion with his own mortality sending shivers down the spine.

Perhaps this is still too polemical despite Godard's efforts to present politics through human interaction and emotion, however abstract. Indeed, some parts challenge the audience's patience, if not its sense of propriety. The two children pose a number of those simple-but-deep questions children always ask -- a precursor to Godard's TV series France/Tour/Detour/Deux/Enfants? -- and, since sex takes up so much room in the film, their questions naturally gravitate in that direction. Eventually, the parents invite the kids into the bedroom to explain sex by pointing to their exposed genitals. Even a liberal viewer might question the necessity of this, particularly when Godard had already effectively used dissolves to layer the kids' faces over shots of the couple screwing.

However, there's a perverse beauty in the moment. The parents refer to their genitals as mouths and portray sex as a form of kissing and silent communication. It's a poetic view of sex, and one the parents certainly don't believe, but they at least try to put intercourse on the pedestal for the next generation. Even then, Godard can undercut the moment: part of the reason the sex in this film is so unerotic is that it has been abstracted to the point of objectivity and obscurity. Like Howells' anti-romantic point about the ideal grasshopper, Godard demonstrates how losing track of the actual object or action robs it of its true meaning, a lesson he might need to re-learn after the radical analysis of the DVG.

Rather than focus on the dichotomies between each pair of characters, Godard and Miéville show how each group, however emotionally isolated from each other through their self-absorbed worldviews and the aesthetic oppression of Godard's editing, links with each other. The grandparents resemble less the previous generation than futuristic visions of the young couple currently mired in acrimony, aged and bitter endpoints for these post-radicals burned out on politics after the failure of May '68. In turn, the kids' inquisitiveness about sex reflects the moments of innocence in Pierre and Sandrine's sexual play, and perhaps they will internalize their parents' more beautiful talk of sex instead of the brutal reality of their acts.

Godard's attempts to tie these people together are but one facet of his desire to link threads: he might have burned his old producer by making this film, but he drops a vague reference to Breathless in the form of a gangster story the two children tell each other, bits of which recall the plot of Godard's first feature. Likewise, Godard's wordplay reveals a respect for puns as a means of experimenting with, and expressing a love for, language. As Miéville says, "Numéro Deux isn't a rightist or leftist film but a before and behind film." It sees what lies before it, but it takes care to incorporate the past as well.

In Godard's rambling monologue, he briefly touches upon the idea that "there's too much DNA not enough RNA." I interpreted that to mean he sees too many completed thoughts that cannot be manipulated. He wants to get a hold of the half-strands, the ones that leave space for learning and exploration. Numéro deux looks to the past (its Breathless reference, its abstract reflections on May '68) and the future (paving the way for both Godard's miniseries and Histoire(s) du Cinéma), but the most striking revelations it contains deal with the present. Godard has not quite returned aesthetically to cinema, but he certainly believes in it once more: in one shot of the typed text intertitles frequently placed in-between scenes, "cinema" changes into "possible," as if to say film can make anything happen. That reinvigorated look at film fits nicely with my favorite summary of the film courtesy of this capsule review: "If we look at the 1960's as Godard's childlike enjoyment of pop culture, genre cinema, and primary colors, and if we look at the Dziga Vertov Group as Godard's rebel without a cause years, then Numéro deux is when Godard finally becomes an adult."

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