Friday, April 24, 2009
[This review of a largely unknown and unavailable Jean-Luc Godard short is presented here as a plea that The Criterion Collection should include this film as an extra on one of their forthcoming Godard DVDs. It would be a very timely and appropriate inclusion for any of the Godard films that Criterion currently plans to release. If you're interested in seeing this film, write to them and tell them about it.]
Anticipation was Jean-Luc Godard's contribution to the multi-director anthology film The Oldest Profession, a collection of shorts on the theme of prostitution, with contributions by Claude Autant-Lara, Philippe de Broca and other minor French filmmakers of the time. Needless to say, Godard's segment stands out. He filmed his contribution in late 1966, not long after finishing 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her, with which it shares some commonalities in theme and style. But the film Anticipation resembles more than anything else is Alphaville, Godard's futuristic take on a society that has forgotten about love. In this short, the space traveler John Demetrius (Jacques Charrier) takes a break from his interstellar journey on Earth, where the solicitous planetary government — a Soviet-American alliance, confirming that this is the distant future — provides prostitutes for all travelers who request them.
The film thus opens with a wry sequence in which Demetrius sits in an airport lounge thumbing through a catalogue of pornographic pictures, in order to choose his companion for the night. Across from him sits a young female traveler, looking through a catalogue of her own for a male prostitute. The two travelers keep casting sly sidelong glances at one another, as though appraising the other in relation to the images in the magazine. It's a sharp commentary on the increasing distance between people in a culture dominated by images, in which actual flesh-and-blood human relationships are forced to compete with glossy simulacra and media fantasies. This becomes even more apparent in the rest of the film, in which Demetrius interacts with a pair of prostitutes, neither of whom can quite satisfy him. The first girl (Marilù Tolo) is pliant and willing, stripping for him in a businesslike way and preparing for bed. But he discovers that she is unable, or unwilling, to talk, to murmur even a word to him, instead lying there inert, another incarnation of the robotic women from Alphaville.
Enter Anna Karina, Godard's ex-wife in her last role with the director (even though the feature Made in USA is usually given that credit, evidence of how sadly forgotten this great short is). Here she's playing the prostitute Natasha, who's provided to Demetrius after his complaints about the first girl. Unlike her predecessor, Natasha can talk, but it soon emerges, to Demetrius' consternation, that that's all she's able to do. It seems that the division of labor has been applied to prostitutes, who are now super-specialized so that some of them are skilled in the physical acts of love, and some of them are skilled in expressing love verbally. No one in this futuristic society brings the two acts together as a unified whole, since love itself has been thoroughly suppressed, presumably along with the other emotions. This is a witty premise, and Godard builds a very flippant conceptual sci-fi piece around it. One of the best moments is the bizarre and hilarious sequence in which Natasha and Demetrius spray one another's mouths with water from an aerosol can, a fetishized sexual display in a culture where such mechanized rituals based around consumer products provide the only possible connections between people.
In fact, the alienation of people from each other is the film's key theme, as is the increasing compartmentalization of lives: love and sex are separated, conversation and meaning amputated from one another. Natasha speaks, but she does not mean what she says. Without deeper feelings behind them, her words are empty signifiers, suggesting a love that simply isn't there. For Godard, about to plunge at the end of the 60s into an in-depth consideration of semiotics and language in films like Le gai savoir and his work with the Dziga Vertov Group, this is a hint of things to come, the fascination with the relationships between language and meaning, between gestures and ideas.
It was also meant to be a glorious formal experiment, although Godard's intentions have often not been preserved in presentations of this film. The original American release version was a dubbed and censored travesty coated with an orange filter, while the only current way of seeing the film (sourced from an unsubtitled Japanese DVD) provides an uncensored and unaltered monochrome print that nevertheless does not preserve the radical formal interventions that Godard intended. The film as he originally conceived it was to have been printed with an alternating set of colored filters layered over the image, much as he had used during the infamous Brigitte Bardot nude scene that opened Contempt (this would certainly explain the female narrator who periodically intones colors as though signaling a filter change). Furthermore, Godard apparently planned to manipulate the images so that the characters would often appear as blurred, indistinct shapes, further accentuating the alienation and disconnections of the narrative.
Even in the monochrome version of the film, Godard's formal interest in this material is preserved in the final moments, in which Natasha and Demetrius tentatively rediscover the lost art of the kiss, which is both communication and lovemaking and thus sidesteps Natasha's limitations against performing physical acts of love. It's a wonderful conceit, on a par with the rediscovery of the words "I love you" as the key to Alphaville's finale. Godard sees hope and possibility in communication and genuine interpersonal connections, and he celebrates this connection by briefly strobing to full-color shots of the couple kissing and then a closeup of Karina smiling shyly at the camera as the film ends. On the soundtrack, the tranquil, robotic female narrator finally loses her cool, desperately repeating, "negative! negative!" In one of Godard's chilliest works, this kiss is another profound romantic gesture, maybe his last until rediscovering sensuality in the 80s: love conquers totalitarian control, and a kiss proves a more powerful form of communication than any government propaganda.