Jean-Luc Godard’s amour fouBy: Alonso Díaz de la Vega @diazdelavega1
Is it an excuse for his cinematic experimentation or the personal theme of his work? It’s hard to know if love is one, the other or both, with a director as hermetic as Jean-Luc Godard. In his foremost decade, the 60’s, many of his films told love stories that one might call irredeemably simple —if it weren’t for the radically new way in which they’re told, that is—: a man knows —or he thinks he knows— a woman, he spends a few hours, a few days or a few years of romantic exile by her side and at some point he ends up betrayed by that mystery he never managed to solve. That’s what Breathless (1960), Godard’s first feature film, is about.
The picture is a renewal of film noir conventions and of cinematic narrative in general. In Breathless we find a crime story in which a car thief seals his fate when he kills a policeman. Afterwards he spends the whole day with a beautiful woman he loves but who ends up betraying him. It’s a similar pattern to that of Double Indemnity (1944, dir. Billy Wilder), but here it’s the femme fatale —a film noir convention— who destroys the protagonist and, more importantly: Wilder’s suspense disappears in Godard’s vision. Here time flows in such an organic way that it seems to simulate a documentary. Everything gives the impression of being a formalist decision in an attempt to destroy cinema and rebuild it with renewals in even the most trivial details.
Yet the theme of a disastrous relationship between a man and a woman would recur in films like A Woman is a Woman (1961), Contempt (1963), Le petit soldat (1963), and Pierrot le fou (1965). Love, Godard seems to suggest, is tragic, even though in A Woman is a Woman disillusion is expressed in a jolly manner. Throughout the film the protagonist, played by Anna Karina, who would marry Godard in March 1961, manipulates a couple of men who compete for her affection. In the end the characters speak a wordplay that’s hard to translate: “You are vile (infâme)”, one of her lovers tells her. She answers that she’s actually a woman (une femme).
In the other films betrayal is bitter and it seems to indicate no longer an element of film noir but a personal emphasis. This is more obvious in Pierrot le fou. There’s a scene where we see a close-up of the protagonist’s diary. The handwriting is Godard’s. Marianne, his partner, is played by Karina, whom Godard divorced in 1964, that is, before shooting the film. With Godard’s obsession for his work, a miscarriage and an instance of infidelity, their relationship had worn out since 1961. Godard left shades of their history in the films they made together.
Perhaps the most moving track of their relationship is the one left in Alphaville (1965), in which, once again, Karina plays the protagonist’s love interest. Her character, who claims to have been born in a place dominated by a computer, ignores the meaning of the word “love”. She’s a human being without emotions who ends up discovering in her individuality the only way to survive a cataclysm that destroys the other inhabitants of Alphaville. In one of many close-ups of Karina’s face in her filmography with Godard, she says at last, in an effort which scales into revelation: Je vous aime. I love you. It’s hard to know what both of them were thinking of when shooting but the emotion is so genuine that it transcends Godard’s typical artificiality. It’s an instant of humanity which suggests a couple struggling to hold their love, even if it’s only in a piece of celluloid.