Becoming a film critic is akin to joining a secret society: There is the secret knock, the handshake, and the tacit agreement that the most important filmmaker in the world is Jean-Luc Godard. With every new Godard film, a chorus of huzzahs emerges from film festivals, screening rooms, and anywhere else that cinematic scribes gather, with a consensus forming that JLG has done it yet again. As with most societies of this sort, there is an element of determined blindness to its unanimity. Godard has made a career out of donning a staggering variety of masks: from existentialist raconteur in the early 1960s and anti-imperialist provocateur in the late ‘60s to Maoist radical in the 1970s to his “return to form” in the early 1980s, and onward to the increasingly gnarled, self-referential, and autobiographical filmmaker of the 1990s. Not all masks have been equal.
Woody Allen famously cracked wise about fans who only liked the “early, funny movies,” shunning his later turn toward the dramatic, or his attempts to grow out of the self-inflicted prison of auteurist style. Godard could be said to face the same dichotomy, his career bisected between the remarkable run of films he made as the leading light of the French New Wave—bookended by 1960’s Breathless and 1967’s Weekend—and everything that came after. The difference between Godard and Allen, though, is that Godard’s early films really, truly are his best. Covering everything from fashion to pop music to romance to politics, effortlessly embracing gangster films, romantic comedy, classical tragedy, and political satire, Godard’s 1960s films are a remarkable, never-matched treasure trove of restless inventiveness, and an inspiration for every filmmaker, from Olivier Assayas to Quentin Tarantino, who emerged in his wake.
By most measurements, it is absurd to compare Godard’s early works with his later films. As there are only a handful of filmmakers, ever, who could even come close to living up to the energy, humor, passion, and intellectual vitality of early Godard, it seems unfair. And yet, Godard has not merely slipped ever-so-slightly from the pinnacle of his powers, he has tumbled deep into the valley of self-absorption, overly in love with the sound of his own pontificating, offered up in lieu of genuine storytelling. Godard buffs will tell you that this is all to the good—that recent films like JLG/JLG, In Praise of Love, and Notre Musique are Godard at his philosophical, reflective best. There are indeed many resonant moments in these recent works, but the thrill of Godard is gone, long since replaced by moody musings and willful obscurantism.
The recent DVD release of Godard’s Hail Mary (New Yorker Films)offers a vital reminder of his fall from glory. Released in 1985, it was the last Godard film to attract a crowd not solely composed of JLG obsessives. This was in part because of the Catholic protests regarding its risqué treatment of the Holy Family (Pope John Paul II said the film “deeply wounds the religious sentiments of believers”), but also inasmuch as Hail Mary was the last time Godard remembered the necessity of characters, and narrative, in good filmmaking.
As always with Godard, the impulse toward narrative in Hail Mary wrestles ceaselessly with the Brechtian urge to dismantle the dream factory. Those expecting a Last Temptation-esque biblical epic will be disappointed, for Hail Mary is a Godard film far more than anything else. What that means is that the ostensible narrative, in which Mary is a basketball-playing virgin who finds herself mysteriously impregnated, and not by her taxi-driving boyfriend, Joseph, is repeatedly waylaid by digressions—into philosophy, nature photography, even low comedy.
Godard famously pondered, in 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her, whether it was more suitable to concentrate on the woman or the leaves before deciding that “both, on this October evening, trembled slightly.” Hail Mary is similarly inclined, a product of Godard’s unquenchable desire to inculcate dual vision in his viewers, getting them to see the narrative, and the cinematic convention that props it up. Godard once remarked of cinematic violence that “it’s not blood, it’s red,” and Hail Mary similarly seeks to debunk its partial attempt at updating the Virgin Mary for 1980s France. Godard seeds Hail Mary with Bach and Dvorak, soaring, grandiose music appropriate for a religious epic, and then intentionally undercuts it, interrupting the music arbitrarily with dialogue, nature sounds, and industrial clanging. Hail Mary keeps one eye peeled for its updated Holy Family but is more intrigued by the slow ripple of waves on the shore, or the texture of Mary’s bare belly. It is understandable that Catholics would have been put off by Godard’s Mary: She is entirely, stunningly corporeal, with Godard preferring the contours of her legs, her breasts, and her face to her spiritual dilemma.
Hail Mary makes an effort toward maintaining the balance, but within a few years, Godard would tip away from narrative into tendentious philosophy. Mary and Joseph may be archetypes, or stick figures, rather than fully-fleshed characters, but their presence preserves some element of the inordinately fruitful tension between Godard the speculative philosopher and Godard the author of pulp fiction. Godard was never Truffaut or Rohmer, his fellow auteurs of the French New Wave, who were often content with filming talking heads. Godard always wanted to overwhelm his audience—with his erudition, with his political astuteness, with the vigor of his intellect.
What he has lost sight of, and what Hail Mary marked essentially the last gasp of, is that a Godard wrenched entirely free of his roots in potboilers and women’s films is a Godard out of touch with what makes movies cinematic. No one, outside of Godard’s personal cheerleading section in the world of film criticism, wants to sit through a filmed philosophy lecture. Ideas, such as they are, only have value when appended to a story, to characters, to something tangible. Godard has chosen to embrace the abstruse, finding ideas more trustworthy companions than people. The result has been two decades of diminishing returns from the man who was once, but is no longer, the world’s greatest filmmaker.