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

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.

Interview with Jean-Luc Godard

In my rather long post about A Bout de Souffle I mentioned the affect on the film the dedication to Monogram Pictures had. Here is an interview in which Godard explains his reasoning behind dedicating A Bout de Souffle to Monogram Pictures:

Godard, why did you really dedicate Breathless to “Monogram Pictures”?

 

I did it to prove that you can do pictures that are both interesting and cheap. In America a cheap picture is not considered interesting, and I said “Why not?” because actually there are many American directors who do B and C pictures who are very interesting. Vivre Sa Vie I dedicated to B pictures, because in my opinion it is a B picture.

 

You’re being dead serious now?

 

If it’s less than $100,000, it’s a B picture. The trouble is that in Hollywood the B budget is all they consider; it can be a B or Z budget, but even with a Z budget you can attempt to make an A quality picture. If you talk to a Hollywood producer-if you make a B picture then you are a B director. You are only an A director if you make films with A budgets. … I think this idea is wrong. But if you go to see bankers or producers in America they still think in Hollywood’s way.1

 

1Herbert Feinstein and Jean-Luc Godard ‘An Interview with Jean-Luc Godard’, Film Quarterly, Vol. 17, No. 3 (Spring, 1964), pp. 8-10 p. 8.

The Debt to, and Divergences from, Hollywood Cinema in Jean-Luc Godard’s A Bout de Souffle and Juzo Itami’s Tampopo

Hollywood cinema is a set of generic codes and conventions. These codes and conventions act as motifs which the viewer can understand and identify with. Hollywood cinema is spit into genres such as westerns, musicals and romantic comedies. These genres all adhere to conventions such as ‘clarity… unity… goal-oriented characters… and [narrative] closure’.1 The aim of these conventions is to ensure that the viewer can understand a film, its characters their aims and ambitions and the problems put before them, without difficulty which would inhibit the ability for everyone to potentially engaging with the film [Due to the sheer financial cost of making a film the need to ensure that people understand the narrative is important and this reason marks every Hollywood product].

A Bout de Souffle (1959)

Jean-Luc Godard dedicated A Bout de Souffle to the B-movie studio Monogram Pictures, this statement is indicative of the French New Wave Philosophy. The French New Wave were a loosely connected group of directors (and critics) who asserted that low-budget (B-Movies) American Cinema, often thought negatively as a wholly commercial product, can be equal to the traditionally venerated European Art-house cinema.2 The French New Wave treated Hollywood cinema with the same respect as Art-house cinema because they believed that Hollywood directors were also capable of creating individualistic pieces of art. Godard includes the dedication to Monogram Pictures because he wants to verbalise the influence Hollywood has had on cinema.

The star system is another aspect of Hollywood that Jean-Luc Godard alludes to in A Bout de Souffle. The central character the iconic looking Michel Poiccard imitates the physical mannerism of film star Humphrey Bogart by rubbing his lips with this thumb. Humphrey Bogart was a classic figure of film noir and Poiccard’s imitation of his mannerisms indicates that he believes Bogart to be a model of masculinity. The Hollywood star system ensures that ‘audiences do not just appreciate a stars’ performance on-screen; they also consume the public image’ which fans also attempt to imitate ‘the attire and mannerism’.3 The audience does this because they believe the personality the star exudes is the idea. Poiccard appropriates the mannerism of Bogart in an effort to become that ideal of masculinity. Again Godard is foregrounding the debt to Hollywood. What this allusion does is introduce the idea that France’s youth are being influenced by the cultural output of Hollywood and this cultural influence adds weight to the French New Wave assertion that commercial cinema is as important as Art-house cinema.

 

 

(A lack of emotional connection. As Poiccard looks at Patricia she can only look at herself, and her own emotional performance)

 

Jean-Luc Godard pays homage to Hollywood in A Bout de Souffle, but he also upsets the central principles of Hollywood cinema. Godard’s film represents a significant divergence from the continuity editing system, The basic purpose of the continuity editing system is to establish a smooth continuous flow from shot to shot.4 The graphic, rhythmic, spatial and temporal relationship is edited so as to look smooth and uninterrupted. The movement from shot to shot is edited so that at all times an aspect of a shot, such as ‘shapes, colours, tones of light or dark, or the direction or speed of movement’ is graphically matched to its corresponding shot, thereby ensuring a sense of aesthetic continuity.5 In A Bout de Souffle Godard uses the jump shot to create a sense of anxiety and dislocation. In a scene where Michel is explaining the physical aspects of Patricia he loves the camera jumps from shot to shot. The viewer becomes dislocated, unable to grasp the scene’s location: Godard is using the jump shot to replicate the character’s sense of isolation. Both Patricia and Michel are isolated from the culture they belong to, Michel is a criminal and Patricia is in a foreign county, and they attempt to find friendship in each others company. This attempt is futile because Godard refuses to use the shot-reverse-shot technique which would signify their connection; the jump shot ensures that both Michel and Patricia remain isolated individuals even when in each others company. The form of the jump shot ensures the characters in A Bout de Souffle remain isolated individuals without any hope of deep meaningful connection. This sense of isolation is repeated in the scene where Patricia and Michel making love, yet they still struggle to connect and ultimately remain isolated. Although they both constantly talk to each other they barely look at each other. Patricia looks past Michel as he talks to her, the scene then jumps to Michel alone looking into his reflection. This signifies the failure in communication that typifies Michel and Patricia’s relationship.

 

The Mise-en-Scene is also an indicator of the barrier between them; Michel puts on a dressing gown which contains vertical stripes while Patricia wears a tip with horizontal stripes, essentially they are going in different directions. Godard is communicating a sense of distance and isolation between the sexes and the editing technique of the jump shot communicates this perfectly. Because Godard doesn’t use the continuity editing system he Is able to communicate the sense of fragmentation and isolation through the form of the film. The continuity system advocates seamlessness between shots, but seamlessness would not be adequate as a tool to illustrate the fragmented and isolated experience that Godard is trying to communicate in A Bout de Souffle.

 

Tampopo (1985)

 

The western is a heavily stylized and conventional genre which relies on the regular and recognisable to create a frame through which narrative is communicated smoothly. Narrative is transmitted principally by the use of motifs, such as the six-shooter, the saloon, the isolated homestead, the prostitute and the drifter. The western genre (and most narratives) positions good against evil, civilisation against individualism. The film theorist Leo Braudy explains that directors use genre films, such as the western, because of their ‘ability to express the warring traditions in society and the social importance of understanding convention’ in essence a genre is a prefabricated framework in-which the auteur can explore and challenge assumptions and conventions.6 Juzo Itami uses the western genre because of its highly stylized from; he does this to foreground the highly stylized nature of Japanese tradition and etiquette. The tradition and structure of the western genre is repeatedly alluded to in the start of Tampopo. The character of Goro, dressed in a cowboy hat and shirt resembling John Wayne, represents the individualistic force that helps society thrive by teaching lessons learnt while in the wilderness. The first scene of Goro and Gun’s story starts with an exposition shot which introduces the isolated nature of the noodle bar. Inside the noodle bar generic bad guys, all dressed in black leather, loiter around, installing a sense that the good are outnumbered. Goro, as the traditional western hero, fightings to defend Tampopo’s honour. He walks outside for a fight, an allusion to the traditional fistfight outside of a saloon that features in many westerns. Itami constructs a world filled with stereotypical characters, actions and plot sequence. Itami does this not only as homage to the genre and tradition of the western but also as a device to get the audience thinking about traditions, structure and etiquette. Itami uses the structure of the western genre to make the viewer aware of the standards that are automatically accepted in genre, tradition and the closely allied etiquette. This point is illustrated in a scene in which a large group of Japanese women are listening to a teacher explain the etiquette of eating spaghetti. She explains that while you are eating spaghetti you should not make any noise whatsoever. Her advice is contradicted by a European-looking man’s noisy slurping of spaghetti, the whole group then comically attempt to create as much slurping noise as possible in order to mimic the European-looking man’s way of eating. Here Itami is exposing that we only eat the way we do because we are to taught to, etiquette and tradition is just a collection of arbitrary rules imposed by the past on the present and future. Itami is engaging critically with the tradition and etiquette of Japanese food culture by exposing it. In Tampopo Itami seems to be criticising those who use tradition and etiquette to stand in the way of enjoyment and pleasure that can be taken from food. He illustrates this point in a scene containing several Japanese businessmen. Most of the businessman order the same meal so as not to highlight their own and their business partners’ ignorance concerning foreign food. The youngest businessman breaks the rules of etiquette by attempting to sit down before his elders and by ordering extravagant food. The camera cuts to below the table to show the youngest businessman being kicked repeatedly in the ankle. Tradition demands that the youngest businessman order the same food as his elders but he doesn’t. Itami illustrates that tradition and etiquette can stifle personal pleasure and enjoyment by requiring the individual to adhere to a set of rules opposed to experimentation and freedom. Genre is at times a constrictive entity that imposes an ideology on film-making, hindering personal expression; yet Itami uses generic conventions and expectations as a structure in-which to foreground assumptions and expectations. Itami places the cowboy next to the cook in Tampopo and illuminates how we accept, and create, tradition.

Both Breathless and Tampopo pay homage to certain aspects of Hollywood cinema. Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless alludes to the strength of the Hollywood star system. Michel Poiccard’s attachment to and appropriation of the myth of Humphrey Bogart highlights the cultural influence America and Hollywood has upon France. Michel Poiccard appropriates Bogart’s mannerism in an attempt to create a person he believes the pinnacle of masculinity. Godard continues his homage to Hollywood as he dedicates Breathless to the B-movie studio Monogram Pictures. Godard seems to be highlighting that American cultural output is a highly influential force that is shaping the younger generations of 1950’s France. This could indicate that individuals are no longer seeing themselves as citizens of a singular nationality; instead individuals see their own personality as a fragmented performance alluding to contrasting cultural influences. In Breathless Godard seems concerned about the American influence. Both Michel and Patricia attempt to have a meaningful relationship relationship but find it impossible to communicate. This is signified by the use of the jump cut which leaves both characters isolated when speaking. Breathless seems to illustrate that the increased globalization of art and culture in fact leaves the individual more isolated and more alone than before. The nature of Hollywood’s influence on France seems to be both positive and negative. Hollywood offers the youth of France new heroes and systems of thought yet at the same time ensuring their isolation and loneliness. Juzo Itami also pays homage to Hollywood in his film Tampopo. Itami alludes to the western genre both by appropriating its narrative structure and iconography. In doing this Itami can highlight the structured and highly stylized nature of Japanese culture. Itami concentrates on illustrating how food etiquette is constructed. Because Itami is able to play with the structure of the western to create something new, the rules of etiquettes also seem open to play. Itami also criticises those who use tradition to hide their own ignorance in Tampopo, yet the films central message seems to be that the fulfilling enjoyment that good food brings is central to good hearty relationships. Both Breathless and Tampopo allude to the powerful cultural influence of Hollywood. They also use aspects of Hollywood cinema to create and illustrate aspects of their own culture. The constant allusion to Hollywood cinema seems to indicate that to make cinema is to instigate a dialogue with ones own culture and surrounding cultures, and in this way we are not totally isolated but connected by art and cultural products.

 

1Full quote ‘clarity (viewers shouldn’t not be confused about space, time or events), Unity (cause and effect connections are direct and complete), goal-oriented characters (they are active and invite identification), and closure (loose ends are tied up, often through romantic union).’ [M, Pramaggiore & T, Wallis (ed), Film a Critical Introduction, London: Laurence King Publishing, (2007) p. 312.]

2Phil Powrie & Keith Reader, French Cinema: A Student’s Guide, Oxon: Arnold Publishers, (2002), p. 21.

3M, Pramaggiore & T, Wallis. (ed), Film a Critical Introduction, p. 356.

4David Bordwell & Kristin Thompson, Film Art: An Introduction, Third Edition, London: McGraw-Hill Publishing, (1990) p. 218.

5David Bordwell & Kristin Thompson, Film Art: An Introduction, p. 210.

6Leo Braudy, ‘The World in a Frame: Genre: The conventions of Connection’ in Gerald Mast & Marshall Cohen, (ed) Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings, Second Edition, Oxford: Oxford University Press, (1979), p. 448.