Jean-Luc Godard may well be one of the truly great French filmmakers, but this latest offering from Academy Award-winning director Michael Hazanavicius (The Artist) focuses not on Godard’s screen legacy, but rather on his political activism in the late ‘60’s. Far from being reverential in its depictions of the protagonist, the film paints Godard as an asshole of epic proportions. As portrayed by Louis Garrel, Godard is rude and disrespectful to everybody he meets, including Anne, the teenage actress that Godard marries and from whose novel the film has been adapted. Given the source material, obviously the course of events is being told from the perspective of somebody who may have an axe to grind which, if the behaviours attributed to Godard here are in any way accurate, is easy enough to understand.
As a pre-eminent figure in the New Wave movement, Godard is responsible for some of the most acclaimed films to emerge from France in the 1950’s and 1960’s. With works such as Breathless, Contempt and Alphaville, Godard had established himself as a highly innovative, and somewhat cynical, filmmaker with contempt for established methods of narrative and production. When we meet him here, his recently completed La Chinoisi, starring 19-year-old Anne Wiazemsky (Stacy Martin), has been met with a distinct lack of enthusiasm from critics and, mired in self-doubt, Godard rails against the very people who lionised him. It is 1968 and the streets of Paris are awash with hundreds of thousands of people protesting the government of Charles de Gaulle, a movement that brought the French economy to a virtual halt in the wake of general strikes and the occupation of factories and university campuses. It was a tumultuous time and 37-year-old Godard joins the protests, speaking at packed meetings desperate to prove himself a radical, a plan that backfires and results in the students mocking him. Interestingly, Godard’s famous disruption of the 1968 Cannes Film Festival – perhaps his most successful act of subversion – is given short shrift by Hazanavicius.
Throughout this unraveling of his career and reputation, Anne remains loyally at his side, enduring the increasingly boorish, jealous and nihilistic behaviour that alienated Godard from fans, friends and fellow filmmakers. When Anne is offered a movie role, Godard demands she refuse because there are nude scenes, although his objections are more to do with his jealousy than any concern for Anne. A subsequent discussion between the two on the subject of film nudity is one of several amusing moments that make the film a largely enjoyable experience despite a lead character who, whilst a gifted filmmaker, is utterly devoid of charm. A recurring series of mishaps with Godard’s glasses is also particularly funny, while the most successful sequence is a sustained argument between Godard and five other passengers crammed into a small car travelling back to Paris from Cannes in the wake of the cancelled festival. This scene presents Godard at his arrogant, narcissistic best (or worst?) and the fury and frustration of those confined with him is palpable.
Every bit as mesmerising in her beauty as the women who populated Godard’s films, such as the likes of Brigitte Bardot and Jean Seberg, Martin (who featured in Nymphomaniac and High-Rise) is a delight as Anne, a young woman whose love and admiration for her husband quickly diminishes as she finds herself disregarded, ignored and taken for granted by a man who was undeniably talented, but utterly self-absorbed and insufferable. So delightful in The Artist, Bérénice Bejo features here as one of Godard’s long-suffering friends and, whilst Hazanavicius is unsentimental about the ugly, charmless side to the man, the film is littered with disorienting visual, sonic and editing tricks associated with Godard, creating a pastiche that is, for the most part, very well executed and extremely entertaining, although perhaps hardcore Godard fans might think otherwise.