Michelangelo and Ulysses came home from the war with knapsacks bulging, bearing the reward for hardships suffered and inflicted. “We promised you the world,” the soldiers boasted to their wives. “Here it is”–and onto the kitchen table they spilled a heap of picture postcards.
This scene, from the 1963 Les Carabiniers, seems in hindsight the true starting point for Jean-Luc Godard’s art. Breathless is immortal, A Woman Is a Woman continues to delight, Le Petit Soldat forever marks Godard as combative and political; but Les Carabiniers, among the early films, most clearly announces “the image” as a primary subject of his work.
Not “images,” as you might expect from a maker of moving pictures, but “the image.” The wildly assorted photographs that Michelangelo and Ulysses slapped down before their wives resembled a primitive travel montage, run so slowly that the frames were visible one by one. This retarding of the flow has become a recurrent device in Godard’s late work, starting about fifteen years ago with the series Histoire(s) du cinéma. He sometimes makes a point of holding apart the binary elements of filmmaking, shot and reverse shot, rather than letting them merge in the viewer’s mind. In place of persistence of vision, he gives you resistance of vision.
In his new film Notre Musique–a work of art too tender, sorrowful, gorgeous and profound to be harmed by us critics, with our heavier kind of slowness–Godard demonstrates in person how to pull apart a montage. In a quasi-fictional scene in which he speaks to a small and rather distracted young audience, he holds up a pair of frame enlargements from Howard Hawks’s His Girl Friday–one of Cary Grant barking into the telephone, the other of Rosalind Russell yakking back–and notes that the two shots, which ostensibly depict warring opposites, are basically identical. (“It proves,” he says, “that Hawks didn’t know the difference between a man and a woman.”) Never mind that this observation, if taken at face value, would be bogus; in His Girl Friday, the pictures move and so are not identical at all. But Godard at this moment is not particularly interested in Hawks. He’s instructing us in how to read Godard, who thinks in bigger units than most other filmmakers can handle. He treats set-ups, sequences, even whole character arcs as if they were discrete images, to be flashed before you dialectically like shot and reverse shot.
The biggest dialectical opposites in Notre Musique, standing symmetrically at either end of the film, are the sequences titled “Hell” and “Heaven.” It’s the first that reminded me of Les Carabiniers, despite the fact that the montage here runs at full speed and beyond. Godard’s “Hell” is a staggering ten minutes of found footage, collected from fiction films and documentaries alike and spliced together with a lifetime’s skill to show the horrors of war. Flashes of white light; a quick view of celluloid, colorfully decomposing; the booming attack of a piano’s bass notes. A woman’s voice says, “And so, in the age of fable, there appeared on earth men armed for extermination.” They appear: Civil War soldiers from The Birth of a Nation running in from the left of the screen, African warriors from Zulu rushing back at them from the right, Crusaders, GIs, samurais, guerrillas, an entire battlefield’s worth of medieval figures stabbing clumsily at one another. Fire and smoke erupt skyward from bomb blasts, again and again. Naked, skeletal corpses flop down into a ditch. “Forgive us our trespasses,” the voice on the soundtrack prays, “as we forgive others–and no differently.” Children beg. On a 1940s street kneels a woman (an accused collaborator?) silently pleading before a man in uniform.