Godard and Depardieu Examine Questions of God and Love.
DIRECTED BY JEAN-LUC GODARD/FRENCH/1993
BLU-RAY STREET DATE: JUNE 18, 2019/KINO CLASSICS
It’s hard to know what to do or say about this one. Jean-Luc Godard, once a film critic at the quickly fading Cahiers du Cinema in its pulsating early years, has, as a filmmaker, concocted his share of critic-confounding things, it’s true. But are any as formally difficult, as nearly impossible to penetrate as Hélas pour moi (Oh, Woe is me)?
Although Godard had several films that register as more off-the-radar just prior to this effort, Hélas pour moi stands as weirdly prominent among this run of his generally unknown entries. Circa 1993, the time of its release, not every film that the renowned and notorious director recently made was granted distribution in the U.S. This one, likely due to its starring of Gérard Depardieu, did. According to film critic Jordan Cronk in his essay found in the printed booklet included with this Kino Classics Blu-ray release, “Stateside critics were more conflicted [than their French counterparts], and often just confused”. In this case, sympathies lie with said confused critics. Of all of the tough nuts that Godard has brought forth over his seven decades of active cinema challenging, this may well be the macadamia.
Or is it? At the start of Hélas pour moi, one is immediately taken with its careful sense of tranquility and subtle rhythm- neither being traits that Godard’s films are exactly known for. For that reason, this almost pastoral vibe of modern-day Switzerland (Godard’s home) is at once engrossing and off-putting. By the time we’re a half-hour in, we’ve finally let our guard down, realizing that we’re probably not going to get assaulted with slam-cut graphics, dropped-in corporate logos as cutting commentary, or long diatribes about esoteric foreign politics and critique on the state of cinema. (Though there are deliberate jump cuts and yes, some text graphics- though they are refined). Unfortunately, the narrative that we do get is fractured not by any of the usual Godardian tomfoolery, but that far more common breaker of promising film projects: “artistic differences”. (More on that later).
Depardieu stars as a major deity come to Earth in human form. He is curious about human love and wants to experience it. He goes about this by taking over the physical body of a man called Simon, who is married to the fair red-headed Rachel (Laurence Masliah). Although based upon the Greek myth of Amphitryon and Alcmene, in which the high god Zues takes the form of the latter to sexually get with his wife (the latter). That analogy, though a pretty clear starting point, breaks down rather quickly in its implementation by Godard. For example, the original culminates with the conception and birth of Hercules; nothing like that occurs in this film. This god on Earth, by contrast, is pretty clearly intended to be the Judeo-Christian God. What Godard then gains in religious relevance he loses in the strength of his anthology: Why would the God of Genesis, who created all notions of human love, feel the need to curiously field test it? I suppose it’s best not to question one’s maker in these matters. But we can question the maker of a movie about said matters.
Anyhow, from the opening voiceover lamenting the generational losses of prayer and sacred ritual, it’s plenty apparent that we’re dealing with such big notions. These notions- of God, the supernatural, and matters of faith- lie noticeably beyond Godard’s typical realms… that is, apart from his tremendously controversial Hail Mary, which dared to dwell upon a modernized version of the Biblical story of Mary the mother of Jesus and her husband, Joseph. Though not nearly as outwardly incendiary as that film was received, Hélas pour moi shows a lot of promise for curious cinephiles anxious to see where Godard is going at this less popular, out-of-fashion phase of his career.
It goes nowhere. At least, on first viewing, that’s the general takeaway. Casting aside expected elements such as conventional plot structure, Godard offers little for the viewer to latch onto as the mysteries of the story mushroom in the mysteries of the very movie itself. That assessment, though, runs contrary to that of film critic Samm Degihan, who provides an absolutely excellent audio commentary on the Kino Classics Blu-ray edition. For those of us struggling with Hélas pour moi (and it’s not presumptuous to say that that would be most of us), Degihan’s feature-length commentary is nothing short of essential. Forsaking the typical scene-by-scene breakdown, she opts to give a big-picture analysis of the hows and whys of Hélas pour moi, and why she feels it matters tremendously within Godard’s oeuvre. She is never not unsympathetic to those perplexed by it, and therefore thoroughly non-condescending. Whereas most audio commentators sooner or later find themselves treading water in an effort to fill the time, Dhegihan clearly has the opposite problem, dealing in defense of an oft-dismissed individual work by a mercurial titan of cinema.
According to Degihan, this film is the culmination of Godard’s late-1980s/early-1990s “essay film” phase, having veered away from the kind of outwardly radical cinematic “attack” he launched with in the 1960s. By this point, he’s found himself in the lonely arena of formal re-consideration of the cinematic idiom, flitting around the questions he asks rather than attempting to answer them. In certain regard this and other polarizing aspects of this film, Degihan states and re-states what was suspected upon initial viewing: that Hélas pour moi requires multiple viewings to truly process. Fair enough. The question is, aside from her convincing argument to give this film its due diligence (more on its own accord, and perhaps apart from such close consideration of Godard), how compelled is one to revisit it?
Hélas pour moi is absolutely not without its charms nor its interesting compulsions. Laurence Masliah Is deeply resonant as Rachel, playing this lead character as a kind of sadly radiant everywoman. To be clear, any empathy generated by this film is credited to her. As previously mentioned, the cinematography is top notch. The film is full of compelling supporting players, Who, as it turns out, it could not do without. And finally, there’s Depardieu. A monolithic French celebrity in his own right by this time, it was Depardieu’s agreement to make this picture that enabled Godard to shoot it at all.
Unfortunately, Godard being Godard and Depardieu being Depardieu, this initial union of two of France‘s biggest cinematic names crumbled halfway through production. Depardieu walked halfway through shooting, forcing the director to scramble and rework his existing screenplay. (And yes, this is said to be the rare Godard film for which he did in fact write a complete screenplay). The result is what it is, and apparently not at all whatever it was originally intended to be. For some, though (like Samm Degihan), the beautiful restoration found on this Blu-ray is something of a vindication of an overlooked masterpiece. In any case, the transfer isphenomenal.
To be clear, this Godard is not the high-flying cool cat of the French New Wave. Hélas pour moi is, in many ways, as different if not more-so from 1960’s Breathless as Spielberg’s Munich is from his thirty-years-earlier career-launcher, Jaws. What hasn’t changed is his innate ability to challenge viewers, to make them work through his work. Whether Hélas pour moi is worthy of such effort remains debatable, though woe is the cinema buff who overlooks this film’s aesthetic beauty.