New film by French director Michel Hazanavicius, Le Redoutable (The Fearsome One), is a biopic-cum-psychological-study of French-Swiss director Jean-Luc Godard based on the account by his first wife Anne Wiazemsky published under the title Un an après (A Year Afterwards), which relates the story of their relationship after it had come full circle...
I started reading a few pages of the book after going to watch the movie in the hope of gleaning insights into Wiazemsky's personality and a tone of voice which, perhaps, might have influenced the making of the movie. You get a little bit of her own style in the beginning of the film when you see Godard, Anne and a couple who are their friends in a Latin Quarter haunt - and it's the least interesting part of what makes up the universe of Godard; you get treated to a quick and unsavory overdose of parisianisme (or the art of looking at one's belly-button within Paris intra-muros and a deformation of the simple pleasure of being a Parisian ), name-dropping and the automatic-reproduction-of-elites mentality. It's pretty narcissistic. Anne is the grand-daughter of writer François Mauriac - and apparently, it's important to know that, although nothing in Anne shows that this filiation holds deeper meaning for her. She actually writes in Un an après that she seldom sees Mauriac, although he is the only one from her family she continues to see on a regular basis after she meets Godard.
Wiazemsky's original account, judging from the first few pages, is replete with unnecessary details which try to drown out a certain shallowness, thanks to Parisian gossip and murmurs of self-satisfaction. In Le Redoutable, the character of Anne is portrayed as a very young woman with little personality, what the French would call a "potiche," who, maybe, slowly comes of age towards the end. It is what Jean-Luc Godard likes to find in a woman at that time - and perhaps always - in order to have an easy playing field at asserting a complicated and domineering personality. The leitmotiv of the film is "This is life aboard Le Redoutable" the latter, the name of a submarine which is seen as a symbol of Godard's strength of personality, but also of his many flaws. Life aboard a submarine is not easy.
An ordinary woman meets an uncommon man and it's how he wishes it to be but then it's difficult to live this ideal in daily life because a discrepancy remains. You understand that it's a way for Godard to retain control, hold people at arm's length, protect himself and ultimately make everyone suffer, including himself.
At one telling point in the story, a young woman goes to him during a demonstration in May 1968 and starts arguing with him rather soundly about his ideas. He cuts her off when he sees he's losing ground. It's "too complicated" for him. He turns to his wife to request protection. He says she has to stay by his side in those moments. Well, she's right there, on his arm. He's routinely abusive like that. He is a total arse all along the movie, and this impossible man, full of contradictions and mental cruelty is the man behind some films you will never forget like Le Mépris, for its beauty, but also La Chinoise for how boring it was (I tried watching it as a kid and gave up but stayed through the weird, not-for-my-age Alphaville, thanks to an undifferentiated movie programming).
You may end up loving Godard's movies more than the person he appears to be, although he can be funny, but Anne, in her own way, is not very likeable. She is bland, he treats her like an accessory - and she lets him. The only place where they seem to have a barely OK relationship is in bed. If Louis Garrel does a good job at impersonating Godard - although he is not as lethal as the original - Stacy Martin seems miscast. Her acting is limited. She looks like just an image way too often.
One possibility, which was not really exploited for the movie was to make it really a funny script, with a neurotic Godard emulating Woody Allen. The film is amusing at times but not hilarious - although it could have been. Godard says the darnest things. He cites funny men he respects like the Marx Brothers and...Jerry Lewis, whom he call the "destructive comics." He's doing that a bit in his own life.
The movie is also about the tension which exists in Godard's work between his art and his political engagement. You have to start wondering if he was such an interesting personality when you have to realize that he fell for the fad of literal Maoism without any distanciation like so many other French intellectuals of the time. A recurring theme is Godard's oeuvre being cut in two: on the one hand A Bout de Souffle, Le Mépris, Pierrot Le Fou - his more romantic cinéma - on the other hand, his more experimental filmmaking which is less about offering entertainment as about educating and laying ground for a social revolution, which never comes. He keeps uttering that one should have an "internal Vietnam." This is said from the comfort of Paris, the Latin Quarter, the Sorbonne, Cannes, and the Riviera. But it's really what took place at the time. Dreaming about a Maoist revolution the French "intellos" idealized and knew next to nothing about in real terms. When a guy from Publicis tells him his revolution is resting on the cadavers of millions of Chinese, he has no argument to oppose him which gives way to him trying to beat up his critic. Also, his smoky glasses get broken all along the story, as an expression of his predilection for confrontation.
Hazanavicius addresses Godard's purported antisemitism at one point, which is rather bold since it is legally a no-no in France. The censorship could have not let certain sentences go through. Just to hear what Godard says about Jews over protracted seconds and a fumbling jumble of explanations is a transgression in and of itself for a French citizen. Therein lies his "excuse." he is probably more of a provocateur, a transgressor than a rabid antisemite. But we can't be sure. I haven't studied the question.
His quest for some form of absolute leads him to forget his humanity. Part of it is that he can't help it as a creative and an artist. Part of it is showing he has personal issues. Some of the unpleasant aspects of his personality is that he is more capable of insulting an old man than a young one. Through Anne's eyes - who represents the ordinary person's viewpoint, more than that of love, which you don't feel very much in the story, except towards the end when they stop lying to each other disclosing their suffering, but then it's also the end of their love story due to an act of unforgivable violence - we see an admirable artist but also a despicable human being at other times. It's the vantage point of the normal person, who has no pretenses, just a wish to lead a pleasant life and love, even if it is in a formulaic manner; they keep saying "Mon amour" in the movie in an automatic manner, out of convention. It's nice but not convincing. At a dinner table the "normal" people eat chicken thighs with gusto, with meat juice dripping on their chins. Godard is disgusted, eats with a fork. At another point, Anne lets the juice of a fruit drip on her arm: she is on the side of hedonism and life, but also the absence of self-questioning.
Godard tortures himself, his wife, his friends, the public, in some of his movies. His reputation for being a difficult man won't be alleviated by this movie. What you take away perhaps is the feeling that Le Redoutable, the fearsome, is perhaps more so to himself than to others. In a revealing scene where he goes on ranting and getting jealous of his wife, an actor walks up to him (he's the guy who works naked with his wife) expressing all the admiration in the world he has for Godard, who is taken aback. It's a moment of beauty. The spectator in this instant is reminded of everything beautiful and admirable about Godard and his work. The light seems to shine brighter. But then, the fog, the clouds that hang over and inside Godard cannot be dissipated by himself, leading to his seeming downfall as a person, if not as an artist.