"I am playing leapfrog with myself"

By Jürgen E. Müller

scenario-du-film-passion-1.jpgScénario du film Passion, 1982

Godard, his oeuvre and his audience in light of his video film Scénario du film Passion

1. On self-portraits and self-presences of Jean-Luc Godard in his films

J'existe plus en tant qu'images qu'en tant
qu'être réel puisque ma vie sera d'en faire
(I exist rather in the shape of images than as a real being, since my life consists in creating images)
Jean-Luc Godard

The phantom of Jean-Luc Godard has haunted the screen in diverse ways since his first films of the Nouvelle Vague. Like many other auteurs, from Hitchcock to Truffaut, Godard as a character and a personage has left many traces in his work. From his acting role as assistant director to Fritz Lang in Le Mépris (Contempt), to the painter-conductor-author-director of Scénario du film Passion, Godard confronts us with a great variety of self-portraits whose image space and conceptual scope unfold for instance in Prénom Carmen (First Name: Carmen), King Lear, Grandeur et décadence d'un petit commerce de cinema (Grandeur And Decadence Of A Small Movie Concern), Soigne ta droite, JLG/JLG: autoportrait de décembre (Keep Your Right Up), For Ever Mozart, or Notre Musique. The genius and "holy monster Godard" (Anon, 1992) is omnipresent in his works, revealing itself in the most varied forms and constituting in its viewers' (and critics') eyes and ears an unceasing urge to grasp it/"him" retrospectively. We can experience this, for instance, in the many cryptic interviews where 'he' prefers talking about Americans or about football to talking about his films (cf. Dargis, 2004).

Before I introduce in the following sections a few comments on the self-representations of the "Godard" phantom, I would like to name two pathways that I cannot follow in this short exposé. It would be enticing (a) to draft a history of the functions of Godard's self-portraits and self-presences in his films and then (b) to correlate these with a history of the discursive constructions of Godard in film critiques, literary descriptions and self-descriptions and the like. Both perspectives must recede to the background, however, since they exceed the scope of this article. I have written elsewhere on the latter point, in the shape of a reception study of "Godard in the Netherlands" (Müller, 1998).

Hence I suggest approaching Godard's 'self'-presence by way of a short "re-visiting" of the video film that is probably most relevant for our line of questioning, Scénario du film Passion. Without a doubt, this film represents a climax of the Godard phenomenon's self-reflective construction and deconstruction.

Contrary to the denotations and connotations of its title, Scénario du film Passion does not turn out to be a cinematic screenplay for Godard's Passion. In this video film, Godard appears as director in front of an initially white screen. The audiovisual basis of these re-figurations is composed of the pre-figurations of Passion (that is, with a series of paintings from the pictorial canon of our western culture) and a few pictures of the making of this film. Godard makes it clear that he wishes not to write a screenplay but to see it; he presents himself in Scénario du film Passion in the serene and solitary pose of the demiurge and the 17th to 19th century artist-individual of genius (cf. Paech, 1989: 63). The white screen's empty space (Mallarmé's page blanche) framed by video monitors and montage apparatuses is filled with the theatrical manner of a painting conductor and director with his multi-layered, superimposed images. Godard is in and between the images; his shadow and his projections fill the screen, the video displays, and sometimes the entire picture frame. The adventure and even hazard of image production, which leads to ever-new images, radicalizes not only the issue of the film's reproductive character (cf. Paech, 1989: 64) but also that of the role and identity of the image maker (cf. Bellour, 1990: 335) or of the grand imagier (cf. Laffay, 1964; Metz, 1972).

Scénario du film Passion continues the discourse sparked by the young rebels of Nouvelle Vague about the author's role. The politique des auteurs postulated by Truffaut in 1954 in Cahiers du cinéma is subjected in this film to a final (for now), aesthetic and ironic de- and reconstruction.

2. The Author-Construct "Jean-Luc Godard"

Godard, that is not me, Godard, that is you
Godard in De Tijd

Let us remember: since Bazin, Nouvelle Vague, and the Oberhausener Manifest, if not earlier, the term "auteur" has established itself as a term synonymous with productions of aesthetic value. Truffaut, Chabrol, Godard and many others have for decades refined their auteur portrait, interacting with the imagination and the recipient's conscious activity, was to gain decisive influence on the meaning-generating processes of the act of reception. The "author" thus appears, as Christian Metz has argued, not as a concrete historical person but as the result of an imaginative act:

The "author" as created by the viewer defines himself by being the result of an imaginative activity and appearing as a mental image. Nothing in him is real, neither in his substance nor in his attributes, which may be far removed from the actual cineaste. This image, however, is not textual either; it likes to "attach itself" to signs that appear in the film, but one will not find it there, because it is created by the viewer who adds to it much of his or her own devising. (My trans. from Metz, 1997: 180-81)

scenario-du-film-passion-5.jpgScénario du film Passion, 1982

As a construct mediating between the viewer and the work, the "auteur" corresponds also with the deeply rooted needs of the audience. The assumption of an anthropological authority of an author-creator, an Other, allows the viewer to find him – or herself (cf. Lapsley and Westlake, 1988: 127 ff.); in other words, the encounter with the constructed Other leads the viewer back to him – or herself.

It is not in the text that the author resides, but in the discursive system between various media texts, and he operates in each act of reception. Hence I suggest understanding the film author as a historical configuration of knowledge (cf. Berger & Luckmann, 1970), a mental construct and an intertextual and intermedia syndrome in whose constitution many authorities take part; a construct that intervenes "between" film and viewer in the act of reception. This configuration of knowledge presupposes various levels that overlap and interact. The author syndrome embraces media-political strategies, elements of the collective memory, constructed identities, the poses and posturings of the creator of genius, and a usurpation of literary models of action—to name just the most relevant dimensions (cf. Müller, 1996).

Jean-Luc Godard is of course aware of the constructed character of his "authorship." Perhaps no other contemporary director has contributed in a similar way to his own author myth. The "Godard" myth can be traced back to the early years of Nouvelle Vague. It is still effective in our time, as we recently learned from his provocative absence at the ceremony of the Honorary Academy Awards November 2010. This can be seen as one of the many indications of a love-hatred oscillation of the legend J.L.G. between Hollywood and French avant-garde cinema, and the distance between the concepts of cinema, authorship and audiences. "Godard" constantly gives evidence of his "genius" and "otherness" for viewers and critics, and in his films, texts, and interviews he plays with the most varied facets of the "auteur" knowledge syndrome (in the sense of an element of social knowledge described by the sociology of knowledge, I refer for example to P. Berger and Th. Luckmann "The Social Construction of Reality") as it was developed likewise by his viewers. The romantically inspired image of the creative genius sets Godard apart from the crowd of cinematic craftsmen, while at the same time it forms a projection screen for the cinematic créateur's multiple self-constructions and self-deconstructions. It is also re-cycled and finds expression in his many interviews in which he gives no information about or even "explanation" of his films, but prefers to comment upon football games or teams.

In the following, I would like to pursue this question by using the example of Godard's self-presentation in Scénario du film Passion. This film can be understood as a key work regarding Godard's intermedia production. We need to investigate how the work and passion of the "Godard" genius (also central topics in the movie Passion) write or paint themselves into his video film Scénario du film Passion, and what options result therefrom for the interplay between the imag(e)ined créateur and the viewer.

3. Genius playing leapfrog – or five comments on the video film Scénario du film Passion

The screen is a wall. Walls are there to be jumped over.
Godard in Scénario du film Passion

Painting oneself into one's own images

When Godard – with his doppelganger, the exiled and fictitious colleague "Jerzy" from Passion – writes or paints himself into his images, this implies, for a start, the usurpation of the creative act of writing and painting by the film or video medium. The créateur Godard concerns himself with creative work, the conditions of his activity as filmmaker, and his creative inspirations. In Scénario du film Passion Godard tells no story (he had not done so in Passion), but shows himself at work and demonstrates his cinematic and pictorial work (cf. Bellour, 1990: 332; Jost, 1993: 235). This intermedia demonstration (cf. Müller, 1996, 2008) of his work and existence at the same time possesses features of an audiovisual self-portrait, since Godard actually exists only "in the form of images." This aphorism finds an image correspondence in the "Godard shadow" which covers the white screen and Godard's images, as these in turn cover it while, framed by his tools, by video and film machinery, it over-paints or overwrites his "own" images.

scenario-du-film-passion-3.jpgScénario du film Passion, 1982

Scénario du film Passion indicates the film's generation process. Godard as magus assumes the creative air of the act of writing and painting, yet at the same time he seeks to liberate the audiovisual medium of film from the static nature of écriture. This process can only be set in motion by the specific dispositive and catalytic qualities of the "video" medium. The "film" dispositif allows no direct representation of creative activity. Like the painting and writing in Scénario du film Passion, it can only be dynamized by the technological procedures of video machinery enabling a rapid production and erasing of images. Godard's creative passion in Scénario du film Passion (as in Passion) is kindled not by pre- or intertexts constituted as writing, but by archetypal or model images that admittedly interact in various ways with written texts. Godard tries to reveal to our eyes and ears the dynamic of his work (cf. Leutrat, 1990: 83). The pose of writing and painting also implies an intermedia game of reducing the distance between image and writing. In the course of this interplay between the "Godard" shadow, video projections, double exposure, and cross fading (on the one hand) and the film or video screen (on the other), the latter achieves the quality of a kind of audiovisual written page.

At this point I would like to call attention to a further aspect: over-painting images also signifies a theatrical gestus that connects audiovisual and cinematic production with the theatre. I will follow this intermedia trace a little further.

The theatrical air of a "genius"

Actor-director Godard, who in his films and of course also in Scénario du film Passion drafts his auteur – and self – portrait (cf. Bellour, 1990: 287ff, 335), attempts to emulate a theatre and opera director and to leave shadows and traces of his existence in the work and in his characters' actions. The theatricality of the act of directing underscores this claim. Yet it is valid only for the passing moment of this gestus, and it is at once erased by a series of aesthetic procedures such as double exposure. The "author" and director Godard disappears between the signs of the film.

Godard's air of a director interacting with and within the images makes use of a myth from western cultural history: Jacob's struggle with the angel. The connotations of Delacroix's painting were already multiplied in Passion by means of the struggle of the (fictitious) director Jerzy, Godard's "brother", with the angel figure. In Scénario du film Passion they are strengthened by the author-director's metaphorical wrestling with the white screen and with his images. With solemn gestures, Godard as theatrical actor-author-director struggles for an aesthetic balance between chaos and order, between fragment and totality, between continuity and discontinuity (cf. Coureau, 1993: 17). In the clash between these opposites, none gain the upper hand; the representation of the cinematic act of creation here indicates a search for order but also chaos, a power claim together with its failure. These paradoxes constitute the central stimulus driving the "genius" of Jean-Luc's creative passion in his whole work. The aesthetic balance for which the creator hopes, is achieved only for fractions of a second before it slips away into new, fragile, intermedia dynamics.

On the viewer's part, this variously ruptured gestus corresponds to the more or less successful search for traces of the director-author in his work. One of the central constituents of the author construct does indeed turn out to be the notion of an omnipotence of the author who inscribes himself into his work (cf. Müller, 1998). The author-director's shadow theatrically paints itself into the film, functioning as basis and projection screen of the viewer's imaginations, since – as already mentioned – "Godard, dat ben ik niet, dat zijn jullie": "Godard, that is not me, that is you" thus Godard in the Dutch journal De Tijd.

Shadow games of the "author"

The shadow-player-director's view is centred on the images he has himself generated. It signifies both nearness and ironic distance to himself and to what is shown; it focuses on the film's theatrical play. This play, as Michael Lommel and Volker Roloff have shown, creates a cinematic theatre that "questions the boundaries of documentation and fiction, and reflects the difference between the viewer's and the camera's vision in the images themselves" (my trans. from Roloff, 1997a: 74). The actor and film/theatre director points to the disparity of role and existence, he plays a part in the realm of film images and sounds as a shadow affected by his own and others' images. In this process, he refers at the same time also to the heterotopia of theatre in film (cf. Roloff, 1997b). One result of this cinematic integration or mise en abyme can be found in the overcoming of any opposition between being and appearing, of real and virtual images. The dichotomy between stage play and world is erased, as is the relevance of dominant ideological discourses.

The results of a reception study on "Godard" show that viewers and critics assess these audiovisual shadow games as indicating the author's "personal presence" in the film. Despite all Jean-Luc's disclaimers, the "Godard" shadow's presence is usually taken as evidence for the omnipresence of the "Godard" phantom and for the unity of person and work. Actor, author, director and the numerous visual and audio figures and roles solidify in the "Godard" syndrome, in the notion of his "bodily" presence in the film. Yet, as he emphatically lets us know, "Godard" exists only as a transparent signifier between his images.

scenario-du-film-passion-2.jpgScénario du film Passion, 1982

The transparent signifier between the images

In Scénario du film Passion Godard comments on the spectacle of the cinematic production process. The conditions of the "cinema" apparatus lead to a situation in which the 'author' can only emerge in a kind of sandwich construction between his films' images (cf. Jost, 1993: 234). If he wishes to represent audiovisually his creative achievements, he has to submit to the rules governing the deployment of film and video. His body (and his identity?) is fragmented by the apparatus of recording and replaying; Jean-Luc morphs into a transparent shadow and actor of his images within the illuminations of cinema and video projection.

This transparent body, which stands in fluctuating interactions with the film's images and sounds, plays the role of a viewer of its images and its own audiovisual existence. Its evanescent appearance and the continuous variation of its dynamic relations to the images (Jean-Luc in front of the empty and white screen, as actor between the film's personnages, as a figure covered by the images) make it a lieu de passage to the site of transition between different levels of reality. In its signifying nature, it points to (post)modern developments of personal identity and their diffusion. How can such an "I" articulate itself in its work, in any work?

As a shadow, moreover, the transparent "Godard", signifying body, paints a fragile self-portrait and self-presence of the creator of his images. Godard pointedly illustrates and radicalizes the claimed status of the self-portrait genre within a functional history, a claim articulated in French literary history for instance by Valéry and Blanchot and reassessed by Michel Leiris (cf. Bellour, 1990: 290), to be continued in the 1990s in his project Histoire(s) du cinéma. The author's often despairing search for personal identity as manifested in his work can find no satisfactory outcome other than his death. The apparatus's transformation processes (of film, video, and literature) require the author's fluctuating, hybrid, and transparent existence between his images. As he would later indicate in Notre Musique, the use of small video cameras is not more suited to enable him/us to win the battle against the death of cinema and of the cinematic "author". However, this battle must and will go on; "death" and the dead bodies of the "author" and the film are permanently reborn in the volatile reproduction and recycling of the images (cf. Dixon, 1997: 209 ff.). Jean-Luc Godard's body is bereft of its material "density" which ensures identity. As lieu de passage and as a shadow of "himself", it moves in the intermediate realm of reality and imagination, of documentation and fiction.

The actor-director-author and the mingling of dispositifs

The theatrical gestus of the film-theatre director "Godard" in Scénario du film Passion calls our attention, finally, toward one more shape of the theatre's heterotopia in film. If the intermedia processes of his films lead to "a successive reduction of the sharp distinction between dispositive arrangements" (my trans. from Zielinski, 1989: 244), we should glance more precisely at the dispositifs of film and theatre.

The spatiotemporal constituents of theatre, as is well enough known, are different from those of film (cf. Kattenbelt, 1995). The theatre presupposes a continuum of space and time in which the characters' actions can unfold. The audience's perceptive processes occur in a space that embraces also the space of the stage. What is offered to the eye and ear is constituted by signs and actions that exist in an "actual" space and "actual" time, on a performative site that in principle is accessible to the audience (cf. Metz, 1998: 45).

The cinema's performative site is fundamentally different from that of the theatre. It is characterized by the présence d'une absence of the original time and the original space. On the cinematographic screen we see only exposure traces of absent places and events. Actors, decor, sounds, and words are recorded, generating during the film's projection an illusion of their presence. From this viewpoint, cinema is shown to be imaginary, it "unites within itself by definition a certain presence and a certain absence" (my trans. from Metz, 1998: 46).

The shadow of Godard’s body that paints and writes itself into and between the images of his film may stand as a metaphor for this basic absence of the signifier. At the same time, however, it is also an expression of a desire to overcome the validity of this basic principle of the film dispositif by an intermedia merging of theatre and film. Godard as theatre director tries to revitalize in film the hic et nunc of a situation of theatrical projection, one shared by actors and viewers, to give to an inevitable absence the appearance of presence.

scenario-du-film-passion-4.jpgScénario du film Passion, 1982

With its suggested reduction of the sharp distinction between dispositifs, Godard’s passion of filmmaking would thus contribute also to a renaissance of Münsterberg’s metaphor of photo-play (Münsterberg, 1916/1970). The impossibility of immediately shared experience and direct interaction between actors and viewers – as in the social rendezvous of ancient tragedy — produces a powerful desire and stimulus to negate this fundamental difference between the dispositifs.

4. The theatrical passion and the hazard of pictorial work in video film

Les peintres … à des moments, osent faire ça ou ça, moi je ne sais pas et si je reviens … des moments … examiner la peinture, c'est pour oser ça.
(Painters sometimes take a risk in doing this or that – As for me, I do not know; if I examine painting now and again I do it in order to hazard this or that.)
Jean-Luc Godard

As a theatrical painter, in the video film Scénario du film Passion (which by contrast to "traditional" film possesses a greater immediacy) Godard may then ultimately be pointing toward a continuing effort to merge the deployment requirements of the theatre and theatrical rehearsal, including its specific spatiotemporal features, with the apparatuses of cinema, painting, and video. The Jean-Luc "genius" plays passionately with the concepts and aesthetic options of various media. His intermedia leapfrog, as it were, constitutes an audiovisual spectacle of the genesis or "history of creation" of his film(s) and of cinema in general. The difficulty if not impossibility for the film-theatre director to "really" play a part in his images and sounds correlates with the intensity of a passion to create a painted film theatre in a variety of imaginative ways. This unceasing effort may be one of the factors capable of explaining the fascination held by the genius of Godard and his works in our time, about 50 years and about 60 films or media productions after his "media birth" with A bout de souffle. It is to be hoped that further studies on the reception of his films and the intermedia construction of his "authorship" will strengthen this hypothesis.


I would like to thank Miriam Sentner very much for her translation of this text into English. This article is a revised and updated version of my article Das Genie und die Passion des Filme-Machens. Zur Auto(r)-Präsenz von Jean-Luc Godard in seinen Filmen, in Genie und Leidenschaft. Künstlerfiguren als Kinohelden, ed. J. Felix (St. Agustin: Gardez! Verlag, 2000), pp. 235-245.


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Jürgen E. Müller, Dr. phil., Professor of Media Studies at the University of Bayreuth, Germany. Dr. Müller's main fields of research are history of audiovisions and of television; multi- and intermediality; film and semiohistory; film and media theories.