It's Not Blood, It's Red: Colour(s) of Jean-Luc Godard

By Robert Barry

pierrot-le-fou-jean-luc-godard.jpgPierrot le Fou, 1965

If all the airish signics of her dispandump helpabit from an Father Hogam till the Mutther Masons could not that Glugg to catch her by the colour of her brideness! Not Rose, Sevilla nor Citronelle; not Esmerelde, Pervinca nor Indra; not Viola even nor all of them four themes over. But, the monthage stick in the melmelode jawr, I am (twintomime) all thees thing. – James Joyce, Finnegans Wake

In the midst of a 1980 interview with Jean-Luc Godard, Colin MacCabe suddenly finds himself struck dumb: "Although colour's very important in your work, I couldn't find any way to talk about it. It's like a difficulty that I have with Joyce's Finnegan's Wake. The most complex, difficult part of the book is about the children's discovery of colour and how that's related to sexuality and to shame. I'm convinced there's something there but I can't say it." (p.134)

In his films of the 1960s shot in Eastmancolor and Technicolor, Godard's colours do not "quiver" out of the "shadowy transparency" of their background, as in the description of paintings by Velasquez by Elie Faure, read by Jean-Paul Belmondo over the first shots of Pierrot le Fou (1965); they leap suggestively, "with zitterings of flight released." But as much as Godard's colours may suggest, even point towards their own significatory potential, the meaning behind this gesture remains oblique, intangible, tending towards a block in interpretation.

It is appropriate that Godard's first colour film – and for several years afterwards, still his only colour film – would be his take on the "musical-comedy", Une femme est une femme (A Woman is a Woman, 1961), and that even here he would offer us a colour so imposing and discontinuous. Cinema's encolouration would not take place evenly or uninterruptedly, in a flash, as with sound. Jolson said, "You ain't heard nothing yet" and with that the talkies were upon us. But some of the very first films were coloured and some of the most recent do without; in between, chromatic distribution has been a question touching on economics and aesthetics, questions of realism and genre.

Amongst early films, when it appeared, colour was not so much instead of black-and-white as in addition to it, its dizzying excess, or Lacanian plus-de-jouir, with some films being released in both colourless and also – for a higher price – coloured versions, the latter featuring coloured elements sometimes painstakingly hand-painted onto the celluloid. With greyscale and pigment living side by side within the same film – even the same frame – their symbolic opposition is largely precluded. In a sense, with the rise of Technicolor in the late 1920s from one of several competing colour systems to the role of film colour per se, what is invented is not so much "colour" as "black-and-white", or rather the possibility of their thematic antithesis (Misek, 2010: 27). Nonetheless, it is still largely economics which dictates the ghettoisation of colour in spectacular inserts, typically musical numbers.

While Technicolor's monopoly may have determined the desire of producers to restrict it to the fantastic (finally fully codified in The Wizard of Oz), it equally created an equal and opposite drive in the shape of a booklet entitled Color Consciousness. The author of this pamphlet was Natalie Kalmus, Technicolor's "Color Consultant", whose employment on set was obligatory for filmmakers hoping to make use of the Technicolor system. Kalmus's role was ostensibly to provide expert advice on colour use, while in fact suppressing its "unnatural" application, pushing the company line that "Technicolor is natural color" (Misek, 2010: 36).

So there is a double programme to Godard's highly stylised, highly self-conscious use of colours in Une femme est une femme. Anna Karina's Angela likes her coffee "very white" like the walls of her apartment, and her bright red tights lurch out of the deliberate greyness of its Strasbourg-Saint Denis location. "Red stocking, bluestocking," remarks one of the lounge lizards that lurk backstage at the Zodiac club where she works, and soon enough her legs have indeed turned blue. As much an affectionate tribute to the genre of which this film is, supposedly "the idea", a paean to that "systematic use of the gaudiest colours" Godard had so praised in his 1957 review of Nicholas Ray's Hot Blood (Godard, 1985: 117). Equally a riposte and a satire towards Kalmus's "law of emphasis", to "those who still believe that colour in the cinema is more suited to soft than violent tones" (Ibid.). And one perpetrated, no less, through a rival system, Eastmancolor.

Returning to colour (now Technicolor) two years later, Godard has done with generic parodies but that is not to say that his use of colour has become any less extreme. In the apartment which gives the central third of Le Mépris (Contempt, 1963) its location, the white walls and strangely blockish blue and red furniture lend the appearance of a Mondrian painting unfolded into four dimensions. We regard a film of white statuary daubed with red and blue paint, within a projection room filled with bright blue chairs inhabited by red ties, red lipsticks, a bright red ashtray; the artificiality of the former drawing attention to that of the latter in a startling Verfremdungseffekt. But if Godard is a Brechtian, it is Brecht as read by Roland Barthes: Brecht as semiologist.

In an interview in Cahiers du cinéma, published in the same year as the release of Le Mépris, Barthes discusses Brecht's codification of colour as a question of the syntagm (Barthes, 1986: 281). For Barthes, the barrier to cinema developing the transformative power of language is its essentially analogical, continuous nature (op.cit.: 277). Godard thus uses colour as a means of suggesting the discontinuity of language, "For words have a strange power to illuminate the darkness" as Ferdinand (Jean-Paul Belmondo) says in Pierrot le Fou, like neon light that spell out "Vie" or "Cinema" in curled sans serifs of red and blue neon. Godard claims "I don't light," (MacCabe, 1980, p.134) for only words can light and have power over light – to enlighten or obscure. The clarity of these brightly coloured written interpolations – which become an increasingly recognisable feature of Godard's films at this time – is to present a kind of clarity denied to spoken to language by the "dirty sound" which engulfs it. As Misek (2010: 55) points out, however, drawing explicit emotional or intellectual referents from Godard's colour scheme can only lead to inconsistency, a kind of critical blandness. Godard's code, at this stage at least, refers only to itself.

Responding to an impertinent interviewer's demand as to why there must be so much blood in Pierrot le Fou, Godard insists, "Not blood, red." The real violence interpolated into the fiction, news reportage on Vietnam on a car radio, merely points towards the idea of a violence, just as much as, later on, the symbolic, simulated violence will serve to point towards its mirror in the real. For every pool of blood there is, somewhere nearby, a round red cushion, like a lemon and a yellow light bulb in a work by Joseph Beuys, Multiple Capri-Batterie.

In his 2004 book of interviews with Beuys, Volker Harlan says of Beuys's approach to colour, "one cannot say here that colour simply exists, is there, but rather that in observing something coloured a whole series of perceptions arise which metamorphose into one another. As Beuys said, a green after-image arises from red, or vice versa: a red after image from green. These phenomena are particularly apparent in relation to the so-called pure colours that have no dark tinges, as there are in brown or olive green for instance." (2004: 99-100) The notion of Godard as a painter of colours is not new – it is referred to by none other than Agnès Varda (quoted in Youngblood, 1998: 24). More persuasive, perhaps is Misek's (2010: 132) notion of Godard as a printer of colours, his RGBs as the CMYK of the printer's swatch which we see onscreen in both Le Mépris and La Chinoise (1967).

By the time of 2 ou 3 choses que je sais d'elle (Two or Three Things I Know about Her, 1967), as Misek (op. cit.: 56) remarks, Godard's colour scheme has become such an identifiable brand image that the director need not even credit himself, so distinctive are his red and blue sans-serif title sequences. It may be significant for a film the director himself claims is about how Parisian society (the "elle" of the title) forces each of us to prostitute ourselves "in one manner or another"; here finally the brand, his manner of self-presentation as self-commodification, erases the director's own identity. Godard's camera here is parasitical on printed matter of one sort of another – advertising posters, food packaging, fashion magazines, signage of all kinds – in various states of disrepair and degradation, which tend to be dominated by the same RGB colour scheme as the props and costumes. It is as though this world of typography and typographic imagery, of advertising and brand design, has become like a creeping fungus, gradually seeping out of its bounds and infecting the "real" world, rendering it curiously petrified, "comme dans une énorme bande desinée."

In a 1968 press conference held at the University of Southern California, in response to a question from the audience referring to the sense of unfinishedness of the colours in La Chinoise ("You seem to have brushed just enough blue or red or yellow on the sets to get across the idea of the colour you wanted there") Godard refers to that film as "a beginning." He says, "my idea was to rediscover cinema, to begin again." (quoted in Youngblood, 1998: 24) This sense of unfinishedness, as Jacques Rancière has pointed out, is the image of the Althusserian Marxism which forms the film's theoretical background, "a doctrine that held that Marxism for the most part still had to be invented, and that inventing it was like relearning the sense of the most elementary actions." (Rancière, 2006: 144) Here, finally, colour has a referent, and an explicit one – it is the "colour of a line of thought" (op. cit.: 148).

While the hastily daubed appearance of the walls and doors might point towards their paintedness; the film explicitly, if somewhat paradoxically, refuses the painterliness of Lumière in favour of the actuality of Méliès, through the mouthpiece of Jean-Pierre Léaud, and contra Godard's former mentor, Bazin. Now, two years after Pierrot Le Fou, Godard might say, "It's not red, but blood." Asked to define Marxist-Leninism, Yvonne speaks of the red of the sunset. Red is no longer just another colour, but the colour, it is the red of the Little Red Book, and, as in Battleship Potempkin, of the Red Flag. The burgeoning desire expressed in the primitivism of La Chinoise may finally be as much the desire for a real desire beyond its simulation, as for desire itself – for a desire beyond the power of language to express, and therein rendering us speechless, blocked. We are trapped, caught, finally, by colour; our words stuck in the melmelode jawr.


Barthes, Rolland (1986) Towards a Semotics of Cinema, in Cahiers du Cinéma: The 1960s – New Wave, New Cinema, Reevaluating Hollywood, ed. Hillier, J., Cambridge, Massachussets: Harvard University Press, 1992
Godard, Jean-Luc (1961) Une femme est une femme
Godard, Jean-Luc (1963) Le Mépris
Godard, Jean-Luc (1965) Pierrot le Fou
Godard, Jean-Luc (1967) 2 ou 3 choses que je sais d'elle
Godard, Jean-Luc (1967) La Chinoise
Godard, Jean-Luc, (1985) Nothing But Cinema, in Cahiers du Cinéma: The 1950s – Neo-Realism, Hollywood, New Wave, ed. Hillier, J., Cambridge, Massachussets: Harvard University Press
Harlan, Volker (2004) What is Art: Conversations with Joseph Beuys, Forest Row, East Sussex: Clairview
Joyce, James (1939) Finnegans Wake, Harmondsworth: Penguin
MacCabe, Colin (1980) Godard: Images, Sounds, Politics, London: BFI
Misek, Richard (2010) Chromatic Cinema, Chichester, West Sussex: Blackwell
Rancière, Jacques (2006) Film Fables, trans. Battista, E., Oxford: Berg
Youngblood, Gene (1998) Jean-Luc Godard: No Difference Between Life and Cinema, in Jean-Luc Godard: Interviews, ed. Sterritt, D., Jackson, Mississippi: University Press of Mississippi

Robert Barry is a freelance writer and composer based in Paris. He writes a regular column about film music for Electric Sheep Magazine, and a regular column about opera for Exeunt. He is currently working on his first book for Zero Books.