You say you want a cultural revolution? Judge William Lee asks that you wake him after it's over.
"This disorder is really getting annoying."
The spirit of revolution is in the air in 1960s Paris, France. The authority of the establishment is in question and youthful idealism will open society's eyes to the truth. Jean-Luc Godard's educational film for the proletariat was meant to strip away the corrupt language of the establishment. Forty years later, it's time to ask if his message got through.
Facts of the Case
Emile Rousseau (Jean-Pierre Léaud) and Patricia Lumumba (Juliet Berto) are two disenfranchised youth who meet in an empty television studio. Over the course of a few days, they continue to meet in the studio to discuss the substance of language which they see as a weapon of the establishment. To turn the weapon back against their enemy, they must deconstruct it and rebuild it from scratch. Le Gai Savoir (Joy of Learning) is the story of two people talking about education and revolution.
In Bernardo Bertolucci's The Dreamers, we saw some of the violence on the streets during the 1968 Paris student riots. Intellectual freedom was at stake and the removal of the head of the Cinémathèque Française sparked violent clashes between riot police and protestors. Viewers of that movie may have wondered what could spark such a response from young cinema lovers. While watching Jean-Luc Godard's Le Gai Savoir, I wondered if this was the type of movie that could inspire moviegoers to take to the streets. Watching it today, almost 40 years after the fact, Godard's agit-prop piece inspired me to turn in early rather than storm the castle.
A key contributor to the French New Wave, Jean-Luc Godard has made some great movies. From the joyful exuberance of Breathless to the subversive gloss of Contempt, Godard's work can be both intellectually stimulating and viscerally pleasing. Then, there are his political films that give voice to his angry young man. His films of this period are openly didactic and less conventionally entertaining. Though they are earnest in the belief that movies can truly change the way people think, these films are also dated by the naivety of the times—conspicuously, the admiration for Mao Zedong and the call for France's own Cultural Revolution.
There's no need for subtlety in political art and the names of Godard's two protagonists are deliberately chosen. Jean-Pierre Léaud's character is named for Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the 18th century philosopher whose writings influenced the French Revolution. His book Emile was concerned with the education of a boy away from the corruption of the city in order to bring about his better nature. Juliet Berto's character is named after a contemporary figure of the 1960s: Patrice Lumumba—the first democratically elected Prime Minister of the Republic of the Congo, he was deposed in a coup d'état after 10 weeks in office and then imprisoned and assassinated.
Le Gai Savoir attempts to deconstruct language in two respects: as it is spoken and as the "language" of cinema is understood. Breaking from cinematic conventions in an effort to bring about a "return to zero," the film is presented in minimalist fashion. Emile and Patricia meet in a dark studio and for most of the time it is simply the two actors against a black background. There is also a coldness in the acting style which brings to mind the style of alienation encouraged by Bertolt Brecht's Epic theater. The actors do not exactly embody their characters so much as play versions of themselves playing the parts of the characters. At one point, the illusion is completely dropped when the actors refer to each other by their real names.
The simple look of the darkened studio is interrupted by occasional montages of colorful imagery featuring the day's popular culture. Glossy photos from fashion magazines, comic book art, posters and newspaper clippings are assembled to create a sense of cinematic collage. The intent is to subvert the meaning of the images as unrelated photos are juxtaposed against one another and additional writing is scrawled across existing text. These sequences have more visual energy than the scenes in the studio, but they are not any more memorable than the rest since it comes across as a collection of graphics that may or may not add up to something.
Spoken word is "the enemy," according to Godard. I think his argument is that conventions of language betray truth and disguise meaning. The discourse in which Emile and Patricia engage is filled with lively word play but it is ultimately trivial. Consider the moment when they examine the term "talkies," the word that describes movies made after the silent era. The pair of radicals point out that they have never experienced a film that actually talks to them. That point can be understood in a number of ways but it feels like the kind of discussion one encounters in a college classroom just for the sake of engaging in a debate. It's a lot of noise for no real purpose other than to show off. The movie goes through the motions of talking about revolution but does not arrive anywhere. The desire to find coherent meaning in the discourse is abandoned by the time Emile concludes, "It's a bit vague, what we've discovered, no?"
The passage of 40 years has been kinder to the look of Le Gai Savoir than to its politics. The picture isn't quite sharp, but thanks to a restored transfer the image is relatively clean and stable and the colors are vibrant. Dust pops up throughout the picture and this would be a minor distraction except that it is very noticeable on the predominantly black background. The mono soundtrack works fine in delivering the dialogue and some effects in a reasonably clear level.
Koch Lorber presents the movie without any extras. That's too bad because something to place it in the context of its time (perhaps a trailer or poster) would have been useful. Even better would be some sort of introduction to explain the movie's relevance to audiences in the 1960s. Unfortunately, they have held to the opinion that Godard's outdated politics stand on their own today.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
There was a time when Jean-Luc Godard was a prince of alternative cinema and his work brought a fresh, hip energy to movies. Tapping into the revolutionary spirit of that day, his political films were unapologetically unconventional. Challenging the traditional form of cinema, Le Gai Savoir is a close approximation of Brecht's Epic theater brought to the screen. Viewing it today, it tests the patience as typical entertainment. But as an example of 1960s political discourse, it has some historical value.
Le Gai Savoir remains a product of and for its times. As a companion piece to La Chinoise it can be appreciated as an example of revolutionary cinema. However, its optimism does not make up for its naivety. This one is strictly for diehard Godard fans looking to complete their collection. It's a rental option for curious moviegoers and film students who may find it on their professor's required viewing list.
Today's ruling on yesterday's thinking: Guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Koch Lorber
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