Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Hail Mary (Jean-Luc Godard, 1985)

Hail Mary follows logically from his previous 1980s work even as it marks one of the biggest departures of his always shifting career. The director's "return to cinema" demonstrated a director not returning to filmmaking (he never left that, even if he did become more of a videographer) but returning to cinema as something he believed could change the world. Though such films as Passion and Every Man for Himself use the fragmentary, analytical techniques Godard picked up with video experimentations, they also displays a return to aesthetic beauty for its own sake, poetic evocation given equal weight to the held-over Marxist theory.

But Hail Mary goes one further. Godard strips the film of the political underpinnings that inform nearly all of his films from the mid-'60s (and a few that date back even earlier) to this point, instead turning to matter of the corporeal and incorporeal. In retelling the story of the virgin birth, Godard breaks down the layers of deification and mythos surrounding the story to examine what such an occurrence would mean to the young virgin, to her relationship with Joseph (Thierry Rode), and to her sudden obligation to sacrifice her corporeal desires and wishes to serve something greater. Godard still employs dialectic, but here it focuses entirely on matters of existence, the split between the body and the soul.

Naturally, Godard portrays this dichotomy through the conflict of image and sound. We see Marie (Myriem Roussel) in plain naturalism: watching her play on her high school basketball team and lightly brush aside the sexual advances of her lover. Over such scenes, however, Godard plays Bach and Dvorak, art made in the service of God doubling as His voice singing from her soul. Cutaways to pillow shots of nature—including recurring shots of the phases of the moon that come to represent Marie—poeticize the image, but otherwise the director maintains an honest appraisal of the woman and her figure that always grounds the soaring, sacred beauty of the music.

That Godard films Roussel and her frequently nude body with such straightforward, matter-of-fact openness represents a step forward in his always contentious views of women. One of Godard's most recognizable thematic tics—the elevation of the female prostitute as the ultimate symbol of capitalism and its commodification of everything up to and including the body—made up such a fundamental part of his canon that the director's renewed interest in the topic coincided with that vaunted return to film. But the cut-up manner in which he filmed women's bodies, simultaneously reflecting and critiquing the male gaze as a materialist fetish, is nowhere in sight in Hail Mary. Instead, he films Roussel's body on its own terms, as an instrument of sex and life-bearing. And when Joseph and, less sinisterly, Marie's gynecologist, attempt to invade that body, Godard does not frame their gropings as Marxist analogy but physical reality. As if to further delineate this method from the director's usual style, Hail Mary occasionally cuts away to a teacher and his female student debating matters of sex and religion in theoretical abstracts, their conclusions of the impossibility of Marie's conception hilariously useless when juxtaposed with that impossibility happening before our eyes.

Yet if Hail Mary frames its subject in the most pared-down, apolitical manner of Godard's career to this point, it also emerges one of his most evocative, and humorous. When the Lord needs something a bit more blunt than Bach to communicate, he sends a messenger, here identified as "Uncle" Gabriel (Philippe Lacoste), who looks less like an angel than a vagrant suspiciously toting around a young child. His dubious legitimacy adds an element of extreme discomfort to his instruction on God's will, but he can also be farcical, as when he responds cryptically to a taxi driver and his child companion chides, "That's not your line, Uncle Gabriel!" Shots of women toying with Rubik's cubes make for amusing interludes whose obviousness morphs into density as Godard holds the shots. A placid montage of close-ups inside of flowers would be an almost Hitchcockian visual pun were labias not already so prominently on display, therefore allowing the images to exist as poetic, sumptuous art for its own sake. Joseph's frustrated lack of sexual access gives an insight into how the Biblical Joseph might have reacted to his wife's news, but might his pent-up aggression be an indication of what the "real" Mary might have faced?

Before one can ponder that too long, however, Godard shows Marie gaining the upper hand in their relationship, eventually converting Joseph to the cause of raising the son of God and leaving her untouched. But even this domination comes at a price. Dutifully putting her faith into the idea of bearing a child as a virgin, Marie nevertheless reflects upon what the elevation of her spirit means for the body "I am a soul imprisoned by a body," she says in voiceover, though if she sees her corporeal shell as limiting for her spiritual growth into a goddess, she also recognizes that her beatification will strip her of her natural sexuality. My favorite insight into this aspect of Marie's reflection comes from Christopher Long in a brief review appended to DVDBeaver's analysis New Yorker Video's DVD of the film. He brings up a connection to Roman Polanski's seminal horror film Rosemary's Baby, about a woman bearing Satan's child. Long notes that carrying God's baby could be as harrowing as the devil's, but not why: Polanski's film served as a twisted allegory for women being forced to carry their rapists' children to term, but does Marie have any more say in being the Lord's vessel than Rosemary does being Lucifer's? Polanski plays this for unrelenting terror, but Godard finds elegiac mourning in it. As Marie says right before the film ends on a close-up of her lipstick-rimmed mouth hanging open in the vague memory of desire, "I am of the Virgin, and I didn't want this being. I only left my imprint on the soul who helped me. That's all." In maintaining a platonic relationship with Joseph, Marie retains her independence. In entering into a "sexual" relationship with God, that independence is eradicated. Viewed through that perspective, the story of the Virgin Mother becomes one of subjugation, not exultation.


  1. The "Immaculate Conception" refers to the dogmatic belief that Mary was conceived without sin. It does not, as is commonly believed, refer to the conception of Jesus.

  2. Jonathan: Thank you very much, truly, for bringing this to my attention. I was raised Baptist and I was taught that Immaculate Conception referred to the birth. I will edit accordingly, and it's just good info for me to have in the future.

    Damn Protestants.

  3. I'm not sure why subjugation / exultation is being treated as an either...or proposition here--any religious (or scientific) framework is built upon a degree of subjugation--that's just the nature of being in the world, and trying to make sense of that in philosophical terms.