For a Reconsideration of Soft and Hard

By Jerry White

soft-and-hard-jean-luc-godard-anne-marie-mieville.jpgSoft and Hard, 1985

Soft and Hard, a 50-minute video piece made by Jean-Luc Godard and Anne-Marie Miéville in 1985 was not, Colin MacCabe suggests, a project the directors were wholly committed to (2003: 292). MacCabe commissioned it for Channel 4 by way of supporting Je vous salue, Marie (Hail Mary, 1985), which Godard was raising money to finish. "I suggested that he and Miéville could make a film about Britain – a 'British Images' to compliment his British Sounds of sixteen years earlier." It did not turn out quite as MacCabe hoped as "when Godard had received the money and finished Je vous salue, Marie there followed a long period of procrastination, which resulted in Godard and Miéville making a documentary that reflected on their own lives in Rolle," and not about Britain at all (Ibid.). The result is one of the most interesting pieces that Godard and Miéville made in the 1980s, a tentative but engaged essay on the possibilities of working and living together, and the connection of this relationship to marginal places and landscapes.

The film opens with Godard and Miéville saying "On cherchait encore le chemin vers notre parole" ["We were still looking for the way to our language"] setting the tone for the work that follows, however cryptically. Part of this occurs at the level of form; the sound/image/text relationship even in these first moments are layered and challenging. The screen is black with all-caps text in English: "SOFT AND HARD" / "TALK BETWEEN TWO FRIENDS" / "HARD AND SOFT" / "TWO FRIENDS". When "HARD SUBJECT" comes on screen, Godard's monologue starts with "l'époque du triomphe des télévisions privées" ["the time of the triumph of private television"]. Then we hear the same text, from the beginning and now in Miéville's voice, laid over Godard's as he continues. The piece has many instances of comparably layered, and comparably minimalist, sound-image-text combinations. This opening sequence sets the agenda in terms of a philosophical outlook and overall structure. The first words on the soundtrack clearly refer to Martin Heidegger's 1959 collection Unterwegs zur Sprache, which was translated into French as Acheminement vers la parole in 1969. Two years before that translation, Cahiers du cinéma published (in number 186) Patrick Lévy's translation of an essay from that book, Aus einem Gespräch von der Sprache, or "A Dialogue on Language". The essay takes the form of a dialogue between "A Japanese" and "an Inquirer," wanders widely over aesthetics, philosophy (including Heidegger's own work) and cinema (specifically Kurosawa's 1950 film Rashomon). In Soft and Hard Godard and Miéville follow both Heidegger's use of the philosophical dialogue and his desire to ruminate, however inconclusively, on the intersection between language, aesthetics and knowledge.

The bulk of Soft and Hard is made up of a single, 27-minute shot (interrupted by cutaways to television footage, adverts, news) of Godard and Miéville sitting on the sofa, talking. Like Heidegger and his imaginary Japanese interlocutor, Godard and Miéville talk about talking, with occasional reference to cinema, of how communications (between two people, via the television, and everything in-between) succeed or fail. It is that failure of communication, or more precisely a lack of explicitness, that Lévy feels is the relevant connection between this Heidegger text and Godard's cinema, writing in the translator's introduction to the piece "Finalement, la question qui se pose est peut-être celle-ci: peut-on concevoir un cinéma qui échappe à l'objectivation?… Godard, s'il transforme ses acteurs en objet, quand il les dirige, c'est pour filmer en eux ce qui échappe à cette objectivation" ["Finally, the question is maybe this: can you conceive of a cinema that escapes objectification? Godard, when directing his actors, transforms them into objects in order to film in them that which escapes this objectification"]. Lévy is writing in 1967 but this observation could easily be applied to the images of sexuality in 1980's Sauve qui peut (la vie) (Slow Motion) or images of the divine in Je vous salue, Marie. He could also be writing about the following exchange towards the beginning of Godard and Miéville's dialogue in Soft and Hard:

G: C'est peut-être la différence entre l'un et l'autre par rapport à l'image. Moi, ce qui me plaît en elle est inaccessible et toi ce serait ce qui te gênerait… Faut-il montrer les choses? Alors on pourrait dire: moi la télévision me gêne parce qu'elle ne les montre pas alors que toi elle devrait te plaire puisqu'elle ne les montre…

M: Non, la télévision ne les montre pas tout les temps, donnant à penser qu'elle n'arrête pas de les montrer et que les montrer, c'est ça, c'est ce qu'elle fait. Et que les montrer, c'est de cette manière-là. (Godard and Miéville, 1988: 163-64)


G: That's probably the difference between you and me, regarding the image. What I really like in it is its inaccessibility, which is what bothers you… Does one have to show things? You could say I like TV because it doesn't show things.

You probably dislike it for the very same reason…  M: That's not it. Television never shows things, yet it makes you think that it never stops showing them, and this is what showing things is, and that there's no other way to show them. (Translation from the BFI's subtitles)

This exchange has strong echoes in Heidegger's imaginary Japanese friend's sense of the significance of gesture in Japanese Noh drama, and in Rashomon as well. Midway though their dialogue, "J" illustrates the gestural language of Japanese performance by holding his hand up. He and Heidegger then have the following exchange:

I: Wenn es uns glückte, die Gebärde in diesem Sinne zu denken, wo würden wir dann das Eigentliche der Gebärde suchen, die Sie mir zeigten? J: In einem selbst unsichtbaren Schauen, das sich so gesammelt der Leere entgegenträgt, daß in ihr und durch sie das Gebirge erscheint. (Heidegger, 1959: 108)


I: If we were to succeed in thinking of gesture in this sense, where would you then look for the essence of that gesture which you showed me? J: In a beholding that is itself invisible, and that, so gathered, bears itself to encounter emptiness in such a way that in and through it the mountains appear. (Heidegger, 1971: 19)

The concern here with the unseen and its connection to visual arts – performance, cinema – is central to the fragment of the Heidegger dialogue that appeared in the Cahiers. These concerns are equally central to a point made by Jonathan Rosenbaum that Robert Bresson's formal distinctiveness is best understood not as a religious manifestation but as modernist one (1998: 17-26). Similarly, the formal eccentricities of Japanese art that seem to so fascinate Heidegger – especially the emphasis on gesture over mimesis, and in the dialectic between what signs make invisible and the mountains that those same signs can summon – seem less connected to a sustained tradition of Japanese cultural production than they are to important elements of modernism (and thus go some way towards explaining the concerns of Soft and Hard). During this part of her exchange with Godard, Miéville offers the example of "une image de l'œuf apparemment au repos mais à l'intérieur duquel, invisibles, se passent toute sortes de choses…" (1998: 164) ["the image of an egg, apparently still but within which all sorts of things happen invisibly"]. This sort of invisibility, this interest in instances where representation fails, is entirely consistent with the concerns of late modernism and with the concerns of this Heidegger fragment.

This engagement with modernism is signalled by the sequence that directly precedes the dialogue, where Godard and Miéville ramble over the lakeside landscape and read from Hermann Broch's 1945 novel Der Tod des Virgil. Broch was a German novelist important both for the development of European modernism generally and to Godard specifically; Richard Brody conflates romanticism and modernism when he writes "From his father, Godard acquired a taste for German romanticism, and as an adolescent, read works by Hermann Broch, Thomas Mann and Robert Musil" (2008: 6).[1] These authors are modernists of a distinctly Romantic stripe, a context within which we can view Godard and Miéville's work. Kathleen K. Rowe argues that "seeing Godard as a twentieth-century heir to the Romantic movement helps explain not only his ambivalence toward women, but also his retreat from politics, his representation of himself as an anti-hero of sorts, and the stance of ironic detachment evident in most of his work" (1990: 51). This sense of retreat from politics is, for both Godard and the Romantics, largely illusory. Retreat is clearly important for both the Rolle-dwellers and those most famous lovers of the German mountains; both are retreating as part of a project of radical transformation via an engagement with peripheral spaces, a project that is not synonymous with political transformation but certainly not opposed to it. The sequence where Der Tod des Vergil is invoked is a good summary of Godard and Miéville modernist-Romantic duality, as it seeks to integrate visual images of peripheral landscape with a poetic text that is about that most modernist of preoccupations, the inadequacies of art. Following a shot where Miéville walks along the shore of Lac Léman, we cut to a shot of Godard and Miéville in their car, pulled over alongside a county road. Godard, who has a book in his hand, says "Le désespoir de l'art, c'est ça dont je te parlais…" (1988: 162) ["art's despair, that's what I was telling you about"], and then starts to read from La Mort de Virgile, Albert Kohn's translation of Broch's Der Tod des Vergil, which first appeared in 1952. Miéville wanders off, then shots of the camera panning across clouds fade in and out (a shot that opens Sauve qui peut (la vie)), followed by shots of the grass, and forest. Miéville's voice then continues the reading, and we have shots of her by the lake, the text "Death and Life," a shot of the lake, the text "Soft and Hard", a shot of a small river, the text "Two Friends," and then a cut to the beginning of the aforementioned 27-minute shot of their dialogue on the sofa. Both Godard and Miéville read from a part of Der Tod des Vergil that shifts from incredibly dense prose into poetry (an important characteristic of the book) over the images of clouds, grass and forest; the passage includes the following excerpt from Broch's book:

ihre Verzweiflung, ihr verzweifelter Versuch, aus verganglichem Sein das Unvergängliche
  zu schaffen,
aus Worten, aus Tönen, aus Steinen, aus
auf daß der gestalte Raum
die Zeiten überdauere…
und es enthüllt sich dem Menschen die
  Schönheit als Grausamkeit,
als die wachsende Grausamkeit des
ungezügelten Spiels,
das im Sinnbild Unendlichkeitsgenuß verspricht, erkenntnisverachtenden, genießerischen
idischer Schein-Unendlichkeit und darob unbedenklich Leid und Tod
  zuzufügen vermag,
da es im grenzentrückten Gebiet der Schönheit
nur dem Blick noch erreichbar, nur der Zeit
  noch erreichbar,
aber nicht mehr der Menschlichkeit und der
  menschlichen Pflicht…
(Broch 1982: 116-17)


art's despair, its despairing attempt to build up the imperishable from things that
from words, from sounds, from stones, from
so that space, being formed, might outlast
and thus beauty revealed itself to man as
as the growing cruelty of the unbridled game which promised the pleasure of infinity though
  the symbol,
the voluptuous, knowledge-disdaining pleasure of an earthly sham-infinity, hence thoughtlessly able to inflict sorrow and
as happened in the realm of beauty at the
  remote periphery,
accessible only to the glance, only to time, but no longer available for humanity and the
  human task
(Broch: 1945: 122-23)

When Godard reads it over images of the Vaudois landscape, it becomes:

le désespoir de l'art est son essai désespéré de créer l'impérissable avec des choses périssables. Avec des mots, des sons, des pierres, des couleurs afin que l'espace mis en forme dure au-delà des âges À l'homme donc, la beauté de dévoilé comme la cruauté. La cruauté grandissante du jeu non réfréné qui promet dans le symbole une jouissance de fictive infinité terrestre qui peut sans hésiter infliger souffrance et mort puisque cela se passe dans le royaume de la beauté. A la périphérie, à la périphérie lointaine, à la périphérie lointaine exclusivement accessible au regard exclusivement accessible au regard, et par lui, accessible à la durée terrestre mais inaccessible à l'humanité, aux devoirs humains. (Godard and Miéville, 1988: 164; emphasis mine)

Godard repeats the phrase "the realm of beauty at the remote periphery / accessible only to the glance" which is written only once in the original. So while this passage is deeply pessimistic about the power of art to create lasting, significant objects, to "build up the imperishable from things that perish," it nevertheless has vivid imagery that resonates strongly with Godard and Miéville's desire to transform their realm of beauty, the cinema, by immersing themselves fully in the remote periphery of Rolle. Soft and Hard's formal strategy is comparable to that of Der Tod des Virgil inasmuch as both shift their modes of address without warning: Godard and Miéville move from lyrical montages to long dialogues rendered in a single fixed-position shot and Broch moves between a prose of long sentences in long paragraphs and poetic digressions that are dense with vivid imagery.

Zueinander, sprechen heißt: einander etwas sagen, gegenseitig etwas zeigene wechselweise sich dem Gezeigten zutrauen.  Miteinandersprechen heißt: zusammen von etwas sagen, einander solches zeigen, was das Angesprochene im Besprochenen besagt, was es von sich her zum Scheinen bringt. (1959: 253)


To speak to one another means: to say something, show something to one another, and to entrust one another mutually to what is shown.  To speak with one another means: to tell of something  jointly, to show to one another what that which is claimed in the speaking says in the speaking, and what it, of itself, brings to light. (1971: 122)

The whole video is an attempt to reconcile the gap, to engage in a communication where two people are speaking to and with each other. Godard and Miéville clearly want, following Heidegger's formulation, to tell of things jointly, to explain the way that they approach representation generally, film specifically, and the landscape around them. But they also want to entrust each other with their different backgrounds as filmmakers (Miéville recalls during the sofa dialogue that she started as a filmmaker by projecting her family's photos on the wall of her darkened bedroom, while Godard recalls that for him it was all about Henri Langois and the Cinémathèque française of the 1950s), or their different ways of inhabiting their shared domestic space (a plan-séquence early in the piece has Godard playfully swinging a tennis racket while Miéville irons).

"Some of [Godard and Miéville's] assertions, such as those about projection/subject/subjugation, may not be substantial or sustainable in any kind of traditional theoretical or academic context," writes Rod Stoneman, who took over from MacCabe as Channel 4's commissioning editor for Soft and Hard, "but they do offer a brilliant and exemplary mode of thought, developing film as 'a form that thinks', as Godard puts it in chapter 3A of Histoire(s) du Cinéma" (2006: 33)

Summarising Der Weg Zur Sprache, in italics no less, Heidegger writes that "Das Wesende der Sprache ist die Sage als die Zeige" (1959: 254) – "The essential being of language is Saying as Showing" (1971: 123). A desire both to say and show, to communicate both in poetry and prose, both in photographic realism and high artifice: that is the project that Godard and Miéville have spent a career nurturing. Soft and Hard is a vision of that project fully freed from the conventions of narrative cinema.


[1] This is repeated, unattributed either to Brody or the interviews in Studio and Télérama that one finds in Brody's endnotes, in Antoine de Baecque's Godard: biographie: "les romantiques allemands sont recommandés par Paul Godard, qui fait découvrir à son fils Robert Musil, Hermann Broch, Thomas Mann" ["the German Romantics were recommended by Paul Godard, who had introduced his son to Robert Musil, Hermann Broch, Thomas Mann"] (2010: 27).


de Baecque, Antoine (2010) Godard: Biographie, Paris: Grasset
Broch, Hermann (1945) The Death of Virgil, New York: Pantheon
Broch, Hermann (1982) Der Tod des Vergil, Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp [First published 1947]
Brody, Richard (2008) Everything is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard, New York: Metropolitan
Godard, Jean-Luc (1980) Slow Motion
Godard, Jean-Luc (1985) Hail Mary
Godard, Jean-Luc and Anne-Marie Miéville (1985) Soft and Hard
Godard, Jean-Luc and Anne-Marie Miéville (1998) Soft and Hard: Soft talk on a hard subject
between two friends, in Revue belge du cinéma 22-23, pp.161-167
Heidegger, Martin (1959) Unterwegs zur Sprache, Tübingen: Verlag Günther Neske
Heidegger, Martin (1967) Martin Heidegger: sur le cinéma, le Japon, et le Nô, trans. Patrick Lévy, in Cahiers du Cinéma 186 (January 1967), pp.45-46
Heidegger, Martin (1971) On the Way to Language, trans. Peter D. Hertz, New York: Harper and Row
Jones, Kent (1998) A Stranger's Posture: Notes on Bresson's Late Films, in Robert Bresson, ed. James Quandt, Toronto: Cinematheque Ontario, pp.393-402
Lévy, Patrick (1967) Translator's Introduction to Martin Heidegger: sur le cinema, le Japon, et le Nô, in Cahiers du Cinéma 186 (January 1967), pp.45-46
MacCabe, Colin (2003) Godard: Portrait of the Artist at Seventy, London: Faber
Rosenbaum, Jonathan (1998) The Last Filmmaker: A Local, Interim Report, in Robert Bresson, ed. James Quandt, Toronto: Cinematheque Ontario, pp.17-26
Rowe, Kathleen K. (1990) Romanticism, Sexuality and the Canon, in Journal of Film and Video
42:1, pp.49-65

Jerry White currently teaches in the European Studies programme at Dalhousie University (Halifax, Canada)