Judge Bill Gibron is a rebel. He's torn his dress. His face is a mess.
Rebels without a cause—or understandable rationale.
Rebellion takes a commitment that few find themselves capable of. There is more to dissent than merely having a contrary position, and when most people learn of the practical parameters that must be met to put your beliefs into action, they suddenly shift their sentiment to a less strident position. That is why those who actually stand up, take the fall, and yet continue with the cause are viewed with such romanticized eyes. Myth is made out of such martyrdom, and it is not hard to understand why. Someone willing to be punished for their positions, able to accept the outcome, whatever it may be, for an ethical, moral or political policy is a unique and unusual individual.
But in reality, what makes the reactionary and the agitator that much different than us? After all, we stand up for ourselves all the time. We're just not willing to take the bigger step, into the arena of activism where our powers of protest and persuasion are actually graded. We have the capability of commitment, the aptitude toward an agenda or a bias. It's just the action verb we're missing. According to famed French New Wave director Jean-Luc Godard and his collaborator Jean-Pierre Gorin, all it takes is a little awareness and a great deal of acknowledgement to get us going. In their 1972 meditation on politics, both personal and social Tout Va Bien (translation: "Everything Is Fine"), the filmmakers want to remind individuals of the power contained inside each and every one of us. Too bad they make their point in such a peculiar, perplexing manner. Tout Va Bien is not a simple film to appreciate—and it is even more unsettling as a cinematic experience.
Facts of the Case
Jacques and Suzanne are a couple living in France. He is a native, and a filmmaker who now directs commercials. She is an American and a reporter working for an international wire service. When a trip to a local sausage factory goes awry, they find themselves hostages during a wildcat strike. Over the course of the two days they are there, they witness the bourgeois treatment by management, scoff at the paralyzing power struggle of the union officials, and hear the calm concerns of the angry workforce. When they are finally released, the experience causes them to reflect on their own lives and careers. Jacques decides to give up his empty life in advertising and return to his first passion—making art films. Suzanne finds the editorial position of her newsroom stifling, and heads out for one last big story before she resigns. But the question remains—what will become of them? What will become of their relationship? Is it salvageable? Or are they doomed to grow as individuals, but wither and die as a partnership?
Tout Va Bien is a supremely frustrating experience, a film that incessantly plays with the conventions of cinema while it hopes to simultaneously say something salient about the state of the world. It's a movie about relationships that spends little time with its featured couple, a story of politics that fails to focus on the foundations of its diatribes. It wants to attack the same consumerism it embraces, disconnect from the disputes it needs to champion and never lets us forget that filmmaking, from its inception to its end, is all artifice in the name of narrative bias. There are elements here of electric genius. There are moments of mind-numbing dullness. And trapped somewhere in the middle is the magnificent Yves Montand and a fresh from Klute Jane Fonda. Both are required to play lovers lost inside themselves, disconnected from each other and the ever-changing political face of late '60s/early '70s France. The entire package is perplexing and pompous, pleasing some aspects of your intellectual sensibility as it spits on others. This may have been co-directors Jean-Luc Godard and Jean Pierre Gorin's rationale all along. Yet if it is, these incredibly mannered moviemakers aren't offering any clues.
Tout Va Bien is actually told in three "movements," individual sections that are held together by off screen narrators and occasional actor monologues. Part one is all set up, for both the film and the filmmaking. The movie even opens on a series of slates, scene classification and take numbers barked out in random, repetitive fashion. From this moment forward, Godard and Gorin never let us forget that we are watching something being created and shaped, manipulated and made over to fit shifting ideas and competing concerns. Two unseen voices, male and female (the assumption is that Godard is one of them), discuss the basics of plot: the need for a "him" and a "her" as characters, and the requirements of a scenario that they exist in. Of course, these fictional individuals don't fully understand their surroundings, so they must learn to grow. But the plot particulars are argued over, ideas tossed out and aside until all the themes are clear (though Godard and Gorin never really follow through on them) and the lessons to be learned are specifically spelled out. If it was the collaborators' desire to throw their audience off as well, to push them as far away from the familiarities of film as possible, only to draw them back in with the rest of the movie, they surely succeed here. The first 15 minutes or so of Tout Va Bien are so baffling and bewildering that it is impossible to imagine anyone except the most ardent French film buff going through to section two.
In our middle, or otherwise major movement of the movie, Fonda and Montand are accidentally trapped in a sausage factory during a strike. The work stoppage has everyone up in arms, from the shop steward who must report back to the uncaring union to the flippant manager who wants to make sure he gets home to his dinner party. During this amazingly muddled segment, comedy and chaos collide with obvious cinematic set pieces (utilizing a huge, compartmental set where we see what is going on in eight rooms simultaneously as the camera pans back and forth) to try to give us a unique glimpse into all aspects of the worker's plight in a post-1968 France. Indeed, May of '68 is a crucial time for the country's history and for Tout Va Bien's narrative. The sausage factory staff concurrently mock and admire the revolutionary spirit of that important moment in French politics. The reason they are able to strike comes directly from the protests that unsettled the country back then (Tout is set in 1972—or "NOW" as the film keeps telling us), but the changes the resistance fought for now appear half-baked and half-assed.
Godard and Gorin try to show us this with the juxtaposition of fanciful elements (the startling set, the surreal absurdist activities) with a fact-filled conversation between Fonda and some of the workers. At first, we only hear stories of how horrible the conditions are. Then another gang of strikers pulls the jaded journalist aside and tells her the truth. Things are bad, but no one really cares about that facet anymore. It's a given. No, the real story in the processing plant is not the monotony of the stuffing line, or the horrors of the meat cutting room. The real reporting should be about the ability to change, about knowing and acknowledging that, for the first time, you, as a single individual, could overthrow your environment and actually get someone to listen to your problems. The resolution, or lack thereof, is secondary to the struggle.
This appears to be Godard and Gorin's main theme in Tout Va Bien, the realignment of power. The directors want to prove that the capacity to call the shots is all personal, not located in a body politic or an organized movement. The pair does goad both unions and activists in the film, calling out intellectuals who will write the treatises for change, but barely lift a finger to realize said shocks to the system. They link the awakening of human awareness with the decline of physical love, hoping to prove that people only truly relate to one another once their eyes are opened to the inner strength they have and how it affects the world around them. Most of this message comes across in lengthy monologues that make up the final section of the film. After they have been released from the factory and return to their daily lives, both Fonda and Montand have a kind of epiphany, a moment of mental clarity when they realize their lives are a lie—or at least the militant aspects of them. That this development of an ethical self comes at the cost of their relationship is no surprise. What happens to the couple at the end is no great shock either. It's all part of Tout Va Bien's beleaguered belief system.
Godard and Gorin demand our attention at this point in the film, giving Montand and Fonda their finest screen time of the entire 95 minutes. Yves's resolve is palpable—he is a man finally rousing from his commercialized, consumer culture dream. As he goes through the motions of his final advertising assignment (he leaves once it's complete to go back to making art films), the realization of time wasted and ideas squandered washes over that classic face in a wonderful performance of subtle shading. Fonda is equally good during her minor breakdown and confessional. In an interesting conceit, Godard and Gorin let Fonda speak her lines in English (she switches between the two languages often in the film) while another female voice talks "over" her, repeating the lines in French. While some might consider this to be a mere technical fluke, it has to be intentional. After all, Fonda speaks in her native tongue at other times and the double dubbing never arrives. No, Godard and Gorin mean this to be a statement, a stylistic way of showing that Fonda's two personas—journalist and intellectual, American and expatriate—are finally starting to merge, to become one within her usually bifurcated brain.
Still, much of this is mere interpretation, since the Godard/Gorin partnership is never going to be totally upfront with their ideas. They want the audience involved, allowing them to see what is and what is not going on in the frame and then to draw their own conclusions. Occasionally, they will step in and redirect the discussion, but foremost, Tout Va Bien is a film about perception, both personal and prosaic. Most of Godard's works have their raison d'etre in the re-evaluation of cinema, the carefully carving away of formula and familiarity to, hopefully, reach some level of deeper truth or purer authenticity. Why he doesn't just go out and make documentaries is a question left for the scholars who pour over his oeuvre. But the truth is that Godard (and Gorin as well, though his career is less documented) is a radical in the truest sense of the word. He does not want to embrace the mainstream, but in turn wants the public to come around to his way of thinking. And the only way they can do that is by opening their eyes and actually starting to "see" the world around them. Perception is a big deal for the director, not only in its literal term (how one actually witnesses things) but also in its more esoteric form (how we come to consider things). It is a sentiment he and Gorin will repeat numerous times in the film.
But it's not good enough just to view and comprehend the circumstances and conditions around you; you must also understand them. Godard and Gorin make it very clear that you must get beneath the surface (i.e., the superficial) and uncover that which is most important, the core value or validity of situations as they present themselves. The middle section of the film is draped in this design, a constant bombardment of images that asks us, the audience (along with Fonda and Montand, naturally) to see and to recognize the ramifications. What do all the bloody smocks signify? The application of fresh blue paint on all the walls (and the framed photographs as well) or the tug of war over bathroom breaks? Is the factory footage supposed to enrage us, or clarify our appreciation? Bit by bit, as we experience the visuals and the manner in which the collaborators supply them (repeating shots, replaying scenes from different angles), we build up a catalog of comprehension, a wealth of data that helps us decipher the director's devious designs. By the time we move to the final aspect of the narrative, we are ready to be presented with the final piece of the perception/understanding puzzle.
Indeed, the last important component of Tout Va Bien is the notion of commitment. Godard and Gorin state that foresight and knowledge are nothing without a desire to put them into play, to take what you've seen and learned and make a difference with it. The notion of commitment is the strongest political statement Godard and Gorin make throughout Tout Va Bien, though they never really step up onto a soapbox and blast it from the heavens. No, their approach is far more fragmented, and therefore exasperating. After all the monologues and student demonstration flashbacks, after the dinner table confessionals and tear gas tossing police raids, the directors are still so determined to beat us over the head with their message that they stage what has to be one of the most surreal, serene and strange sequences ever to be part of a philosophical epistle. Fonda finds herself in a grocery store, covering a Communist party member who is selling copies of his manifesto at a discounted price. As an endless line of shoppers remove an amazingly similar selection of items from their carts, and as the cashiers rattle off the prices on the register like muted machine gun fire, Godard and Gorin's lens slowly tracks back and forth, picking up pieces of conversation, making sure we notice the oddity of this state of affairs.
Suddenly, a group of students enters the store and starts causing trouble. In Godard and Gorin's eyes, they are the freeing element of society, the committed members out to question authority and drop it down the required levels. As Fonda silently surveys the events, scribbling notes and thinking about her future, the director's propose starts to show through. At this grassroots level, at the "uprising in the frozen foods facet" of rebellion, everyone can play a part. There is more to the world of wrongs than wars and working conditions, according to Godard and Gorin. Oppression comes in all forms, from the price of oranges to the way in which movies are made. Freedom only comes from actual liberty, consequences be damned. Such is the personal power that everyone has in them. Such is the sentiment that runs inside everything about Tout Va Bien.
It's just too bad then that such a sensational point gets misplaced inside Godard and Gorin's continuing desire to destroy cinema. You can hardly fault the actors. Both Montand and Fonda are given very little to do here, required to be more reactionary than active in the jumbled plot points pivoting around them. As stated before, it is only when offering their insights directly to the camera, soliloquy style, that they get a chance to shine. No, the true stars of the show here are Godard and Gorin, directors who refuse to stay behind the lens, static and sentient. In some ways, you wish this original peripatetic performance artist and his pal would just drop all the drama and get in front of the camera themselves. Their movie is so iconoclastic, so completely of their own construction that it's hard to separate the film from its makers. Tout Va Bien occasionally plays like pages from a madman's measured notebook, and the results are never very fun. While the movie does engage us on certain levels, it never completely wins us over either. We are stuck in a strange kind of logistical limbo, wondering what to make of the nattering narrative and flagrant flourishes being bandied about on screen. And while that may be good for late night conversations over too many cups of strong coffee and several packs of cigarettes, it doesn't necessarily make for entertainment.
So Tout Va Bien will either be an eye-opening or a mind-narrowing experience for you. Either you'll sync up with Godard and Gorin's designs, herald their halting histrionics as yet another work of cinematic genius, or you will roll your eyes in none too subtle disbelief that you traveled so far and held on for so long for so very, very little. There are probably untold parallels to the events of the early '70s that we, a new millennium audience, fail to connect with. Perhaps viewed alongside the rest of his filmography, this movie stands up to the scattershot scrutiny. Or maybe Godard simply speaks a moviemaking language that we've long forgotten how to listen to. There is no doubt however that this is all artifice for artifice's sake, and as such, Tout Va Bien ends up being a bit of a letdown. It is equally ingratiating and irritating and never really gets to its precise point. But as long as you get something out of the screening, Godard and Gorin will be happy. After all, they have made their movie to open up those closed entrances of personal enlightenment. And if it does nothing else, Tout Va Bien gives us the perception and the perspective we need to walk on through.
Nothing is more important to Godard than how his movies look, and how they are presented to an audience. One imagines that the director would be delighted with how Criterion recreates Tout Va Bien for the digital domain. The DVD presentation is pristine, with a beautiful 1.66:1 anamorphic widescreen image at the center. The colors are sharp and suggestive, the details crisp and clean. Even through all of the directors' mixed media ideas, shifting shot selections, and soundstage/location logistics, the print is flawless. The one thing Criterion can be counted on for is to give us the best-looking transfer they can create, and the magnificent look to Tout Va Bien is no exception.
Sound is another equally important aspect to Godard's modus operandi, and once again, Criterion does not fail him. While it's hard to get a made-in-the-'70s mono track to sound anything other than flat and lifeless, the Dolby Digital treatment here seems to actually open up the aural elements a bit. Especially in the final act, where Godard and Gorin play with the voice-overs and the recorded dialogue, the sonic situation is excellent. While the musical scoring is more or less minimal and the other ambient elements are firmly in check, the pioneers of preservation still manage a bit of mood with their digital updating of this title.
Proving once again that they have an uncanny ability to flesh out even the most obscure motion picture, Criterion provides three very different and very telling bonus features for this release. Each one complements and supplements the context of Tout Va Bien, while also providing insight into the individuals responsible for the film. The biggest bonus is the 52-minute short from Godard and Gorin entitled Letter to Jane. More or less a cinematic reflection on a now-famous photograph of Fonda speaking to some members of the Vietcong during a trip to Hanoi, Godard and Gorin offer a lengthy, wordy discourse about how viewing the photo without understanding its motives both hinders and helps the cause of revolution. Using interesting analogies to silent film, a overwhelming dose of diffused rhetoric, and enough cyclical logic to get one's head good and spinning, the filmmakers propose that by learning how to "see" this photo, we can gain a greater appreciation of Tout Va Bien and the role of the intellectual in political change, in general. It may be a message—and a movie—that provides more confusion than clarity for the vast majority of those who watch it. And it is actually more of a lecture than a "letter."
More enlightening, and easier to digest, are the interviews conducted with Godard (from a mid-'70s documentary) and with Gorin (from a recent Q&A). Both men have a definite way with words, but while Godard focuses on the esoteric, Gorin gives us the pragmatic. He discusses how he came to collaborate with the great French innovator, what the real purpose of Tout Va Bien was, and how successful he feels they made the message. Amiable and just a little boastful, he gives a much more personal face to the production than his partner in crime. Godard, unshaven and dressed in a bathrobe, is all pontifications and pronouncements, making his points in salient, simple ways, only to go back and reconfigure them with the next sentence. Almost as if he is working out the logistics of his lamentations as he speaks them, Godard is at once very approachable and far more distant than he ever was. His statements about Tout Va Bien clarify the film's basic intent. But once he gets into the meat of his meaning, the conversation clouds a little. Indeed, all three extras here have an equal power to persuade and confuse—just like the movie they are supporting.
Our final added feature is a hefty 40-page booklet that offers a striking assortment of critical and informational material. Inside, there is analysis of the film from a post-millennial standpoint, a discussion of May '68 and how it affected France, a revisionist look at Letter to Jane, and an interview with Godard and Gorin from 1973. Together, they paint a marvelously dense and detailed portrait of Tout Va Bien, the timeframe in which it was made, the men who made it, and its lasting impact.
Fascinating…flawed…fervent…and ultimately failing to live up to its intentions, Tout Va Bien must be viewed as the slightest of successes. Godard and Gorin do catch us off guard and make us pay for being stuck in a certain motion picture mindset. They also play too many games with the plotting, and try to trick us over and over again with the constantly complicated camerawork. Formless and constricted, experimental and exasperating, it is recommended for anyone willing to take the time to try to get beneath its celluloid exterior. Like the individual who will take up pickets and protest a cause they believe in, even to their own detriment, Godard and Gorin only want open-minded, perceptive audiences to view and appreciate their work. They are just like the frightened masses that they harangue, claiming to be revolutionaries, but really only wanting to preach to the converted within their own weird world of anti-filmmaking. Perhaps Godard and Gorin are just like everyone else—committed on the inside, unable to stridently support everything they believe in on the outside. Maybe that is why they, and their film, hide behind so many convolutions and conundrums. Tout Va Bien is not a bad movie, just a wildly uneven and unnerving one. It will take a commitment on your part just to wade through all of its volatile variants.
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• Letter To Jane: Jean-Luc Godard And Jean-Pierre Gorin's Postscript Film To Tout Va Bien
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