Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Passion (Jean-Luc Godard, 1982)

If Sauve qui peut (la vie) represented Godard’s return to cinema, Passion illustrates how frustrated he still was with the artform and its limitations, at least its limitations in fulfilling the director’s lofty goals. “It’s hard to have to record everything,” says his stand-in, a director played by Jerzy Radziwilowicz. The line could work in the context of any filmmaking, but it especially speaks to Godard’s aims as a filmmaker. Aesthetically and politically, Godard has long sought to capture everything, and Sauve Qui Peut’s union of cinema and video techniques hinted at the possibility of a deeper, more inclusive form of filmmaking than Godard, or anyone else, had ever achieved. Yet it is Passion, alternately lifeless and one of the director’s funniest, most self-effacing works, that truly shows how the director might look forward to the next stage of his career. Indeed, as I watched it, I thought often not of Godard’s prior work (though it shares a few traits with previous movies, especially Contempt), but his latest, 2010’s Film socialisme.

In many ways, Passion feels like the groundwork for that film, still tied to the idea of a narrative but chafing under the limiting expectation of traditional filmmaking. In fact, what plot Godard assembles for Passion concerns the absence of one for the film-within-the-film, also titled Passion. On-set, we see tableau vivant recreations of various classical paintings, from Rembrandt to Goya to Delacroix. Actors stand still as the camera glides around them, probing the compositions of the paintings and finding new perspectives with which to analyze these pre-existing works of art. But as the camera moves along the first of these recreations, Rembrandt’s Night Watch, Godard places over the shots the exasperated discussion of the producers as they ask Jerzy what the story is. Judging from their tone, this is not the first time they have asked the director this, and it certainly will not be the last.

Jerzy grows weary of his producers’ constant pressure, but even he despairs of the production. Or rather, he despairs of the production forcing him to stay in France and not permit him to return home to Poland to witness the Solidarity movement gaining momentum. Godard splits the film’s attention between Jerzy’s politically homesick stagnation and a farcical French replication of the Polish union uprising epitomized by Isabelle (Isabelle Huppert), a stuttering, inarticulate factory worker. As with her more serious Polish counterparts, Isabelle does not wish to dismantle the engine of production; she loves her work to the point that she comes into conflict with the factory boss (Michel Piccoli) because her way of doing things stresses the personal satisfaction of workers rather than the production-centric exploitation of them.

Godard shows off a bizarro sense for cross-cutting, switching from Jerzy’s perspective to Isabelle’s seemingly at every point either storyline looks as if it might develop a plot. Yet to say that Passion lacks a story because characters only talk obliquely about their artistic or political frustrations is akin to saying that a painting cannot tell a story because there are no words at all. Godard demonstrates the narrative possibilities of this other artform when he re-stages Delacroix’s epic The Entry of the Crusaders into Constantinople, and in the process he reaffirms cinema’s capacity to tell narratives through images. After all, if a single image, such as Delcroix’s painting, can suggest an entire history and action, surely a film, composed of thousands of images conveyed in two dozen images per second, can do the same.

After a time, it becomes clear that Godard uses his jumps between the film set and factory to flesh out both realms. This can be seen in plain terms in the broader juxtapositions and alignments, especially in the treatment of women in the two settings. The all-female factory team that coalesces around Isabelle gets exploited by Piccoli, while the recreation of classical paintings on the film set necessitates hordes of women in various stages of undress (with an emphasis on full-frontal) being posed precisely by Jerzy and other men. During the Delacroix tableau, the actors playing Crusaders gallop through the miniature-scale Constantinople and chase and abduct the women actresses, who break and flee from the horses and their rapacious riders. When they do so, crew members grab them and place them back in their positions, chastising them for breaking even though their movement helps visualize the story suggested by Delacroix’s painting. In that sense, they are held back from doing their job well in the same way that Isabelle and her comrades are by Piccoli’s limiting, dehumanizing orders in the factory.

But these are the big themes and arcs of the film, and as John Hartzog notes, Godard manages to add color and meaning even to smaller bridges between the two storylines. Hartzog identifies the sly juxtaposition of Isabelle firing up her co-workers into their unorthodox revolt with the recreation of Goya’s The Third of May 1808, its depiction of a rebellion's brutal repression hinting at the fate of a worker revolt. Hartzog likewise identifies the climactic merging of the loss of Isabelle's virginity with a staging of El Greco's Immaculate Conception, though he does not fully illuminate this most puzzling of contrasts. On one level, of course, it is perhaps the most literal of the comparisons, stacking one virgin alongside the virgin, but Hartzog only hints at one possible interpretation when he says Isabelle's "innocent suffering for the dignity of work is given a religious dimension by this association with El Greco's sublime painting of the Virgin." This does not take into account the primary difference between Isabelle and Mary, which is to say the deflowering of the former, which complicates matters somewhat. If Godard compare the two to make Isabelle's struggle seem as spiritual as social, does he not also corrupt the Holy Mother in the process by association with sex? Though matched along several points of connection, the two images diverge enough to confound expectations and easy answers.

That vague disconnect is but one example of a tension between semi- or un-related images and sounds in the film at large. Dialogue is typically spoken over images that never quite line up to the speaker. When Godard does show the speaker as he or she speaks, he deliberately plays the sound out of sync, a playfully irritating gag that distances the viewer as much as the constant Brechtian remove of the film-within-a-film production. The characters get so out of whack that each distinct party starts to take on the technical language and behavior of the other, so that the factory workers use film terms and the film production resembles the industrial work that it really is.

Such alienating techniques display the director’s peevish side, but Passion also works as one of the director’s most inviting, moving films to this point. As the producers argue over what Jerzy could possibly be saying with the Night Watch recreation at the start, a voice warns the others not to “scrutinize” the shots and to pay attention to the actual humanity of the actors frozen in the tableau. This, of course, could be a reminder to Godard himself, who had been abstracting and sociopoliticizing the behavior of his actors and documentary subjects for most of his career, even the mainstream ‘60s work. Sauve qui peut offered the first corrective for this too-removed style, repurposing the slow/stop-motion techniques of his analytical video period into a humanist desire to let the most fleeting gestures linger. Aided by Raoul Coutard in his first collaboration with the cinematographer since Week End, Godard fills Passion with lush images, not only the functional art criticism of the tableaux vivants (an idea later refined by Lech Majewski for his recent The Mill and the Cross) but also diversionary shots like the film’s first, of a jet leaving a white contrail across the sky, the line eventually curving slightly with the Earth itself. As with Godard’s last feature, Passion shows a renewed dedication to capturing these gorgeous images simply for their beauty, a feat as impressive in its own right as Godard’s ability to etch an unexpectedly focused narrative from their ostensibly arbitrary contrast.

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