THE “ELLE” MAY BE PARIS, but the real subject is the conversation we and Godard are having.
Jean-Luc Godard is 76 now, of fading productivity and perhaps fading health, and so we’re faced with the unfathomable prospect of no longer living in the Age of Godard. The last half-century may have been the era of Americanization, post-WW2 scab picking, Vietnam, rock and roll, TV, civil rights, fashionable Communism, fashionable Christian fascism, despotic commercialism, the Internet, Middle East armageddonism, Henry Kissinger, Coke, microwaves, Steven Spielberg, and Madonna (a very Godardian list). But it was also, and for many it was primarily, the time of Godard. He has been cinema’s premier modernist, its most audacious and forward-seeing pioneer, as well as our most recalcitrant anti-sellout rebel god, our most eloquent and infuriating commentator on the empty-hearted state of humanity, and our irreverent guide through the mirrored hallways of media, meaning, communication, and ethical responsibility. Godardianism may not fade altogether with the man himself — après Godard we will still be here, sorting through the rubble even as it accumulates at an exponential rate. But who else will do the spade work the way he did, the relentless, loving, uncompromised dissection of the modern age in all its amorality, cheapness, banality, forgetfulness, and greed?
Devotees know that the 1960s were the man’s Homeric salad days: he churned out in a single decade (amid a plethora of short films used as chapters in portmanteau ensembles) no fewer than 18 masterpieces — except they’re not (or rarely) finished masterpieces but tumultuous dialogues with the audience, filmed essays, questions asked, notebooks left to reorganize. Enjoying a 40-year-anniversary restoration, 2 ou 3 choses que je sais d’elle|Two or Three Things I Know About Her is one of the most troublesome films of Godard’s golden decade: frankly and fiercely personal, marking a definitive break with genre (only ever used by Godard as a toy, but still), and never as focused in its attack as Les carabiniers, Weekend, La Chinoise, or even Alphaville. And there’s no Anna Karina: New Wave cinema’s Trilby and Svengali were getting divorced. But as always with Godard what seems at first to be a vulnerability or a failing becomes the movie’s unique personality and identity — we must acclimate to it, not grasp our lazy entertainment expectations as if they were fenceposts in a storm.
The “Her” of the title is neither the heroine (a middle-class mother who works as a call girl during the day, this shot in Paris a few months before Bunuel made Belle de jour there) nor the actress Marina Vlady, who is recognized in the film both as herself and as the wife/whore, but Paris herself, which Godard envisions as a cataract of industrialization (a freeway’s arduous construction is recorded from every angle, and at all stages), soulless exploitation, brand-name salesmanship, and reflexive prostitution. People talk, signs are read, commerce plows on, all montaged up and crystallized by Raoul Coutard’s bold, pop-art cinematography. Godard’s strategy from 1960’s Au bout de souffle|Breathless on has been to subvert our passive submission to film narrative, and depending on where you draw the line, 2 ou 3
choses may be the first Godard film to dispense with story altogether. Instead, it’s a new kind of film: an active exploration of ideas, suspicions, and critiques the filmmaker is sharing with us directly, not through the scrim of character or plot. The object of the film may be Paris, but the real subject is the conversation we and Godard are having, the fragmented sense we’re trying to establish together about why our culture is so hollow, how the atrocities of Vietnam could be publicly rationalized, how images have been drained of their meaning by the imperatives of capitalism.
Godard was one year away from the May ’68 uprising and his fall into whole-hog Marxism (and anonymity within the Dziga Vertov Group). But in 2 ou 3 choses, life and truth are what matters, not dogma — Godard’s whispering narration notes the time (“It’s 4:45”) because that’s what time it was. (He has explained the moment in 1980’s Sauve qui peut|Every Man for Himself in which Jacques Dutronc tells his class that the unseen Marguerite Duras is in the next room by saying she was in the next room — indeed, why would he lie?) The famous swirl of coffee and sugar prompts one of cinema’s most personal and moving existential discourses. 2 ou 3 choses could comprise a postmodern analysis of contemporary culture — a filmic expression of sociological cryptology à la McLuhan, Baudrillard, and Mike Davis — if in fact Godard were a scholar instead of a fellow human being and a textual voyager, seeking out a cinema that awakens us to our surroundings instead of anesthetizes us with sensation. The late ’60s are gone, but Godard’s concerns remain electrically pertinent.