Even when Jean-Luc Godard was the most admired director in the world, he was also eccentric, pretentious, self-conscious and hard to love. Forty years ago this autumn I saw one of his films, Vivre sa Vie (My Life to Live), then just a year old. I went out of the theatre hating it, despite Susan Sontag's insistence that it was "extraordinary, beautiful and original."
The main character, Nana, is a mother who abandons her little boy without a backward glance, and drifts into prostitution. The star playing her, Anna Karina, Godard's 22-year-old wife, is beautiful in a pouty and inward-turned way, but she's oddly sexless. Worse, she neither conveys nor evokes emotion.
But later I found myself thinking about that film, and in the process learned something about how memory can change art.
As the months passed, I realized that elements of Vivre sa Vie kept drifting back to me: Nana's helmet of shiny black hair, her chain-smoked Gitanes, the cheap Paris cafes where coins clattered onto zinc-topped bars, the overwrought Michel Legrand themes, the insolent remoteness of the men Nana knew, and her bland indifference to the lonely streets and lonelier hotel rooms.
Surprisingly, I began to love that film in memory. When finally I had a chance to see it again (this was long before videos and DVDs), it felt like a joyful reunion with an old friend. And last week, when I saw it a third time, at the Cinematheque in Toronto, I discovered it had retained all its old appeal and added the patina of history.
At the beginning, Godard does something truly outrageous: Photographing a conversation between a man and a woman sitting in a cafe, he shoots the backs of their heads and allows us only brief glances of their faces in the mirror behind the bar. Arrogantly, he bypasses the main emotional device of movies, the close-up. His scene doesn't need it, he implies, and he wants us to pay attention to the words. Furthermore, his 1960s Parisians don't have a lot of emotion to convey with their faces.
At that that moment in history, Godard was so influential that filmmakers were considered eccentric if they did not imitate him. In the 1960s anyone could tell you that movies are a visual medium, but Godard wanted us to know that they are also essentially literary, since they use words. That's one reason he inserted in Vivre sa Vie, among his fictional characters, an entirely real and somewhat eminent human being, a wordy philosopher.
Sitting by herself in a cafe, Nana turns to the grizzled senior citizen at the next table, suggests he buy her a drink, and asks why he's reading a book. "It's my job," he says, and so it is. He turns out to be Brice Parain (1897-1971), author of A Metaphysics of Language and other works, playing himself and improvising his dialogue.
Nana confesses to Parain (whose name we never learn, except in the credits) that she's sometimes unable to speak. "I know what I mean to say. I think about it carefully before I say anything. But when it's time to speak I can't say it." He tells her a story about Porthos, the simpleton among Dumas' The Three Musketeers, who sets a bomb and begins to run away. At that unfortunate moment he realizes he has no idea why or how he puts one foot in front of the other. As he pauses to work through this problem, the bomb explodes and kills him. It was his first thought ever. Parain says: "The first time he thought, it killed him." Parain talks about Plato, Hegel and language theory: "To think we need to speak. There's no other way ... I don't think we can separate thinking from the words we use to express it."
Godard never heard about "Don't state, indicate," the writing-class slogan. When he wanted to state, he stated. He filled his movies with literary references, sometimes pasting slogans on the walls of the set, pouring out solemn and widely quoted epigrams of dubious value ("Photography is truth. The cinema is truth 24 times per second").
This was 15 years before Trivial Pursuit was conceived, the world was just learning to appreciate the charms of trivia, and movie aficionados were leading the way. Godard stuffed all his movies with references that his fans spent years sniffing out, like truffle hogs. Some references were playful (having Nana go by a theatre showing Jules et Jim, the new film by Godard's friend Francois Truffaut). Others pointed to the sources of the story. Godard borrowed the name of his central character from the prostitute heroine of Emile Zola's 1880 novel, Nana, so he acknowledges this debt by having Nana stand in front of a theatre called the Zola.
He wants us to know that Nana shuts down her feelings because she's powerless, entirely in the hands of men -- a central element in Godard's feminism. So he shows Nana in a movie house watching the end of Carl Dreyer's 1928 masterpiece, La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc, with Maria Falconetti as Joan facing her death, and Antonin Artaud beside her, playing a priest. Nana weeps, reading her own history into the life of Joan, another woman controlled and destroyed by men.
Long after much of the world lost interest, Godard went on turning out films. In fact, he's still at it. This year, aged 72, he finished shooting a new film, Notre Musique, in Sarajevo. Over the years he's suffered the fate of the avant-garde artist, caught between those who expect him to repeat himself and those who demand he lead them into the future. From the 1970s onward, his films have usually looked less like movies that had to be made and more like attempts to recapture lost magic.
There are critics who keep up with him yet, and sometimes report seeing glimpses of the old Godard. An apostate wanting to believe again, I hurry off to see the film and discover it's another melancholy self-imitation. Still, the young, authentic Godard left us at least a dozen films as surprising and stirring as Vivre sa Vie, and they still exist, waiting for the new generation that will surely rediscover a genius of the 1960s.