Godard The Essential Selection

Studiocanal have released a five film Blu-ray boxset featured some of Jean-Luc Godard’s iconic early work such as Breathless, A Woman is a Woman, Contempt, Alphaville and Pierrot le Fou

One of the pillars of French , director Jean-Luc Godard helped transform conventions of European and world cinema.

Along with former critics and movie obsessives at Cahiers du Cinema, such as Francois Truffaut and Claude Chabrol, after a series of shorts, he made the leap into directing features.

With techniques such as shooting on location, jump cutting, and breaking the fourth wall, he presented characters with a bold freshness that had an immediate impact on French and global cinema.

The five films presented in this set span a period of great change in the world from 1960 to 1965 (looser sexual attitudes, youthful rebellion, nuclear tensions), which was the most exciting and memorable of Godard’s career.


So much has been written about his landmark debut Breathless (1960) – the french translation is À bout de souffle meaning ‘out of breath’ – that it is hard to find something new to say.

The story of two lovers on the run (Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg) is a familiar one – e.g. Bonnie and Clyde (1967) or Badlands (1973) – but Godard brings a delightfully spontaneity to it here.

The influence on a later generation of filmmakers was the way it defiantly broke conservative ideas of a ‘well made film’, thus sending a message that it was OK to shatter those notions in the way that Citizen Kane (1941) had done before it.

For newcomers, look out for the loose narrative structure, use of locations, radical editing and perhaps have a listen to my 2010 interview with Pierre Rissient, who was an assistant director on the film.

Extras:

• Introduction by Colin McCabe (5 min)
• Godard, Made in USA (51 min)
• Room 12. Hotel de suede (79 min)
• Jean-Luc according to Luc (8 min)
• Jefferson Hack Interview (8 min)
• Tempo Godard Episode (17 min)
• Jean Seberg Featurette (12 min)
• Trailer (3 min)
• Posters


His next feature, A Woman Is a Woman (1961) – or Une femme est une femme – was a very different story, but told with equal verve and panache. If US gangster films inspired his debut, then this was a vibrant homage to the US musical.

The story involves a love triangle between a dancer (Anna Karina), her lover (Jean-Claude Brialy) and his best friend Alfred (Jean-Paul Belmondo).

Shot in glorious colour and widescreen by his regular DP Raoul Coutard, it embodies the playful side of Godard, with frequent bursts of music, stares at the audience and even a reference to Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player (1960).

Yet there is a slight melancholy here, perhaps reflected by his private personal worries over Karina, which foreshadows some of his later work.

Extras:

• Anna Karina interview
• Introduction by Colin McCabe (4 min)
• Photo Gallery
• Posters


The third film in this collection is Contempt (1963), where he managed to double-down on his earlier innovations and embrace a post-modern narrative of a film within a film.

Godard’s outer story is of a screenwriter (Paul Javal) married to a glamorous actress (Brigitte Bardot) and his troubles working on a film version of Homer’s The Odyssey, with a famed director (Fritz Lang) and a Hollywood producer (Jack Palance).

The screenwriter’s personal and professional meltdown on-screen also seemed to reveal Godard’s life off of it, with his wife Karina (not in the film) and U.S. producer Joseph E. Levine.

Although frequently gorgeous to look at, with some iconic images, there is something of a sour quality to it, which suggests that the French auteur was gradually losing faith in the American cinema he adored as younger man.

Extras:

• Introduction with Colin McCabe (6 min)
• Once Upon A Time There Was… Contempt (53 min)
• Contempt…tenderly (32 min)
• The dinosaurs and the baby (61 min)
• Conversation with Fritz Lang (15 min)
• Trailer (3 min)


In 1965 Godard made two films which both represent his further disillusionment with mainstream cinema and the wider world, which reeling from the JFK assassination, the Vietnam War and the threat of nuclear annihilation.

The dystopian sci-fi setting of Alphaville (1965) may have seemed an unlikely one for Godard, but it was perfect. He broke new ground, but also returned to his love of US crime dramas. Think of Blade Runner (1982) shot in black and white on a lower budget.

A perfectly cast Eddie Constantine plays a detective trying to find a missing agent and to destroy the central computer that is controlling the population of Alphaville (which includes the perennial Anna Karina) under a totalitarian system.

It is possibly his most daring film thematically, with small details indicating a distrust of right and left ideologies of the Cold War and how the tools built by man can lead to self-destruction. Note the clever art direction and Raoul Coutard’s stunning black and white photography.

Extras:

• Anna Karina interview
• Introduction by Colin McCabe (5 min)
• Posters
• Trailer


The fifth and final film of this box set is Pierrot le Fou (1965), which offers a similarly bleak view of the world, except this is a virtual remake of Breathless in glorious colour with Belmondo and Karina playing a couple on the run.

Given his status in world cinema by this time, one could sense his desire to break free from the shackles of the French new wave. When Belmondo’s character leaves a stifling dinner party to go on the run with his nanny, we may suspect where this tale is heading.

Except that we don’t really – whereas the lovers in Breathless went out of Paris and back again, here the couple exit Paris for a more nihilistic journey down South.

Paradoxically, this is Godard’s most visually ravishing film filled with dazzling colours that counterpoint the unpredictable behaviour of its characters.

Like in Contempt, Godard seems attracted to the dazzle of Hollywood filmmaking and simultaneously repulsed by the nation that gave birth to it: a report from Vietnam is heard on the car radio, Belmondo openly mocks US sailors on the beach.

The visual beauty of Southern France is cleverly juxtaposed with the inner emotional torment of the leads, as the offscreen hell of colonial wars in South-East Asia rumble on. (Remember that France was the original colonial power in Vietnam before the US arrived).

All this points to a gradual shift in his career as he embraced more explicitly political filmmaking with Weekend (1967) and Wind from the East (1969). Perhaps his work was always tinged with politics, yet Pierret le Fou seem to mark the end of his early phase.

It was just the first chapter of a remarkable career which still hasn’t ended, with his last feature Goodbye to Language (2014) premiering at Cannes two years ago. However despite his prolific career, he never quite recaptured the magic of these early films.

The new Studiocanal Blu-ray box set presents these classic films in a neat bundle, whilst the BFI Southbank in London is hosting a Godard season until March 16th and Le Mepris will have an extended run in selected UK cinemas.

> Buy the Godard Essential Selection on Blu-ray from Amazon UK
> Find out more about Jean-Luc Godard at Wikipedia

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The Angry Silence (1960)

Early 1960s industrial strife forms the backdrop for this British drama, the first film from a production company formed by Richard Attenborough and Bryan Forbes.

Early 1960s industrial strife forms the backdrop for this British drama, which was the first film a production company formed by Richard Attenborough and Bryan Forbes.

Set in a fictionalised town it portrays the dilemma of a factory worker (Attenborough) belonging to a unionised workforce who gradually comes to doubt his union bosses and later comes into conflict with them when some members start harassing his wife (Pier Angeli) and family.

The film has an interesting approach to the issue of UK labour relations, pitting a protagonist in between his family and his fellow workers engaging in a wildcat strike.

As the narrative progresses some would argue that the story is somewhat lopsided against the strikers, but for a British film of this period to tackle such issues was bold, even if at times it resembles a poor mans On the Waterfront (1954) – still the gold-plated classic of this sub-genre.

From a contemporary view – where union power has become greatly reduced – this film may look a little bizarre, even offensive to some – but as a certain story, set in a specific time, it is perhaps wiser to acknowledge the historical context.

Indeed, as fully paid members of film industry unions the makers of this film would have known all to well the value of not being at the mercy of studio bosses.

Themes aside, the technical qualities of this film are what you might expect of the era: consistent shooting style, and slightly overcooked dialogue and acting.

The director Guy Green was a fine cinematographer for two classic David Lean films – Great Expectations (1946) and Oliver Twist (1948) – but he was less skilled in the director’s chair going on to make films like the poorly received The Magus (1968) and The Devil’s Advocate (1977).

Despite being less than a classic, it remains an interesting curiosity for those interested in a lesser known example of the British new wave of the 1960s.

> Buy The Angry Silence at Amazon UK
> Find out more about British New Wave Cinema at Wikipedia

The Captive Heart (1946)

Set in a German POW camp for British soldiers this drama stars Michael Redgrave as a Czech agent, who assumes the identity of a deceased British officer to avoid the Nazis.

Set in a German POW camp for British soldiers this drama stars Michael Redgrave as a Czech agent, who assumes the identity of a deceased British officer to avoid the Nazis.

Director Basil Dearden was a prolific figure in pre and post-war British cinema at Ealing Studios, co-directing comedies films like The Goose Steps Out (1942), influential horror anthology Dead of Night (1945) and The Blue Lamp (1950) – the latter spawning PC George Dixon of TVs ‘Dixon of Dock Green’.

Although a prolific figure in British and international cinema – with films such as Khartoum (1966) – he had his detractors, including David Thomson who wrote in his New Biographical Dictionary of Film:

“His films are decent, empty, and plodding and his association with Michael Relph is a fair representative of the British preference for bureaucratic cinema.”

There is some truth to this, and it can even be detected in a serious war drama like The Captive Heart. The stilted upper class speech of officers and the borderline comic cockney tones of infantrymen are all here in abundance.

Despite this, it is still worth seeing.

The original purpose may have been to ease British audiences back to normality, but its depiction of a blinded soldier (Gordon Jackson) and the complex nature of Michael Redgrave’s character do still resonate in this era of wounded veterans fresh from wars in the Middle East.

Another curious parallel is that the central conceit of the film is strikingly similar to a key plot element of TV modern classic Mad Men (2007-2015) – that of a major character posing as another man who died during World War II.

Other elements of interest include its release right after the war and use of actual prisoner of war camps in Germany. One of these was near Westertimke, which had remained largely intact after the end of the conflict.

Produced by the legendary Carl Foreman, it ultimately remains a standard issue World Two melodrama, not great but not too bad either.

> The Captive Heart on Blu-ray and DVD at Amazon UK
> More about Basil Dearden at Wikipedia