Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Tout va bien (Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin, 1972)

In Paul Tingen's survey of Miles Davis' electric period, Miles Beyond, the author repeatedly returns to the idea of "transcend and include" as a way of charting Davis' substantial musical growth by way of seeing how he maintained a link to the past. No filmmaker embodies this ideal like Jean-Luc Godard, whose 1972 film Tout va bien marked a return to more cinematic storytelling even as it incorporated ideas and stylistic traits he'd picked up with collective filmmaking and tried to move forward. Having ditched the Dziga Vertov Group moniker to share name credit with Jean-Pierre Gorin, Godard took elements of his mid-'60s pop art aesthetic, essay film structure and DVG polemics and autocritique and mixed them to try to find his way in a France he could not recognize from its turbulent days in May '68.

Indeed, Godard's return to his more filmic mise-en-scène may be a visual cue of how thoroughly France had returned to the status quo by 1972: capitalism emerged victorious, and lingering political hostility only displays a fraction of the turmoil present in the streets during the national riots. His titles, which return to the blue/white/red format of his mid-'60s credits sequences, juxtapose May '68 with May '72, and when the film begins one can see the marked difference between the two despite the prevalence of revolt in the film's narrative.

The fully transparent self-reflexivity of the Dziga Vertov Group films returns in the opening sequence, as two voices argue about the best way to make the film. Where the autocritique of the DVG films focused on Godard and co.'s political purity and the contradictory forces of their bourgeois upbringings, Tout va bien incorporates more critical views of Godard and Gorin's aesthetic choices. One voice, largely in the role of producer, tells the other that putting a star in the movie will help them get more money, and a coherent and, more importantly, recognizable narrative subject will ensure a better box office.

Godard and Gorin have the last laugh, though. The two major stars they cast, Yves Montand and Jane Fonda, were at the height of their political involvement: Montand had just starred in two of Costa-Gavras films, while Fonda was on the cusp of leaving for Hanoi to record some propaganda for the North Vietnamese. Then, the directors further subverted expectations.

Fonda plays Suzanne, an American ex-pat working as a radio announcer for the American Broadcasting System. Her husband, Jacques (Montand) shoots TV commercials, having once been a New Wave filmmaker. Sent to interview the manager of a meat-packing factory, Fonda (with husband in tow) finds herself holed up with the boss when the workers revolt and take him hostage. Ergo, for the first half of the movie, the money-making stars barely appear, only getting one or two lines each time they appear on-screen.

After years in the ascetic wilderness, Godard and Gorin suddenly display a sense of formal adventurousness that does not forsake the ideals of the DVG but does seek to tie them to more aesthetically appealing images. The camera tracks through a factory made to look like a dollhouse, a reference to Jerry Lewis' The Ladies Man (and containing flecks of Tati's Playtime) that makes Brechtian art out of the filmmakers' self-examination once more. Confining the stars in one area, the filmmakers instead cover the factory workers, who bring Fonda out of holding only to spread their message to this member of the press.

As with their previous films, Tout va bien at once supports Marxism but spares scant sympathy for the revolutionaries. Though some of them talk tough and attempt to whip up the frenzy of May '68, even the most radical of the workers ultimately looks like little more than a schoolboy who seized the school from the teachers, or an inmate who took over the asylum. Apart from vague demands of social change, the workers seem more content to muck about and tease their boss than funnel their takeover into further action. One worker even deflates the impassioned rhetoric of her colleague and wonders why the media never shows a dissenting voice poking holes in the simplistic logic of stilted propaganda.

The key suggestion of the film is that capitalism returned so quickly in the wake of the '68 revolution that people cannot seem to remember those turbulent times despite name-checking them constantly. The union head is no longer an agent for worker's rights but a paid stooge on the boss' side who must be forced to read out the half-baked manifesto by the others and starts mocking them the second he finishes. The wildcat strike lasts only a day and a half before the workers relent and the factory returns to normal so quickly one would be forgiven for thinking that whole revolt was just a dream.

Even Suzanne and Jacques' relationship is defined in commercial terms. Suzanne emigrated the United States to become a leftist in Europe, where she enjoyed a brief spell of infamy as the go-to resource for the revolution, but now she pays the bills by flatly reading objective news, brought to you by these sponsors. Godard clearly had a bone to pick with some of his old friends when he fashioned Jacques as a disgraced Nouvelle Vague director now making commercials, and the long monologue Montand delivers after he and Fonda leave the factory suggest a deep level of self-loathing covered up by a total blindness to the full extent of his selling out.

After the characters' release from the factory, the filmmakers get to a conventional narrative topic, the "love story," to appease the projected mainstream audience. Yet Godard and Gorin once again undercut their own ostensible sell out, immediately showing the relationship disintegrating in the wake of their ordeal. The revolt only reminds Suzanne of what she's lost and what France has lost for her -- "I'm an American correspondent in France who corresponds to nothing," she says near the end. Perhaps their crumbling marriage serves as an allegory for disillusioned radicals unable to look each other in the face for fear of recognizing their failure. And what use have either of them for an international meeting of minds and beliefs in the Me Generation?

Though Godard and Gorin never tried to distinguish who did what in their creative collaborations, Gorin tends to get more of the credit for this film, mainly for the obvious reason that Godard got into a severe motorcycle accident and spent a great deal of the shoot in and out of the hospital. It still contains the more polemical thoughts of the DVG years to balance out Godard's aesthetic questions, and the long monologues might be Gorin's. Yet the film is a better showcase of the rapport the two filmmakers had formed, using the larger scale to transplant the political and aesthetic examinations of the DVG, and also the humor that peeked through in their late efforts. Fonda, who wanted to appear in political films but had to be harangued into appearing in this film by Gorin, is admirably game for their sense of humor, her largest chunk of dialogue involving an argument with her husband in which she brandishes a picture of a woman's hand holding a penis to emphasize the chauvinist thoughts clouding Montand's head. That the Marxist-Leninist revolt would be framed as a nod to an absurdist comedy points to the pair's wry take on politics they nevertheless believed.

But the best joke comes last. After following the stars' marriage in the second section of the film, the filmmakers turn to a gigantic supermarket at the end of the film. The slow camera track through this seemingly endless warehouse -- it makes IKEA look like a small-town hardware shop -- recalls the masterly tracking shot of traffic in Week-End. However, Godard and Gorin update the reference for '72: in Week-End, the tracking shot of cars congested suggested that, however hypocritical an action it might be in a new car, people were trying to escape. The end here suggests people have grown comfortable accepting the capitalist society and only revolt when their humanity peeks through all the stuff. When a riot breaks out, people simply try to grab what they can before the cops show up. There's no social revolution, no quest to bring about a better society; just get a little something extra for yourself. Even the Communist hawking Little Red Books at a stand has fallen sway to capitalism, offering the pamphlets "on-sale" -- what a prescient commentary on Red China, no?

Though not as delightfully wicked as Vladimir and Rosa, Tout va bien is a more welcome return-to-form in its literal sense, dragging Godard back into cinema without abandoning what he'd learned in collective filmmaking. Its lulls -- specifically in the long monologues late in the film -- deaden the flow, but it's a joy to see Godard working with his Pop Art color scheme, using film and finding ways to be subversive and relevant without being obtuse. The problem with the Dziga Vertov Group was that it sought to solve aesthetic and moral questions while jettisoning many of the complexities that make such question so hard to answer. Having found their footing with the last few DVG films, however, Godard and Gorin could begin adding all those elements back in to find answers. If Tout va bien frustratingly does not solve those questions, it at least continues the mature response Godard and Gorin began displaying with their best work: it seeks to determine why they cannot answer those queries.


  1. It's been a long time since I've seen this one, long before I saw the rest of the DVG films; I should really revisit it, but I liked it well enough at the time. My instinct is that only the riotous Vladimir and Rosa is better from the films of this period.

    As you say, this was Godard and Gorin's attempt to return to "mainstream" cinema, with emphasis on the quotes around mainstream. It frequently references Godard's famous 60s movies, quoting the famous enumeration of body parts from Contempt as well as slyly updating the epic Weekend tracking shot, as you point out. As you say, Gorin was apparently responsible for much of the film, with Godard incapacitated during the shoot, but Godard's influence is still very much felt, if for no other reason than that Gorin consciously tried to make an Ur-Godardian film after years of crafting minimalist blackboard polemics.

    One of the things I've always found funniest about this film is the backstage tidbit that both Fonda and Montand brought "political advisors" with them to the shooting - Fonda a feminist activist and Montand a leftist. Godard and Gorin constantly had to appease these advisors, convincing them that certain scenes and ideas in the film were politically appropriate. That more than anything provides a pretty vivid portrait of the times.

  2. Haha what a bizarre situation that must have been. And what better demonstration of how thick Godard and Gorin's politics were that they had to explain themselves to "advisers." No wonder the DVG didn't take root!

    I would agree that this is the second-best DVG (or corresponding) film after Vladimir and Rosa, unless you also count Le Gai Savoir and Here and Elsewhere in which case I'd probably give them the edge. None of the political films approached perfection, but I loved the humor of this, V&R and Le vent d'est. That finale still cracks me up.