First Name: Carmen (1983) & Détective (1985)
The trouble with Godard films is that, while every one of them is trying and elusive in the moment, not all of them reward the viewer after the fact. Those that don’t, one supposes, can fairly be called failures.
Or can they? When we’re dealing with a serpentine filmography of a deified joker who deals primarily in formal theory and political slaphappiness, who’s to say when we simply straight up don’t get it? Because when we do, the elevated eschaton of the director, something so often dismissed, becomes apparent. In many cases, particularly with his later work, one needs to have endured the work- having sat through it– in order to grasp such a possibility.
They say that there’s a certain kind of film that’s “critic proof”. These, conventionally, are not those. (They may in fact sometimes be the opposite). Yet, far more-so than the MCU and Hobbs and Shaw, they are the very definition. Because if everyone’s a critic, and everyone only sees the latter types of films, democracy may’ve finally stuck the landing. The joke’s on us? Meanwhile, the legit and studied film critics by practice remain off to the side yelling, “Not like this!! Not like this!!”
Godard was once a working film critic himself. He knows the deal. Hence, the admirably infuriating endurance tests of his nearly sixty-year filmmaking career. When Godard reminds us that “it’s only a movie” (and he does, roughly every couple of minutes), it’s not by flinging Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson 250 feet into the air while safely riding the shockwaves of an exploding fireball; it’s by yanking the sound out of synch during a supposedly important expository scene. It’s by intercutting text graphics right in the middle of something. It’s by insisting, perhaps childishly, that cinema is form- and then scrawling that on the side of a dead fish and slapping those of us gullible enough keep coming back across the face with it again and again.
Godard’s filmography is where the imperative art of reviewing movies on their own terms becomes some kind of intellectual farce. While most movies are more than capable of stating their terms up front with nothing but a poster, Godard insists that we actually digest his work before the conversation can even begin to begin. That is, any conversation more meaningful than “Groan, another Jean-Luc Godard film…!” There are a lot of such films at this point, though. These are two from one of his most noteworthy periods, his ham fisted early 1980s “comeback” to conventional filmmaking. One sticks in the craw despite its revulsions, the other meanders from the mind in spite of its comparative approachability.
First Name: Carmen
DIRECTED BY JEAN-LUC GODARD/FRENCH/1983
BLU-RAY STREET DATE: JUNE 18, 2019/KINO LORBER
In her fine published essay about First Name: Carmen, included with its newly released Kino Blu-ray, film critic and cultural writer Kristen Yoonsoo Kim is careful to explorerather than explain. In regard to this work she finally refers to as “a puzzle of a film”, her approach is altogether wise.
There’s a lot going on in First Name: Carmen: armed robbery, romance without romance, cagey moviemaking, a “return” of Jean-Luc Godard, a con, codependency, a movie maybe being made, and some odd familial innuendos. It’s a melting pot of high culture (Beethoven’s late quartets [fueling the movie, but why?], Rodin sculptures, the classical opera Carmen [don’t look too closely], and French art cinema [shrug]) and the lowest of cinema junk culture (violent bank heists [complete with nonchalant violence], gratuitous nudity [as cold as can be], and a pre-Tarantino slyness in appropriating pop culture [a well-placed Tom Waits song, references to Otto Preminger’s Carmen Jones]), First Name: Carmen teases our desire to have Godard return to making commercial films while scratching his own itch to get back to formal exploration. It’s as though he’s out to deliberately one-up Jim McBride’s remake of his own Breathless, happening this same year (1983).
Though Godard is said to have been coldly remote in terms of making his wishes known to the crew of this film, the visual color palate is unmistakably intentional. Muted, mustard yellow is everywhere in this world. (“Van Gogh looked for yellow at sunset”, Godard randomly mutters at one point). Occasionally, a bright yellow will surface in this world, stopping characters in their tracks. (“If Van Gogh had seen that yellow…!”)
Politically, the film is almost purely scatological, opening with the repeated line, “When shit’s worth money, the poor will no longer have assholes.” As it turns out, it’s not the classist aspect of that quote that sticks, but the other. First Name: Carmen has a frank obsession with bodies and bodily function. “First there was Greek civilization. Then there was the Renaissance. Now we’re entering the Age of the Ass”, Godard once said.
Related, then, one will likely conclude that, cinematically, casually intimate full-frontal nudity is rarely less erotic than it is here. (Though Godard unquestionably topped this specific detail throughout his 2015 3D ball of yarn, Goodbye to Language, with its lingering garish mundane aesthetic showcasing people on toilets and whatnot). Consequently, and wholly incorrectly, some may be inclined to gaze upon the nudity of Carmen as strictly bush league. This is as fundamentally incorrect as classifying the film as a failed action movie because its central heist sequence happens too early in the film and is weird and disorienting. This is Godard being Godard, inviting formal tension and confrontationally thwarting expectations throughout.
And just when it seems that there’s nothing left for contemporary audiences to latch onto, the strikingly beautiful star of the film, Maruschka Detmers (in the role of Carmen X), turns to Joseph (Jacques Bonnaffé), her jerko lover of the moment, and delivers the line, “Youth is for love, not money!” It’s a moment worthy of a trailer. It might even be in it.
CUT TO: The rushing tide. (Frequently)
CUT TO: The string quartet (scoring the film not with the operatic music of its namesake, Carmen, but rather, the aforementioned Beethoven.)
Literature is always if interest in Godardian cinema, and Carmen is no exception. The Old Testament book of Proverbs quoted multiple times. To what end, it’s hard to pinpoint. But as always, the film serves up a few proverbs of its own. Playing a down and out version of himself, he denounces the arms race and consumption culture in one fell swoop. In his Lennon-esque nasally drawl, “No one needs an atomic bomb. Nor a plastic cup.” Even more approachable, and oddly about as positive as it is scatological, is Carmen’s own late revelation, “We’re not shit… The world is.” Finally, Godard, ruminating on his return to filmmaking, says, “I can’t wait to film in a casino again” Would you settle for another luxury hotel? If so, read on…
DIRECTED BY JEAN-LUC GODARD/FRENCH/1985
BLU-RAY STREET DATE: JUNE 18, 2019/KINO LORBER
Few debate the notion that watching the detectives of Jean-Luc Godard’s 1985 Détective is more confounding than whatever mystery they’re trying to solve. In his scene-specific commentary, film historian James Quandt points out that initially, the project was based upon a rather straightforward screenplay by Alain Sarde and Philippe Setbon. The long list of characters in play was, even then, an intact element- seemingly ideal for Godard’s own multifaceted approach. So went the reported logic of producers Sarde and Christine Gozlan, who’s intention in this was to solidify Godard’s “comeback” to commercially viable filmmaking.
Never mind that this comeback had been brewing since 1980’s Every Man for Himself, and has, in a sense, been repeatedly self-sabotaged by Godard himself. The famous director was said to be aloof, indecisive, frustrating, unresponsive, and just straight-up mean in the making of these particular films, of which Détective languishes smack in the middle of. Go figure, the intended hard right turn from his archly political Maoist phase into 1980’s commercial-dom was anything but smooth. In the case of Détective, Godard for all intents and purposes cut the pages of the screenplay apart, shuffled this and removed that, and maybe added a few wild strands. Then, he turned that into this movie.
The result is a fragmented if still-chronological mixed bag; a stay that begins satisfyingly, but as time wears on, turns monotonous. People are coming and going and leaving and staying and forever moving about in this grand hotel. That’s standard hotel movie fare, most famously hardening back to the Best Picture winner of the release year 1932, Grand Hotel. It makes for many choice roles for numerous notable actors, including one of the most prominent faces of the French New Wave, Jean-Pierre Léaud, and the then-faces of Julie Delpy (as “wise young girl”) and Emmanuelle Seigner (as the frequently topless Princess of the Bahamas). International star Alain Cuny (La Dolce Vita, Emmanuelle) appears in the role of “Old Mafioso”). This listing barely scratches the surface of the number of people in this movie, as there are four storylines playing out concurrently:
- Leaud’s detective crew, now on their second year of this assignment, is holed up in a room obsessively working to solve the murder of a prince that occurred there. Times are hard boiled for eggs like them… That’s a close paraphrase from Carmen, not this movie- although it is especially true of these lingering sleuths.
- A tightly wound boxing manager, played by French rock musician Johnny Hallyday, micromanages his charge, played by actual boxer Stéphane Ferrara.
- Another prince, not to be confused with the murdered one from two years ago, is checked in and turning heads.
- Cuny’s mobster, skulking about. He wields intimidation and also a grade school-aged girl- likely a grandchild, but who knows. Consider it another mystery that won’t be getting solved.
Some of these threads intermingle, some feel they should intermingle and don’t, others fray on as Godard sees fit. Unfortunately, he’s only is he not in this movie in person, it’s debatable whether he’s even in it in spirit. Indeed, Détective might be best remembered for the extracurricular moment following its debut at Cannes, when someone responded to it by throwing a cake in the director’s face. Godard apparently took it in stride, knowing he had literally received his just dessert.
For those looking for a creative return to form to Godard’s ridiculously prolific 1960s output, these films, and their chronological ilk, are as close as one is bound to get within the confines of his own filmography. Once upon a time, he famously stated, “All you need for a movie is a gun and a girl”. With this pair of films, you definitely get both. Hotel-centric and knotty by nature, neither of these contained productions is a simple watch, particularly for the uninitiated. If forced to choose, Carmen is more the keeper, though Détective is the comfier stay.
Kino Classics has made both films available as handsome Blu-ray editions, worthy of addition to anyone’s World Cinema collection. The HD restorations are exactly as they should be, evoking their 1980s celluloid stock and techniques, just prior to Godard himself being swept up by the then-rising “video fad”. Each disc comes with a nice, multi-page booklet, featuring an original essay (Carmen’s by Kristen Yoonsoo Kim, Détective’s by Film Comment editor-in-chief, Nicholas Rapold). Both films are in French with English subtitles, and each has an English language commentary track.
These may not be prime Godard, but even he doesn’t consider them short in stature. For, as the only end graphic of Carmen abruptly reads, “In memoriam small movies”.
Small nor large nor tight nor loose, one thing might be certain- these are cinematic rope-a-dopes that won’t show us the ropes, but don’t collapse into the ropes, either.