According to New York Times film critic A.O. Scott, fans of Jean-Luc Godard will hate-watch the new movie Godard Mon Amour by French director Michel Hazanavicius. More than one friend was surprised when I told them I actually enjoyed it without any hate. I’m not precious about Godard for several reasons. He is not one of my top favorite directors, but I certainly think him the most interesting of the French New Wave filmmakers, as he has always been the most conceptual. As such, he has made some of the movement’s most creative movies, but this has also hurt him, as he struggled to stay true to concepts above all else. As a person creating art, he’s been inconsistent as much as he’s been iconoclastic, from his messages to the quality of his films. With that in mind, I think Hazanavicius has given Godard the film he deserves. It shows affection for the filmmaker’s style, while never painting him as some idol, which could would most likely make for a more tiresome movie.
Godard Mon Amour reveals a man insecure of his art. He’s also a pretty unsympathetic lover whose struggles with his reputation and as the icon who made such successful films as Breathless (1960) and Contempt (1963) hurts the woman who joined him during this period. The movie follows the filmmaker during the early part of his marriage to Anne Wiazemsky (Stacy Martin), whose memoir is the basis of the film’s script, which is credited to her and Hazanavicius. Played with a mix of self-deprecation, male chauvinism and plain old egotism by Louis Garrel, Godard never comes across as likable. However, his struggle to make sense his personal creativity and his consciousness of politics has a sympathetic quality.
Godard Mon Amour is not an exhaustive biopic. The director is much too dynamic a person, and his life is still not over (he has a new movie premiering at Cannes this month). Instead it covers only a few years of his life, from the release of La Chinoise in 1967 to his experiments with the Dziga Vertov group, the following year. Fitting of the author on whose take on Godard the movie is based upon, Wiazemsky comes across as quietly observational and rather passive, though a creeping disappointment in her husband starts to inform her silent suffering, exquisitely captured in slight but telling expressions by Martin.
Wiazemsky was only 19 when she married Godard, who was then 37. Fresh off her debut performance in the 1966 Robert Bresson masterpiece Au Hasard Balthazar, she first began working with Godard with La Chinoise. The film marked a change for Godard, as it is regarded for a style that marked his move away from straight narrative and into a more essayistic approach that defines his work to this day. The public was not ready for this kind of movie, and Hazanavicius captures this tough, transformational era for the director with many instances of humor. The director of a film festival can’t pronounce the film’s name right at its premiere, speaking to the growing apathy toward the director. Adding further ironic humor into this apathy is the moment when Godard catches the director asleep during the film’s screening.
This sad sort of humor informs much of the movie. Joining in the student-led protests that La Chinoise seemed to foreshadow, JLG has his glasses broken during clashes with police. When fellow protesters recognize him, he’s often asked about his previous, more popular and decidedly less political works, which irritates him to no end. The protests are captured with massive crowd scenes featuring hundreds of extras. Never has any film captured the revolts of May 1968 with such ambition. Hazanavicius also throws in stylistic flourishes in clear tribute to the filmmaker. One scene uses the negative of the image inspired by a sequence in Godard’s 1964 movie A Married Woman. But Hazanavicius takes it somewhere else by throwing in a skipping record player.
Hazanavicius uses other Godardian flourishes that might upset the purists, but this is not a Godardian movie. It’s a genuine examination of a creative genius suffering through crisis. The film ultimately successfully captures Godard’s tense quest for relevance in an anti-bourgeois movement with the sprinkling of sardonic humor such a struggle deserves. It never paints Godard as a hypocrite, however. Instead, Godard Mon Amour presents a creative individual born of frustration who will go to extremes for his art and at a detriment to his social life. After all, he is still the privileged iconic filmmaker. This should also be a lesson to those who want to hold the cult of personality above the art. Hate watching such a movie would never be a true Godardian thing to do.
Godard Mon Amour opens exclusively in South Florida on Friday May 4 at the Coral Gables Art Cinema. Further north, in Palm Beach County, it plays at the Movies at Delray Beach and at the Movies at Lake Worth. The movie had its U.S. premiere at the Miami Film Festival, where we were invited to preview the movie via an on-line screener link and then see it again on the big screen. We also met Hazanavicius for an interview, which you can read in two parts in this post: