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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Basic Film Techniques: The Extreme Close-Up

The extreme close-up is a shot that would only show an eye, mouth or portion of an actors’ face. This form of shot produces a sense of importance in the minute, the apparently insignificant and normally imperceivable. From a normal range we may not see any emotion on a face, however cutting to an extreme close-up a welling up of tears in the eye of the apparently emotional-less face could be shown. The extreme close-up allows a director to reveal something normally unseen; the extreme close-up imbues the image it shows with a sense of importance. In Blade Runner an extreme close-up of an eye in the introductory scenes leads one to wonder about the significance of perception and leads the audience to become reflexive about their own participation in watching film. In an action film a director may show an extreme close-up of a spring flicking to indicate the small mechanical processes which lead to the large subsequent explosion. The extreme close-up ensures, because it fills the scene with a minute aspect of a larger whole, a sense of importance and significance is evoked. The extreme close-up also becomes a revealing technique: a quiet whispered secret rather than a loudly proclaimed revelation.

Here’s a link to an article which explores Hollywood’s view of the close-up.

Short Note on Screen Composition in Fatal Attraction

Just a little while ago I  was finally able to produce high quality screen-shots of films that I have been analysing. Before I was not able to create pictures of quality but now I am able and therefore I am free to create more in-depth analyses with photographs that portray that which I am examining. Here’s just a little excerpt that I didn’t feel would fit without the precise photograph:

As the function of the close-up or pan-to is to uncover something of importance then the composition of a phone behind the bars of a balustrades is meant to be indicative of the emotional state of the characters. The bars indicate a sense of imprisonment and powerlessness in the ego of Dan. The odd positioning of the phone on the stairs also indicates how the phone calls Dan is receiving, and his relationship with Alex, is something that is “in-the-way” and an obstacle. This scene becomes both a symbol of Dan’s imprisonment and powerlessness.

The Function of Chiaroscuro Lighting and Analepsis in Double Indemnity

Double Indemnity (1944)

Double Indemnity is a classic film noir. The film noir is a hard genre to define, but it is commonly said to be a collection of Aesthetical Principles and a more cynical outlook during and after WWII.1. Double Indemnity starts with non-diagetic music which installs a sense of urgency and action that mirrors a speeding car. The editing is smooth, as each cut dissolves into another, ensuring a clear understanding that time and space has moved in a linear fashion. The establishing shot of Walter Neff’s workplace stunts this fluid action, the camera then pans right, slowly following Neff into an office; which, conversely to building drama and frenetic action, constructs a sense of suspense. The editing, although linear, manipulates clock time, as the frame speed and scene change slows down as he enters the insurance building, this technique is the editing of a frames’ rhythm between shots. What this editing technique does is change the rhythm and pace of our perception, ensuring we gain a sense of drama and suspense.

 

In film noir lighting is an important aesthetical principle as this give clues to the characters’ function. As Neff enters the office we only see thin bars of white light, projected across his chest, as if he was in a jail. As he switches the light on, the room is flooded with white and all shadows are removed. This technique is called Chiaroscuro2, the artful use of shades in black and white photography. This technique gives the viewer clues about the nature of Neff’s actions; that he is seeking redemption, bringing himself out of the shadows metaphorically, in the form of a confession, into the light. This functions as an instantly identifiable trope which helps the viewer to understand Neff’s character and narrative function as the Male Protagonist – a key component of the film noir. The understanding of characterisation is essential in Classic Hollywood cinema; the opening scene unmistakably uses generic conventions of the film noir to construct Walter Neff, from the lighting of the set, his bare and uninspiring office, the mise-en-scene, and the continuous motif of lighting a match between his finger and thumb.

 

In film noir the narrative is always centred on partial redemption and rationalisation of the male protagonist’s actions. In Double Indemnity this is done through the narrative technique of analepsis, or the flashback. The narrative device of analepsis is a classic film noir device which critic Schrader tells us creates a sense of ‘an irretrievable past, a predetermined fate, and an all-enveloping hopelessness’3 this outlook is culmination of the pre-war depression and WWII. As Walter Neff starts his confession the camera focuses on his face with a medium close-up. The camera position is mimicking the relationship between police and suspect, and although he’s talking into a voice-recorder, we can assume that we are meant to be placed in that moralising position. The combination of chiaroscuro and analepsis gives Double Indemnity a dark, unsentimental vision of America and in this way Billy Wilder’s Film is a classic film noir.

 

1. Michael Walker ‘Film Noir: Introduction’ in Ian Cameron (Ed) The Movie Book of Film Noir. (London: Studio Vista) 1994 PP 8-38

2. Billy Wilder was earlier in his career a German Expressionist, and the expert use of Chiaroscuro is most likely due in part to this fact.

3. P, Schrader. ‘Notes on Film Noir’ in B.K, Grant. (Ed) Film Genre Reader II ( Austin: University of Texas Press) 1999 PP 119-221 P220

Critique of the Western Genre in Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man

 Dead Man (1995)

Jim Jarmusch’s film Dead Man critiques the myth of the western, principally the westerns’ conceptualization of white American protagonist as a competent, fearless and free thinking individual. Jarmusch does this by exploring the generic conventions of the western and ultmiately by altering and subverting its traditions. The cinematic genre of the western is typically defined by it’s strong protagonist and setting. The environment or setting of the western is traditionally a spacious post-civil war frontier in the south-west of America. This setting is a mirror image of the central protagonist; the vast open isolated desert reflects the individualistic pioneering character of the western figure. The shot selection also further augments the feeling of isolation and rugged individualism. A convention is the use of the extreme long shots to portray panoramic, expansive open spaces – even when the film is exclusively from the perspective of the protagonist, this open space, which overshadows the individual, is prevalent. The fact the protagonist survives in this space is what makes him admirable; that the protagonist sits on the border between civilisation and the wild and survives (whilst others shrivle up and die) proves his rugged pioneering independence.1


If a traditional western protagonist is a tough pioneer, then Dead Man’s William Blake [Johnny Depp] is the antithesis. A symbol of virginal inexperience Blake jumps in fear at the government sanctioned shooting of buffalo, and is surprised at Thel’s ownership of a pistol. The short lived relationship between Thel and Blake highlights the feminine aspects of the protagonist. While in her bedroom she controls the dialogue, and it is her sexuality that commands the screen space and camera’s focus. Thel’s ownership of a pistol, symbolically phallic, is metaphor of her strength and dominance over the more feminine Blake; it may even be representative of his lack masculinity, a traditional aspect of the central protagonist in westerns is the ownership and ability with firearms. Blake doesn’t sit on the barrier of civilisation and the wild, but the barriers of masculinity and femininity.

As well as character, the setting no longer reflects that rugged isolated individual thought of as so admirable, the landscape is seemingly a representation of paranoia and neurosis. The form of Dead Man creates a close, claustrophobic vision of the American with close-ups, point-of-view shots and landscapes with vertical lines that splinter and fragment the screen. This reversal of generic convention foregrounds the error of the traditional perceptions of the west and conceptualized heritage of America. The west wasn’t a large expanse with a sparse handful of Native Americans littering the horizon but an area with colonists, nature and Native Americans in direct competition with each other for breathing room, Dead Man represents the colonists as the trespasser rather than as the trespassed. Most westerns, as in John Ford’s The Searchers, the Native Americans are represented as trespassers encroaching on in the homesteads of the European settlers. Jim Jarmusch highlights the cultural conception of the west as a rugged place of individualistic through manipulation of generic conventions, by exploring convention film becomes a space in-which a director can explore and expand on ideas of critical and theoretical principle.

1M, Pramaggiore & T, Wallis. (ed), Film A Critical Introduction, London: Laurence King Publishing, (2007), pp. 397.

Hollywood’s view of the close-up

The Untouchables (1987)

In this film, as a man falls off a roof top to his death, i am reminded of the philosophy of the close-up and Hollywood’s reliance upon it. As he falls we are given a close-up [a rather cheap looking one] of his face showing the fear in his eyes. He is an evil man so we are not welcomed into feeling pity or regret.

Bela Balazs said that the close-up ‘radiate[s] a tender human attitude in the contemplation of hidden things, delicate solicitude, a gentle bending over the intimacies of life-in-the-miniature, a warm sensibility. Good close-ups are lyrical; it is the heart, not the eye, that has perceived them.’♣

Although the falling of a man to his death is not ‘warm’ but cold it is true that the close-up communicates the hidden nature of things. The tough-rough “anit scared of death” man has been exposed by the close-up, his fragile human nature is uncovered. The close-up becomes a tool in-which the director can show that hard-nosed ultra-violent policing is correct because only when faced with their death do the gangsters show any morsel of humanity. Good policing is bringing back the humanity in a convict either through prison (rather tellingly called a correction facility) or death and according to this movie, death, is the only way that one is brought back to their own humanity.

Hollywood cinema relies upon the close-up to communicate human attitudes tender or not however the consequence is a continouous message of individual responcibility when outside forces should take a portion of the blame/credit for the production of an individuals morality. The close-up focuses upon the eyes and lips and therefore aesthetically removes the outside world from the production of that emotion. The man who falls to the floor falls isolated emotionally because of the close-up technique and the only time he is reunited with society is when he hits a car roof.

♣ Bela Balazs ‘Theory of the Film’ in Gerald Mast & Marshall Cohen (ed), Film Theory and Criticism, Oxford: Oxford Uni Press (1979), pp. 288-298. p. 289.