Dislocation and (Mis)communication in Jean-Luc Godard’s Detective (1985)

In the attempt to solve funding problems during the filming of ‘Je vous salue, Marie’ (1985) – a modern account of the Virgin Mary and the Immaculate Conception – Jean-Luc Godard agreed to produce something popular or mainstream. The subsequent film produced was Detective (Dir., Jean-Luc Godard, 1985), a dense, difficult but beautifully shot contemplation on language, dislocation and (mis)communication. The film can hardly be argued to be “mainstream” – Godard interpreted the instruction “a popular film” as one which included famous people (or as he calls them in the credits “stars”) rather than a film which is immediately accessible. Detective’s plot centres around the actions of two hotel detectives who attempt to solve an apparently unmotivated murder of a man called “The Prince”. The film also contains other narratives concerning an ageing Mafioso, a boxing promoter and a couple whose marriage is falling apart.i

One of the central explorations in Godard’s film is the issue of space in a modern, fast-paced world. One of the characters, Emile Chenal, owns a failing air-taxi business flying customers to disparate places in Europe. His wife, who is coming to the realization that their relationship is over, notes that “yesterday Frankfurt, today London”. The hotel that the film is exclusively set in could be of any place anywhere, the rooms are especially without character, and their lives are being spent travelling to different countries has eroded any sense of geographical or spatial grounding or boundary. This lack of discernible geographical location, an eroding or dislocated sense of place, is further evidenced in the film’s shot selection and mise-en-scene. In one of the first shots of the film we are given an obstructed view of the city of Paris. This obstructed view is where we would traditionally be given an exposition shot, a type of shot locating the action within the city or specific area. Instead of this we are shown a stationary camera recording people enter a hotel and a young woman’s legs in front of an iron grill with a teasing hint of location in the far right of the screen. This refusal to disclose the location at the beginning of the narrative immediately places the viewer into a state of unease and confusion paralleling the uncertainty the hotel detectives’ experience over the death of “The Prince”.

This sense of confusion concerning the location is further added to by the failure of the film is provide any clear feeling of the hotel layout and structure. We see that the hotel has corridors, stairs, a bar, a restaurant, a cellar and several bedrooms but we get no sense how they all connect or even if they are indeed all located in the same hotel. Though we assume that it is all one hotel, and the film’s ending appears to confirm this, Detective refuses to give us any hint of its location and general layout further adding to the viewer’s state of unease and confusion.

A second significant theme of Detective is (mis)communication. The film’s narrative is centred around several couples, groups and family members talking to each other and attempting to solve their problems by talking them through however, no one appears to hear what each other is saying. This feeling of communication being broken is seen in the film’s mise-en-scene. In one particular scene Françoise Chenal talks to Jim Fox Warner about her husbands failing business with the implication that she would be willing to have (or possibly re-start) an affair with Warner. Françoise and Warner’s inability to understand each other is communicated in the routine blocking of either of their faces by props and their moving just out of shot.

This inability to communicate clearly between Françoise and Warner is replicated throughout the film and a striking instance of this is when the film cuts to show Françoise and Warner talking at the table Françoise’s face is totally obscured by a post. That is, through the film’s mise-en-scene and camera positioning we are given a visual representation of Warner and Françoise being physically (and emotionally) blocked from understanding (and falling in love with)ii each other.

 

These two central motifs – of a dislocated connection to space and (mis)communication – are continued in the film techniques that Godard’s Detective refuses to use and the traditional conventions of cinema (or film-making) and story-telling that the film violates. Throughout the whole film Godard rejects traditional camera movement techniques meaning that the camera-work in Detective is completely static. Though Detective features no pans, no zooms or tilts we do not get a feeling of a stable, fixed sense of place is being represented. Rather the lack of camera movement makes the film’s action appear stilted, dislocated and awkward. The refusal to pan and follow actors when they move out of shot means that not only is communication between the characters difficult but it also means that it is difficult for the audience to track, to comprehend, what’s going on clearly. It also, naturally, makes our perception of space limited and ensures that we are unable to really grasp where exactly the action it taking place other than in the hotel.

Another convention of cinema and story-telling which Detective violates is having the actors’ faces visible to the audience. Throughout the film the actors face away from the camera. In one particular scene all three actors face away from the camera whilst continuing their conversation. As this particular technique ensures that any possible subtleties of facial movement (etc) are lost it engenders further miscommunications and misunderstandings of those characters’ motivations and intentions. Therefore, through several techniques – such as no camera movement, ensuring the actors face away from the camera routinely, awkard screen composition and no exposition shots – Godard successfully explores language, (mis)communication and feelings of dislocation from the spatial and geographical environment.

iThe plot and subplots are in truth intertwined and contain several others. Also, the film does not really follow a traditional narrative however I felt that it was best to include a general plot summary.

ii Nathalie Baye who played Françoise Chenal was well-known in France for her roles in romantic leads and in support roles. She was also something of a pin-up having featured on the front page of French Playboy several times. Similar to Nathalie Baye was Johnny Hallyday who played Jim Fox Warner. Johnny Hallyday is known as the French Elvis and was something of a heart-throb. Godard’s casting of these two well-known “sexy stars” was obviously intended to create this reading.

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A Note on Narrative and Direction in A Bout de Souffle (Breathless)

In A Bout de Souffle (1960) a brief cameo from the director Jean-Luc Godard highlights the constructed nature of the films narrative through the mental process of the director. Godard physically points out to the police Michel Poiccard’s location (the wanted protagonist). This direction is rather comically overt, highlighting the constructed and at times convulated systems that the director uses to progress a film’s narrative. Godard’s cameo is also important in relation to his position on the auteur theory. Godard is highlighting the explicate control the director has on the progress and resolution of a film’s construction; its tempo and final polished narrative.

breathless - 1Godardbreathless - Godard

Short Note on Screen Composition in Shoot The Pianist

 

Shoot The Pianist (1960)

In the early scenes of Shoot The Pianist we see Charlie in his dressing room getting ready before his performance. The mise-en-scene or screen composition reflects his character. The barriers of the wall and the window represent Charlies actions that ensure barriers to communication and emotional connection are blocked. His timid actions in the film indicates this point. The broken glass however is an interesting addition as typically a broken glass indicates a rupture or forced entry into personal space. We can infer that the broken glass is used because his ‘brother’ enters his life and the two men that followed him are soon to follow Charlie. The disturbed and disarrayed furniture also link to the sense of rupture as if Charlie is caught unawares at being seen without the barrier of the glass. The screen is composed so as to foreground the character of Charlie instantly and Francois Truffaut brilliantly uses compartmentalised setting and a disarray of objects to communicate this in Shoot The Pianist.

John Thomas on Alphaville

This is just an except on Alphaville(1965) that i thought was interesting. I found it while looking at articles to analyse for my ‘criticising the critics’ section. I decided not to analyse this article however in the future i may well do.

‘Chief among the images that create the texture of this film is a flashing light. It opens the film with an hypnotic flicker, its intensity vaguely unsettling. It reappears as a car’s headlight, then becomes the car’s blinker signalling a left turn. Later on it’s a light bulb swinging back and forth, the flashgun of Caution’s miniature camera, the flicker of fluorescent ceiling lights, the wink of neon signs. To try to establish any “meaning” for this symbol would, I think, be pointless. The flashing light is as characteristic of modern civilization as anything else you might name, and particularly appropriate to Alphaville, where direct sunlight is rarely seen. I cannot stress too much that what is important is that the image is there, and is its own justification. This light is in fact the central visual theme of Alphaville. In the opening five minutes there is little else. The film begins with the flashing light, then the headlight of a car. We see a train cross a bridge at night, its lighted windows staring blankly back at us. Then we are on a superhighway, the lamp standards rushing past and appearing to vibrate because of the motion of the car. We see Caution’s car signalling for a left turn with its blinker, parking finally in front of the hotel. Caution flicks his Zippo lighter, half-illuminating his face with its dancing flame. He gets out of the car and the camera watches him through a series of glass panels, rapidly panning to follow him into the hotel lobby and in the process capturing the reflection of myriads of lights which flash across and fracture the image. After a brief stop at the hotel desk, Caution steps into the elevator and again the camera peers at him through glass. As the elevator ascends and Caution lights his Zippo, a brilliant pattern of reflected light plays vertically across the image. These first few minutes are among the most gripping in the film, not because anything happens, but because these particular images have been arranged in this particular way. In this sequence the whole substance and strategy of Alphaville stand revealed. These patterns of flickering light are the movie; what else in it is of greater importance?’ (1)

 

(1). John Thomas ‘A Review of Alphaville’, Film Quarterly, Vol. 20, No. 1 (Autumn, 1966), pp. 48-51 p. 49.

Excerpt on Lighting and An Exposition of Godard’s Use of Lighting in The Opening Scene of Alphaville

Here is a short introductory excerpt on Lighting:

The manipulation of an image’s lighting controls much of its impact. In cinema, lighting is more than just illumination that permits us to see the action. Lighter and darker areas within the frame help create the overall composition of each shot and hence guide our eyes to certain objects and actions. A brightly illuminated patch may draw our attention and reveal a key gesture, [similar to the function of a close-up] while a shadow may conceal a detail and build up suspense about what [or who] may be present there. Lighting can also articulate textures: the soft curve of a face , the rough grain of a piece of wood… the sparkle of a faceted gem. (1.)

 

Alphaville (1965)

In the first few introductory scenes of Godard’s Alphaville we are not allowed to see the face of Lemmon until he lights a cigarette, and when he closes his lighter his face again disappears; Godard is using the brief glimpse of light that uncovers Lemmon’s face to make a point concerning intertextuality. The voice-over croaks that “reality is too complex for oral communication. But Legend embodies it in a form” this could be taken to refer back to the casting of Eddie Constantine as Lemmy Caution. Lemmy Caution was a popular character from what has been called ‘French pop thrillers’ and Eddie Constantine played the role in several of those pop thrillers. (2.) Robin Wood explains that you could ‘compare him [Eddie Constantine as Lemmy Caution] to a cut-out photograph inserted in a painting… no one [of the original French audience] would mistake this for a detailed portrait of a human being: rather, it is a reference’ essentially Wood is saying that Godard’s use of Eddie Constantine is a reference to pop-culture and a well-known, nearly worn-out character of cheap French detective Noir. (3.) Godard uses the brief glimpse of light because he knows too well that all the exposition the character needs is a few seconds on screen before the audience knows everything it needs to know about the character and the characters’ screen personality. The use of lighting further extenuates, and foregrounds Godard’s belief that Constatine is a “Legend” that embodies everything one could say about French Detective Noir just in his “Form”. This intertextual reference to the “Legend” of Eddie Constantine and Lemmy Caution is an ironic act as Lemmy Caution is, in this film, the only character who threatens the robotic, logical Alpha-60 [the machine who runs Alphaville] with his understanding of emotion and humanity. What Godard may therefore be implying is that the logical formalism of high art may be worse, or at the very least just as bad, than the flat but emotional pop-art of the Pulp-like Lemmy Caution.

1.  David Bordwell & Kristin Thompson, Film Art: An Introduction, London: McGraw-Hill Publishing, (1990), p. 133.

2. Robin Wood ‘Alphaville’ in Ian Cameron, The Films of Jean-Luc Godard, London: Studio Vista, (1969), pp. 83-93 p. 85.

3. Robin Wood ‘Alphaville’ p. 85.

Francois Truffaut on Film Criticism

Personally i found this highly interesting and thought it was worth posting.

Before beginning to make films, you wrote film criticism for the periodical Arts. How would you evaluate your former critical beliefs today?

In my articles in Arts, I would essentially repeat and popularize the critical positions taken in Cahiers. This happened especially at the start, for little by little my criticism became more personal, especially since I began to be interested in films that wouldn’t have interested Cahiers in the least. At the same time, I learned to submit myself to certain obligations. In Cahiers, telling the story of each film could easily be dispensed with. In a weekly journal, the story must be told, and for me, this was an extremely good exercise. Also, I think that in Cahiers, the critic feels the obligation to criticize each film on its own level, that is, to try and adapt the critical criteria to the film. For one film it may be necessary to speak abstractly of the directorial concep- tion, for another, to analyze the scenario itelf – each film demands its own particular treatment. In any case, the necessity to tell the story of a film every week was very good for me. Before that, I didn’t really see the films. I was so intoxicated with the idea of “cinema” that I could see nothing but a film’s movement and rhythm. In fact at the beginning I had such trouble summing up the stories that I had to consult a plot synopsis. This experience helped me to realize the faults of certain scenarios, certain gimmicks, certain easy ways of telling a story. I began to recognize anything in a film that had been copied from another film. For me this was an immensely worthwhile period – my experience in it corresponded with what must be the experience of a scriptwriter. It helped me to see things more clearly, and to become more aware of my own values, tastes, and proclivities. However I ended up becoming much too cutting in my criticism. During my last year with Arts, my criticism was no longer that of a film critic, but already that of a film di- rector. I would only get excited by those films related to what I myself wanted to do. I became too partisan, and, as a result, too vicious. Paradoxically, in my directing today, there remains something of the critic’s frame of mind. For example, when I’ve finished working on a scenario, I feel that I know, if not its faults, at least its dangers- especially in regard to what is trite and conventional in it. This knowledge guides me, gives me a direction to take against these dangers during the shooting. With each film I have done, the danger has been different. In the 400 Blows, the danger was becoming overly lyrical about childhood. In Shoot the Piano Player, it was creating too much hero-worship for a man who was always right. In Jules and Jim, it was portraying the woman as an exquisite shrew who could do no wrong. I was well aware of these dangers while shooting these films, and a large part of my work then consisted of trying to keep each film from succumbing to its inherent weakness. It so happens that my efforts in this direction caused all three of my films to end up being sadder films than planned, since seriousness, it seems to me, permits greater sublety of expression. Something that becomes more serious becomes more true. If one were to read, for example, the original scenario of the 400 Blows, one would discover the plot of a comedy. And in Shoot the Piano Player, where the danger was having the central character become too sympathetic, I tried so hard to point up his artist s egotism, his desire to isolate himself from the world, and his cowardice, that I made him finally rather hard and unattractive  – almost antipathetic. Doubtless this is one of the reasons for the film’s failure. The same thing happened with Jules and Jim: since I didn’t want the audience simply to adore the character played by Jeanne Moreau, I rendered her finally a bit too hard. Nevertheless, my improvisation on the set has always been in an effort to counteract the danger I sensed while reading the finished scenario. That’s what still remains of my formation as a critic.1.

1. François Truffaut and Paul Ronder, ‘François Truffaut: An Interview’, Film Quarterly, Vol. 17, No. 1 (Autumn, 1963), pp. 3-13 pp. 4-5.

Subjective Realism in Sandrine Veysset’s Will it Snow for Christmas?

Will it Snow for Christmas? (1996)

The opening scene of Will it Snow for Christmas? is shot like a home movie. It begins with a handheld shot, filmed at the children’s’ eye level. The scene contains jerking movements, which replicates the rushing anarchy of children playing. Though the colours are saturated, the lighting of the scene is naturalistic. After an establishing shot, filmed from the perspective of the Father’s Truck – a fact we are not yet made aware of – we see a point of view shot from the children looking back towards the red truck. It then cuts back again to the fathers P.O.V, who again situates the viewer in the surroundings of the isolated farm – this isolation, introduced by the technique of loose framing, becomes a repeated motif. The continuity of the trucks continued voyage, between cuts to the children, is called Match on Action and is a traditional rule of continuity editing, which relates to spatial and temporal issues. These combined naturalistic techniques help to create an aesthetical sense of the real. This issue of the aesthetically real is combined with a concern to present normal diction and dialogue. The work of the farm is also represented as hard and the issue of immigration is treated as matter of fact. The use of exposition is characteristic of many films, and Will it Snow for Christmas? Is no different. It is this phase of the film that motifs are established; the irregularity of this film is that its aesthetics are more akin to documentary than other forms of French Cinema, such as the Heritage films, the Cinema du Look and French New Wave. 1.

The motif of the real is also encapsulated in the representation of time. The changing seasons bring corresponding activates and problems for the Mother and her Children. And in this way the story is represented as real through an episodic narrative, which moves along with simple cause and effect logic – a convention of most documentary films. The simplicity of seasonal change affecting the narrative ensures a sense of repetition is imbued in the films structure, along with a sense of the inevitable among the characters. We believe the films representation of life due to the seemingly logical procession of the seasons, but within this we also expect narrative closure with reference to the films title. As winter closes in we expect the narrative to change from an episodic collective into a neatly tied up ending, a closure of narrative found regularly in the nostalgia films of the 1980-90’s. 2. The last scene, where the mothers P.O.V shot shows the children enthusiastically playing in the snow, could be seen at a basic level as a tying up of narrative, the question in the title of the film is answered by its snowing on Christmas. In essence this ending is a continuation of the episodic nature of the film, all we were allowed to see before were episodes of experience, and the viewer can presume that as the seasons change again, the children, though older, will go through the same cycle every year.

1. Pramaggiore, M. & Wallis, T (Ed). Film a Critical Introduction, (London: Laurence King Publishing, 2007). PP 286-289

2. Lanzoni, R.F. French Cinema – From its Beginnings to the Present, (London: Continuum International Publishing 2004) PP 299-347