One Plus One
Eric Hynes on Jean-Luc Godard’s In Praise of Love
The cinema has always opted for the present. All that has to do with passion and doubt. All of a sudden a continent that nobody had ever heard about appeared.
—Jean-Luc Godard, The Future(s) of Film. Three Interviews 2000/01
2001: A digital revolution. The democratization of cinema. The end of cinema. Yet sea changes are never as sudden or drastic as predicted, and when or if they do occur, the real transition happens gradually and far below the surface, unseen by soothsayers or trend-piece reporters. Whether motivated by accessibility, feasibility, curiosity, or experimentation, many of the world’s greatest living filmmakers have made features in digital formats since the turn of the century. Coppola and De Palma went video in 2007. Lynch went video in 2006, Michael Mann in 2004. Eric Rohmer did it in 2001. Following technological strides in the late Nineties, the above projects by established masters would seem to provide an historical time frame for an above-mentioned sea change. Except, when did Jean-Luc Godard first make a feature with video? That would be 1975, thank you very much. Furthermore, anticipating the Russian doll process of digital editing, video to film transfers, and digital projection by more than two decades, that film—Numero Deux—was a friskily meta product of video footage transmitted to multiple television monitors, then recorded on film. First drawn to video in the late Sixties, in the early Seventies he pointedly turned from both traditional theatrical distribution and the supremacy of large-format film by making Maoist motivated movies for television, shot mostly on portable 16mm and video. By 1975 and Numero Deux (in the time it takes many filmmakers to complete a single film) he was through with propagandistic projects and pronouncements, and ready to address video not as an arm of the proletariat but as a vocational option, with benefits and drawbacks, as well as an aesthetic and mechanical tool to be pondered, tested, used, and abused.
That’s why I was interested in video too, because at least you can look at the lighting and begin to free yourself from the photographer as the sorcerer who knows the magic that you don’t know. He knows what’s in the black box and all you know is that he takes it away and four days later he brings it back. But at least in video you can say, ‘It’s dreadful’ or ‘It’s beautiful, I like it that way.’ And then he says, ‘You like this dreadful thing?’ and you say, ‘Yes’ and you can learn, can begin to learn but then it means sharing the whole equipment and all the social things. And that’s why most of the time I don’t light. I don’t light because at least there is no rule…
- Godard, interview with Colin MacCabe, Godard: Images, Sounds, Politics, 1980
It is a matter of light. Without light, there is no film. No picture, no exposure, no projection; darkness. Film as material, film as chemical process, film as visible record depends on light. Digital video, however, doesn’t share that dependence. The picture may benefit greatly from light—edges sharpen, colors are made true, shapes take on volume—but the recording persists independent of it. Unlit video isn’t much to look at, but there’s still an actively blank buzz of electricity, an opaque surface monitor that simply is, even when it shows nothing. To film, light is a revelation. To video, it’s an improvement.
Film’s photographic nature is most dramatic in black-and-white, where dark and light can spar for supremacy and the value and drama of illumination is insistently described. When DV is shot in (or later converted to) black-and-white, one can often tell the difference, but our conflation of black-and-white with photography is so strong that we’re persuaded that what we’re watching is film—or at least something filmic. Color, however, gives the game away. Whereas color film stock absorbs the gradated appearance of alighted space, digital video is founded on default assumptions of color. Whatever it doesn’t get from the outside world, it supplies on its own. Thus in reduced light objects appear as hoary, color-blasted expressions of the machine. These ROYGBIV bestowed blares are to DV what overexposed flares are to film—the defining boundaries of the medium.
With his underappreciated masterwork In Praise of Love (a somewhat misleading title, translated from the French Eloge de l’amour), Jean-Luc Godard celebrates the limitations of both mediums. Two-thirds (60 minutes) black-and-white 16mm, one third (30 minutes) color DV, it is an anxious, searching work, obsessing over the past while negotiating a resourceful, tenuous present. It creates new beauty from old saws, extends old beauty to a new context, and treats new media with the ease, mastery, and bemusement of an artist auditioning a new palate. Godard’s approach to media is neither passive nor instrumental, but exploratory. And though the bifurcation of the film allows for a side-by-side, or rather serial comparison of his film and video craft, what’s most telling about In Praise of Love is Godard’s aesthetic and moral consistency, even as he fully explores divergent methods and qualities. An undaunted seeking pervades, giving every shot—be it film or video, black-and-white or color, photographic or electronic, allusive or inventive—the power to astonish.
Seven years on, In Praise of Love is looking more like the epochal work its release date would suggest. With one millennium yielding to another, and with the century of cinema passing to a ballyhooed digital age, the film’s first part revisits the origins of cinema (b&w, static shots, long exposure) and seemingly rediscovers illumination. Not content to simply light his scenes, he dwells on light sources themselves, making them unsung subjects of his otherwise underlit shots. Bulbs glow and flare while the surrounding greys and blacks have a deep, distinguished clarity. Then later, long before these images can cease to enrapture, he turns over to the audacious instability of DV: bold, vibrating colors that bleed onto a flattened, semi-focused canvas. Narratively, this latter strategy, this of-the-moment play with an emerging medium, provocatively represents a flashback to the past, while the timeless, photographic richness of the former stands for the present.
If I tell the story chronologically, inevitably I am going to fall into doing history in the anecdotal sense. So turn things around, let’s show the present first, then the past. Let’s make a long digression in the past, it’s a figure the cinema invented, but it won’t be a flashback. I’ve remained a little boy who is sincerely contradictory. Everybody would do the present in color and the past in black and white, let’s do the opposite.
—Godard, The Future(s) of Film. Three Interviews 2000/01
Questions of history were very present in Godard’s mind when he set out to make In Praise of Love. He’d just spent the better part of a decade on his idiosyncratic opus Histoire(s) du Cinéma, a guided tour of the first century of film. For Godard, history and cinema are constantly informing each other. By nature film is a mode of recording, preserving, and witnessing. It is also an active, if misleading, participant in culture and politics. On one hand making cinema is making history. On the other hand it is an insistent record of now, now, now—even when that now is a dwelling on the past or a fruitless fretting over the future. Thus In Praise of Love is as much about history as it is about the now of its making, as much about the mortality of film and filmmaking as it is about the fallibility of human existence, thought, and love.
Godard extended these contemplations to the material. In Histoire(s) he culled together the vast film archives of his memory but represented it with video, not film clips, and employed slow motion, fast-forward, and pause to disrupt and override film’s 24-frame regularity. No doubt his decision to work in video and with video sources was partly motivated by economics and logistics, but it also serves a provocative thesis that he furthers with In Praise of Love: that video, in its mutability and transference, well represents the subjectivity of memory. Thus the radical choice of DV for the film’s third act, a group of scenes that take place two years prior to the black-and-white present. That the time referenced is older than certain features of the recording device hardly matters, as Godard isn’t trying to replicate 1999—he’s asking the medium to articulate the now-and-then duality of remembrance—a present state of being that aims to recall what’s past. What does remembering look like? Not, as most films would suggest, like black-and-white. The first part of the film, with its crispness, its hard-fought presence, well convinces of that. No, Godard positions memory as vibrant, strange, and confoundingly subjective. His past looks more like another film’s future—or another film’s fantasy. It has more in common with the garish expressionism of the similarly bifurcated The Wizard of Oz than it does with sepia tones or iris eyes.
Yet both parts of In Praise of Love, like much of Godard’s recent work, borrow more from traditional visual art than they do from cinema. While Praise’s first part conjures the scientifically observational spirit of cinema’s founders, Godard’s shots are as fixated on stillness as the Lumières’ were enamored of motion. And while Godard’s shots have the meticulously composed, incandescent quality of fin-de-siècle photographs, they bear an even greater affinity to deeply textured wood or metal etchings. Film of course is rapid, disposable even, but here each frame seems painstakingly detailed, a hard, permanent surface articulated by a deft, sharp blade. On the digital side, the editing and exploded color strategy call attention to the fact that we’re watching video, but the images have a painterly quality foreign to either video or film. They are like Fauvist paintings, ecstatic, handheld Kandinsky frames of red and blue swathed landscapes populated by water, sand, trees, automobiles, and helicopters, or monochromatic Matisse rooms set fire by a table lamp. The impulse throughout is simultaneously regressive and radical, pursuing a communion with classical, canonized art-making yet somehow incorporating it into the fast and loose language of film/video making. For though Godard is bound to be defined by Breathless homage-ery, he’s long past the simply referential, or even re-contextual, as here the associations bespeak a contemplation of the matter and meaning of materials, and of how everything and nothing changes as they do.
That notion of simultaneous progress and retreat pervades the film. It speaks to the ebb and flow of history and culture, and to the possibility of anyone making him or herself known or understood by another person. The “praise” of the film’s title (though “elegy” is a more accurate translation from the French) is of love as defining characteristic of our kind, the messy mortal blessing and burden of our existence. In praise of our fallibility, in praise of our imperfections, in praise of our futile attempts to transcend them. Visually speaking, it’s the imperfections, the limitations of both mediums that interest Godard. For the first part, he limits the amount of filler light, causing the film to thirstily absorb visible light sources. He does the same for DV, provoking the format’s color-stripe defaults and overloading the camera’s auto-focus. He’s exploring limitations and revealing unstable beauty at extremes, yet built into the enterprise is failure, the points where the medium and the technology reach their limit. That is the film’s narrative as well, encountering or revisiting the stubborn searchers, explorers, and protesters while acknowledging that resistance usually dovetails with defeat. Defined by our resistance, as well as by defeat, we still move—forward, backward, it almost doesn’t matter—we still love, we still pick up the camera to see what we can find. As a recurring intertitle reminds us, we’re searching above all for, “quelque choses de l’amour”: something of love.
The closest the film gets to an affair of love is two extended conversations between Bruno Putzulu’s Edgar, a bracingly earnest artist who’s researching and rehearsing an opera, or play, or film—he hasn’t settled on which—and Cecile Camp’s Elle, a politically strident, emotionally damaged granddaughter of two leaders of the French resistance. They talk first (or chronologically speaking, last) along the etched streets and riverbanks of Paris, then again in wide-skied, Fauvist Brittany. These conversations, and echoing ancillary ones that Edgar has with befuddled associates, dominate the film’s characteristically dense soundtrack. Much more could be written about that soundtrack, or about the sound design of any of Godard’s films, particularly those since Nouvelle Vague (which was singled out and sold as a free-standing two-disc audio set—all of the dialogue, musical cues, ambient sounds and associative sound effects . . . a true soundtrack recording). But the words of Godard’s films have always engendered more scrutiny than any other aspect of his work, and In Praise of Love was no exception.
To the extent that the film was discussed at all in the U.S., it was damned as being “anti-American,” because of occasional broadsides about the U.S.’s brutishness, self-denied cultural imperialism, and lack of history. There’s also an extended riff on a supposed corporate takeover of Elle’s family history by Steven Spielberg. Provocative and puckish, to be sure, but now that we’re clear of the September 2001 context that greeted the film’s New York Film Festival debut, the comments need to be considered within the context of the narrative, not as bluster straight from the filmmaker. Though Godard himself may share some (or even all) of the thoughts expressed, they still exist within the narrative, and emerge from characters that are far from authoritative. His films habitually lack heroes or heroines, and recently lack even discernible leads, making the charge of characters-as-mouthpieces-for-Godard internally problematized: who are we siding with, who is right, and what difference does it make? Elle makes most of the U.S. and Spielberg-critical comments (which, it should be noted, take up about three percent of the film’s screen/soundtrack time), but it’s crucial that her words never have an effect. She can’t prevent Spielberg and Associates from buying her grandparents story—she can’t even prevent her kindred spirit grandparents from wanting to sell their story—and of course she’s powerless against the cultural might of the U.S. She’s left with pithy rejoinders about the imperial connotations of the word American (“do you mean the Americans of the north?”). But her most compelling moment comes after one of her scolds, when she acknowledges her inevitable defeat and mutters to an American businessman, “Okay, but you can do it gently.” Edgar (perhaps also Godard, perhaps also the viewer) is drawn to Elle, but her futility is unmistakable. In both segments of the film she’s shot shadowed and obscured, an elusive, mysterious beauty that looms large but can’t last. She reaches her limits and pushes hard against them, but in the end hastens her own.
Which leaves us with Edgar, who, despite his dominating screen time, is another elusive, mysterious figure. But that elusiveness matches Edgar’s own conception of self and his surrounding world. He’s questioning, he’s searching, he’s heightening his senses, he’s looking for fellow travelers. It’s mentioned in the film that children and old people are easy reads: when you see either, you know what you’re looking at. But those in-between are harder to know—there’s a story that needs to be told. What makes an adult? How is one described? In the words of one associate, Edgar is “the only one trying to be an adult.” But even Edgar, in search of history, relevance, and integrity, reaches his limits, turns away as often as he pursues, and never follows through with the one person that might have been his adult match (and that he might have saved from self-destruction). Alas, dear translator: more elegy than praise.
And yet again, theirs is the closest we get to a relationship, to something of now that may yet remain. The inverted narrative supports this, culminating with a hint of Edgar’s unmade, undefined work of art as the throbbing colors and stunning superimpositions of their remembered dialogue. An exchange is repeated in both parts: first as Edgar and Elle stand side-by-side facing the Seine, with the camera at their backs and the sun alighting an abandoned fortress in the distance; and again as they drive from Elle’s grandparents home, also shot from behind as they stare through a rain-speckled windshield, colored lights exploding in every raindrop and the speedometer fracturing into prismatic pixels. In the present/film version Elle has just ended a relationship, and in the past/color version Edgar is mourning one of his own. Each time they discuss their personal situations in terms of history. And each time Edgar is heard voicing the same sustained thought, though in neither—since his back is to us—do we watch Edgar speak. Perhaps he repeated this thought to Elle, perhaps the second or even both are the voice of Edgar, the artist of the film we’re watching, abstracting from what’s before us. The first time through is followed by Elle whispering into Edgar’s ear something we aren’t allowed to hear (as snippets from Vigo’s L’Atalante play quietly on the soundtrack). The second time through witnesses a bold superimposition of Edgar’s silhouetted bust over a seascape. The entire image at first paused, one layer then moves, then the other. Then one layer heaves in while the other zooms out. Sky and sea surround Edgar’s silhouette, and a lighthouse flashes next to his head. There’s a break of bright yellow in the clouds, and the sun’s sea reflection glimmers green. He says:
When I think about something, in fact I’m thinking of something else. You can only think about something if you think of something else. For instance I see a landscape that is new to me. But it’s new to me because I mentally compare it to another landscape – an older one, one that I knew.
Thought and learning are dependent on what we already know. Progress is paradoxically anchored in the already established. Experience is bound, relational. Repeated in each part of In Praise of Love, the thought well expresses how one seemingly divergent part of the film depends on the other, how one doesn’t really register, doesn’t look truly new or remarkable, without the other reminding, pushing, varying. One is related to another. Video-film-photography-painting; color-light-dark. We can evaluate DV because we’ve been immersed in film; can negotiate the present because we remember something of the past.
And Edgar understands something of love because he once stood beside Elle, each and together trying to make sense of the inscrutable beauty that lay before them.