Friday, August 8, 2008
Numéro Deux was one of many returns and fresh starts for Jean-Luc Godard, in a career that has been filled with continual reinventions and attempts to "return to zero." By the early 70s, Godard had ended his radicalized period with the Dziga Vertov Group by retreating into isolation with his new partner Anne-Marie Miéville and amassing a collection of video equipment with which he began rethinking his relationship to the cinema and to the image. After a three-year absence from public view, Godard returned with Numéro Deux, a project whose origins are obliquely alluded to in the anecdote about "George" that Godard himself delivers on-camera in the film's opening scenes. "George" is Georges de Beauregard, the producer who financed Godard's first film Breathless and many other initial offerings of the French New Wave. Beauregard came to Godard in 1975 proposing that he remake this first film with his new equipment, and Godard (somewhat disingenuously) agreed. This being Godard, it's highly unlikely he ever intended to remake his first film as he told a journalist at one point, the film was not going to be called Breathless Numéro Deux, but Numéro Deux (Breathless), and by the time it came out any reference to the film it was ostensibly revisiting had been dropped altogether.
The result is one of Godard's starkest, most uncompromising films, an aesthetically minimalist essay on sex, work, children, mortality, love, and ideology; it is a rigorous attempt to document and develop a politics of the everyday. To these ends, the film consists almost entirely of shots where television sets and video monitors contain all the action. With the exception of some framing shots that pull back to show Godard at work in his studio, the bulk of the film takes place in a black limbo in which images float within smaller frames, sometimes multiple images on separate TV sets, sometimes only one image. Despite the disorienting distancing that occurs as a result of this filming method, the choice is an apposite one for a film that aims to document prosaic reality. The images take on a cold, bland reality that they would not have possessed had Godard chosen to film them in more traditional or "cinematic" ways. This was his return to the cinema after a three-year gap (and a longer absence before that, when his radical Dziga Vertov Group films were barely seen or distributed) but in many other ways it is also his critique of the cinema (and for Godard, who has always so closely identified with his chosen medium, a critique of the cinema must be a self-critique as well). "That's history, it's not the movies," says an old man, by way of delineating the difference between reality and history. Godard isn't so sure. Even before the old man is done speaking, Godard flashes a title up on the screen, where the letters of the word "history" are changed one by one to read "cinema" instead. Even at this point, over a decade before commencing work on the Histoire(s) du cinema, he was beginning to conflate and intermingle the two concepts.
Even so, the film limns the limitations of cinema by stripping away everything cinema ordinarily does: narrative is simplified into a series of banal details, psychological characterization is limited, pictorial beauty is eliminated, and even the linearity of cinema is subverted by the film's cyclical, overlapping, and repetitive structure. What's seen in a tiny corner of the screen at one point, on a small TV set, may later be repeated on a larger set positioned more prominently. In this way, images are repeated throughout the film, and scenes play out multiple times, with different accompanying soundtracks and different images to play off of and interact with. The soundtrack is a typically disjunctive and layered cacophony, with Godard's use of repetitions and choppy sound editing even more pronounced than ever before and yet he also allows many of his characters the dignity of telling their own stories in long, uninterrupted monologues that privilege anecdote and detail. Television is a fitting vehicle for this project because TV is a medium of the mundane. But where TV transmits only mundane fantasies, Godard is interested in showing something of mundane reality.
To this end, his film focuses on an "average" family father, mother, two kids, grandparents as they perform their daily tasks. The father goes off to work, the mother sits at home mostly bored, the kids ask questions, the grandparents meditate on dying. The film starts from the stereotypical in order to dig deeper, into the kinds of things that such stereotypes, and the inevitable truths within them, have to say about the culture that produces them. One of the ways in which Godard digs deeper is to explore the sexual and scatological impulses that drive the familial unit. In one scene, the father (Pierre Oudrey) and mother (Sandrine Battistella) are in bed together engaging in a remarkably passive and sterile sexual rite: they take turns looking at one another's private parts while delivering monologues on what they see. The father's, delivered while both he and the audience look at his wife's ass, describes the woman's body as a river and the man's as a shore; he says that the river does violence to the shore, washing over it and destroying it, but no one ever talks about the way in which the shore also does violence to the river by confining and stifling its flow. This poetic rumination draws a more nuanced conception of women's rights into an idea that might be described as the primal theme of Godard's 60s work: the mutual destruction that exists between men and women, especially in love. This theme crops up also in the gangster story that the couple's children tell each other, in which a criminal and his girl take turns betraying and attacking one another. It's the film's only reference to its origins in Breathless, and an indirect one at that, but it draws attention to the continuity with Godard's earlier films, as well as the crucial distinctions to be made.
The woman's responding monologue is more quotidian, more practical; she doesn't employ metaphors but speaks in plain, vulgar language about her experiences of marriage and sexuality. For her, life with her husband is a continuum between his ass, seen on the way out the door in the morning on his way to work, and his penis, which greets her when he returns home at the end of the day. She delivers this dispassionate accounting while half sitting up, naked, holding his penis in her hand and stroking it. The film's presentation of sexuality is joyless, disconnected, and chilly, distanced by the un-inflected acting, the static images, and the artificiality of the framing device by which all the film's images are presented on TV screens. If ordinary cinematic presentation already exists at several removes from reality, Numéro Deux broadens the distance. This is quite in line with Godard's adoption of Brechtian theatrical techniques in his earlier films; the blatant artificiality makes the viewer more aware of the artifice as such, and conversely forces them to think more carefully about the film's content rather than responding intuitively or emotionally. This technique is more pronounced in Numéro Deux than in perhaps any of Godard's other films. Here, Godard leaves no possible choice but to approach this material from a distance, in the abstract; there are no characters as such, no beautiful images to appreciate. It's cold, boring, ugly, and utterly rigorous in its examination of the conditions of life; the result is a film that's chilling and often difficult to watch, and yet invigorating to think about, both while it's on and afterward.
The film also finds Godard dealing in crude, blunt metaphors that capture the everyday reality he's after. The film mentions shit and other bodily processes so often that one wonders if "number two" has the same slangy meaning in French as it has in English, a possibility that gives the title a new resonance. The film uses intertitles in the familiar way that Godard has turned into a peculiar artform all its own, creating punning resonances between words and phrases with slippery, shifting meanings. All the titles within the film are continually morphing, as letters are replaced one by one to create new words, often with intermediary words in between. In one of his more unsubtle moments, Godard transforms "travail" into "merde," work into shit, a reflection of the emptiness of work in a consumerist, capitalist society in which work is only a way to fill the hours between equally interminable stretches at home. There is no passion in this dark, clinical film, in which the characters all feel the same numb nothingness for work, sex, love, and politics. At one point, the mother is handed a pamphlet about the treatment of female political prisoners in Chile; she's told it concerns all women, but her flat response is "No, not me."
This disconnection from political realities is extended to nearly every facet of life for these characters, who exist in self-contained bubbles where only the TV has any real meaning. In one scene, all the characters, usually off by themselves in their own individual spaces (marked off by the borders of Godard's monitors) come together to watch TV themselves, a striking meta moment if ever there was one. Godard, as usual ahead of his time, saw both the potential and the problems of TV. Bypassing its widespread use as a tool for cultural indoctrination and passivity, he activates the medium's aesthetic power to comment upon a culture numbed to any possibility of genuine communication or interaction. In one of the film's more disturbing scenes, the parents bring their children into the bedroom for an impromptu lesson on sexual intercourse. They describe their genitals as types of mouths, and sex as a kind of kiss or conversation. In sex, they say, they are silent and yet communicating, a paradox that the duality-obsessed Godard could never resist. In a way, it's a wonderful and emotionally genuine description of what sex should be and can be, and yet there's nothing else within the film to suggest that these people actually experience sex as this ideal of communication and connection. More likely, they're simply passing on the myth to the next generation, parroting back the concept of the ideal while certainly not living it.
Moreover, the scene is disturbing in its casual juxtaposition of children and explicit sexuality, a theme that Godard plays with in somewhat ambiguous and discomfiting ways throughout the film. When, in an earlier scene, he uses his then-nascent video editing techniques to splice a closeup of a young girl over a scene of a man and woman having anal sex, it provokes another queasy moment of unease that is heightened in several more scenes that exploit this combination of youth and sexuality. This destabilization, the removal of norms, is doubtless one aim at work within this film, though it's arguable that Godard never develops the purpose or context of these scenes enough to avoid their more uncomfortable undertones. Godard's cinema has always been enthusiastically engaged with the boundary between the real and the filmed, between filmed reality and the reality that is being filmed. But here as in the scenes of genuine animal slaughter that were so jarring and disturbing, for all the wrong reasons, in Weekend the real intrudes on Godard's cinema in ways he cannot fully control or channel. Just as those were real animals spilling real blood in Weekend, these are real children, really witnessing sexual acts and displaying themselves for the camera. Moments like this cut through all of Godard's Brechtian distancing techniques and disrupt the flow of thoughts triggered by the film itself. Instead of thinking about the ideas that Godard is raising, the audience is reminded of the conditions of filming and production, the real people involved rather than the abstracted generic family they are playing. Godard has often intentionally brought these behind-the-scenes details into his films he does so even in this film, with the nod to Beauregard and voiceover credits that name the actors but here, I'd argue, the methods of production are brought into the film unwittingly.
Despite these caveats, Numéro Deux is an important film for Godard, and it started him on the path towards the formal and thematic territory he would explore for the next several decades of his career. The film itself is as challenging and confrontational as anything he has ever made, even if its approach to its material and themes is less obtuse than usual. It is, like the "return to zero" Le gai savoir, which marked the beginning of Godard's radical era, a re-imagining of cinematic language that establishes the ground to be explored further in the filmmaker's next phase.