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French Auteurs: Clouzot & Godard

As part of the 26th edition of the French Film Festival UK, two classic auteurs returned to our screens, with a beautiful 4K remaster of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s forgotten LA VERITE (1960), and Jean-Luc Godard’s “Special Palme D’Or”-winning THE IMAGE BOOK (2018).

LA VERITE stars Brigitte Bardot, in one of her more complex performances as “free spirit” Dominique – a young woman on trial for the murder of her lover Gilbert, played by Sami Frey (“the one who looks like Kafka” from BANDE A PART). They are joined by Clouzot stalwarts Paul Meurisse (LES DIABOLIQUES) and Charles Vanel (THE WAGES OF FEAR, LES DIABOLIQUES, and later LA PRISONNIERE) as lawyers on their respective sides of the court proceedings.

Excepting THE WAGES OF FEAR, those familiar with Clouzot’s work may find this an interesting diversion from his usual narrative locales. As we begin with Dominique’s trial, Clouzot seeks to literally trace the transition from the old world (the courtroom, Dominique’s family home) to the new (the bustling streets, cafes and garrets of Parisian bohemia). Next to portraying a normalisation of casual sex through Bardot’s free-wheeling club waitress, the film is notable for its on-location shooting of Montmartre and other nooks and crannies, lending a certain verity to narrative proceedings not present before in Clouzot’s high-concept, set-based revenge dramas. As his career began to wane with the rise of the Nouvelle Vague, it seems he wanted to take a passing glimpse of a world that sought to reject him. In Bardot’s own words, he was “a negative being, forever at odds with himself and others around him.”

The film loses itself at times, particularly in the latter sections of the second act, as Dominique’s relationship with Gilbert and her personal finances deteriorate, and the balance between flashbacks and courtroom fireworks is not always there. These flaws add up to the feeling of a stretched-out melodrama, more so than the tight narrative structure and development of LE CORBEAU and LES DIABOLIQUES, which could consistently keep their existential concerns in focus. Likewise, in the context of how Truffaut or Varda were portraying the city at the time, Clouzot’s language of suspense falls short here, creating an awkward disconnect between stylistic perfection and the chaotic buzz of the street life.

He reveals the truth […], none left unscathed by Clouzot’s moralistic eye.

However, though not aligned with the complexity and imaginative qualities of RASHOMON or the subsequent LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD, the film’s philosophical pursuit of putting truth itself on trial is fascinating to witness, especially in our current predicament. He reveals the truth to be a complex system of perceptions and social constructions, recounted through a panoply of different characters, none left unscathed by Clouzot’s moralistic eye. His indictment of Dominique’s guilt extends to everyone around her – an omniscience of judgement that only a postwar noir director can detail.

The film proved to be one of Clouzot’s successes, with press and public alike, partially through the notoriety of Bardot and Frey’s off-set dramatics, and won Best Foreign Language Film at the 1961 Golden Globes. Though he encountered periods of contempt in the immediate postwar zeitgeist, Clouzot’s output has been consistently re-affirmed as an influential body of work by the likes of William Friedkin and Serge Bromberg. In LA VERITE, we have the testament of his struggle to find artistic legitimacy from audience and peers.

Moving on, we have one of the “free spirits” who rejected the postwar classicism of someone like Clouzot – Jean-Luc Godard, at 87 years old, still packing the radicalist punch of his youth with THE IMAGE BOOK. Ostensibly a protracted video essay, the film compiles a series of classic film clips and real-life footage, and contextualises them under his scabrous and introspective narration, concocting a thesis which suggests the loss of cinema’s ability to transform our political thinking.

By this token, Godard now situates himself as some kind of hip-hop artist…

UN CHIEN ANDALOU, KISS ME DEADLY, JOHNNY GUITAR, SALO, VERTIGO, L’ATALANTE, ROME OPEN CITY, GERMANY YEAR ZERO, LA STRADA, FREAKS, DIARY OF A COUNTRY PRIEST, THE TRIAL OF JOAN OF ARC, ELEPHANT, ARABIAN NIGHTS… just some of the films that populate the montage, supplemented by sequences of original footage, especially from the Middle East, along with CCTV and Internet videos depicting violent scenes, and occasional snippets from Godard’s own filmography, including the preceding GOODBYE TO LANGUAGE. By this token, Godard now situates himself as some kind of hip-hop artist, directly embracing the approach of a radical remix -> remake -> RIM(AK)E (actual captions from the film), beginning with the image of his elderly hands unspooling a film print and clipping a safety pin to a frame – his own blade across the moonface.

But at the heart of it, the film represents a tragic personal culmination for this innovator. Recurrently, the letterbox ratio of his selected film clips are retuned to 16:9 right before our eyes, dispelling the wide cinematic frame for something altogether televisual. More pressingly, distortion marks the editing approach, with images (re)composed of saturated tones, abundant pixels, and unnatural heat signatures – an apocalypse of the image. He’s lost faith in the image as a tool for change, movement, revolution. But they clearly keep running through his head – these films of old – and THE IMAGE BOOK demonstrates the doomed attempt to reconstitute and restore the magic and immediacy of images (Will Self, are you watching?). Godard has traded in this type of discourse before, at the start of his career in fact. But to find him so lost now, and to find that art can no longer provide some kind of salvation in turbulent times, are two horrifying prospects.

The film is testy for sure; an extended foray into Middle-Eastern politics doesn’t add up to much, and the subtitling issues from FILM SOCIALISME return every so often (though if images are to triumph over language, is this not the point?). But there is a relief of sorts, and it’s two-fold. Despite his age, Godard’s filter hasn’t dropped and a trace of self-awareness becomes evident by the concluding montage, his voice multiplying into a cacophony of rambling Godards, language all meaningless now, and subsiding into a phlegmatic grumble, with time finally catching up with him.

Moreover, from his own reflections: “Earth abandoned… overloaded with the letters of the alphabet, stifled under the knowledge, and no one listening anymore”. Moments like this, and the final clip from the opening dance sequence of Max Ophul’s LE PLAISIR (fittingly about an older man who wishes to recapture his youth), reach for the melancholy that inevitably hangs over this hectic compilation of chaos and jadedness. In these moments, Godard leaves us there long enough to embrace and get used to it, before violently cutting us out to the cold black.

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