Judge Dylan Charles has nightmares about Jean-Luc Godard directing an episode of Lost.
"A story should have a beginning, a middle, and an end, but not necessarily in that order."—Jean-Luc Godard
I think it's safe to say that Jean-Luc Godard is something of a legend in the film world. Lionsgate has decided to honor this legend by releasing four of his more recent and perhaps lesser-known movies in its Jean-Luc Godard Box Set.
Facts of the Case
Here's what you'll find on Lionsgate's Jean-Luc Godard: 3-Disc Collector's Edition:
• Passion: On the set of a film, director Jerzy (Jerzy Radziwilowicz) is unhappy with the way production and passes the time by sleeping with two different women.
• First Name: Carmen: Godard takes a crack at the opera Carmen. A famous director (Jean-Luc Godard) has placed himself in an insane asylum. His niece Carmen comes to visit him so that she can use his apartment for a movie; in reality she wants it to plan a robbery. Once again, movies prove that love and crime do not mix.
• Detective: For some reason, a hotel has become the epicenter of the crime world. A whole horde of characters cross paths and collide with one another. Mafia bosses, crooked fight promoters, adulterers, and, of course, detectives are all housed under one roof.
• Oh, Woe is Me: God wants to experience romantic love, so He takes the place of Simon (Gerard Depardieu) and tries to sleep with Simon's wife Rachel (Laurence Masliah).
I have been struggling with this review for some time now. I'm suffering from a kind of performance anxiety. Do I dare critique Jean-Luc Godard? And I guess I do dare.
Godard's films, at least in this set, are all about playing with the form. Everything from the linear nature of the plots to the characters to the kind of story being told and even the soundtracks is done in unconventional ways.
Passion would often show two people talking, but not have the corresponding dialogue that went with what was being shown. Instead, we're treated to the conversation of people who aren't even present. The soundtracks in First Name: Carmen and in Detective would often appear in short, quick bursts. A moment of dramatic tension would be explosively scored and then as the tension evaporated the music would cut off completely.
Oh, Woe is Me played hell with standard story conventions. Anyone who was confused by the nonlinear story telling of Pulp Fiction or Go would do well to stay clear. The story is told primarily through the eyes of an intrepid biographer who is unraveling the events throughout the movie. There is no clear delineation of time, however, and it took me a while to sort out what elements went where.
Detective deals with a huge range of characters and stories. All of these stories eventually brush up against one another, sometimes tying into complicated knots before disengaging again, only to join up in the end.
To further complicate the flavors of each movie, there's a strong element of surrealism. It's not enough that these stories are being told in such a discordant fashion, but the stories themselves are often bizarre. Passion, on the surface, has a very simple story. Jerzy, a director, is making a movie has an affair with two very different women. But the movie Jerzy is making is like no movie I've ever seen. He's recreating classical works of art with actors and sets. We're treated to a variety of different set pieces that contribute a great deal to the jarring nature of Passion as a whole.
Then there's First Name: Carmen which is more or less just an adaptation of Bizet's Carmen. One of the things Godard added to the proceedings is himself: Godard is actually in the movie playing a director named Godard.
The important question here though is, what does this accomplish? What does toying with standard conventions do for the movies themselves?
Is Detective a stronger movie because of all the tricks done with the soundtrack? Is First Name: Carmen a good adaptation of Carmen with the addition of Godard?
I submit to you, as my criticism of a legend, that all four movies function more as experiments within cinema—and not much else. Rather than a set of good movies, we have a set of experimental attempts to see what Godard can do with this art form. In this way, Godard is akin to the Cubists and abstract painters of the early 20th century. He's seeing what can be done, going against what people think can't and shouldn't be done with celluloid.
But beyond that, I would be hard pressed to say that these are good movies. The story has been driven by the wayside. The interesting theological ideas of Oh, Woe is Me are rendered secondary. I am most disappointed by Oh, Woe is Me because the radical ideas about religion and the nature of God are almost hamstrung by the format of the movie. I would have preferred a more conventional means of displaying his unconventional ideas.
Yes, Godard has interesting ideas and he has one of the most original and creative minds in the art form, but he sacrifices so many good ideas to the God Experimental.
Lionsgate doesn't help matters much with their presentation. There's one documentary about Godard, but nothing else—nothing to put the films into context. Of all the sets Lionsgate has released, this one is most deserving of extra content, if only so the viewer can better understand just what's going on. At the very least, the documentary is a good introduction to Godard and his work, but more—much more—would have been appreciated by this reviewer.
Godard and the movies within this set are attacks against convention, subtle and not-so-subtle attempts to break free of the constraints normally placed on films. Godard clearly does not allow himself to be bound by rules. That has, in its own way, put different restrictions on his movies. Sacrifices are made: plot, characters, even the ideas he might hope to convey about religion or morality, become obscured by these same experiments.
In the end, it must be up entirely to viewers to decide what they have gotten from it.
Judge Dylan Charles is guilty of not getting Godard and should be shot on sight.
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Scales of Justice, Passion
Perp Profile, Passion
Distinguishing Marks, Passion
Scales of Justice, First Name: Carmen
Perp Profile, First Name: Carmen
Distinguishing Marks, First Name: Carmen
Scales of Justice, Detective
Perp Profile, Detective
Distinguishing Marks, Detective
Scales of Justice, Oh, Woe Is Me
Perp Profile, Oh, Woe Is Me
Distinguishing Marks, Oh, Woe Is Me
• Jean-Luc Godard: A Riddle Wrapped in an Enigma
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