Jean-Luc Godard and the inconsistency of modern life
When the pandemic lockdown fell like an invisible iron curtain on our lives at the end of March 2020, I took three things seriously at the same time: writing, cooking and cinema. I started by watching the films of Jean-Luc Godard: Breathless, my life to live, Male Female, A married woman, Weekendand Alphaville. I wanted to put an end to the embarrassment of not having seen Godard’s famous films sooner, after being put off by the abstract style of his 2001 film, In praise of love.
In this tribute to the master of modern French cinema, I will focus on two of his films, Breathless and my life to liveto capture a defining concern that I discovered in his films.
Out of breath: grasping the dilemmas
In the 1960 classic, Breathlesswhere Godard announced himself to world cinema, American actress Jean Seberg also makes her flamboyant and memorable debut as Patricia, an aspiring journalist who lives alone and sells the New York Herald column in the streets of Paris. Her short-lived love affair with young criminal Michel, which molds itself in the style of American actor Humphrey Bogart, is a metaphor for the times in which they lived. Lives. There was nervous energy and excitement in the air. The lures of capitalism and the risky charms of individual life fed each other. It was a time of infatuation and creativity, a time of realizing the living springs of self and the fleeting music of love. Godard’s camera captures the dilemmas and dreams of this era through the two characters with infectious energy. There is a moment in the conversation between Patricia and Michel in her small apartment bedroom, which is enlightening:
Patricia: “You know, you said I was scared. It’s true, I’m scared. Because I want you to love me. But at the same time, I want you to stop loving me. I’m very independent, you know.
Michel (smoker): “I love you. But not as you think.
P: “How then?
M: “Not as you think.”
P: “But you don’t know what I think. You do not know.
M: “Yes, I know that.”
P: “No, it’s impossible. I want to know what’s behind your face. I watched it for 10 minutes, and I still don’t know anything. I’m not sad, I’m scared.
M: “Sweet, sweet, Patricia [Patricia brushes that description off] OK, so, cruel, stupid, heartless, pathetic…cowardly, despicable.
P (smiles, lights a cigarette): “Yes.”
M: “You don’t even know how to apply your lipstick. Now you are hideous.
P: “Say what you want. I do not care. I’ll put it all in my book.
M: “What book?”
P: “I’m writing a novel.
M: “You? »
P: “Why not me? … Have you heard of William Faulkner?
M: “Who is he? Someone you slept with?
As Michel tries to undress Patricia, she quotes Faulkner’s last sentence wild palm trees: “Between grief and nothing, I will take the grief.”
The conversation is riddled with deception, as Patricia searches for meaning, but Michel does not. Patricia refutes his claim to understand his mind. Modernity is obsessed with the spirit. One seeks to discover the mystery of character by knowing the spirit. The claim to know the mind is propelled by the desire to control. Patricia understands love as a terrifying condition because she knows it’s impossible to control someone. She suggests that one must resist the temptation to love if one is to remain independent. The absence of certainty, even of momentary clarity, is a fundamental condition of modernity. Desire must live on a radical uncertainty, and on a possible lack of meaning. Love is dangerous because it seeks certainty and some semblance of clarity. It is a predicament that plagues modern life.
Patricia’s sudden admission of her desire to be a writer and Faulkner’s quote change the tone of the conversation. This introduces a mysterious quality to the character of Patricia. She lives in two worlds. One is the world of her independent life and reckless choices, where she befriends a man she knows next to nothing about. The other is her reading life where she finds clues about herself. Faulkner knows her better than his lover.
There is a suggestion of depth in Patricia that is missing in Michel. But living conditions have thrown Patricia at the mercy of chance encounters where it is difficult to find what she is looking for. She may not even know what she is looking for. The world of capitalist modernity is such that meaninglessness is encumbered with meaning. Between sorrow and nothing, between meaning and nonsense, Patricia will choose the first. Grief here is not an existential fact of life, something inevitable. Grief is the only source that offers meaning to the world where everything disappears before you know it. Meaning takes time to appear, in other words, meaning is time.
Modernity, like the French poet of the 19e century, Charles Baudelaire told us in his 1863 essay, “On the painter of modern life”, is “the ephemeral, the fleeting”. It’s a description of time and life, where speed is the norm. Modernity is the time of running out of steam. Time is running out of steam, meaning too.
Breathless announces Godard’s desire to probe the nature and language of love in post-war Europe. It foreshadows the sexual revolution of the late 1960s. This investigation is part of a cinematic preoccupation that is political and includes Godard’s lifelong engagement with the cultural ills of capitalism. The element of speed, however, is not simply a problem with capitalism alone. It is part of the scientific and technological innovations of modern life. Godard struggles with a new aesthetic to capture the fast-paced nature of the world. This makes him introduce the famous jump cut to the cinema. The jump cuts are an artificial device to create an unstable connection between space and time. The creation of jerky visuals disrupts the disorienting frame of vision. It approaches the way the surrealists imagined the nature of time through a game of the unconscious, and which corresponds to the strange character of our subjective experience. If cinema is an art of disbelief (or, the suspension of belief) which paradoxically offers us a glimpse of reality, this paradox must be reflected in the craft.
Living Your Life: Meaning What You Say
Godard’s 1962 film, Live your life (my life to liveWhere It’s my life), had a lasting impact on my mind for a number of reasons. Actress Anna Karina’s performance in the film is breathtaking, a word that loses its depth in commercial cinema. She plays Nana, a woman forced by circumstances to choose the life of a sex worker after leaving a marriage in hopes of becoming an actress.
Nana’s assertion of her independence and individuality is not compromised by accident. The doors of freedom promised by modernity are strewn with dangers of a structural nature. There is a link between social or civil morality and the law that creates circumstances in which Nana finds herself selling her body for money. Godard’s down-to-earth voice in the background (like reading a newspaper article) informs us about the legal issues and the aesthetic grid related to the work of a sex worker. There are laws in sex work that are not only legal but gestural. The sex worker is expected to obey the rules without her individuality getting in the way of her professional identity. The body becomes a conduit through which money changes hands in a brutally instrumental exchange economy.
Nana’s difficult situation is much more restrictive than that of Patricia. She is trapped in a world because of her economic condition which conditions her choices. In one unforgettable scene, Nana launches into a dance with haunting abandon around a pool table, trying to get a man’s attention, while her pimp, Raoul, sits in the background, secretly sells it to another mackerel.
Later, in a memorable conversation with a philosopher in a café, Nana told him,
“I know what I mean. First of all, I wonder if these are the right words. But when it comes time to speak, I can’t tell.
In response, the philosopher tells a story by the French writer Alexandre Dumas, where a man, Porthos, faces a moment of indecision while planting a bomb and is crushed to death. Nana shows her irritation at hearing such a distressing story. Then she said to the philosopher,
“Why do we always have to talk? I think that it is often necessary to be silent, to live in silence. The more we speak, the less the words have meaning. She adds, “Words should say exactly what you want to say. Are they betraying us? …Why do we have to…understand each other? The philosopher argues that it takes time (in abstinence) to learn to speak well. He says,
“Thus, to live speaking, one must pass through the death of life without speaking.”
Nana asks, “What do you think of love?” As the philosopher tries to explain it through Leibniz and German philosophy, Nana interrupts him: “Shouldn’t love be the only truth?
Nana is lost in an incomprehensible world of meanings. She’s no longer sure what words mean if they don’t mean what they’re supposed to mean, that is, if they don’t mean the truth. The gap between language and truth disturbs and disconcerts her. What he lacks in this false transaction between words and truth is love. Nana suspects that it is the absence of love that separates language from truth. Nana’s quest for truth is not a philosophical and abstract truth that the philosopher seems to explain to her, but rather truthfulness, the act of meaning what you say. Godard is intrigued by the nature of language in modernity. He is passionate about the way people speak and wants to probe the nature of speech. Cinema is speech, not writing. Nana understands the philosopher more than he understands her because she experiences the everyday structural deceptions of speech. The philosopher is caught up in abstractions. But life, Godard seems to tell us, is the best standard for measuring language (and ideas).
Some time later, in a hotel room, Nana spends time with a young man who reads passages from Edgar Allan Poe to her. The oval portrait. She falls in love with him and wants to quit her job. It may not be so much the exact nature of the text he is reading to her that arouses his emotion, but the fact that he has found her worthy of reading the book. He shares with her his ideal world from reading and literature. It is this gesture that establishes a sense of romance in her heart. The haunting background music of Michel Legrand’s film brilliantly accompanies the intensely silent grief that pursues Nana throughout the story.
In these two films, Godard paints memorable female characters who brave obstacles to defend what is precious to them: their vulnerability. In a world where time and language are pressed and where meaning is difficult to decipher from the anarchy of modern experience, Patricia and Nana make difficult choices and respect them. There are no guarantees in life except to live it. Godard’s films, with their technical innovations and aesthetic idiosyncrasies, testify to our difficult lives.
Manash Firaq Bhattacharjee is the author of Nehru and the Spirit of India (Viking Penguin, 2022), The city is slowly emptying: on life and culture during confinement(Copper Coin, 2021), and In search of the nation: towards another idea of India (Talking Tiger, 2018).