Monday, February 16, 2009

Films I Love #19: First Name: Carmen (Jean-Luc Godard, 1983)


First Name: Carmen is one of Jean-Luc Godard's greatest films, a fragmentary retelling of the classic opera Carmen, with its tragic tale of the seductive title character (Maruschka Detmers) who earns the love of a soldier named Joseph (Jacques Bonnaffé) only to betray and discard her sensitive lover after not too long. Naturally, Godard uses the familiar story as a thin thread running through a film which would seem quite abstract without this narrative throughline to hold it together. The formal properties of cinema are laid bare, as they often are in Godard's films, and the soundtrack is particularly unpredictable, sometimes falling completely silent even when the characters are speaking onscreen, while at other times introducing non-diegetic sound to disrupt the reality of the image. Carmen's early line that she would like to make a film set near the beach is taken as a cue to introduce the harsh cawing of seagulls onto the soundtrack at random moments; Godard apparently liked the sound so much that he continued using it, with even less narrative justification, in many of his later 80s and 90s films. The soundtrack's construction is made a part of the film, as the narrative is intercut with scenes in which a string quartet rehearses the music for the soundtrack. These rehearsals are not only a typical metafictional intrusion, but provide an alternative narrative, complete with a heroine, the violinist Claire (Myriem Roussel), who becomes every bit as much of a character in this story as Carmen and Joseph. Even Godard is a character in the film, appearing as Carmen's half-crazy uncle, a retired director who now pretends to be sick so he can stay in a hospital; when the doctors try to kick him out, he solemnly promises to get a fever soon. Godard loves to cast himself in these kinds of slapstick parts in his later career, continually reminding his audience that he's the disheveled fool behind this chaos.

As for the central love story, the doomed romance of Carmen and Joseph, it proceeds in a series of isolated moments, broken up by Godard's frequent formalist diversions: cutaways to the ocean or the rehearsing musicians. Even when the lovers are onscreen together, their love seems transitory and fragmentary, split between periods of tenderness and furious altercations. Godard films them together in ways that abstract the relationship between them. They are often close, crowded together in the frame, but they can't quite connect. Their faces are turned at awkward angles from one another, or shadows obscure their expressions, or they turn away completely. In one infamous sequence, Joseph smokes and eats breakfast while Carmen sits nearby with no pants on, her bushy pubic hair directly in the frame's foreground while Joseph sits in the background, not looking at her. The film is about sex and disconnection, those perennial subjects for Godard, as well as the intimate relationship between passion and violence. The couple meets when Carmen is robbing a bank where Joseph is stationed as a guard, and their wrestling and fighting for a rifle changes abruptly into kissing. For Godard in his late period, cinema is still about a girl and a gun after all.

8 comments:

Linden Arden said...

This has two of my favourite scenes from any film ever made. The first - Joseph and Carmen's hideaway conversation played out twice: first as a silent, romantic interlude, underscored by the string quartet, and then again without music, revealing the harshness of Carmen's character and the self-destructive nature of their relationship (as well as the usual Godardian commentary on the malleability of the filmed image, and how easily their true-meanings can be manipulated/deconstructed by the various juxtapositions of sound and vision).

The second – Jacques Bonnaffé cradling the flickering static of the television set as Ruby's Arms plays on the soundtrack. The near-mythical pairing of my favourite songwriter and favourite filmmaker in one perfectly realised, beautifully rendered scene.

Probably my favourite of Godard work from the 1980's.

Fox said...

It's nice to see someone regarding Godard's later period to be just as great as his earlier. I haven't seen First Name: Carmen, but after seeing both Passion and Detective (both which I think are among Godard's greatest), I was disturbed by how much this period of his goes overlooked by film historians. Not ALL of them, as evidence by Richard Brody's book last year, but...

Ed Howard said...

Linden: Good choices on those scenes. I particularly love the static TV image, as well, and the Tom Waits song is the perfect accompaniment to it. Such a haunting image: in Carmen's absence, Joseph literally embracing a mass media device instead.

Fox: I'd actually say Godard's late period is not only "as great as," but even better than his 60s work. As much as I love the 60s films, I think the later films are often even richer and more complex. Hopefully people are starting to realize this.

Brady said...

Thanks for this write up, Ed! I've been meaning to check out his 80s work, and this inspires me more than ever to do so.

Are these screen captures from the R1 Lionsgate 3-disc collection? I might have to just blind buy this.

Ed Howard said...

Brady: It's always good to hear about someone venturing into Godard's late period. Yes, these captures are from the Lionsgate set, which is very highly recommended. That set provides a great introduction to late Godard, with two genuine masterpieces (this one and Passion) plus two very interesting experiments (Detective and Helas pour moi). The image quality on all four films is gorgeous, too. Late Godard is some of the most visually sumptuous cinema around, and these DVDs do a great job of representing it.

weepingsam said...

I'm late to comment, but I saw MADE IN USA yesterday, and it reminded me of some of this. It's showing as part of a Godard in the 60s series at the Boston MFA - always welcome, but since some kind of Godard in the 60s series shows up every year, it's another reminder how rare screenings of his later films are. I admit I find it hard to imagine that the 80s films can match his 60s films: no one else has matched his 60s films (except maybe Capra and Ozu in the 30s and Ozu in the 50s), so why would he be able to? But it's very hard to find out if they don't screen. Even on DVD, they can't compete to seeing good prints of Contempt or Pierrot le Fou 2-3-4 times on a movie screen... it's frustrating...

Erich Kuersten said...

I finally finished watching this from that great 4-movie Godard set. It's sooo romantic and thanks for your great post and stills. I'm mad at that cop for not falling for that cute violinist. But c'est non la vie, c'est Carmen!

Anonymous said...

I wish I could enjoy this movie more. It has some great Godard sequences and images. But the violence it does to Beethoven's music...the sheer quantity of some of the finest string quartet music ever written, passed along as if it were a typical cinematic score. Some of Beethoven's most profound musical thoughts being used as the backdrop for a little love story. If I hadn't been so immersed in these scores for years I wouldn't be as bothered, but these worms are just dripping with musical richness and hearing so many of them deployed one after another weighs on the emotion, and I don't know how it could ever be justified. I don't have such a problem with how music is used in Passion, but here it just makes my skin crawl.