Review: Godard by Colin MacCabe

Stuart Jeffries on Colin MacCabe's not always flattering picture of Godard

Godard: A Portrait of the Artist at 70
by Colin MacCabe
432pp, Bloomsbury, £25

One day in 1980, shooting finished early on Jean-Luc Godard's film Sauve Qui Peut. But the crew didn't get to go home. Instead Godard rounded them up to hear a monologue on his thesis that the way films were financed meant that one never had time to reflect properly on what one was doing. "It remains to this day the best single analysis that I have ever heard of what one might term the labour process of the film industry," writes Colin MacCabe, who was attending the shoot. "But it was far from being a bullet-point presentation. Ellipses were followed by digressions to the point that one became embarrassingly convinced at times that these were psychotic ramblings."

Worse yet, the crew was expected to join in with this discourse, though as they were all in awe of the great film-maker, they could not do so. "If there should be no doubting his desire to work collectively," writes MacCabe, "there can also be no doubt that the terms Godard set for collective work were entirely personal."

I love this story, and not just because for once even Godard's admirer MacCabe is obliged to inject some dissent into the hagiography. It dramatises so well the pathos of the politically committed avant-garde artist, forever doomed to be disappointed by the recalcitrance of everybody else and writhing noisily in capitalism's shackles. It also shows the wannabe collective worker un-done by his celebrity. Why didn't he just let them go home? How can there be justifiable personal terms for collective work if only one man's personal terms are considered? It's difficult to think of Godard here as anything other than an egotistical hypocrite.

That description, though, would be better than what François Truffaut called his old friend a few years earlier. Godard had written to him asking for money to make a new film. "You ought to help me," he wrote, "so that the public doesn't get the idea that we all make films like you." Truffaut wrote back with a 20-page letter, his pencil digging deeply into the page. He later suggested a title for Godard's film autobiography: "A shit is a shit." The men were never reconciled: when Godard heard of Truffaut's death of a brain tumour in 1984, he said: "That's what happens when you read so many bad books."

Jean-Luc Godard was born in 1931 to Protestant parents in Paris, but brought up mostly in Switzerland. Young Jean-Luc was an inveterate thief whose father persuaded him to go to a mental hospital for therapy. But that did not stop him. Godard fell into family disgrace for the theft of his grandfather's first editions of Valéry, personally inscribed by the poet. Godard sold them at a bookshop near his bibliophile grandfather's home, so he got fingered fast. Traditional psychology might see these thefts as desire to be caught and/or punished; it might well also see the fact that he carried a razor blade in his wallet in case he wanted to commit suicide as the sign of the infantile narcissist.

But MacCabe regards the thefts as a reaction against familial Protestant stinginess, and he may well be right. "What I wanted," wrote Godard, "was money and the power to spend it as I liked. And that has been my principal effort in the cinema." All this throws profound light on many things - not least Godard's sense that cinema is an occupied country, one in which American capital has stationed tanks at key points of the film industry stopping him from doing what he wants as freely as he would like.

Consideration of Godard's Swiss Protestant family history takes us into a fascinating excursus on the history of French religious intolerance. Structuralism, anthropology, copyright laws, the oxymoron of French Maoism and the more abstruse corners of film theory all edifyingly distract us from a narrative that can be sometimes quite racy.

MacCabe doesn't press the links between Godard's cinematic iconoclasm and his Protestant roots too far, but he does make the compelling suggestion that there is a parallel between a Protestant priestly caste and the young guns of the Cahiers du Cinéma magazine, Godard among them, whose love of film was a genuine faith.

By the early 1950s, Godard was estranged from his father and engaged in another Oedipal struggle against the so-called cinéma des papas. And so were the other men who were to become the great directors of the nouvelle vague (Rivette, Rohmer, Truffaut). They symbolically castrated some negligible French directors who they claimed specialised in faithfully adapting novels and were therefore not properly engaged with the potential of the seventh art.

But there was more at stake than symbolic castration. French intellectual orthodoxy suggested that the advent of talkies meant the disappearance of cinema as a universal art form and the rise of philistine Hollywood commercialism. Two of Godard's future heroes stood against this orthodoxy: Henri Langlois, who not only archived the classics of silent cinema but also proselytised in favour of great Hollywood films, and André Bazin, the great cinema critic who contended that the task of the artist was to render reality in all its contradictions rather than mould it into an externally determined model (the French communist party hated him for that). Love of the best of Hollywood (Hawks, Hitchcock, Ford, Welles) combined with a rejection of the Communist party insistence that American films were necessarily degraded to form the magazine's iconoclastic ethos.

Godard moved swiftly from that eunuch's pastime, film criticism, to film-making, which MacCabe suggests is a plot by unprepossessing and sex-obsessed men to surround themselves with beautiful women - and perhaps to get them to act out their fantasies. Jean Seberg, Brigitte Bardot, Anna Karina, Anna Wiazemsky - Godard filled his films with beautiful women, the last two of whom he married. It's difficult, even when one watches Wiazemsky in Godard's Maoist film La Chinoise, not to see these women as wish fulfilments, Pygmalions to his Galatea. In La Chinoise, Godard fed Wiazemsky her lines through an earpiece, breathing his words through her mouth.

MacCabe is a good guide through Godard's long and complex creative evolution, particularly through the aesthetico-ideological thickets of the Dziga-Vertov group in the late 60s. "All the films are in some simple sense unwatchable," he writes of the work that Godard made in this period.

Dismissive viewers may find this observation true of many of the films and TV works Godard has made in the past 30 years with his wife Anne-Marie Miéville, but not MacCabe. He is helpful here in encouraging us to appreciate these films, and better in chronicling Godard's gradual maturing from a film-maker snarlingly obsessed with violence (the terrorist murder in La Chinoise, the self-detonating Belmondo in Pierrot Le Fou, the cannibalism of Weekend), as well as one capable of cinematic misogyny, and fond of po-faced sloganising, to a man who learned from his feminist collaborator that the domestic space, the family, is the proper starting point for any politics.

At the end of the book we find MacCabe acknowledging that 20th-century efforts to link avant-garde art to progressive politics have been dismal failures, Godard's included. Cinema has not changed the world, at least not for the better. All that remains for Godard is individual witness: collective work, presumably, being belatedly recognised as a delusion. Godard claimed recently that he now makes films for 100,000 friends around the world who can appreciate his difficult work. For those of us hoping Godard will make a snarlingly self-serving autobiographical blockbuster called A Shit is a Shit any time soon, this is disappointing news.

· Stuart Jeffries's Mrs Slocombe's Pussy; Growing Up in Front of the Telly is published by Flamingo.


Stuart Jeffries

The GuardianTramp

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