Thursday, October 11, 2012

Detective (Jean-Luc Godard, 1985)

The trio of films that followed Jean-Luc Godard's return to cinema mirrored, in some cases, his early work. Sauve qui peut (la vie), Passion and First Name: Carmen matched up in thematic and (vague) stylistic terms with Breathless, Contempt and Pierrot le fou. But it is Detective, Godard's lightest since Made in U.S.A., that truly recaptures the spirit of his New Wave material. Filled with cinematic and literary references, populated by existential refinements of various generic types (detectives, mob bosses, black-clad hoods playing billiards with a cigarette dangling from their mouths, disintegrating couples, paid-off boxers), Detective returns the director to his reflexive roots for a lovely throwback tempered only by the slight melancholy of the New Wave performers who now look older.

Confining the action to the Hotel Concorde Saint-Lazare, Detective moves between three groups of people whose paths overlaps as they move about the hotel. Godard films static takes that emphasize the boundaries of his setting, rarely able to move his camera far back enough inside a room to go further than a medium long shot. On the occasions that Godard does manage to put some distance between the camera and his actors, it comes in the form of dazzlingly placed high- and low-angle shots of hallways and the expansive ground floor, taking an uncharacteristic pleasure in the shining commercial retreat that lacks the director's typical, ironic assessment of the gold-plated chandeliers and plush carpet. Yet even these big, beautiful shots segment the hotel's layout into a series of locations unto themselves, suites and bars in a void that suggest proximity to each other only because all the characters keep running into each other.

Why, even the individual rooms themselves do not obey the stillness of the camera shots, instead morphing to take on the personalities of whomever occupies their space. Pairing older actors (Jean-Pierre Léaud, Claude Brasseur) with younger lovers (Aurele Doazan, Nathalie Baye) tends to make rooms feel suffocating and morose, but the women on their own add life to these confined areas. Most liberating of all are the scenes that join Baye with "French Elvis" Johnny Hallyday as the fight promoter to whom Baye's husband owes money. The young lovers add a new New Wave spark as an erstwhile youth icon like Léaud gradually reveals his age as his character inherits his disgraced uncle's obsession. There are other tonal modulations as well, such as the claustrophobia that pervades the detectives' suite when Doazan takes the camera they use to spy on people outside and turns it inward to watch the watchmen.

Not much about Detective's narrative makes sense on a first watch, but as Anna Dzenis rightly says, Godard takes more pleasure in the "investigation" than the payoff. If the still camera setups and the sense of regret that pokes through the old men's philosophical and literary proclamations, Detective nevertheless bursts with life. I cannot say how happy I was to see Godard bring back the credits style of his early features, with letters appearing on a black screen. He even spreads out the credits for nearly 20 minutes, devilishly breaking up the film as it builds momentum. The broad genre touches give way to specific reverence when a beautiful scene of lovers entwined together throughout the hotel is juxtaposed with clips from Jean Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast. Most impressive, however, is Godard's use of stereo, placing each channel in contrapuntal relation to the other and to aurally reproduce the kinetic imagery of Godard's filmography. In the film's best scene, Léaud and Doazan spy on their marks down in the hotel's restaurant, the audio track splits to put the dialogue of the watched in one channel and in the Classical cues take the place of Léaud's speech, aggressive when a woman blocks his line of sight and makes a bumbling, attention-getting apology and lower as he confers with his colleague. The music fits to the mood of the image, or does it create that mood? Either way, the scene encapsulates this delightfully tossed-off feature, a relatively commercial venture that nevertheless shows off the ways Godard could always innovate.

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