This post is the third in a series of essays for The Cineastes group. The Gambler was curated by Edouard Hill at Allan Gray’s Imagination. You can find links to the other articles in the series from here.
When I was a child, I remember being vaguely aware of what every youngster knows as “grownup movies”. They’re the ones your parents watch after you’ve gone to bed, or in the den with the door closed, curled up with a glass of wine. Don’t get me wrong, the aura that surrounds these films is not necessarily one of naughtiness or forbidden content, ie. something “you kids shouldn’t be watching.” For a child of the 80s, that distinction belonged to films like “Nightmare on Elm Street” or “The Gate”, basically kids’ films that were full of bloody, gorey thrills that would keep you up past your bed time, teeth chattering but unable to rip your eyes away from the screen. No, these “grownup movies” were more likely to be films that had no purchase in kid reality: high concept films, films about the dust and grit of everyday life, films about manipulative adult relationships — these areas appear somewhere far outside fo the realm of childhood and are therefore boring to a small mind longing for monsters, talking animals, flying carpets, and playground bullies brought to justice. So when my parents rented “The Accidental Tourist” or “Fatal Attraction”, I usually wandered off to play with my toys or colour pictures or some more interesting faire.
Occasionally, however, they would watch a “grownup movie” whose protagonists also happened to be children. These were often bildsungsroman/”coming of age” films – childhood seen through the lens of adulthood – and therefore held a kind of peculiar intrigue. These were films that seemed within the auspices of childhood, but were also somehow outside of it, and that double occupancy often drew me to them, pushing the limits of my own awareness and settling indelibly on my young brain, even if there were elements which made no kind of sense to me at the time. One such film was “My Life As A Dog”, which I first saw in 1988, and another was Louis Malle’s “Au Revoir L’Enfants”.
I mention all of this because Au Revoir L’Enfants is a movie that is itself concerned with that very shaky line between a child’s and an adult’s understanding of the world. When we first meet our young protagonist, Julien Quentin, he is crying into his shoulder at the train station, begging her not to make him go back to boarding school. There is nothing brattish or sissy about his manner, but he is picked on for his sensitivity by his older brother, who speaks to their mother with only half-disguised contempt.
Because this is a new wave film blog, I admit that with each of these Cineastes entries I do attempt to find some connection to the new wave, however small. Although this film has very little to do with the French New Wave, it does, however, have everything to do with the American New Wave – New Hollywood. Karel Reisz himself was also a graduate of British Free Cinema, a movement some refer to as the British New Wave for its similarities to the Nouvelle Vague. Whether or not New Hollywood and British Free Cinema are seen as parallel to, descendents of, or antithetical to the nouvelle vague is a discussion perhaps for another time. What they all had indisputably in common, however, were a sense of naturalism, a predilection for bittersweet endings, and a tendency to wax poetic about The Outsider, the anti-hero — all qualities, if you’ll pardon the pun, which The Gambler holds in spades.
This is not a 21-like story of a romantic card jockey who beats the system with his unorthodox tactics and cocky, Joe Cool attitude. This film is a modern interpretation of Doestoevsky’s The Gambler (1867), and it is, like the novel before it, a study of human weakness and compulsion and, essentially, an existential tragedy — not just because of the failure of the protagonist, but also for the societal mechanisms that drive him to his own private madness.
Not Even Anti-Hero
James Caan plays Axel Freed (Axel a near anagram of Alexei, the main character in Doestoevsky’s novel), a literature professor with a macho gambling addiction. The movie opens at a card table where Axel loses an astounding $44,000 over the course of a single evening.
What follows is not a typical story arc. We are not taken through various trials, to be lead at the end to Axel’s salvation. Axel, in fact, does not learn any lessons; he is not even an anti-hero, because there is very little that is heroic about his behaviour. Over the course of the movie we watch our protagonist gamble compulsively; look on gormlessly as a loan shark breaks the knuckles of a penniless client (as the man’s wife looks on in horror); finagle his hard-working mother out of her life savings, then blow it all almost immediately in Vegas; nearly rape his long-suffering girlfriend; convince a student to fix a basketball game to worm his way out of debt with the loan sharks, only to blow off his only friend to visit a whorehouse where he deliberately provokes the pimp into a bloody fight. The movie ends with the hooker slashing his face with a knife. He stumbles out of the room, blood pouring down his face, looks into the hallway mirror, and smiles.
What are we to make out of a movie like this? Are we supposed to enjoy it? No, but neither do we “enjoy” La Nausée or L’Etranger. What we have instead might be a feeling of wakening, a small and perhaps painful light burning through us as we consider that there may be something truthful about this character, something in him that is perhaps also in ourselves. This is not a story about human strength, it is not even primarily a story about human weakness. The Gambler is a treatise on freedom.
Freedom & Manhood
In Hemingway’s story “Soldier’s Home”, the protagonist, Krebs, returns home after years serving in the Great War, only to realise that he has become completely alienated from his family and friends. No one understands his war experiences, or wants to hear his stories about what it really felt like on the battlefields. They see him as a hero perhaps, but they no longer share his reality, one which has become fractured and reconstituted through the turbulence of war. He begins to feel restless and apathetic, and he fills his days with trivial activities, idling and playing pool. He can’t get a handle on normal, everyday life, because after the heightened reality of the war, everyday life feels unreal. During the war, there were times where he’d felt “cool and clear” inside, heroic, free to make the choice to do the “the one thing, the only thing for a man to do easily and naturally”. This natural expression of heroicism was crystallised only through danger and the risk that it could all go wrong. He was a man because he met those risks head on, faced them, and conquered them with courage and clarity of purpose. Back at home, he cannot help but become a slave to a set of social and societal customs which, without risk, are meaningless. He realises he can no longer express his true self, and thus is not free.
This suspicion that modern life, for all of its safeties and conveniences, might be meaningless or a trap, is not isolated in fiction to war veterans or ex-fighters. It is a common theme in existential literature (the aforementioned La Nausée and L’Etranger, Kafka, Doestoevsky and others). What is interesting is how this restlessness manifests itself. There is a reason, for instance, why Axel’s character is a college professor. He is, for all of his open-shirted machismo, an intellectual, and while some men express the need to master risk by getting involved with a sport, by skydiving, by becoming boxers or firemen or policemen — these things are not for Axel. He wants to pit his mind against the universe, to dominate at the most basic physical level of reality. He wants to bend fate to his will, amd to become the master of chance, he can only be a gambler.
If, when Axel gambles, he feels free — that doesn’t mean he isn’t an idiot. Reisz isn’t romanticising; by spending two hours with Axel we begin to understand that the tragedy of his character is only that he does not know how to live his life without courting death or ruin. He needs danger and risk, and the feeling of domination that comes through conquering those risks through gambling, more than he needs love, or career, or family. And it isn’t until his fear for his own life drives him to cheat, to dishonour himself by asking one of his students to fix a game, that his emotionless composure crumbles. The look on his face, when his debt is cleared, is not one of relief: but of failure. He hasn’t won. For Axel, even though his decision has saved his life, and even though he didn’t actually cause his student to lose the game, he knows his choice was the wrong choice. His Fate found him and he bended to its will – and instead of doing “the one thing, the only thing for a man to do”, he took the coward’s way out. He is ashamed. For Axel, it was never about the money, it was always about his potency as a man, and his misdeed has, for a time, gelded him.
To make up for his cowardice, Axel spurns his friend’s suggestion of celebration and immediately drives to a brothel/bar where he first picks a fight with a hooker, then her pimp. “What is wrong with that guy?” we think as the pimp pulls out a switchblade. “How could he possibly be such an idiot? He just cleared all of his debt – shouldn’t he be grateful for this second chance and just start living his life?” But what does a man like Axel have to live for now that he has seen the shape of his own cowardice? No, he has to prove to himself that he would be willing to give up his life. He needs some event to stand in for the decision he should have made when the loan sharks began to pressure him to choose between money and his honour. So when the pimp pulls out his knife, Axel only is doing what comes naturally.
I think Georges Franju’s Eyes Without A Face was the first “new wave” (if you, like Jean Douchet, would call it new wave) film I ever saw. I was 18 and living in New York City’s East Village by myself. I had a rumpled copy of The Village Vioice and, being a country girl from Ohio and having never heard of a “repertory cinema” before, I thought I’d strike out with the sort of adventurous spirit a smalltown person gets when staying in the city for the first time, and camp out for a few nights at The Angelika (or The Village East Cinema I think it’s properly called). I’m sure I saw six or seven movies then, but I only remember two. Eyes Without A Face, and a fantastic documentary about Nina Hagen (“Nina Hagen = Punk + Glory”), presented by Peter Sempel.
I barely remember the plot of Eyes Without A Face, but I do, with perfect clarity, remember the imagery. The bandaged heads. The car along the riverbank at night. The ghostly house with the masked girl floating across the hallway, the dogs barking. Franju has a way of using nighttime mis-en-scene and Twilight Zone-ish pacing to create these hauntingly memorable moments that imprint, daguerreotype-like, in one’s brain.
No different is Franju’s first feature film La tête contre les murs (Head Against the Wall), which I had the pleasure of seeing a few weeks ago at the NFT in London — a real treat as the film is out of print and not available on DVD (update: apparently they are releasing it in September 09! hooray!). Unlike Eyes Without A Face, Head Against the Wall is not a horror story — at least not of the blood and gore and mad scientist variety. It is, however, undoubtedly the stuff of nightmares.
The story opens with our hero riding his motorcycle through the shadowy countryside night. François (Jean-Pierre Mocky, who also wrote the adaptation of Herve Bazin’s original novel) is a French rebel-without-a-cause. He rides around in a leather jacket, smoking and going to beatnik clubs and talking to girls. He also spurns his wealthy lawyer father, who one night catches François stealing his cash and gleefully burning his rather important-looking documents.
After a bitter argument, Francois’s father uses his medical contacts to put his son in a mental institution, ostensibly to cure him of his “anti-social” behaviour. What follows is a series of Francois’s escape attempts (one successful before he is caught), through Franju’s unique double lens of filmic style and substance. For one, Franju keeps one eye on the surreal beauty of the asylum itself: the train that chugs through the forest, the Rappaccini-like greenhouse, the walled cemetery, the dream-like gambling den whose inhabitants seem just as stony and absent, if not more so, than the statue-like patients at the hospital who suddenly animate and come to life when they join hands and march in a circle. At the same time, Franju does not want us to forget the theme, that the politics of an asylum are such that, once imprisoned, whether or not you are sane or insane is completely immaterial. All that matters, as in a fascist state, is that you obey and behave. In order to gain his freedom, Francois knows he must first become an obedient subject of his doctors, to agree that he is ill, and thus – in a way – to escape the asylum he must first give up his sanity.
This isn’t exactly an original idea, but I find it interesting that La tête contre les murs was released in 1959. Foucault published the french version of Madness & Civilisation in 1961. Ken Kesey wrote One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest in 1959, but didn’t publish it until 1962. The Rosenhan experiments were in 1972. So, while Herve Bazin’s novel and Franju’s movie were probably addressing something already at the crest of people’s consciousness, they were among the first to articulate it. I do wonder what effect, if any, La tête contre les murs had on any of these later works…
I’m leaving a lot out (this is by no means meant to be a proper review – just my impressions really), but I wanted to make a final note about the visuals. I was looking on Google for an image of the one frame from the film which most stuck in my mind – that of the archway-like copse of trees through which Francois rides his motorbike at the beginning of the film. In my search for the perfect image, I was surprised to find that I was not alone in liking this image. I found this thread on Criterion that draws some interesting parallels:
I haven’t seen Maldone so can’t draw any narrative parrallels (I hope one of you will, though!).There’s something about this image with the trees, though, which for me acts as a kind of multi-layered metaphor for the atmosphere for the whole film: the trees alone and divided from their landscape, a tunnel into darkness which can’t be contextualised sensically into its environment, and finally the idea that beauty exists only in the non-conformation of an individual thing to its environment. A riot of red roses to an eye used to fields of green. Fields of green to an eye used to pavements. The crooked tree. The supermodel. The ruined church. We pick out things as beautiful because they are remarkable. Because they are memorable and perhaps even strange, even if only in the context of our own hierarchy of perception. But in any case, they do not conform to their surroundings. They are not subjugate. They are insane.
Back to Cartier-Bresson… Rather than comment on his photo specifically, I was thinking about his ouevre and the sorts of things he captures and also something he said once that I often think about when I’m watching a Franju film. He said, “As time passes by and you look at portraits, the people come back to you like a silent echo. A photograph is a vestige of a face, a face in transit. Photography has something to do with death. It’s a trace.”
That is, in a nutshell, a Franju film. If the “new wave” is often cited as stylistically about capturing small moments in time, and enlarging and examining them, the image and the detail as being on higher ground than the grand narrative (Cartier-Bresson also said, “smallest thing can be a great subject. The little human detail can become a leitmotif.” He was clearly sympathetic to that idea!), then Franju’s films are dark memories: “a vestige of a face, a face in transit.” Even in a film like this one, which is more about human failing than death, there is everywhere the whiff of death, the atmosphere of the corpse. The epileptic’s gruesome suicide, the cemetery scene, the odd zombie-like manner of the players in the gambling den, the feeling — as Francois was being pulled by the asylum attendents down the stairs of his lover’s apartment — of being buried alive. When I watch (early) Godard, I often feel like I am being born. When I watch Franju I often feel like I am dying. But it’s a beautiful death, nonetheless.
That’s all. I would love to hear what other people thought of/think of this film!
ps. You can see the trailer here.
pps. The “Frank Sinatra of France”, Charles Aznavour, as Francois’s epileptic nautically-infatuated friend, is wonderful, wonderful, wonderful in La tête contre les murs. It’s one of his earliest performances in film and perhaps also one of his most deeply moving and best.
This post is the first in a series of essays for The Cineastes group. Ugetsu was curated by Matthias at Framed. You can find links to the other articles in the series from here or at the end of this article.
In 1959, the year Les Quatre Cents Coups took Cannes by storm, officially kicking of the Nouvelle Vague, Francois Truffaut listed his top 10 films of the year in Cahiers du Cinema. Among them, and second only to Ingmar Bergman’s Brink of Life, was Kenji Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu Monogatari, a ghost story of breathtaking visual beauty.
Ugetsu was first released in Japan in 1953, but wasn’t officially released in Europe until the late 1950s. My rather shabby BFI copy was perhaps not the best translation (I get the feeling from reading some of the other Cineastes blogposts that the Criterion version might be slightly more poetic), but regardless, it was hard not to be impressed.
I suppose I should confess that I am not an expert on Japanese cinema or culture. I did have a friend once in college who was really into anime and spoke Japanese, and through her I got a brief glimpse into a world of baroque fashion and bizarre but wonderful art cartoons for grownups. When I was living in Italy, I used to camp out at the British Institute Library and read whatever books I could find. One of my favourites was The Pillow Book of Sei Shonogan, written in 1002 AD and, I remember, a book which struck me as being both a beautiful and poetic take on prosaic Imperial court life, and also an illuminating insight into just how civilised and almost modern Japanese culture was at a time when Aethelred was out cleaving the Danes.
Observe this passage, which reads almost like a more aesthetic version of something by contemporary poet Mike Topp (I’m thinking “Aqueduct Quatrains” — scroll down) or a short story by Richard Brautigan.
Words That Look Commonplace but That Become Impressive When Written in Chinese Characters:
A prickly water-lily
A Doctor of Literature
A Provisional Senior Steward in the Office of the Emperor’s Household
Knotweed is a particularly striking example, since it is written with the characters for “tiger’s stick.” From the look on a tiger’s face one would imagine that he could do without a stick.
My general impression of Japanese culture, then, has for a long time been of a people who value metaphor and visual beauty as a cultural way of life. How correct this assumption is, I have no idea, because I have never lived in Japan. But watching Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu struck the same echoing note in my brain — both bitter and beautiful, like ink and tea — and I generally pay attention to those invisible connections of memory that seem to take place just below my own consciousness. This was a window not just into a great filmmakers imagination, but also into an imagination that was uniquely Japanese. I therefore tried, with some degree of humility, to digest it with an open mind, although also mindful that like Wittgenstein’s lion, I might never fully understand it in the way it was originally intended.
The Plot (WARNING: Spoilers!)
The plot of Ugetsu is both supernatural and allegorical, two intersecting faery tales of the sort you might hear while sitting cross-legged around a campfire. We are introduced to two couples living in relative but not desperate poverty. Genjuro and his wife Miyagi, who make pots to sell in the nearby villages, and Tobei and his wife Ohama, their assistants who also help care for their young son, Genichi. Tobei has dreams of becoming a famous samurai, while Genjuro only dreams of being rich, despite the fact that the life he has with Miyagi and their son is a happy one.
One day, Genjuro goes to the nearby village and returns with a great deal of money. It seems that the village is preparing for war and there is such a great need for pots that Genjuro sold them all within a matter of hours. Determined to make as much wealth as he can from the situation, Genjuro and Miyagi labour day and night to produce enough pots to take to the nearest city. There is a scene, after Genjuro has bought his wife a lovely new kimono, where Miyagi expresses doubt about their quest for greater wealth. An old man has warned her against trying to make money in a time of conflict and she says that she always thought she was happy until Genjuro suggested that money might make them happier. Genjuro ignores her and plods on, losing his temper with Genichi when the boy tries to interrupt him from his pottery making.
Just as they finish making their pots and set them in the kiln to fire, war breaks out in the village and soldiers invade the two couples’ land. Rather than flee with the other villagers to the mountains, Genjuro is reluctant to leave his still firing pots, certain they would be destroyed by the soldiers and unwilling to give up his dreams of riches. While his wife and child flee, albeit belatedly, to the mountains, Genjuro stays to guard the pots, refusing the leave the kiln lest the fire go out and ruin the pots. Eventually, Genjuro also goes into the woods, but after Tobei disappears he returns to watch over the kiln with Miyagi in his wake, only to discover that the fire has gone out. After almost being caught by soldiers, miraculously, they discover that the pots have survived. They manage to sneak them out but as the road to the village is not blocked, the couple, Genichi, Tobei and Ohama, decide to take the pots across a large lake where they can sell them for more money. Ohama, the daughter of a boatman, takes them across a mist-covered lake.
They are well on their way when they encounter another boat which at first looks unoccupied, but is in fact manned by a single passenger, lying down on the floor of the boat. They worry that he is an evil spirit, but the man instead tells them to take care, that the lake is full of pirates who stole his things and nearly killed him. The man dies, and worried for their wives’ safety, Genjuro and Tobei insist that they go back to shore. Ohama, however, who is childless and also a fine oarswoman, refuses to leave the boat. But because Miyagi has a responsibility to Genichi, Genjuro leaves her on the shore, promising to come back for her once he has sold enough pots to make them all rich.
Here, the story splits. Genjuro, Tobei, and Ohama make it safely to the market in the city where Genjuro’s pottery sells very well. Meanwhile, with the village still under attack, Miyagi must go into hiding with Genichi. They are at first helped by an old woman who gives them food. She escapes to the woods, but she and Genichi are attacked by a few stragglers from the army, who steal her food (as she protests that it is for her son!) and stab her in the stomach. She clutches more tightly to Genichi and travels on despite her injury.
Meanwhile, back in the city, Tobei has wandered away from the market stall with some of his earnings and gets distracted by a stall displaying fine armour for a samurai. Ohama chases after him, determined to stop him from spending their money on a useless suit of armour. Tobei hides from Ohama, who in her mad search for her husband becomes lost amongst the crowds, unable to find her way back to Genjuro. Meanwhile, Tobei sneaks away to buy the armour and a spear, convinced that the armour will make him accepted amongst the samurai.
Ohama, still lost, finds her way to a deserted beach where she is brutally raped by soldiers who, either as an act of dishonour or confusion, throw money at her broken body. She curses her husband, and stumbles away.
While all of this is happening, Genjuro is still at the market stall selling his pots. A beautiful woman, Lady Wakasa, and her attendant, an old woman, approach the stall and buy some of the most expensive of Genjuro’s pieces. He is told that he must deliver the pots to Wakasa Manor, their estate, and he eagerly complies. On the way to the manor, he imagines himself buying Miyagi a hundred beautiful kimonos with the money he will earn. When he reaches the manor, however, he finds it nearly deserted. Lady Wakasa tells him that soldiers have killed the other inhabitants of the manor, including her father who still haunts its walls. She claims that she and her attendant alone escaped, but that she is in great need of a man to be her husband and run the household.
Because she is very beautiful, she easily seduces Genjuro – especially when he finds that she has long been a fan of his pottery and owns many of his older pieces. He marries her and the world seems transformed into one of pure pleasure. He forgets all about Miyagi and for a time, possibly months or even years, lives happily with Lady Wakasa, although he feels a strange, underlying feeling of unease. One day, he goes into the city to buy kimonos and supplies for Lady Wakasa. When Genjuro tells the seller who they are for, the seller stops talking to Genjuro, passes him the goods he has asked for and tells him to leave. Genjuro is confused by this, but leaves the store. On his way out of the village, he meets a wise man who tells him Lady Wakasa’s story. The inhabitants of her manor house indeed were all killed, Lady Wakasa among them, and that she must therefore be a spirit. The wiseman promises to help Genjuro, and draws mystic symbols all over his body for protection.
Meanwhile, after being laughed at by the samurai, Tobei ventures toward the enemy camp and hides behind a rock while a soldier mercy-kills his mortally wounded commander by beheading him. When the soldier has turned his back, Tobei quickly leaps forth and spears him through the torso. Tobei steals the head of the war commander, and brings in back to the samurai who laughed at him. He tells an impressive lie about killing the commander bravely in battle, and awed by his prowess, the samurai leader gives him a horse and a small attachment of men.
Genjuro returns to the Manor House with his good and Lady Wakasa is pleased. She asks him to return with her to “her homeland” (presumably the spiritworld), but Genjuro refuses, confessing at last about his wife and child. Lady Wakasa is still determined to take him back to the spirit world and she tries to grab him, but the symbols on his body protect him. She pleads with him, for love, to come with her. Her attendant tells Genjuro that she brought Lady Wakasa back to the real world to experience love, as she never had the chance to feel love before she died. This, however, is her only chance, and by spurning her Genjuro is condemning her to a lifetime of loneliness in the spirit world. Undaunted, Genjuro grabs a sword and begins to threaten the spirits with it. The spirits recede into the shadows and Genjuro flees from the Manor and into the reeds outside. He collapses from fright.
When he awakes, still clutching the sword, he is approached by a party of men who accuse him of stealing it. When he tries to refer them to the house, he sees that all that remains in a burnt ruin. The men explain that the house was destroyed in a war many years ago.
Meanwhile Tobei, riding proudly down the street on his horse and with his retinue, is surrounded by adoring crowds. He is determined, however, to go home to Ohama – to show her that he has become a samurai at last. In the streets he is stopped by a prostitute, however, who convince him to come to their brothel one last time. When he arrives, Tobei spots Ohama arguing with another customer and realises that she has been working as a prostitute. She is angry and bitter and tells him how he has dishonoured her, and how after he abandoned her she was forced into this life style after being taken advantage of by the soldiers. She was happy as his wife when he was a simple peasant, but now she wants to die. A changed man, Tobei promises to buy back her honour and we presume he sells his horse and armour as we next see the couple back on the peasant shacks where they started, albeit a bit wiser.
Genjuro also returns to the original settlement, desperate to see Miyagi and Genichi. It is nighttime and he finds Genichi fast asleep on the floor of his old hut. The hut is somewhat worse for wear, but Miyagi is there, sewing. She doesn’t want to hear about what has happened to Genjuro, she is just happy that he is safe. She tends to him quietly and convinces him to rest while she mends the kimono he bought for her. She does not sleep, but sits quietly watching over her sleeping husband and child.
When Genjuro awakes, Miyagi is gone. A neighbour stops by – he is looking for Genichi, who has been staying with him for the past few months (years?). He says the boy must have returned to his old home in the middle of the night. Genjuro, confused, calls for Miyagi, but the neighbour tells him he must be dreaming. Miyagi died from the stab wound she received on her way back to the hut.
Next we see Genjuro back at work at his potters’ wheel. Tobei and Ohama are there, as is Genichi, and we hear Miyagi’s voice, saying she will always be with Genjuro and her family, her spirit is watching over them. She tells him he is now the man she always wanted him to be.
Ghost Story & Cautionary Tale
Like Nakagawa’s Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan or Kobayashi’s Kwaidan, Ugetsu is in the tradition of the Japanese ghost story or “kaidan”. A kaidan is not just a horror story, it is an old fashioned ghost story which carries connotations of the Edo Period of Japan (1603 – 1868), also the period in which Ugetsu takes place. Ugetsu itself is based on a book of short kaidan stories, published in 1776 called Ugetsu Monogatari (Tales of Moonlight and Rain) by Ueda Akinari and supposedly also, strangely, a story by Guy de Maupassant. I was curious about these stories and how they might possibly have been woven together, so I looked them up!
The results were interesting, but not exactly what I was expecting. It seems that the film Ugetsu is mainly taken from two of the stories in the original book, “The Reed-Choked House” and “A Serpent’s Lust“. In “The Reed-Choked House” a husband returns home and is reunited for one night with the wife he has been separated from for years, then wakes to find that she is long dead. In “A Serpent’s Lust“, a man encounters a beautiful woman who is actually a demon-serpent intent on seducing him. To Miyagi and to Lady Wakasa, the similarities are there, but loosely interpretted.
The de Maupassant story, “How He Got The Legion Of Honour“, seems only vaguely related to the film — I’m surprised its even quoted as an influence as its only relationship to the film’s story seems to be that it’s about a cowardly man who wants to wear the trappings of a soldier at any cost. But beyond that, there is no connection. The way in which the man achieves the medals, his circumstances, and what he learns — except perhaps for the fact that he loses his wife! — are completely different.
In other words, this is not a filmic version of a classic book. Rather, we get the idea that in creating Ugetsu, Mizoguchi was inspired by the atmosphere of the kaidan, but that the completed work is, in fact, wholly his. It is true that Ugetsu, like all faery tales, is essentially a moral tale about the price of greed and vanity. But in Mizoguchi’s hands it becomes something more than just a faery tale or ghost story. He takes these traditional forms and turns them into a kind of waking dream, something more than the sum of its parts.
Spirits and The Mist
Some movies are hinged upon plot. Some are hinged upon character. Still others are hinged upon style alone. But Ugestu is a film that is clearly hinged upon atmosphere. Almost every scene either evokes the thump and grit of the real world, or the swirling ethereality that is the world of the spirits.
Nearly everyone remarks upon the scene in the mists, when the four central characters first attempt to cross Lake Biwa towards Nagahama. This sort of scene is not a cinematic first — there is a similar scene in FW Murnau’s Sunrise, for example — but it is evocative nonetheless. Perhaps it is doubly striking because we sense in it something foreboding, a subtle change in tone in the film. Up until this scene, the story is rooted firmly in the world of the real. The sound is mostly diagetic — footsteps running through the woods during the escape scene, the clinking of the pots. In the boat, we hear Ohama singing a ghostly, mournful song and the mists descend, as if invoked. It is as if also she were invoking the supernatural second half of the film. Before they meet the man lying at the bottom of his boat, Miyagi prophetically remarks, “It is good we went by boat. If we had gone on foot we would be dead by now.” She dies on foot, but the mists are the veil she passes through on route to her own death. The boat is not only taking them to Nagahama, it is taking them to a new world, where their dreams as they know them — the dreams they discuss so cheerfully on board — will all die. Tobei’s dream of becoming a samurai, Genjuro’s dream of wealth, Ohama’s honour, Miyagi’s life. All of these things the mists take away.
When they meet the man at the bottom of the boat, they proclaim, “The ghost of the lake!” He is not a ghost, but he is the omen of ghosts to come. The scenes at Lady Wakasa’s manor are not bloody, gorey, or horrific, but they are nonetheless haunting and strange, full of strange music, shadows, smoke, and silence. From these clues, we can ascertain early that there is something not quite right about Lady Wakasa and her attendent. Their home, despite its beauty, is like a tomb – their lives are simple and empty and free of complication, like those of the dead. But when our fears are confirmed, when we learn that she is, like her strange smoky father, quite dead, we fell less horrified and are moved to pity. She never achieved her heart’s desire, and through Genjuro’s selfishness is doomed to walk eternity alone forever. The world of spirits in Ugetsu, then, is not a world of corpses but one of unfulfilled dreams.
But fulfilled dreams are just as dangerous. Both Tobei and Genjuro achieve what they desire in Nagahama. Tobei becomes a samurai and Genjuro lives as a lord in a mighty mansion, but both find these dreams fulfilled, ultimately unfulfilling. Once he is a samurai, Tobei wanders as if a ghost, only dreamily aware that something is missing in his life, that he wants to see his wife but has no real concept of what might have happened to her. When he finds her, he is shocked out of his “slumber”. So what is the lesson then? If Lady Wakasa and Tobei, three quarters of the way through the film, occupy opposite ends of the spectrum of fulfilled desire — if both, in their own way, live in a state of suspended animation, separated from real life — what relationship should we have with our dreams? Mizoguchi’s answer may be with the final ghost of the film, Miyagi.
Miyagi is the only character in Ugetsu who transitions from living person to spirit, and when she reappears near the end of the film, she too is a creature of unfulfilled desire. However, where Genjuro desires wealth, and Tobei desires fame, and Wakasa desires someone to love her – Miyagi only desires the safety and happiness of her husband. She is dead, but because her desires are simple and unselfish, she is not doomed to wander eternity unfulfilled. She remains always at Genjuro’s side, spirit world and reality intermingled. She has lived a spiritual life, so she is able to experience an earthly death, and by straddling both worlds, and by guiding Genjuro into a similar way of being, she is fulfilled.
Mizoguchi Style & Substance
So what of the nouvelle vague? What about this film so endeared it to them? For all of its moral underpinnings, this is a movie that is more than a little concerned with filmic style.
The camera-work, quoted by the cinematographer as being on a crane “70% of the time” floats ghost-like in and around the scenes. When the soldiers attack Miyagi it is not in close-up, but from a distance, like in Godard’s Les carabiniers or Week End – the mechanical, inhumanity of violence. Godard, in fact, declared Mizoguchi “the greatest of Japanese filmmakers, or quite simply one of the greatest of filmmakers.” And is it any wonder? Mizoguchi has used filmic style to create atmosphere and feeling which gives the viewer a portal into the meaning of the film itself, and this transformation of style to substance is one of the main goals of the directors of the Nouvelle Vague.
As a westerner watching this film for the first time, I can only guess that there are layers of reference and meaning that I will never understand. But it’s a testament to this film that easterners and westerners alike are made to feel included in Ugetsu. Like any fairy tale, it uses faraway places and strange experiences to tell us more about ourselves.
Other Ugetsu posts from The Cineastes:
Ugetsu@Hope Lies at 24 Frames A Second (Adam Batty)
Ugetsu@The Bronze (Adam Cook)
Ugetsu@YGG’Noise (Eugene Lee)
Ugetsu@Allan Gray’s Imagination (Edouard Hill)
Ugetsu@Framed (Matthias Galvin)
Ugetsu@Serious About Cinema (Tom Day)
Ugetsu@Inertial Frame (Witkacy)
NEXT IN THE SERIES >>> THE GAMBLER
Nouvelle Vague: 50 Years On Conference. Part 4: “Channel Crossings: Free Cinema and New Wave in the UK”
Day 1 of the symposium concluded with an extended discussion of the Nouvelle Vague in the UK with a panel of luminaries which included the veteran film critics Charles Barr and Philip French, as well as director Stephen Frears, looking characteristically rumpled.
Simularities between the British Free Cinema movement of the 1950’s and the Nouvelle Vague have been remarked upon before and Christophe Dupin, an expert on the movement, made a strong case for their parallel development. Points in common included:
1) A violent rejection of their respective commercial national cinemas and an unconditional support for a small number of American directors (ie. Hitchcock and Hawks for the Nouvelle Vague and John Ford for the Free Cinema crew)
2) Both movements gathered initially around a film journal in whose pages a seminal work of criticism was written which broke with tradition and called for a new cinema (Truffaut’s “A Certain Tendency of French Cinema” in Cahiers du Cinema, and Lindsay Anderson’s “Stand Up! Stand Up!” in Sight and Sound.)
3) The importance of a national cinema as a platform for a new kind of cinephilia (The Cinematheque Francais and The National Film Theatre)
4) The directors of both movements relied on skillful technicians to break new ground.
5) The sudden availability of new film stocks and cameras which allowed hand-held location filming, often at night, which gave a sense of realism and therefore authenticity to their productions.
Using slides to back up his assertion that there were a number of connections between the two movements, Dupin showed us a free cinema programme put on at the NFT in 1959 which introduced British audiences for the first time to work by Claude Chabrol and Francois Truffaut. We were also shown letters from Lindsay Anderson to Truffaut praising his work and generally offering support.
Dupin’s obvious admiration for the Free Cinema filmmakers was not shared by Charles Barr who spoke next. He asserted that it was in fact Movie, the magazine he wrote for, which was the true counterpart to Cahiers du Cinema. It was they, he said, who had introduced the concept of the auteur to Britain rather than Sight and Sound. Still harbouring resentment towards Lindsay Anderson for dismissing Andre Bazin in an article from the time, he made it clear that he and his colleagues had not thought much of either free cinema or the feature films of the British new wave. Indeed, in his view it was quite ridiculous to put them on the same level as the films of the Nouvelle Vague.
Stephen Frears, a young Cambridge graduate at the time, who had assisted some of the British new wave directors, on both their filmwork and with theatre productions at the Royal Court, pointed out that the British new wave directors had different priorities. They were less interested in aesthetics, more in breaking down class structures. Their films were generally adapted from successful books and plays, and while less revolutionary, were well crafted and successful in what they set out to achieve.
Philip French sidestepped this debate and instead described what it had been like encountering these daring new films from France for the first time. Although seen now as a distinct collection of films, at the time, he explained, they were just another part of a greater flood of films and art which were transforming a grey, stultified Britain into the place it would become in the swinging, technicolour 60s. It was an exciting time and the start of a period in which European cinema was suddenly challenging Hollywood. Even mainstream moviegoers were suddenly turning up at the local ABC to see the latest Bergman or Godard.
This was contrasted by Jonathan Romney with the contemporary situation in which the auteurs of the nouvelle vague are finding it increasingly difficult to get their films distributed in the UK beyond a few art cinemas. “The films being released at the time of the new wave are better than anything that’s come out in the last twenty years,” asserted an older member of the audience, and it was hard to disagree with him. “We try our best,” said Stephen Frears, at which point, as if to underline his commitment, he ducked out of the hall, scarf flying, no doubt on important filmmaking business.
Overall, despite the fact that no really solid conclusions were reached, it was an enjoyable discussion. I happen to agree with Christophe Dupin, that the development of the New Waves in France and Britain were remarkably similar. Truffaut’s oft quoted claim that there was a certain incompatibility between the words “British” and “Cinema” was written in the early 50s, a relative lowpoint in this nation’s film output. In later years he relented and the films of the British new wave were instrumental in changing his mind. They may not have been as groundbreaking as the films of the Nouvelle Vague but some terrific films came out of that time. Who could forget Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner or Billy Liar? And as far as influence goes, try watching This Sporting Life and Raging Bull back to back and tell me the former wasn’t a key influence on the latter.
The world in the 1960s was a world on fire with change and revolution. I have often thought it strange, then, that when it comes to the Nouvelle Vague, politics are not often discussed. Yes, there was the Left Bank Group, staunchly political in their alliances with the communist party. But what about Truffaut, or Chabrol, or Godard before 1968? Did they care about the student strikes, war, and civil rights? Were they really, as is generally murmured about academic circles, right-wing radicals and fascist sympathisers? How could they be fascists, when their films were so humane? What exactly was going on there?
Because he dared to go where few have dared before, Antoine de Baecque‘s lecture on the politics of the New Wave was not only illuminating, but exciting as well and, for me, the highlight of the conference.
Content versus style.
In order to understand de Baecque’s points, it’s probably helpful to get a rough idea of what it meant in 1950s France to be either “left-wing” or “right-wing”. Every country, every time period, and every group has its own slightly unique take on the political spectrum. In the contemporary US, for example – to be “right-wing” is to uphold traditional and often religious social values, and to emphasise as little government interference as possible with either fiscal activities or people’s every day lives (as long as traditional values are not challenged). “Left-wing” thinking, on the other hand, emphasises fairness and equality for both majority and minority groups, progressive social values, and a government that is designed to interfere in order to keep greed and human failings in check (even if this often means limiting fiscal freedom). In the UK, however, Conservatives are often focused on conservation of the environment (but still bent on fiscal freedom), while the left-wing Labour party believes in widescale privitisation (but is still bent on protecting the rights of minority groups). In Nazi Germany, “right-wing” meant traditional patriotic values and a dictatorship bent on enforcing those values on other parts of the world. In Stalinist Russia, “left-wing” meant a communist government organised to enforce absolute equality within its populace (whether people wanted it or not!). You get the picture. Left or Right, politics can be quite complex.
For our purposes, however, we can understand that in post-war France, intellectuals tended to fall on one of two specific sides: “Left-wing” humanists, who believed that all art should have a social purpose or message, and “right-wing” freedomists, who believed that art should be able to exist for its own sake, or in fact only to express the truth.
In film, this boiled down to the question: “Which is more important? A socially progressive film? Or an aesthetically progressive one?” Politics had drawn a line between the filmic camps of “content” and “style”.
Chabrol and the “little theme”.
While The 400 Blows breakout success at Cannes in 1959 is often cited as the official start of the French New Wave, most consider the first film of the Nouvelle Vague to be Claude Chabrol’s Le Beau Serge (1958), a film about a man, Francois, who returns home to his village after a long absence, only to find everyone still living in poverty and misery. Francois attempts to transform the lives of the villagers by organising them, and although he succeeds to some small degree, it is without much cooperation from the villagers themselves and most of the characters are left in the end to contend with their own stupidity. Leftists like Luis Bunuel and philosopher Roland Barthes immediately leapt on this film as right-wing propaganda – claiming that it imposed a static image of man and, specifically, a static and uncompassionate image of the poor. Roland Barthes wrote in his critique:
The peasants drink. Why? Because they’re very poor and have nothing to do. Why this misery, this abandon? Here the investigation stops or becomes sublimated: they are undoubtedly stupid in essence, it’s their nature One certainly isn’t asking for a course in political economy on the causes of rural poverty. But an artist should acknowledge his responsibility for the terms he assigns to his explanations. [The political Right have] this fascination with immobility, which makes one describe outcomes without ever asking about, I won’t say causes… but functions.
But more than opposing the content of New Wave films, the Left opposed the anarchic style of the films, and they hated the way the Cahiers directors often seemed to prioritise style over substance, or rather to derive their substance from style itself. The Cahiers group were not exploring grand moral themes, they were exploring “little themes” and “micro-realities” and they were drawing few conclusions about what they found there. This, to the 1950s french bourgeois Left, was irresponsible and a reprehensible occupation for art.
But not everyone believed that art was indentured to social purpose. Chabrol responded to Barthes in the Cahiers du Cinema, by then already gaining a reputation as a “right-wing” film journal, saying that “there is no such thing as a ‘big theme’ and a ‘little theme’, because the smaller the theme is, the more one can give it a big treatment. The truth is, truth is all that matters.” That, simply, was the crux of the argument between Left and Right. The Left wanted a utilitarian art of grand moral transformation, the Right just wanted to play with and examine reality and the truth.
While he didn’t explore the conflict between Barthes and Chabrol specifically, de Baecque did make a list of properties that the members Cahiers group informally associated with the kind of film they wanted to make, properties which directly opposed the manifestos and ideologies of their left-wing contemporaries. They are not, in themselves, a manifesto but they do shed some light on what might have been going on in the minds of the Cahiers directors in those early years:
- a film’s moral position should be in its form and style, not in an underlying social message in its narrative
- content is subject to style (aka dandyism)
- short sentences and “micro-realisms” are preferrable to long discourses or discussions in film
- asking questions is more important than finding answers
- emphasise complexity
- emphasise confusion
- present what is real without trying to orient the audience
This was the stuff to short-circuit the tempers of the bourgeois Left! Underlying all of these ideas, said de Baecque, was less an antithetical ideology than a spirit of youthful, anti-bourgeois rebellion, a desire to shake things up and kick down the old guard any way it could. It was not around Chabrol, however, that this spirit would eventually coalesce — it was Francois Truffaut.
Truffaut the fascist communist.
While Godard and many of the “Young Turks” were born into comfortable, middle class families, Truffaut’s childhood reads very much like the plot of the (mostly autobiographical) 400 Blows: he was born to an unwed and impoverished mother who mostly ignored him, he endured regular beatings and scorn from his stepfather, he was institutionalised in a home for “problem children” as an adolescent, joined the army, discharged dishonourably, and contracted venereal disease from a variety of prostitutes. His early life was about as far a cry from Louis Malle’s “silver spoon” upbringing as one could imagine.
He was also, while the youngest member of the Cahiers group of directors, the indisputable leader of the movement. In his early 20s, with almost no formal education, he was hailed as one of the greatest film critics of the twentieth century and his words were fuelled by a burning desire to shake up the status quo.
And shake it up he did. Over the course of his career as a critic, he wrote 528 articles for Arts-Lettres-Spectacles and 170 for Cahiers du Cinema, both considered bastions for the right-wing intelligentsia of the time. Many of these articles were brutal attacks on the French “cinema of quality”, the type of high-minded, literary period films supported by the Left and held in esteem at festivals, often regarded as “untouchable” to criticism. These included films by directors such as Claude Autant-Lara, Jean Delannoy and Yves Allégret and screenwriters such as Jean Aurenche and Pierre Bost, and Truffaut hated every one.
His famous 1954 article “Une Certaine tendance du cinéma française” (“A Certain Tendancy of the French Cinema”) in Cahiers lambasted the “cinema of quality” and electrified many of his colleagues into action. Truffaut’s restless and youthful spirit infected Godard and Rivette and others at Cahiers and, heeding his call, many were inspired to move beyond simply writing about film and to become directors. “The Nouvelle Vague was youth, it did not recreate it,” said de Baecque in his lecture. ” The New Wave were only able to capture the spirit of youth, of their time and of history, because they were against it.” One thing was clear. With “Une Certaine tendance”, the New Wave had formally declared war on what were currently perceived as France’s greatest “artistic” films, the Left’s “cinema of quality”. And, once the guantlet had been dropped, it was only a matter of time before the Left responded. Churning out pages of vitriolic criticism, they denounced the New Wave, and even accused Truffaut of being a fascist.
Truffaut, of course, adored it. Like Johnny Rotten or Lenny Bruce, Truffaut so loved stirring up the self-righteousness of the bourgeois Left that he even went out of his way to antagonise them. He defended censorship imposed on American films, praised a film text written by a Nazi collaborator and even paid tribute to the French monarchy. In short, he gave them every excuse to call him a fascist. But Truffaut’s true political inclinations were somewhat more complex.
Truffaut’s mentor and surrogate father figure after he left the army (and indeed the one who helped to get him out in the first place) was Andre Bazin. In the late 40s and 50s, Bazin was one of the most influential cinema critics in France and in 1951 went on to found the Cahiers du Cinema. Bazin was a leading intellectual and wrote a number of favorable essays about Stalinist works. He was also a Catholic, and refused to bend to the Leftist pressure which mounted after the war at many of the film magazines, a milieu which demanded that critics positively review Russian and European communist pictures for their moral messages, but negatively review American films for their capitalist bent, even if they were thought to have aesthetic value. Because Bazin praised films by Orson Welles and Howard Hawks for their form and stylistic innovation, both he and his theories were labelled “right-wing” by the Stalinist old guard. It was Bazin’s “right-wing anarchist” values — values of freedom and aesthetics in film — that inevitably permeated Cahiers du Cinema and all of its writers — especially its editor, Eric Rohmer and of course its most important critic and Bazin’s protege, Truffaut.
These “right-wing” values, however, did not stop Truffaut in 1960 from signing the Manifesto of the 121, a document written by and signed by the leading left-wing intellectuals of the day, in opposition to the Algerian War. It nearly ruined his career and cost him several friends, but as a previous army deserter himself, Truffaut felt he must defend a soldier’s right to object to fighting. In 1968, when the right-wing French culture minister André Malraux under Charles de Gaulle attempted to replace Henri Langlois as head of the Cinematheque Francais, Truffaut became involved in the Leftist student protests which eventually constituted les evenements Mai 1968.
In Truffaut’s biography, de Baeque writes:
As a public personality, Francois Truffaut was often asked to take a position regarding important issues in the political life of his country. But though he was passionately interested in politics and read the papers assiduously, he never ceased being wary of political commitment. In 1967, he turned down membership in the Legion of Honour from Minister of Cultural Affairs, Andre Malraux. “I gladly accept rewards for any of my films, but it is not the same where the duty of the citizen is concerned… it would be dishonest of me to solicit any national honour.” What most bothered him about any poltical commitment was the simplification of reality, the Manichaeism implied in any militant discourse, for, as he put it, “life is neither Nazi, Communist, nor Gaullist, it is anarchistic.”
In others words, if a left-wing cause moved him, Truffaut would take a stand. He refused, however, to let his art become shackled to any one ideology. This did not make him fascist or even apolitical. It made him… complex.
“It is a paradox of the New Wave,” said de Baecque, “that most modernity is born from the Left. The New Wave, however, because it was born of freedom, created modernity from the Right.”
The politics of the New Wave is, undeniably, marked by complexity — and this is not the only paradox. One of the most interesting things about the politics of the Cahiers group was that while through their antagonism of the Left they defined themselves as somewhat “right-wing”, their actual beliefs and the beliefs espoused in the content of their films were a lot muddier, and certainly not ideologically “Right”.
De Baecque gave a couple of examples, namely Godard’s Le Petit Soldat and Chabrol’s Les Cousins, though there are many other films from this early time period that could be analysed in a similar way.
Godard’s Le Petit Soldat, released in 1961 and banned in France for many years, is in some ways the epitome of right-wing anarchism. Created almost entirely on the fly, with Godard often coming up with action and dialogue the morning before shooting, there was little or no rehearsal for the actors. Le Petit Soldat is often called “chaotic” and “undisciplined” in style and some consider it an exercise in almost absolute freedom. And, confusingly, the story is at once both political and apolitical. The protagonist, a photojournalist and member of a pro-French anti-terrorist commando group, is ordered to kill a pacifist named Palivoda who is opposed to the Algerian War. Bruno has previously deserted the French army, professes to have no political ideals, and is suspected of being a double agent; thus, his colleagues assign him this particular task in order to test his loyalty. Palivoda encourages desertion from the Army and supports the Algerian Front de Liberation Nationale (FLN). Bruno, who would rather discuss art and the paintings of Paul Klee than fight or kill, meets and falls in love with a Leftist girl named Veronica (played by Anna Karina) who is also involved with the FLN. After Bruno is caught and tortured by the FLN (after failing to kill Palivoda), he escapes to Veronica’s apartment. Later, he tries to explain how difficult it is to live as a man with none of his own ideals. He wonders whether he is “happy because he is free, or free because he is happy?”. Planning to obtain escape visas from his commando group for himself and Veronica to escape to Brazil, Bruno decides at last to kill Palivoda. While he pursues and eventually kills Palivoda, however, his “friends” in the commando group discover Veronica’s ties to the FLN and kidnap, torture, and murder her. At the end, Bruno explains that he has learned not to be bitter about the horrible things that have befallen him, and that at least he is young and has more time to live and find happiness.
The Algerian war was ongoing when Le Petit Soldat was released, and the French government was not happy with the way its army was portrayed, especially the film’s exposure of both the army’s and the FLN’s use of torture on its captors. Censors who banned the film explained, “At a time when young Frenchman are being called upon to fight and serve in Algeria, it seems quite impossible to allow this oppositional conduct to be exposed, presented, and finally justified. The fact that [the protagonist] is paradoxically engaged in a counterterrorist action does not change the fundamental problem.”
“Paradoxical”, again, was exactly right: De Baecque described Bruno as a romantic character who “thinks on the left in a right-wing situation”. Bruno has no interest in killing anyone. He himself is a deserter more interested in art and love than fighting. He is, however, only “half on the Left” because he lacks any personal ideals, and because he seems more interested in his own freedom and happiness than any kind of greater social good. Veronica’s character is left-wing and sympathetic, and her death at the hands of Bruno’s fellow soldiers is portrayed as a great injustice. The ending, however, is unexpected and confusing. Instead of, as we might expect, Bruno vowing to seek revenge for Veronica’s death, or joining the FLN himself, or even vowing to eradicate the FLN on behalf of the French army — really, any action which might portray him to have taken on an ideology of his own — instead of this, Bruno escapes from the experience still free from ideals and happy, in fact, to be still young and free.
This may not have been an attempt on Godard’s part to justify Bruno’s behaviour. De Baecque points out that Godard has always been fascinated with the losers of history – or rather, those who have been made wrong by history. But instead of trying to explain or justify a particular political point of view, he was really just interested in exploring the complexity of human nature. People are sometimes static, sometimes indecisive, sometime inheroic, sometimes all of those things and also their opposites. Le Petit Soldat is confusing, because people are confusing. Sometimes, neither Left nor Right have got it completely correct, and sometimes destruction results from both ideologies and non-ideologies alike. The world is a complex place, and Godard was concerned with exploring that complexity, without trying to engineer a filmic reality to fit a particular conception of it.
Many of the other Cahiers directors were of a similar mind, whether or not they signed the Manifesto of the 121. “Left” and “Right”, to them, were “labels that politicians used to conveniently parse up reality,” explained de Baeque. These labels were used to simplify conflicts, to stir up support, and to divide people without enlightening them, so that they could be controlled. “What politicians say does not necessarily encompass what is true,” said de Baecque. Thus the New Wave viewed the ‘political spectrum’ as too simplistic to be an accurate reflection of the more multi-dimensional map of real orientations and beliefs. It would be wrong to call their films apolitical. It would probably be more correct to say that just as the New Wave were stylistically and narratively inventive, they were politically inventive as well.
But where did all of this inventiveness come from? And why did it happen when it did? What did the New Wave have to do with the 1960s?
The “Spirit of Youth”.
“The Nouvelle Vague was youth, it did not recreate it. The New Wave was able to capture the spirit of youth, of their time and of history, because they were against it.”
Youth was a recurring theme of the lecture, and De Baecque was particularly interested in what it was about the 1960s that had proved such fertile soil for the wild and flowering creativity of the young Cahiers directors. He talked a bit about the character of Alain Leroy in Louis Malle’s Le Feu Follet, who laments he has “had it with mediocrity!” Like the Cahiers directors, Leroy is trapped in a bourgeois existence and his despair, said de Baecque, stems from a vague feeling that there is nowhere left, in post-war France, to prove himself and what he is made of. De Baecque argued that Godard, Truffaut, and the other directors of the New Wave who grew up in the shadow of World War II, realized that when they came of age, there were no real revolutions left to fight. On the one hand, they were living in peaceable times: the war had been won and technology had made life easy and convenient. Peace meant that most of their heroes were fictional and detached from the real world, and they could live in fantasy. On the other hand, the idea of Hiroshima seemed at once to make the future uncertain and any old ideas about war obsolete; wars need no longer be fought, but total destruction was still possible and perhaps even imminent. De Baecque contended that the idea of a possible nuclear war, both as preventative to any personal involvement in a classical revolution and as a threat to the stability of a longterm future, created a kind of anarchic punk mentality in the minds of the Cahiers generation, facilitating the idea that there might be “nothing to be expected from the future.”
I missed who he attributed this to, but I think it was either Godard or Malle who he quoted as saying: “Hiroshima taught me that the world was neither serious nor lasting. I turned 20 at the end of civilisation.” That is to say, what is there to conquer in the wake of the possibility of nuclear holocaust? Where can we possibly go from here? Rather than driving the directors of the Nouvelle Vague to nihilism, however, de Baecque thought that it drove them to take on intellectual and artistic revolution as a way of embracing the freedom and life of the “now”.
In other words, the French New Wave was the seed from which the rebellious youth culture of the 1960s grew, not because it invented it, but because it articulated what was already there. De Baecque noted that because the New Wave were youth and spontaneity and rebellion, and because their style was, formally, a politics of revolution, one could say that while none of them filmed the event, they were, aesthetically, with the protests of May 1968 in spirit. The youth of the 1960s found themselves more or less “in synch” with what the Nouvelle Vague was creating, and because each identified with each other, the two were able to create a new form of French mythology.
“Chabrol’s decadence, Resnais’s guilt, Truffaut’s nostalgia, Godard’s rebelliousness – these were all things that appeared ‘out of synch’ with what was, at the time, considered modern,” said de Baecque. Namely, modern Leftist sentiment. “However,” he continued, “by daring to by ‘out of synch’, they in fact created a new way of being ‘right on time’.”
Godard, and shifting to the left.
One of the luxuries of being unfettered by a specific ideology is retaining the freedom to change one’s mind, or rather the freedom to let one’s mind to evolve over time.
By the mid 1960s, it became difficult for the writers of the Cahiers du Cinema to ignore that the world around them was radically changing. The still staunchly Bazinite Eric Rohmer was ousted as editor of the magazine in 1963 and Jacques Rivette took the helm. In order to broaden the scope of Cahiers, Rivette shifted its focus slightly and the writing began to take into account developments in European cinema, moving away from aesthetically based Bazinian criticism towards a more politically centered Brechtian model. After Rivette left in 1965, and after losing a large portion of its readership, Cahiers finally settled in the 1970s into what is still referred to as the magazine’s “Mao decade”, a decade marked by its commitment to liberal Leftist politics. The magazine’s previous, and rather precarious, commercial position as “aesthetically right-wing” or “right-wing anarchic”, which fit neither the attitude of de Gaulle’s Right or that of the bourgeois Left of the 1950s, had become impossible to reconcile in a changing world which was being increasingly defined as being at “social war”. Bazin’s attitudes suddenly seemed less revolutionary or important than Vietnam or May 1968, and so Cahiers was, at least for a time, absorbed into the Left.
Meanwhile, while many of the first Cahiers critics, now directors, remained politically ambiguous, Godard was undergoing a political change of heart. With his youth behind him and his career secure, Godard no longer needed to shock or provoke and it became increasingly hard for him to ignore that in contemporary France, to be right-wing meant more than just prioritising aesthetics over content. Why it became hard for him to ignore this was, largely, more a personal than intellectual revelation. After his split with Anna Karina, Godard — much like his hero in Le Petit Soldat – fell in love with a Leftist girl and, soon afterward, befriended a Leftist literary critic for Le Monde, Jean-Pierre Gorin. Anne Wiazemsky was a student and the star of one of Godard’s best-loved films, Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar. Like Karina, for a period Waizemsky was his muse, starring in La Chinoise and appearing in both Week End and Sympathy for the Devil. She was also a Maoist, and through his love for her, and the influence of Gorin and the political energies of the time, Godard became radicalised. In fact, many believe that La Chinoise, a 1967 film about a student Maoist cell whose members discuss and commit acts of terrorism, was one of the influencing factors on the 1968 riots. La Chinoise was the beginning of Godard’s Dziga Vertov period, so named after the Maoist Dziga Vertov Group he formed with Gorin and several others, and he has continued to make political films throughout his career — although they were significantly diminished after his split with Wiazemsky and by the beginning of his relationship with Anne-Marie Miéville, who took his creativity in other directions.
As the poster child for the Nouvelle Vague, however, Godard’s evolution through the so-called political spectrum is a perfect example of how the New Wave transcended political labels in exchange for a more realistic and human take on politics. Politics are, in essence, the processes by which human beings interact with one another and, like human beings, politics are rarely simple, definable, or consistent within context. If the cinema is “truth, 24 frames a second”,the New Wave’s complex political stance may have been a bit confusing when measured against the linear continuum of Left-Right politics, but it was always honest. “At the cinema, we do not think, we are thought,” Godard once said. For the New Wave the cinema was not a platform for ideology; it was the shifting and turbulent mind of mankind.
Antoine de Baecque’s lecture was fantastic — I have elaborated quite a bit here, but his thoughts served as a springboard for an entire personal exploration into the political context on the New Wave, and frankly, it changed the way I now think about politics, full stop. Plus, it was all the more exciting because de Baecque himself speaks so little English! Geoffrey Nowell-Smith translated his answers during the forum and read aloud from his text, typed on paper, and despite its length and method of delivery, everyone was rapt until lunch time. My only regret was that Nowell-Smith, in trying to keep to the time limit given, had to simplify and shorten many of de Baecque’s answers during the Q&A. Yet one more reason to learn French…
Next up: Have you ever wondered where and how the “British New Wave” and “French New Wave” may have overlapped? Well, Stephen Frears and Philip French were about to elucidate us…
For many people, especially those recently introduced to the Nouvelle Vague, Jean-Luc Godard is the personification of French New Wave. That look, those sunglasses, even the way he grips his cigarette, like a toothpick from a martini glass. All of these things say “rebellious”, “french” and “cool”.
Godard is both icon and iconoclast and, like Brigitte Bardot, his style is as equally recognisable as his films. Perhaps, then, it is only fitting that the conference moved directly from a discussion of Brigitte to a discussion of Jean-Luc. Except this time we were the recipients of two distinct points of view.
The second lecture of the conference was in fact a double feature: a lecture by writer and film critic Chris Darke, followed by one from film studies professor Yosefa Loshitzky. Afterwards, the audience would be able to directly address questions to both and the speakers could then discuss those questions and respond to both the audience and one another. Not precisely a panel, but close enough.
Chris Darke’s talk was entitled “Following Godard: some thoughts on JLG-watching” and, thankfully, presented exactly the sort of thoughts I had intended to fill my notebooks with – highly analytical, well imagined: theory. Before I begin discussing it, however, it’s probably worth mentioning that Chris Darke has written a book, a monograph on Godard’s Alphaville, which is going straight onto my Amazon wishlist. There’s an excerpt from it here.
But back to the lecture. Darke opened his presentation with this corker: “Jean-Luc Godard had more ideas in a single one of his films than most filmmakers come up with in several lifetimes.” Provocative, but I happen to think he is right. Yes, some of Godard’s later films, especially, are more obtuse (and okay, some of them are downright awful), but after watching a clip from Two or Three Things I Know About Her at the end of Darke’s talk, all of us in the audience knew what he meant. Godard is the Thomas Edison of filmmaking. Even in that single film, the sheer quantity of original ideas, in both in content in style, boggles the mind. Not all of his films are masterworks, but piece by piece there is no denying his genius.
“Godard in Space” (& Time)
The bulk of Chris’s talk was focused on Godard’s cinematic relationship to the concepts of space and time. Classical cinema, said Darke, answered the questions of space and time in narrative by simply ignoring them. If a man walks across a room, he is shown walking across a room – but only for as long or in such a way that his action relates in context to a pre-existing plot. Or else, his walking across the room is considered unimportant, and is not shown within the context of the narrative at all. The narrative is just what is relevant to the plot, in sequence, and nothing more. The fact that memory does not usually happen in sequence, or that it is usually emotionally connected to images, rather than logical sequences, does not matter to classical cinema. Neither does the fact that reality, the obverse of memory, is not selective on the basis of relevance. Real human lives are not plotted. Real human lives unravel through time, are always unravelling, and yet they still have meaning. If film is a medium of images rather than just words or text, and thus has the ability to represent experience and thought in a way that words and language and literature never can, why do we treat time and space in films in the same way that we treat it in books? The Nouvelle Vague, and through Godard all modern cinema, reposes these fundamental questions.
There were a few other points that Darke made that I found interesting. Because I am very aware that I still need to fit in a discussion of Yosefa Loshitzsky’s lecture, I’ll just briefly bullet point them below.
- A recurring feature of recent discourse with Godard is him saying that the New Wave was not the start of something but the end of something – that is the decline of the film studio and the coming of television. The Nouvelle Vague were lucky enough to ride out the last breakers of the wave, but the age of cinema is perhaps over forever.
- What follows cinema? “Video thinks what cinema creates.” I don’t remember that Darke expanded on this phrase, but I took it to mean that video is a more personal, reflexive medium than cinema. It takes what cinema has created and “mulls it over”, recogitates it at the command of the Play button, can be fast forwarded or rewinded like memory, and is designed to be enjoyed alone, or in conversation with a small group. Any other thoughts as to what this might mean?
- There was a small section on Godard’s use of sound in his movies, and how a disjoint between what is happening on the soundtrack and what is happening on the screen can also be used as a stylistic device to add or subtract emotion or meaning. Darke: “This is where things happen – on the boundaries between picture and sound.”
- Finally, I think there was a question from the audience about Hitchcock, who Godard and most of the New Wave very much admired. The point was that, when it comes to directed plotlines and straight-forward classical narratives, there’s nobody more eager to push the audience from scene to scene than Hitchcock. So why was he so admired by the New Wave when they rejected this conception of time? Darke’s answer was that: as far as the Nouvelle Vague were concerned, “What we remember from Hitchcock is not plot but images.” In other words, the New Wave was more fascinated by Hitchcock’s impactful use of images than his way with narrative.
Just Who Had Contempt For Whom?
Yosefa Loshitzsky was up next and started her lecture with the famous opening scene from Le Mepris, of Bardot’s nude body and her assessment of it, through the eyes of her lover. Firstly, I’d like to say that while I didn’t wholly agree with Loshitzsky about Godard’s misogyny, I did learn quite a bit from her and she had some interesting points.
Getting back to Bardot’s nudity…. Loshitzsky’s lecture revolved around Le Mepris/Contempt, and the many meanings the title of the film held for Godard and his relationship with the studios, with Bardot, with women, and with cinema in general. One of the main ideas, however, if not the main idea, was that the contempt in Le Mepris was really Godard’s contempt for Brigitte Bardot (as an actress, not Camille’s character in the film). I don’t really agree with this, but as I think that maybe the topic of Godard’s alleged misogyny deserves a whole post of it’s own, I’ll skip over it for now. I’ll skip over it so that I can focus on the things I did like about Loshitzsky’s talk.
Here’s that opening scene if you haven’t seen it in a while. You’ll need to skip to around 1:57 -
I liked watching the opening of Le Mepris on the big screen, and with fresh eyes. Even before the lecture began, I noticed two things for the first time: 1) the camera seems to deliberately move away from the body part that the naked Camille is asking her husband to praise, and 2) this somehow makes Camille’s definition of her body as “all of her” take on a shade of irony. Or was I imagining it?
Apparently, I was not. Loshitzsky also pointed these things out to us, and then went on to tell about the production of Le Mepris – how the producers had complained to Godard that there was not enough of Bardot’s naked body on screen and how Godard had included this initial scene as a kind of “up yours” – well, it all kind of made more sense. Loshitzsky was trying to make it into a case of transference: Godard’s hatred for commercial moviemaking displaced onto Bardot. But I don’t think that had anything to do with this. This is not Godard saying that woman are just the sum of their parts. Otherwise the camera would have lingered on each pornographic angle as it was being described. This is Godard saying this film is more than just the sum of its parts. “Hey!” he seems to be saying as he switches on the technicolour on Bardot’s behind (while she is talking about her shoulders, unseen). “Is this what you studio men wanted, eh? Some cheap shot by shot softcore pornography? Well, fine. There you go. I hope you enjoyed making me your whore too.” Misogynist or no, I think it is a testament to Godard’s integrity that he does not treat Camille like this in the rest of the film.
I also enjoyed some of the backstory Loshitzsky provided about Godard’s own life and the autobiographical flavour of Le Mepris. She told a story about how Bardot wrote once that she hated making Le Mepris because Godard asked her to walk “more like Anna Karina”. Anna Karina was still Godard’s wife at the time, but their home life was deteriorating, and art was imitating life.
I wish I could say that the end of the “panel” was a rousing argument between Chris Darke and Yosefa Loshitzsky about whether it would be better to typify Godard as a boundary-busting intellectual or as a raging woman hater, but sadly the two speakers interacted hardly at all, instead just responding to the off question from the audience. Most of these questions were very boring. Oh well. Missed opportunity for what could have been a fantastic smackdown.
Next up: Antoine de Baeque! I can’t wait!