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‘Hail Mary,’ ‘First Name: Carmen’ and Jean-Luc Godard’s Forgotten ’80s

Godard's Forgotten '80s

“The first word out of my mouth when I walked back in the door was “Godard”,” NYFF director of programming Kent Jones said in a pre-festival interview with the New York Times. He certainly got his wish. The gargantuan shadow of Jean-Luc Godard’s filmography looms over this year’s festival in all of its insanely completist glory. The sight of the majority of Godard’s films — a great number of which are out of print and difficult to come by — collected in a single retrospective is enough to strike awe into the hearts of the most hardened of cinephiles, and is certain to overwhelm those who don’t know where to begin.

The easiest and most essential access point to Godard’s body of work will forever remain the films he made in the 1960s. His international breakthrough Breathless (1960), along with the work of his French New Wave cohorts, would reshape the entire film climate. influencing Scorsese, De Palma, Tarantino, and countless others. All of Godard’s films from 1960 to 1967 are worth seeing, even more so on the big screen, from the sweeping epic of Contempt (1963) to the gorgeous color palette and unhinged, irreverent storytelling of Made in USA (1966). For the particular adventurous audience member, though, that still leaves a solid four decades of unwieldy, sometimes fascinating and sometimes infuriating material. 

While his 70s work is marked by testimonials to Maoism and experimental video collaborations and comes across as hopelessly dated — difficult to enjoy unless you are, in fact, a 1970s Maoist with an obsessively completist love for French cinema — Godard returned to more traditionally narrative cinematic conventions Every Man for Himself in 1980 and in the next decade managed to produce several enigmatic masterpieces that have since been swept up in the tide — unfairly grouped with his “lesser,” more oblique pieces and separated by just over a decade too much to be considered “important Godard.” They’re hybrids: warping the breathless pacing, (relative) narrative linearity, and romanticism with an experimental bent and an aging, jaded cynicism. And, as you might assume with Godard, two of the best and most essential — First Name: Carmen and Hail Mary — were inspired by a woman.

Barely twenty-one when the film was released, Moroccan born Myriem Roussel was an extra on the set of Godard’s Passion in 1981 when she was swiftly promoted to a minor role due to her classical dance experience, by the account of Richard Brody in his Godard biography Everything is Cinema. Godard was immediately enamored, and it’s easy to see why. For one thing, she bares a striking facial resemblance to Godard’s ex-muse (and ex-wife) Anna Karina. Tall, long limbed, and with a permanent expression of quiet, bemused intelligence that always makes her seem to be the coolest person in the frame, she’s an instantly memorable screen presence. Godard began priming the inexperienced actress by taking her to see films and shooting her on screen tests. Together, the pair share an uncanny resemblance to the equally awkward coupling of Woody Allen and Scarlett Johansson in their Match Point phase: the graying, goofball master auteur and his gorgeous, hip young muse.  

Their next collaboration was in 1983’s First Name: Carmen (playing at the retrospective on October 15th). Written by Godard’s partner Anne-Marie Mieville and shot by Raoul Coutard, Godard’s constant 60s cinematographer, the film is remarkably lucid and often kind of hilarious: a slapstick, faux-philosophical take on a heist movie that has essentially nothing to do with Bizet’s titular opera. 

Godard himself co-stars as “Uncle Jean,” a washed-up legendary filmmaker grumpily terrorizing an elderly care facility. His niece, Carmen (Maruschka Detmers), asks him if she and her friends can borrow his empty beach house to shoot a film. In fact, the film is an elaborate front for the least thought out heist in film history. When asked about the flimsy excuse, Carmen shrugs. “With this video craze nowadays, it seemed to be the thing to do.”

Somehow, during the deliriously absurd gunfight that follows, Carmen manages to fall in love with a security guard and the two escape; resurrecting Godard’s old favorite trope of deluded, idealist lovers on the run. The two fugitives are bound together at the wrist, resulting in a particularly Jerry Lewis-esque moment where they fight over which bathroom to use at a rest stop. 

Roussel appears as a classical violinist in a string quartet whose performance of Beethoven is intercut with the action. The purpose of their existence in the film makes absolutely no sense until the very end, and for the majority of the film they act as a confused Greek chorus that doesn’t understand the narrative that they’re in; constantly spouting aphorisms such as “to be or not to be… that’s not really a question.”

While the film is, at its best, absurdly fun and mercilessly concise, Godard and Coutard (in their last collaboration, due to Godard’s on-set misanthropy) manage to include some especially memorable images, most notably the silhouette of a hand stroking a snowy television screen set to a bluesy Tom Waits tune that seems lifted out of Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me in the best possible sense. It’s the breeziest eighty-five minutes you can spend with Godard outside of his 60s work, and undoubtedly one of his funniest and most narratively inventive films. 

Comparatively, 1985’s Hail Mary (playing on October 12th) was not so easily forgotten by the movie going public. When it played at NYFF it was greeted by protests and boycotts from the Catholic church for its portrayal of the Virgin Mary (Roussel in her only leading role) as a modern, basketball playing teenager who engages in several graphic scenes of nudity. Naturally, the Pope decrying your film is one surefire way to draw a crowd. The unfortunately oft-overlooked fact is that it’s also an incredible film. It’s 16mm compositions are visually gorgeous; the camera lingering on painterly shots of Roussel’s body and, albeit randomly, images of nature interspersed throughout. It also manages to walk a thin line between heartbreaking sentiment, “big ideas” about faith, and goofy satire, and is anchored by an incredible, gut-wrenching performance by Roussel; capping off her trio of collaborations with Godard by making good on her star potential. This Mary is a chaste teenager in a relationship with a much older cab driver Joseph (Thierry Rode), who is growing increasingly frustrated with Mary’s lack of interest. Mary is then visited by the condescending, grouchy Gabriel (Philippe Lacoste) and his incredibly creepy little girl companion, and soon after she finds herself pregnant, sending a furious, unbelieving Joseph into the arms of a startlingly young Juliette Binoche.

Hail Mary was shrugged off by critics Vincent Canby and Roger Ebert, both of whom called it uninteresting, but ultimately not sacrilegious or worthy of controversy, two points which seem a bit odd upon reconsideration. The film certainly doesn’t sully the image of Mary in any way, but instead turns her into the most finely nuanced and realistic female character Godard has ever created. While Godard is no stranger to observing the role of women in a man’s world, more often than not this seems like nothing more than a thinly veiled excuse to film a beautiful woman over the course of a feature film. Let’s face it, as great as Vivre sa Vie may be, Anna Karina’s ill-fated prostitute doesn’t exactly come across as an independently minded character with the ability to make free choices. It’s the way Mary wrestles with her responsibility that makes the film so fascinating: she is repeatedly told by characters both celestial and human that “that’s the law” and subjected to the requirements of a world governed by both God and male societal norms. She wants to be chaste and faithful, but is also fed up with Joseph and raging with finely depicted teenage horniness. In the film’s best shot, she writhes in her sheets in furious pain, screaming a string of vindictive obscenities at the Holy Father so creative that they would make Malcolm Tucker blush.

The film also occasionally takes on an irreverent tone that’s pretty amusing to anyone directly familiar with Catholicism, even beyond the absurd dickishness of Gabriel, who in one scene grabs Joseph and screams “Love, you jerk!” One scene late in the film shows Christ as a young child, who when asked to get back in the car by Joseph, refuses, and instead runs off into the hills to spread the word of his Father. Mary assures Joseph that he’ll be back, her face bearing a proud, blissful smile. “When?” “Around Easter.” If that isn’t blasphemous, it’s at least pretty funny.

The revival of Godard’s work with Roussel is all the more essential due to the fact that it’s out of print, or available only on bare-bones, poorly restored DVDs. The NYFF screening of Hail Mary is also attached to Mieville’s excellent, Contempt-quoting short The Book of Mary — a sentimental, child-like view of divorce — and Godard’s Notes on Hail Mary, a behind the scenes video project that is, at the end, hilariously revealed to be an old-school Kickstarter-esque video, with Godard asking for your francs and demonstrating a complex (never shot) finale with a toy helicopter. These rarities alone are worth your time, but Godard and Roussel’s two films are brilliant and beautiful hidden gems that fit in surprisingly well with their better-lauded older siblings.

This essay is one in a series produced by participants of this year’s New York Film Festival Critics Academy. Click here for more on the writers.

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