Monday, August 4, 2008

Hélas pour moi

Jean-Luc Godard's Hélas pour moi opens with the title "based on a legend," while a voiceover recounts a story that has the rhythms and symmetry of myth: a certain ritual is passed down from generation to generation, with each subsequent generation forgetting more and more parts of the ritual, but finding that it still achieves its intended purpose even in debased form. Finally, every detail of the ritual has been forgotten, and the only recourse left to the last generation is to tell a story about the ritual. It's a progression from action to thought, from the world to the abstract, from the spiritual to the theoretical. This is Godard's treatise on the idea of history as myth, a fitting way to open a film which takes as its premise a story from Greek mythology. This opening speech is melancholy and moving, the weary proclamation of a man saddened by the disconnection from spirituality implied in these words. And yet it's also a somewhat hopeful sentiment, emphasizing the importance of stories (and by extension art) to a culture increasingly out of touch with its history and its spiritual roots. The similarity in the French words histoire (history) and histoires (stories) is more than semantics or wordplay for Godard; it's a deeply symbiotic relationship in which the essential single truth of history fractures into multifaceted storytelling and endless variations on stories. It's this resonance that caused the filmmaker to title his historical video project Histoire(s) du cinema, indicating the tension between historical truth and cinematic narrativizing, and it's a resonance that is every bit as present in this film.

As this meandering introduction should make clear, Hélas pour moi is a typically confounding and multi-layered late work from Godard. The promise of the opening titles, the "legend" on which the film is ostensibly based, only emerges slowly from a dense web of allusions, quotations, and overlapping verbal confusion. It is only after roughly an hour of this material, in which characters come and go in seemingly random vignettes, that the actual story takes shape: a story of a god visiting Earth in the guise of a man, adapted not from any Christian fable (though this is unmistakably a Christian god) but from one of many myths in which the Greek god Zeus took on disguises in order to make love to a mortal woman. It's a perfect framework for Godard's characteristically gnomic exploration of spirituality, love, and storytelling — this last theme a perverse joke from a filmmaker who has never been as obtuse or willfully obscure as he is in this film. The film is structured around a large cast who are largely indeterminate in their relationships, roles, and purposes. There are a group of students and their professors, a video store owner and his staff, a tennis star (Jean-Louis Loca), a doctor (Marc Betton), and many others, who wander in and out of the film, speaking in philosophical and political fragments mingled with overly polite chit-chat. There is perhaps no film in which the words "Monsieur," "Madame," and "Mademoiselle" appear more frequently, because characters are continually greeting each other in passing, with a formality and a head nod, as they roam from one ambiguous scene to the next, often accompanied by Godard's sideways tracking shots. The only concession to the likely adrift audience is the investigator Abraham Klimt (Bernard Verley), who in trying to figure out what exactly is going on here mirrors the journey of the audience into Godard's baffling film.

The narrative only achieves clarity and coherence in the final half-hour, in which Godard finally winnows the cast down to mostly just two: Simon (Gérard Depardieu) and Rachel (Laurence Masliah), a married couple who get in their first fight when Simon decides to leave on a business trip. Along the way, he is possessed by a deity (Harry Cleven), a shambling nomad with long hair and a raspy, distorted voice, a character who existed on the edges of the film previously, occasionally narrating scenes with his voicebox-processed speech. In a remarkable shot, Godard has this very ordinary icon of God sneak up behind Simon. Simon's face fills the frame in close-up, while the god is hazy and out-of-focus in the background; as he steps up behind Simon, he puts his hat on the other man's head and then ducks down behind him, and a low-budget possession has taken place. Simon has been taken over by the spirit of God. Such unassuming miracles are not only a budgetary necessity for Godard, but an expression of his very practical understanding of spirituality as something intimately connected with the physical world, rather than beyond it. This very physical, human spirituality earned him accusations of profanity and blasphemy for Hail Mary, in which his retelling of the story of the Virgin Mary explored very similar issues of carnality, religious feeling, and human love. For Godard, spiritual and physical love are, if not exactly the same thing, then very closely related — the love of God for humanity is redefined as the love of two people for each other. In one scene, Rachel expresses this connection when she identifies the gesture of an embrace, locking one's hands together around a lover's body, as being the same as the folded hands of prayer.

Godard's spirituality is also expressed in his appreciation of natural beauty, so it is appropriate that this is one of Godard's most landscape-obsessed films. Some of these landscapes recur at intervals. A single curvy stretch of road, a thin snake of concrete amidst a sea of green dotted with bright red flowers, appears several times, at various times of day, its lonely beauty altered by the quality of the light that illuminates it. Time is an undercurrent in all of Godard's most recent work, and here especially he is more concerned with time at a micro-level, rather than the historical sense of time that animates his more politically motivated films. In one scene, a woman's face is initially illuminated by bright, white light, an overexposed image that is soon softened through digital manipulation that restores a more natural daylight aura, and then continues dimming into a blackened twilight where the woman's face is obscured in shadows. This is cinema as time, the artificiality of cinematic techniques recreating the passage of a day from noontime glare to evening's shadowy gloom. There is an emotional quality to Godard's treatment of time, as when God, posing as Simon, tells Rachel that mortal creatures first smiled when they understood the concept of time — and by extension, gained the knowledge of mortality. This is a frequent theme in Godard's cinema, how pleasure is intimately linked with death. Godard, always intrigued by opposites and dialectics, instinctively knows how impending mortality intensifies human emotion. This is, perhaps, what an immortal god could never understand about his creations.

Godard's use of landscape is also intriguing to the extent that he repurposes nature as a frame for the film's sometimes obscure human drama. Godard uses insert shots of landscapes, sunsets, and flowers as structural foundations, oblique connections between scenes within a structure whose overall boundaries are anything but clear. But he also uses the natural world to provide frames within the frame. Trees are especially important in this regard, frequently appearing as dividers. Godard shoots many scenes from around, behind, or between trees that frame the action, cutting up the film frame into smaller divisions created by natural boundaries. In some shots, an explosion of leaves from a tree branch obscures a corner of the landscape, while in others the intervals between trees seem to represent cells of film. This is especially true of an otherwise puzzling and non-narrative scene in which a group of people walk through a forest, led by a young boy. The shot starts frozen, completely still, with the boy visible between the vertical stalks of two trees. As he walks forward, Godard's camera begins to pan to the left to follow the boy, as behind him some more people walk into view; they were previously hidden behind the framing trees. As the boy and his followers walk to the left, with Godard's camera tracking them, trees placed at regular intervals define open spaces in which the people can be seen. The effect is like letting one's eye trace along a strip of film in sequence, watching an action develop from one frame to the next. It is cinema capturing the cinematic in the natural world.

This is really a tangent in a film structured around tangents, but the playfulness and subtlety with which this idea is executed is typical of Godard at his best. Always inscrutable and often confusing, his elliptical, layered verbal and visual aesthetic is the product of a restless imagination that tends to think in circles and patterns rather than in straight lines. The result is a film dense with meaning and content, which will obviously reward subsequent viewings by opening up in greater depth. Hélas pour moi is one of Godard's most confounding late films, but its formal beauty and thematic richness more than make up for its occasional incoherence.

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