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.

Future Worlds: Globalisation and Intertextuality in Blade Runner

Blade Runner (1982)

The future world, 2019 LA, of Blade Runner is a cosmopolitan “global village”. This is communicated by the use of bi-lingual advertising signs: Coca-cola sits amongst neon Japanese symbols. Although Coca-cola is an American symbol that is saturated world wide the use of it sat against the Japanese iconography communicates the sense of lost identity. While Deckard sits eating his Japanese food two “Blade Runner” cops stand behind him, and although we are in LA they speak in a foreign language to Deckard who only understands English. He must get the noodle stand owner to translate for him. The fact that an agent of the central authority, the Police, speaks in Japanese rather than English in LA signifies the state of globalisation. The identity that is lost is the local provincial aspects of countries. Instead of an American or Japanese culture we see a cross-breed intertextual mix that produces it own new identity. As I mentioned in my previous post concerning the Postmodern nature of Blade Runner this concept of intertextuality and pastiche culture is important in communicating a distinct future world. Blade Runner asks questions about individuality and authenticity [I will write a post about Blade Runner with the aim to explore the postmodern concept of cyborg ] and the intertextual nature of Blade Runner creates a future world where people have become replicants of imagery and images that “used” to signify something individual but now have become tired. Instead of Deckard being an individual he has become a “replicant” of the film noir detective in his trench coat and hard-boiled character. Similarly Rachel has become the prototypical Femme Fatal, dressed in dark, commanding screen presence and continuously smoking.

 

The future world social structures are communicated in Blade Runner by the opposition of setting, as in Total Recall and Running Man. The internal shots of the headquarters of the Tyrell corp. are luscious and extraordinary while the city streets are dark and rain is continuously falling. As in Total Recall the opposition of two colours can communicate an atmosphere that coincides with the location. In Total Recall the use of red and whites opposed each other and communicated a mood and sense of place. In Blade Runner the use of dark-blues communicate a sense of run-down dirty atmosphere while golds and yellows create a warm glow that surrounded the upper echelons of the Tyrell corp.

Future Worlds: Communicating the Post-Apocalypse Mise-en-Scene and Mad Max

Mad Max (1979)

The sense of a dislocated post-apocalypse society is communicated in Mad Max by the continued use of the road as position of action. The main community we see is the biker-gang of Toecutter. Their violent and brutal gang community is a significant signifier of the loss of respect and lawlessness of the future world being portrayed. The use of the bare road set amongst scrub ground also dislocates us from those structures of culture and the past. The bare vision of scrub ground is similar to the wide-vista’s of the western, however the function is radically different. As the western is set in the past the nothingness signifies at least something to conquer and build on. The small towns we know will develop into prosperous cities full of life, law and order (mostly). However because the nothingness of Mad Max is set in the future that nothingness doesn’t signify potential but rather something lost, something worryingly absent. Even the roads surrounded by structures are worryingly vacant as chain link fences occupy the space where houses and drives should be. A lack of work place and offices are also worrying as no driving force for change and redevelopment can be seen. The dilapidated “Halls of Justice” signify the loss of order and law. The damaged and rusted sign symbolises this. Mad Max communicates a dislocated post-apocalypse future world easily by continuously using motifs such as leaving the shots vacant of buildings that signify culture. The use of open roads and scrub land also communicate this a sense of nothingness.

Future Worlds: Violence As Release Valve in Running Man

Running Man (1987)

 

In the future world of Running Man we are shown a repressive society that uses the violent show of “Running Man” as a release valve to exert the pressures of living under a repressive regime. The film uses simple diametrically opposed classes of society, with their own lighting codes, to communicate clearly the conflict in the society. The dystopia is communicated by the contrasting mise-en-scene of the upper-class day scenes and the under-class night scenes. The day scenes are full of natural light and the streets are uncluttered and open. People are allowed to sit, wonder and go as they please. This is the opposite of the night scenes.

  

The night scenes portray the have-nots of the future world of Running Man. In the night scenes we see the under-class living in a polluted and cluttered area. The people are fenced in and contrary to the day scenes there is no casual idolatry admiration for architecture. The masses are penned in and huddled, their only source of light the brightly coloured television screens. The night scenes also consistently include the large television screens indicating the extent of the media’s influence on the masses.

 

In the introduction of Running Man we are told that the government has complete control of the cultural output of the society and that all television is highly censored. If all television is censored then we must assume that violence is allowed because of some controlling value it contains. The use of violence is a cathartic one. Violence is used to burn out the passions of the people so that they have no emotional strength left to challenge the wrongs committed by the oppressive government. Running Man playfully conjures up a society dominated and controlled by violent television. The use of violence as a controlling cathartic force is ironic in Running Man as the film is of the action Sci-Fi genre. Concerns about the corrupting nature of violence in film and television are well documented and Running Man is attempting to play with this notion by creating a world where violent television has enslaved America. Violence has morally corrupted America and it is now a fascist state. The punchline of the Running Man joke is that the destruction of the media controlled state is caused by the superhero protagonist’s ability to dish out equal amounts of pain, gore and brutality against the individuals that ensure the cathartic state of the masses. The future world that Running Man creates becomes a fertile ground in which to jest at the concept of violence as corrupter and as violence as a force through which freedom is gained.

Future Worlds: An Introduction

In several articles I have spoken about the cinematic and rhetorical device of taking an element, filmic or social, to its extreme to produce a critical reading or fertile ground for critique. In essence all Sci-fi does this. It could be taking the threat of Communist invasion to a symbolic level where the Communists are replaced and the threat transformed into fearsome aliens from outer-space. It could also be taking the environment’s health to an extreme where in we are shown a society which can only feed its populace with a synthesised form of meat produced from deceased Humans. The setting, and the symbols used to produce or communicate this, in Sci-fi, reflect the central concern of the film because the setting of the film is created rather than reproduced. Although obviously the Notting Hill of Notting Hill (1999) is a filmic white-washed version of the geographical location it is only in film genres such as Sci-fi that the setting itself becomes truly and consistently symbolic and a reflection of the central concern of the film and an important vehicle of plot communication. In my ‘Future Worlds’ articles I have, and will, attempt to further communicate this point.

* A side note: the setting of Notting Hill is more important as an ideological study of the white-washing of a predominantly mixed race cosmopolitan area into an upper-middle class white English haven of yuppies and celebrities.

Future Worlds: The Familiar as Future in Fahrenheit 451

Fahrenheit 451 (1966)

Modernist architecture is noted for its elimination of ornament and simplification of form. An outcome of Modernist architecture is that it produced large estates with many buildings built externally and internally uniform. The central vision of many Modernist estates, like the Park-Hill estate in Sheffield, were to produce easily reproducible identical living units which would satisfy and reproduce communities ravaged and displaced from their terraced estates by the second world war. Large sprawling streets were replaced with tall expansive high-rise apartment buildings. This style of architecture failed in many estates and rather than being a shining beacon of good planning the estates, like the Park-Hill estate in Sheffield, have become run down poverty stricken and crime infested. The lack of ornament and the Modernist belief in aesthetic uniformity is used in Fahrenheit 451 to symbolise the fictional societies philosophy. Uniformity is cited as the reason why books must be burnt – without uniformity society is violent, passionate and uncontrollable. The contemporary modernist setting of Fahrenheit 451 is used as a site in which the fictional societies philosophy is foregrounded.

Another reason why Modernist architecture is used is to produce a sense of familiar. Fahrenheit 451is set amongst the Modernist architecture of the 1960’s – the Alton housing estate in Roehampton, South London. Fahrenheit 451 uses the Modernist estate to to produce a future world built from the contemporary fashion and architecture of the 1960’s. This ensures that the future is not really “when” but rather an extension or an extreme version of “now”. Science fiction has always used the future as a safe space in which to deal with the threats and concerns of contemporary society. However Fahrenheit 451 does not allow this act of distancing – normally provided by the setting of a different and unrecognisable future – because the vision of the “future” in Fahrenheit 451 is evidently still the contemporary world. What this does is produce a critique of contemporary society and life that is unavoidable and unmistakable.

Fahrenheit 451 creates a “future” where uniformity has become so important that is has removed all elements of humanity, however; as science fiction critiques the contemporary we can also infer that Fahrenheit 451 is arguing against the very same architecture it is using in the film. It could be said that Fahrenheit 451 is arguing that “ornament”, what Modernist architecture and uniformity removes, is that which makes humanity so interesting and inspirational. Fahrenheit 451 communicates that ornament is the aesthetic response to understanding humanity as impossible to simplify and that “simplicity” of form is the attempt to dehumanize humanity. Therefore Fahrenheit 451 could be seen as a critique of Modernist philosophy of architecture and other rationalising philosophies.

Future Worlds: The Use of Colour and Lighting in Total Recall

Along with many other article styles i will be running a short look at the production of setting in Sci-Fi. Here is the first of a short run that will include Alphaville (1965), Running Man (1987) , Fahrenheit 451 (1966), Total Recall (1990), Blade Runner (1982), Westworld (1973) and maybe some others (if you’re lucky?).

 

Total Recall (1990)

Total Recall contains two central lighting motifs which communicate a definitive sense of place. Setting is important in Total Recall. Mars serves a plot function both as the conductor of Quaid’s dreams of a different future and as the site of his repressed past. In the Earth scenes thelighting is primarily the classical naturalistic white lighting which produces soft clear features and a sense of cleanliness and neutrality. The clean lines are important in the first part of Total Recall in producing a sense of clinical perfection at odds with Quaid’s dreams of a dirtier, rougher life as a pioneer travelling on the troubled red-planet Mars.

 

The Earth phase’s lighting creates a sense of an expansive nature, a conquered clinical world. A world not physically suffocating like Mars but spiritually suffocating. Although some of the clean cut lines of Earth are thrown into relief by the scenes containing Quaid’s escape from the company agents to Mars it is not until Quaid arrives proper in Mars that we witness a world opposed or opposite to Earth.

 

The colour red floods nearly every scene situated on the planet Mars. This produces both a sense of setting but also a seedy dirty environment. Richter’s face is illuminated by the bright redness of Mars’s continuous timeless glow; his character is defined by that mechanical, artificial, electronic glow emitted by neon lights in the claustrophobic Mars’ Streets. The doors behind Richter are also tinted by the redness of Mars, the structure of Mars defines him and more importantly his actions and character. The setting of Mars defines both the characters and the structures that surround and define them.

Every aspect of the mise-en-scene is defined by the redness of Mars. Total recall uses the rather overt, extravagant lighting techniques to imbue the scenes with a sense of place. Another affect of the use of red is that it imbues all the action with a seedy, aggressive, passionate and lusty atmosphere which helps communicate the moral vacuum that Mars signifies. The choice of lighting and colour in Total Recall communicates the atmosphere of both Earth and Mars and is very affective at foregrounding this.