"Tensional Differences": The Anxiety of Re-Mediation in Jean-Luc Godard’s New Wave Films

By Ágnes Pethő

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

A medium in our culture can never operate in isolation, because it must enter into relationships of respect and rivalry with other media. (Bolter and Grusin, 1999: 65)

1. The anxiety of re-mediation

The provocative quality of Jean-Luc Godard’s works have often been interpreted as a kind of "counter cinema" (Wollen, 1985: 501), evaluating his artistic attitude as an outright attack upon the "seamlessness" of the classical narrative film by instituting a cinema of discontinuities with his idiosyncratic jump-cuts and a technique of free associations that replaced classical dramaturgy. Yet it would be a mistake to construe that Godard’s films were ground-breaking only because they introduced a new kind of storytelling or a visual style that subverted the pre-established canons of narrative cinema. What is equally unique in his films is the way in which they self-reflexively acknowledge not only their relationship to earlier modes of cinematic expression but they also address fundamental issues of cinema’s relationship to the other media and arts on many levels.[1]

If intermedial cinema is to be understood as a field where "transformative inscriptions of mediality" can be observed within a work, a field where figurations of medial differences are played out, as Joachim Paech states (2000), then it is also true that Godard’s cinema foregrounds these "inscriptions" and "differences", initiating a discourse on the role of cinema in the context of media and the arts. Henk Oosterling describes intermedial processes as operating within a "tensional field of signification", (2003: 38), "enhancing an experience of the in-between and a sensibility for tensional differences" (2003: 40), and accordingly, Godard’s cinema can also be described as an arena not only for displaying medial differences, or for interactions between the media, but for territorializing and de-territorializing moves as well as fierce rivalries between media. A "film is like a battlefield"– Sam Fuller states in his famous cameo in Pierrot le fou (1965) and this is also holds true for Godard’s use of media and references to the other arts. Furthermore, besides the inherent "tensions" resulting from the radical alterity of the media that participate within a filmic discourse, especially in Godard’s early films, the films made during the period of the nouvelle vague, we can see how Godard consciously addresses the issues relating to the rivalry between cinema and the other arts and media.

There are two possible models for interpreting such a rivalry. One is offered by the famous literary theory of Harold Bloom, who claimed that "poetic history (…) is held to be indistinguishable from poetic influence, since strong poets make that history by misreading one another, so as to clear imaginative space for themselves", adding that "self-appropriation involves the immense anxieties of indebtedness" (Bloom: 1997, 5). Bloom called this process "the anxiety of influence", and considered the re-writing and/or debunking of earlier poetic models a way through which a new artist asserts himself. In this line of thought it is natural for an innovative artist like Godard to insist on the "influences" of cinéastes that marked his work. What is more interesting, however, is that these early Godard films, despite all the intertextual references included in them, do not posit a major precursor from film history, an equivalent of the kind of "strong poet" that Bloom speaks about, or a "poet in a poet" (Bloom: 1997, 53). Instead, there seems to be an intermedial twist to this "anxiety of influence",for if we look more closely we will find more likely not the equivalent of the "poet in a poet", namely, a "filmmaker in a filmmaker", but a "poet within a filmmaker": the authority that these early films relate to as the source for "anxious influence" is not any particular precursor in film history but it can be identified more in literature or poetry itself.[2]

In this respect, another possible model can be called upon that was devised to explain the dynamics of inter-art and inter-media relationships that emerge in time, namely the media theoretical model of remediation described by Bolter and Grusin (1999). The idea of remediation implies that all media repurpose and incorporate older media as a usual process of their evolution, and in addition, no medium can operate in isolation, it must always enter into "relationships of respect and rivalry with other media" (Bolter and Grusin: 1999, 65).

In a combination of these two, literary and media theoretical concepts, we might therefore say that early Godard films display a pronounced "anxiety of remediation", for they continually present filmmaking as incorporating, refashioning other media while also relating to these other media, and among them, especially literature, as a major authority that cinema has to come to terms with. In fact, we can observe, that the function of literature as such an overpowering influence is not unique with Godard, this is true for the majority of the New Wave filmmakers who − according to T. Jefferson Kline − developed an ambivalent, almost oedipal relationship to literature which appeared in their films as "a constituted-and-then-repressed authority" (1992, 5). For them literature was both a model to aspire to and an authority to be continually challenged. Most New Wave directors considered themselves "auteurs" and rejected the conventional forms of literary adaptations while at the same time they advocated the idea of the "caméra stylo" (filmic writing). And if literature as adaptation was repressed in their work, nevertheless it "had an uncanny way of returning" in other forms, Kline adds, "so insistent was this newly implicit presence that one of the historians of this period of French cinema claims that ‘the cineastes of the new wave are rooted [‘enracinés’] in literature’"[3] (Kline: 1992, 5).

In Godard’s case these other (non-adaptational) forms in which language and implicitly literature resurface (are re-mediated) in his films can be identified on more than one level. First of all on the level of word and image relations, where re-mediation includes an impressive arsenal of verbal puns, authorial commentaries, inscriptions "usurping" the cinematic frame, literary quotations and misquotations, etc. Some cases of re-mediation that can be identified in Godard’s cinema could also be considered as variations on the classical principle ofekphrasis: one media mirroring the other and also very often a multiplication of media layers which re-mediate each other.[4] Moreover, we find that in Godard’s early films media differences are even projected onto a narrative level: the "tensional differences" between the media and "the anxiety of re-mediation of literature within cinema" are staged as an allegoric confrontation of the arts and media. In Godard’s New Wave films we find several examples in which different characters – most often men and women – seem to embody different media ideals and the complex relationships and/or conflicts between them (often taking the form of the "battle of the sexes") can be interpreted as allegories, narrative enactments of intermedial relations or media rivalries. And while the "tensional differences" that can be sensed on the level of word-image relations always seem to have the effect of deconstructing the unity of the image, in the case of such narrativiziations re-mediation appears ultimately as the deconstruction of the identity and/or authority of the medium or the art.

2. The love affair: a "ménage à trois" at the birth of a new cinema

woman-is-a-woman-jean-luc-godard.jpgA Woman Is a Woman1961 [Figure 1]

Godard’s "romantic comedy", A Woman is a Woman (Une femme est une femme1961), in which we have a light-hearted "ménage à trois" between two men and a woman, can be interpreted as a playful allegory constructed around the issue of the rivalry of influences and the wish for the birth of a new cinema (as such an allegory of the inception of the New Wave itself). The men are personifying the two competing media: one is a man of books called Emile Récamier (Jean-Claude Brialy), and the other is a man of the movies, named Alfred Lubitsch (Jean-Paul Belmondo). The story is constructed around these two men who compete in impregnating Angéla (Anna Karina), the angelic woman. Both literature and film are presented with lots of irony, while Angéla appears as the archetypal woman, whimsical and endearing, whose "profession" – working in a strip-tease bar – is to appear as the object of desire for men, and whose only purpose in life seems to be to bear a child.[5]

When we first meet Emile, he and Angéla are in a bookstore browsing books about childbirth. Also, not surprisingly, while Emile browses the books in the bookstore, Angéla prefers the magazines with pictures and identifies with a reproduction of a Paul Klee painting (suggestive of her desired pregnancy). The scene also includes a reference to another famous New Wave film, Zazie in the metro (Zazie dans le metro, 1960) directed by Louis Malle, whose protagonist is a precocious girl named Zazie visiting her uncle in Paris. Malle’s film is the perfect example of New Wave cinema taking up the challenge of converting a literary work that "lives" through its language – Raymond Queneau’s nonsensical novel characterized by colourful colloquial language and puns – into a genuine cinematic experience through an avalanche of burlesque and self-reflexive gags. Zazie (Catherine Demongeot) who appears in Godard’s film thus appears more than a simple reference to another film, she becomes the embodiment of what New Wave cinema and all its "anxious" re-mediating tendencies strive for: the birth of a fresh, spontaneous cinema that is nevertheless somehow the offspring of literature. The fact that the reference to Zazie occurs in the form of a book, and only after we have glanced at the cover of the book, we recognize the "actual" Zazie in the film, is also suggestive of this link with literature. Moreover, the detail that the book with Zazie on the cover appears in the same frame juxtaposed with images of the female reproductive system [Fig. 1] emphasizes the idea of the "cross-fertilization" of the medium of the book and the film, and anticipates on the level of the narrative both the rivalry between the man of "letters" and the man of the "movies" in seducing Angéla and the issue of having a child (Zazie, in this way, being a possible projection of what Emile and Angéla’s child could be like, and also of the "cinematic child" brought to life by a "love affair" with literature).

woman-is-a-woman-jean-luc-godard-3.jpgA Woman Is a Woman, 1961; Vera Cruz, 1954 [Figures 2-3]

woman-is-a-woman-jean-luc-godard-6.jpgA Woman Is a Woman, 1961 [Figures 4-5] 

Whereas Emile is presented in the company of books, Alfred, the other possible lover, whose surname, Lubitsch, associates him with classical Hollywood comedies, is used by Godard as a vehicle for a series of cinematic references, including the mimicking of Burt Lancaster’s toothy grin from Vera Cruz (directed by Robert Aldrich, 1954) [Figs. 2-3], a short exchange of words with Jeanne Moreau appearing in a cameo and hinting at both her roles in Jules and Jim (Jules et Jim, directed by François Truffaut, 1962) and in Moderato cantabile (directed by Peter Brook, 1960) as well as a self-reference of Belmondo (and Godard) as Alfred invites Emile and Angéla to watch Breathless (À bout de souffle, 1960) at a nearby cinema.

The ironic re-mediation of literature in the film as Emile’s "sphere" of media influence is emphasized perhaps most eloquently in one of the sequences in which Angéla and Emile, who are angry at each other and refuse to talk, begin to communicate through random quotations chosen from books.[6] [Figs. 4-5] In another sequence we see how Angéla sways in the other direction in the company of Alfred imitating a song-and-dance sequence typical of Hollywood musicals in the street. [Fig. 6.] In both cases the "collage" effect (the decontextualized quotations and the unmotivated song-and-dance sequence) is playfully mocking the seriousness and the artificially constructed nature of the media products they refer to (namely literary works and genre films). The tensions between the characters and the media represented by them also reiterate the intra-medial tension (on the level of specific cinematic techniques) that results from the oscillation between cinema verité style sequences inserted within the diegetic scenes that unfold the narrative and the sequences foregrounding genre film clichés (like the imitation of Hollywood musicals) or even New Wave film references (like the scene that imitates Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player/Tirez sur le pianiste, 1960).

woman-is-a-woman-jean-luc-godard-7.jpgA Woman Is a Woman, 1961 [Figure 6]

Not surprisingly for Godard in the end actually both men sleep with Angéla and therefore have equal chances of fathering her child. However, Angéla – after the brief affair with Alfred – chooses Emile, the man of literature, playfully demonstrating a loyalty that would stay with Godard for the rest of his oeuvre. This tensional "ménage à trois" oscillating between literature and genre films seems to project an ambivalence of "influences" that emerges in several forms and variations in Godard’s New Wave films.

3. Breaking up the "painful intimacy" and chiastic displacements of media

The same model, with perhaps even more ambivalence appears already in one of Godard’s short films made in 1958, Charlotte and her Boyfriend (Charlotte et son Jules), in which Charlotte, a young Parisian girl returns for a few minutes to her ex-boyfriend’s apartment. The young man, Jean, delivers a long monologue expressing his anger about her leaving him, and finally confesses to her that he cannot live without her, only to find out that the girl has returned with the sole purpose of taking her toothbrush. This time the story is centred on the theme of breaking up and it operates with clearly distinguishable pairs: there is a woman and a man, each defined by a domination of a different means of expression.

Jean delivers a great theatrical speech (the role-playing scale ranging from boyish sulking to male chauvinism and also, the self-humiliation of a desperate lover) through which language emerges as his most powerful weapon. (While he is speaking, he can be seen as either reading or typing at a typewriter, in this way commanding more than one media form of language.) His speech is characterized both by a high degree of redundancy and an absurd logic: one word brings forward the next without much sense.[7] Jean’s linguistic attitude however is very similar to that of an omniscient author in a book who imposes his authority over the narration. And as the character is actually dubbed by Godard’s own voice,[8] we can regard this whole flow of words both as a disguise of a voice-over authorial superimposition over the images and a mockery of such a literary device.[9]

On the other hand, facing the young man’s powerful verbalism we have the flirtatious Charlotte who remains almost speechless throughout the film. But this is a very eloquent silence as she compensates with an expressive body language and mimicking. Her expressiveness is dominantly visual (she is literally "pretty as a picture") and in addition to this, her image is always present in the frame. She appears in the form of photos placed oddly enough on each wall of the small room. [Fig. 7-10] In this way, while Jean can be defined by the art of words (and his ambitions to become a writer), Charlotte is perceived actually as nothing but a picture in movement (with aspirations to become a film star). The parallel between the girl and the movies is borne out not only by Jean’s jealous remarks about the girl’s willingness to resolve to prostitution in order to be able to work in the motion pictures business, but also by Godard’s camera which films her as an illustration to Jean’s remarks about moving pictures. Jean defines cinema as "stupid", consisting of images of giant heads making funny faces, while this is exactly the way we see Charlotte. [Fig. 8]

charlotte-and-her-boyfriend-jean-luc-godard-3.jpgCharlotte and her Boyfriend, 1958 [Figures 7-10]

Thus on a metalinguistic level the story is no longer about a man and a woman ending an affair but about the rupture between literature (words) and film (images). However, this is an ambivalent breakaway, because cinema is embodied by a charming but capricious young woman who has no regrets in breaking up with her former lover. And we can be dazzled by the fact that Godard, by dubbing Belmondo, seems not only to identify with cinema’s opposing side, but he puts into the mouth of this irresponsible young man contemptuous remarks against cinema.[10] So the rivalry between words and images is very ambivalent: is the young man, in his ridiculous, theatrical manner indeed a true representative of the art of words, and is the young woman, who is dominated and objectified by his authoritative and garrulous speech, really the representative of a cinema that Godard aspires to? Must cinema break away from the redundancy of language or is it exactly this media tension that should "spice it up"? According to this parable the relation between literature and film can only be described as one of "painful intimacy"[11] that cannot escape from the trap of a love-hate double bind where each media interprets the other and tries to assert its own superiority. Medial differences are in this way not merely exposed in their tensions but their identity is continually challenged and placed under a question mark.[12]

Between "film" and "literature" chiastic interchanges, displacements take place that confuse the viewer. The male character despises the young woman who dreams of the world of the movies while he himself has fantasies of becoming a screenwriter. At the same time as literature is being eulogized, the value of words is gradually inflated by the aggressive and nonstop speech that lacks any commonsense logic. "Your great fault is babbling on forever" – says Jean. But the viewer perceives that the girl hardly says a word, while it is Jean who talks incessantly. We can see a kind of mockery of such a chiastic displacement that takes place between the two characters in the shot in which Jean leans over the wash bin and in the mirror above it we can see in the place of his head the photographic image of Charlotte’s face [Fig. 10].

Similar chiastic displacements or ambivalences of media embodied in a pair of lovers can be seen in Godard’s first major film, Breathless (À bout de souffle, 1960). The theme of the rupture between lovers is also present, only this time it is not introduced as the start of the narrative but it is offered as the conclusion of the story. This film has been in fact the target of a famous analysis performed by Marie-Claire Ropars Wuilleumier (1982) in which she proposed an interpretation based on the opposition of "signs" correlated with the "division of the sexes." Furthermore, David Rodowick (2001) dedicated an entire chapter to Ropars Wuilleumier’s essay in his book on the figural, evaluating her concept on how "writing" operates within this Godard film (and how this can render insight into the working of the "figural" in cinema).

Patricia, the charming American student studying in Paris, whom we first see as selling newspapers in a t-shirt advertising the New York Herald Tribune (as a female body inscribed with letters), is associated throughout the film with references to literature (Ropars Wuilleumier considers her therefore as the very embodiment of logocentrism[13]) and the arts. Her apartment walls are covered with poster reproductions of modern paintings, she listens to classical music, has the ambition to become a journalist, interviews a famous writer, quotes passages from books, etc. All in all, she seems to be defined by elements of high culture. Whereas Michel identifies with the world of classical genre film mythology and popular culture: he imagines himself as a Humphrey Bogart type hero (the famous scene in which he is presented in a "dialogue" with Bogie’s photograph in front of a cinema is revealing in this sense) [Fig. 11-13], all his actions seem to be "borrowed" from genre films (the stealing of the car, the shooting of the policeman, the ensuing flight, the storyline of the lovers on the run, etc.), he knows nothing about literature (when Patricia asks him: "Do you know William Faulkner?" he replies: "Who’s he? Someone you slept with?"), in Patricia’s apartment he keeps browsing magazines with pictures of naked women. So it might seem that this time, it is the man, Michel, who is linked to "popular cinema" and it is Patricia, the woman, who is portrayed through the arts and especially literature and language. However, the two cultural and media "authorities" get to be interchanged: it is true Patricia does not "speak" the language of the movie citations that characterizes Michel, but in the end, her decision to tell the police about Michel resembles a film noir style betrayal, even if otherwise she is not really a femme fatale. Moreover, throughout the film she is repeatedly presented in narcissistic poses looking at her reflections in mirrors and even in the reproductions of the artwork hanging in her apartment [Figs. 12-14] identifying her as a "moving picture", and at the same time Godard repeatedly calls our attention to her problems with the French language. Being a foreigner in Paris, she does not only speak French with a noticeable accent, but she has trouble with the use and understanding of certain words. Michel is the one who keeps reminding her of her mistakes in the use of the language, so that finally she seems to be more "at home" in the world of images than in the world of the words, something that Michel, on the other hand has no difficulties of mastering. Patricia’s enigmatic gesture of rubbing her thumb against her lips at the end of the film, imitating Michel’s and Humphrey Bogart’s gesture (just like putting on Michel’s hat earlier and smoking a cigarette in bed imitating him), and repeating the question "What does it mean ‘disgusting’ (dégueulasse)?" amounts to a final emblematic image sealing this chiasmus.

a-bout-de-souffle-jean-luc-godard.jpgÀ bout de souffle, 1960 [Figures 11-14]

Such chiastic intertwining occurs furthermore in the presentation of the media themselves: as Ropars Wuilleumier remarks in her analysis, cinema and literature are both displaced in their presentation. Rodowick sums up her ideas in this way: "À bout de souffle follows a double movement: the multiple play between two forms of writing – the ‘cinematic’ and the ‘poetic’ – that are continually interpenetrating and combining with each other" (2001: 96.) References to cinema appear reflexively in the film in the form of graphic traces (movie posters, photos, cinema magazines, texts). Whereas poetry appears in the context of cinema, in a sequence in which – quoting Rodowick’s description – "having gone to the movies to see a Western, Belmondo and Seberg are shown face-to-face close-up, illuminated by the flickering light reflected from the screen. A male voice off recites a text to which a female voice-off responds. This dialogue is scattered over two poems, one by Apollinaire, the other by Aragon, and is anchored diegetically neither to the characters, whose lips are otherwise occupied, nor by the sound-off of the supposed cinema projection. Thus sound has become disconnected from image while poetic writing circulates in the form of disembodied voices"(Rodowick 2001: 96). Also we should not forget how even in seemingly minor details like presenting the film director Jean-Pierre Melville as Parvulesco, a famous writer, Godard operates with the interchange of the world of the cinema and that of literature.

In Michel’s figure the mythology of individual freedom projected into the movie citations from American genre films proves to be a good vehicle for the declaration of an artistic philosophy of individualism and spontaneity. This spontaneity, however, falls prey to the principle of repeated imitation. Michel identifies with the heroes of the American movies, and he "speaks" this "language" of citations "fluently" and spontaneously, and with the same naturalness a series of male lookalike figures appear to reflect him in the street (among them, the passer-by played by Godard himself, who points Michel out to the policeman) [Figs. 15-16]. He dies, however, according to Ropars Wuilleumier, as the result of the devastating relationship with Patricia – the female body assigned to the medium of "words" – collapsing "at the feet of a female double" (1982, 71),[14] a copy that erases his identity by sheer mechanical imitation (her last question repeating Michel’s words emphasizes this). Such emptied repetition of words, "parrot talk", mocked by the male protagonist, together with the other redundancies of language that appear in her presence[15] – in Rodowick’s (2001: 98) words: such "deadly monotony" – and together with an image of femininity enhanced with references to paintings and music will appear again in Pierrot le fou, in the character of Marianne. The way Patricia turns to the camera in this final scene and her close-up fills the frame and calls attention to herself, replacing Michel as the centre of the image, blocking our view from seeing Michel any more, repeats a similar substitution seen at the beginning of the film in which an image of a woman screens the image of the man: Michel’s face cannot be seen because of the newspaper he holds spread out in front of him and on which there is an enticing picture of a woman turning towards the camera.[16] And the chiasmic structure of interchanges between man and woman is continued not only by her taking over Michel’s gesture, but also by Michel, the man, being laid out flat on the pavement and rendered helpless like an image confined to a frame (the circle of onlookers closing up on him only accentuates this, at the same time recalling the iris-in techniques of early cinema used earlier) [Figs. 17-18].

a-bout-de-souffle-jean-luc-godard-2.jpgÀ bout de souffle, 1960 [Figures 15-18]

4. The master’s voice/words

Not all of Godard’s early films present the medium of words, writing or literature as having such a disruptive effect over the "cinematic writing". In some of these films we also find occurrences of the redemptive, enlightening force of words. Most often in these cases the medial authority of literature and language, the culture of the words is embodied by a male character, a strong, self-possessed father figure who plays a decisive role in the lives of hesitant, insecure women. Perhaps the most pertinent example is the figure of the real-life philosopher introduced in Vivre sa vie (Her Life to Live, 1962), Brice Parain, who initiates a conversation with Nana, the young prostitute who has ambitions of becoming a film star, but who is intrigued by the respectable man of letters and finds herself talking philosophy with him at a café. The appearance of the philosopher as someone who masters the art of thinking and expressing oneself through words is in fact only the most significant encounter in a series of other encounters of Nana with the mediating quality of language (other examples include: at the movies as intertitles and subtitles rendering the dialogue of the silent film, at the police station where they interrogate her and type her statement letter by letter on an old and noisy typewriter towering over her figure, at the café where her friend tells her the story of her life or where she writes a long, handwritten letter to a possible employer, etc.), so while Nana continually longs to become an actress, she is also repeatedly presented in situations in which she is defined through the use of some forms of language. As Deleuze writes Brice Parain is the one "who exhibits and individuates the category of language as the limit towards which the heroine was moving with all her energy through the series of images"(Deleuze: 1989, 186). So, even in these examples, where the authority of the language seems to be unchallenged and language does not act primarily as a subversive force within the images, the interchanges within the world of cinema and that of literature remain in force.

alphaville-jean-luc-godard-2.jpgAlphaville, 1965 [Figures 19-20]

In Alphaville (Alphaville, une etrange aventure de Lemmy Caution, 1965) the sombre Lemmy Caution arrives to a city enveloped in shadows and having surrendered to the language of the machine as a new Prometheus lighting up the dark place with only his cigarette lighter. As a "private eye" he keeps taking photos with his little amateur camera and brings the redemptive powers of poetry and love, as if enacting another myth as well, that of Orpheus and Eurydice.[17] He rescues Natasha from this underworld by using the enlightening force of sheer poetry and teaching her the meaning of "words like love" (Éluard) in a world that aggressively disconnected emotions from the use of language and made it mechanical and arbitrary. [Figs. 19-20.] Yet Lemmy Caution, also known as Ivan Johnson (mocking cold war spy stories) is himself a cliché, an embodiment of the mythology of the pulp fiction detective stories and B-rated sci-fi stories clashing with the emerging modern mythology of the machine and artificial intelligence.[18] And even if in the end Éluard’s poetry is the decisive factor in the quest of modern day’s Orpheus to bring back Eurydice into the world of the "living", and escape Alphaville’s (or as Lemmy renames it, Zeroville’s) authoritarian control over linguistic expression, through this reference Godard introduces fine allusions to Cocteau’s cinematic rendering of the Orpheus myth, moreover the final scene in which Lemmy and Natasha leave the dark city behind and talk about love, rewrites a dialogue from Howard Hawks’s classic movie, The Big Sleep (1946).[19] So poetry, cinema and pulp fiction are once more interwoven in forging a new kind of mythology and filmic writing in Godard’s world, the redemptive powers of poetic words seem only able to function if cross-fertilized with the mythology of the screen itself.[20]

5. The Contempt

The theme of the conflicting relation of the sexes, that of a break or struggle, the imposition of some kind of authority is – as we have seen in the previous examples – recurrent in the narrative allegorizations of media relations in Godard’s films made in the fifties and sixties. It reflects this problematic side of intermediality: imposing the newly constructed authority of the moving pictures, repressing and displacing the authority of literature in the form of the literariness of the films and that of cinema conceived as writing. These media-allegories usually present a paradoxical love-and-hate towards both literature and films, due perhaps to the fears of an ambitious film author that the medium of film may never be able to rival literature.

The parable is repeated, again, relying on the rewriting of well-known cultural myths by Contempt (Le mépris, 1963). The "contempt" named in the title can be interpreted beyond its primary reference to the relationship between the two protagonists of the film, as a metaphor of the impossibility of inter-art or inter-cultural translations.[21] It is the story of the estrangement of a man and a woman set in the narrative context of shooting a film adaptation of the Odyssey. So the imminent break up in their personal relations is framed by an impossible endeavour: the re-mediation of literature. Among the multicultural film crew several languages are spoken (Italian, French, English, German), and there are also tangible cultural differences and tensions between the American producer, the French writer, and the German film director, played by Fritz Lang as himself. Francesca, the Italian interpreter helps them by translating their words, but each time – we realize as the film unfolds – her translations are in fact interpretations, comments rather than word for word transpositions of meanings. The other person in this film means also another language, another culture, another world. The introductory image of the tracking shot of the approaching figure of Francesca holding a book in her hand is emblematic for the main theme of the film: reading, interpreting, re-mediating emerge as key notions of the whole film.

mepris-jean-luc-godard.jpgContempt, 1963 [Figure 21]

Within such a context the film presents the contempt of a man called Paul Javal (Michel Piccoli) who is a writer, towards his picturesque wife Camille, played by Brigitte Bardot and whom − despite hints at their previously idyllic relationship − her husband considers empty headed. Bardot, who was France’s best selling visual commodity at the time, appears beautiful as a goddess with a perfect body resembling antique sculptures. "I too happen to think sometimes" – says Camille. While during their argument, Paul knocks at an iron sculpture portraying a nude female body only to see how hollow it is. During the scene, Camille is shot more than once in a way that bears out her resemblance with the sculpture. [Fig. 22]

The woman, played by Bardot, on the other hand, despises the man for prostituting himself by taking a job merely for the money in the cinema industry and for being willing even to prostitute his wife literally by turning a blind eye towards the producer’s attempt at seducing her. The conflict between the two is played out, similarly to Charlotte et son Jules mainly in the form of vehement verbal attacks. This time it is not a monologue that contrasts a talkative man with a silent, picturesque woman, but we have series of (ineffective) dialogues. In one of the most famous scenes that takes place in the half-furnished apartment (a metaphor of their crumbling and/or "unfinished" relationship) as they argue sitting face to face at a small table, Godard’s camera pans from side to side, alternately showing us the man and the woman in a different frame, as if they were on two ends of a seesaw and there is a small desk lamp that is turned on an off in the middle. The flickering of the light brought to the centre of the frame in close up by the camera swaying between the man and the woman divides the continuous frame, and becomes the visible projection of the vibrant tensions undermining the communication between the two. Moreover, their talk is actually more like reported speech than actual conversation: each time they say something, it is a comment over something that has already been said, in other words they perform an "inner" translation from language to language,[22] as if the layers of even one and the same language were so intricate that they fail in a Sisyphus-like attempt to grasp each other’s true meanings. (They say sentences like: "I said…" and "then you said…," "I only said…," "I didn’t say that, but you said…") Spontaneity gives way to reflexivity, and while on the surface they speak about whether they love each other or not, actually they discuss about speech. Moreover this indirectness is emphasized by the fact that while they are talking, they pick up some books and leaf though them, as if in search for other, more suitable words for their conversation. Kaja Silverman (Silverman–Farocki 1998, 35) sees in this the thematization of two kinds of concepts over language. Camille, she says, longs for the language of Eden, the "language before the Fall", a referential, creative language that does not construct itself upon metaphors, translations and interpretations.[23] This ideal language is in contrast with a language that operates with indirect references, making use of translations, an ideal that seems to be present in most aspects of the narrative (Paul is hired to re-write the Odyssey for the screen, the interpreter is hired to help people communicate, Fritz Lang is hired to re-mediate the epic masterpiece onto the screen, and finally, the producer is there to make sure this is done according to his own taste).

mepris-jean-luc-godard-2.jpgContempt, 1963 [Figure 22]

The film proceeds to show over and over again the failure of such a multiplication of translations and re-mediations. And in all of this the linguistic "viewpoint" of the man and the picturesque qualities of Brigitte Bardot are always contrasting the media of words and images. The famous bed scene at the beginning of the film is a good example of how words fail in front of the images. We see Bardot stretched out naked in bed with Michel Piccoli, and she keeps asking him questions about the different parts of her body. [Fig. 21] Piccoli answers in short, one word sentences, as if it were the famous "ekphrastic fear" (Mitchell, 1994: 154) that keeps him from even trying to describe the beauty of a female body in words. This "ekphrastic fear" is in fact consistent with Lessing’s well-known ideas from his Laocoön essay according to which the beauty of a female body can only be rendered by painting and not literature which should therefore refrain from speaking about such things, because language can only do this in a sequence of time, fragmenting what is a whole and perfect vision. Godard seems to foreground the same contrast described by Lessing in this scene: the words which fragment the body are shown as inadequate in contrast with the whole picture that can be viewed like a painting. Moreover, the scene can be understood as a re-mediation as well as a modernist deconstruction of a traditional literary blazon: the parts of a female body being praised in turn by the words of a man in love. This literary pattern that has its examples ranging from the Song of Songs to medieval chivalry tales and love poems provides the framework to a modernist list-making and collage effect of the media of words and images. While visual beauty (and their corporeal love) fails to be re-mediated into words,[24] the photographic image of Bardot’s body is being "translated" by Godard’s camera, only not into literature, but into a sort of abstract painting through the use of the different monochrome (yellow, blue, red) filters.[25]

mepris-jean-luc-godard-3.jpgContempt, 1963 [Figure 23]

Godard clearly treats Brigitte Bardot throughout the film as a picture. Moreover Camille seems to be preoccupied with almost nothing else but the changing of her appearance: changing clothes and hair colours, looking at herself in the mirror all the time. She is presented in the double role as Camille, the beautiful woman concerned with her appearance and Bardot, the cinema icon, in short: again as a picture in movement. And just like in Charlotte et son Jules the ironic remarks of the male protagonist about cinema can be referred to the woman. "Aren’t movies great?" − says Paul, − "One sees beautiful girls wearing dresses, and in the next minute, we see their asses." As if an illustration to this statement about the cinema, Bardot appears naked "all of a sudden" three times throughout the film (at the beginning, towards the middle and before the end in Capri).[26] The story viewed as a media allegory goes beyond a mere contrast between the medium of words and images and the "contempt", or "ekphrastic indifference" (Mitchell 1994, 156) of one medium towards the other. Also like in Charlotte et son Jules we have ambivalences that displace the two sides of the equation. On the primary level of the diegesis the conflict arises from the question whether they can love and respect each other. On the meta-narrative level, the woman and the man both try to invade each other’s territory of medial dominance. The writer tries to switch careers and work in the motion picture industry, but ironically the venture is linked to literature, it is the adaptation of Homeric grand literature, which in turn is about to be perverted by Hollywood style Technicolor filmmaking. The whole project involves a director of the magnitude of Fritz Lang and Godard himself as his assistant.[27] The woman, Brigitte Bardot (the much advertised French sex symbol) is repeatedly presented in the company of books. [Fig. 23] Ironically, however, all of them are about visual culture: they are about Greek art with which she is compared to, and one book that she reads in the bathtub is about F. Lang. In Capri while she is lying in the sun, the role of the book she is seen with is nothing else but to cover up her nakedness [Fig. 25].

mepris-jean-luc-godard-4.jpgContempt, 1963 [Figure 25]

The failure of such a switch from one media territory to another is masterfully illustrated by the scene in which, Camille, decides to defy her husband by using dirty words that conventionally should not be spoken by a pretty woman. Her naked body wrapped in a bath towel, she enumerates a series of filthy words in front of the monochrome background of the bathroom tiles. But the sensual quality of the words seem to drip down from her figure just like bathwater, the visual impression of the half naked Bardot annihilates the force of verbal expressiveness. Her husband tries to show his affinity with the movies by imitating Dean Martin from Vincente Minelli’s film entitled Some Came Running (made in the year of A bout de souffle, in 1959), and wears a hat even when sitting in the bathtub. (Camille finds this ridiculous and calls him an ass.) Dressing into robes similar to antique Romans or Greeks, washing are all activities which symbolize in a theatrical manner the characters’ ambitions to change to become something else. In the end Camille leaves Paul and decides to go back to her original job as a typist. But she can only communicate this decision to the producer by way of pantomime, as he does not speak French. Finally she announces her break up with Paul in a handwritten letter. The handwriting is shown full screen by Godard as if emphasizing in this form of writing the imprints of the hand, the visual quality of the handwritten graphic signs (that Godard associates with Camille just as he did with Nana), in contrast to the abstract, conceptual nature of language and more canonical forms of print literature. At the end of the movie when Camille and the producer are killed in a stylized car crash, what remain of her are these graphic lines traced on a paper and a stilled image in which her head is no more than a bright coloured yellow patch on the canvas-like screen. Instead of crossing over into the realm of language, she becomes entrapped within a picture (again very much like Nana, who is entrapped in the ekphrasis of the oval portrait in Vivre sa vie). And Paul, realizing that he does not fit into the world of commercial filmmaking, quits his job, and leaves the living legend, Lang to fight his battles with the narrow-minded American producer. Lang, whose name means "language" in French, embodies in one person the complexity of Godard’s ideals: he is a filmmaker who once made classic art films and was later forced to cross the ocean and make commercial films in Hollywood. He is a man who not only managed to survive such a career change with dignity, but also a learned man of books, whom we see in the film elegantly quoting and commenting Hölderlin or Dante in more than one language. Fritz Lang, the filmmaker, and the man of letters is the emblem of what Godard’s cinema strives for.

6. Dialogue of the senses

pierrot-le-fou-jean-luc-godard-2.jpgPierrot le fou, 1965 [Figure 26]

Pierrot le fou (1965) can be considered as a sort of synthesis in many respects within Godard’s filmography. Among other aspects, it also projects media tensions onto the level of the relationship of a couple. The story begins as a romantic love affair and escape from the phoniness of consumerist society. Pierrot changes his name into Ferdinand, leaves his family behind and flees with Marianne experiencing an uninhibited joy of life. However, at a given moment in the film, the two characters reach a point where they realize they cannot really communicate with each other. Pierrot asks Marianne: "Why do you look so sad?" And she answers: "Because you talk to me with words, and I look at you with feelings. Conversation with you is impossible." The reason for this impossibility of communication is given in the two domains of media that the two characters are correlated with and which prove not to be commensurable. The male character is once again in command of the different media forms of language: he is associated with literature (he reads and quotes literature, and also, literary references name parts of the film and structure Pierrot’s story according to the model of literary chapters), he dedicates most of his time to writing a diary and has quite a vehement argument with Marianne in which he explicitly tells her that literature comes before all other arts. Marianne, on the other hand, is associated with analogies in painting (her surname, Renoir, is a direct reference to this) [Fig. 26], and acts like a character out of a Hollywood action movie (Pierrot once even refers to her as a girl who is like a movie star). But more importantly she comes to symbolize in the film something that is impossible to convey in words and can only be equated by music.[28] The polarization of the media differences in this way, that man becomes the representative of "words" and woman the representative of "images", respectively of all domains that fall beyond the reach of language and belong to the grand mystery of nature itself, is actually a cultural cliché, something that has shot through social practices and prejudices for ages.[29] Women have been considered as mysterious pictures that puzzle men, and men have been supposed to be representatives of the culture of the logos, women are stereotypically considered as emotional and men rational, and so on. However, once again Godard’s storytelling goes beyond merely highlighting the essential opposition between man and woman or between the words and images, and presents the dynamics of tensions and easing of tensions, of the characters coming together in harmony and then being pulled apart. Whenever there is harmony between them, the scenes are staged in archetypal settings of universal totality (e.g. scenes of nature that include the primary elements: they playfully jump into the sea, bury themselves in the earth, talk to the moon and dance in the woods). [Fig. 27]

pierrot-le-fou-jean-luc-godard-3.jpgPierrot le Fou, 1965 [Figure 27]

On the other hand, when conflicts arise, there are always one or more elements that seem to be cut out of cheap spy novels, comic books or gangster movies. Pierrot le fou achieves in this fashion not so much a narrativization of these tensions but instead reaches a level of sheer cinematic poetry. The model for this paradoxical – tensional yet also possibly harmonious – relationship is to be found in the kind of synaesthetic poetry practiced, among others, by Rimbaud (Rimbaud being one of the primary literary references in the film). Synaesthesia is the structure that unites and mixes in unexpected combination image, sound and meaning, and Pierrot le fou offers a splendid example of how this literary quality can be re-mediated on different levels within moving pictures. Writing becomes a play upon the letters that construct it, it becomes sensual drawing, an imprint of the hand and thought, it becomes painting with light, moving pictures in the neon signs of the urban landscape, it is incorporated within the world of the comic books. Paintings become counterpoints of cinematic shots, functioning as some kind of intermedial punctuation marks, sometimes they illustrate the texts we hear, other times they remain enigmatic inserts within the flow of the narrative acquiring a musical quality within the general "score" of the film (just like Marianne, whose image is moulded by the analogies with painting but who also emerges as the embodiment of music).

As a conclusion we may find that these models of re-mediations and intermediality all show that Godard senses media relationships far from being complementary or resulting in a commonplace harmony, but as relationships that generate extreme tensions in a great variety of forms owing to their incommensurable differences. As Ropars Wuilleumier sums it up – speaking of Breathless, but the idea is applicable to all these early films – "Godard’s film asserts itself as writing inasmuch as it practices dismantling writing while drawing its resources from it."[30]

In all these films what we ultimately experience is cinema coming to terms with its own re-mediating processes: a cinema that is inseparably linked to literature in a sort of "painful intimacy", but which attempts to reach the prestige and impact of high literature through devices characteristic of its own visual medium. Godard’s films in their own uncompromising manner highlight a fundamentally tense relationship with literature and more generally with the medium of language: a love-hate relationship that his cinema seems unable or unwilling to circumvent in its most ambitious endeavours.


[1] The acknowledgement of the importance of inter-art relations in Godard’s work from the perspective of intermediality can be seen in the volume Godard intermedial, edited by Volker Roloff and Scarlett Winter (1997).
[2] Although the rivalry between film and literature marked the beginnings of cinema and the first wave of the avant-garde movements when the emerging new medium had to assert its own rights among the arts, at the time of Godard’s first films it was time for cinema to prove not so much its individuality among the arts and media, but its own capacities in addressing key issues of contemporary thinking, and what’s more, emerging as an effective self-reflexive medium consciously dealing with inter-art relationships and participating as equal in the inter-art discourse.
[3] The quote is from Francois Ramasse’s article Le Règle du ’je:’ entretien avec Claude-Jean Philippe (published in La Nouvelle Vague 25 ans aprés, ed. J. L. Douin. Paris: Cerf, 1983: 31).
[4] A more detailed analysis of Godard’s ekphrastic techniques can be read in Pethő (2010).
[5] In presenting Angéla as a seductive and frivolous "angel", and the young woman as something to be admired as a spectacle, Godard’s gendered vision reflects not only an archetypal image of "the woman", but also self-consciously accentuates the clichés perpetuated by classical cinema. This self-reflexivity of the character is made obvious in the gesture of Angéla smiling and winking at the camera (and, implicitly, at the spectators) at the beginning of the film.
[6] The scene that is repeated at the end of the film can also be interpreted as a parody of New Wave intertextuality, or even a self parody of Godard whose "intertextual appetite" has always been notorious.
[7] "Of course, it didn’t work out" – he says referring to their relationship. "It didn’t work out because it couldn’t work out. And it couldn’t work out because it shouldn’t have. It was impossible. Possible? You should know that ‘impossible’ is a French word" etc. We can observe how the logic turns away from the commonplace melodramatic argument to a purely linguistic one.
[8] "In the beginning there was the voice" – states Raymond Bellour (1992: 219) about Godard’s reflexivity and fundamental relation to literature.
[9] "From the mere fact that I say a sentence, there is necessarily a connection with what came before" − says Godard’s voice through the character of Jean in a self-conscious and somewhat self-conceited manner. David Bordwell sees in this the defining and cohesive role of the author whose "single hand" leaves its mark over the different layers of the palimpsest of discourses and media (Bordwell: 1985, 321). (Although Bordwell mistakenly attributes the sentence to a character in another short film entitled Charlotte and Veronique).
[10] "The novel or painting, OK! But not the cinema!" – Jean throws the words at Charlotte. We can also note that later in Pierrot le fou (1963) or Le Mépris (1963) again the same attitude towards the arts is emphasized: literature and painting praised high above the triviality of cinema. And all this is coming from a filmmaker who himself has the highest ambitions in making cinema a genuine art form.
[11] The expression is borrowed from Raymond Bellour (1992, 230).
[12] There is in fact a tradition to portray the relationship between literature and film in terms of a relationship between the sexes. As early as 1926 the formalist theorist Boris Eichenbaum defined the attempts of the silent film to break with the tradition of literature as a break between lovers or spouses.
[13] Rodowick writes that: "the graphic trace whose body seems both desired and prohibited" is rendered in the film an unequivocally feminine body, "sealing it in the figuration of Jean Seberg as Patricia" (2001: 98). The way the film associates writing with the "feminine principle" present in the film is already noticeable in the appearance of the first figure of a woman in the film in the form of a newspaper illustration [see Fig. 5.19] and later in the introduction of Michel’s other girl friend whom he visits to ask for money, and whose room is decorated with cigarette boxes stuck on the wall in the form of giant letters (spelling the word "pourquoi"/"why").
[14] Rodowick summarizes the disruptive force of the medium of writing embodied in Patricia like this: "Through its references to the press, the novel, poetry, and finally the cinema, writing names a trajectory that seals identity. For Michel Poiccard, who is protected by the multiple guises that his closeness to the imaginary of cinema affords him, this means capture and extinction" (2001: 98).
[15] Ropars-Wuilleumier (1982: 70) describes Patricia’s first appearance as marked by such a redundancy of language: we hear her voice selling the newspapers, see the newspapers in her hands and see the inscription on her t-shirt at the same time.
[16] Ropars-Wuilleumier (1982: 71) considered this image to be a kind of hieroglyphic construction uniting the male and the female principle present in the film. The image can also be seen as a further variation of the substitution we saw in Charlotte and her Boyfriend (where the picture of Charlotte appeared above her boyfriend’s neck, see Fig. 5.11.)
[17] See more about the use of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth in Godard’s philosophy over media in the essay entitled The Screen is a Blank Page: Word and Image Plays in Jean-Luc Godard’s Cinema (Pethő, 2008).
[18] The alleged early version of the film’s title, Tarzan versus IBM, eloquently bears out this duality.
[19] Robert M. MacLean suggests that it is the scene with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall (as Marlowe and Vivian) "exchanging declarations of love as they drive away from a preliminary showdown at Eddie Mars’s farmhouse." (1979: 238).
[20] A similar ambivalence in the authority of cinema strengthened with the authority of language can be seen in the figure of Fritz Lang appearing in Le Mépris, (1963) as the embodiment of both the culture of words and of what cinema has best to offer.
[21] Tom Conley (2000) interpreted in the same way the title of Godard’s Pierrot le fou as the metaphor of "language gone mad", of the chaos of different media signifiers that confuses the viewer.
[22] Much in the same way that Francesca, the official interpreter, translates everybody’s words and tries to interpret their intentions at the same time.
[23] As Kaja Silverman explains: "Before the Fall, language was referential: God spoke, and in speaking, created." (Silverman–Farocki, 1998: 35).
[24] Harun Farocki observes: "The two seem to be repeating a lingual game they have often played before; the words they speak are a mantra proving the existence of their corporeal love." (Silverman–Farocki, 1998: 34).
[25] This re-mediation that fails in the direction of literature but succeeds in the direction of other visual arts is also emphasized in the film by the fact that the adaptation of theOdyssey is much debated throughout the film and its success is highly questionable, while the ancient sculptures seem to come alive and take over the screen without any problem. The sculptures with their arms stretched even seem to observe the living people in the film. Moreover, as Kaja Silverman remarks: "The statues are partially painted, indicating that the marble is beginning to yield to flesh. Eventually the statues are replaced by human figures, as if the transition to life has been successfully effected." (Silverman–Farocki, 1998: 38).
[26] All these scenes work in a double way: on the one hand the view of the naked Bardot (no matter whether this was "real" nakedness or merely "faked" as the discussions suggested at the time of the film’s release) seems to satisfy the voyeuristic expectations of contemporary viewers (and according to anecdotes circulating around the film, the explicit expectations of the producers of the film), but at the same time, the stylistic techniques that aestheticize the pictures of Bardot, also de-eroticize the image and almost become proof of a real "contempt" towards such expectations.
[27] The writer’s aspiration to identify with the filmmakers (or vice versa) is emphasized by the fact that Godard appears in the film as a kind of alter-ego of Paul. Several critics tell the anecdote how Michel Piccoli considered that Godard failed to give him enough instructions for the role, and started to imitate Godard in the film, while Godard also seems to imitate Paul when appears in the second half of the film dressed in the same grey suit and wearing a similar hat as Piccoli.
[28] When he tries to define what she means for him, Pierrot can only come up with this: "She reminds me of music." And the scenes in which Marianne dances and sings in the middle of nature are the most enchanting in the film.
[29] An earlier rendering of this can be seen in The Little Soldier (Le petit soldat, 1963), in which Godard includes a charming and naïve drawing test in the sequence of Bruno taking pictures of Veronica: both characters have to add something to the outlines of a square, triangle and circle: the girl, Veronica, draws matchstick figures of a boy and a girl (as she perceives the forms as belonging to the medium of pictures), whereas the young man, Bruno completes the forms so as they become letters, and writes a text: "Je vous aime"/"I love you" (perceiving the same forms as belonging to the medium of language).
[30] Rodowick quotes the English translation of the text (2001: 102).


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This essay is an abbreviated version of a chapter in Cinema and Intermediality: The Passion for the In-Between, due to be published by Cambridge Scholars Publishing. http://www.c-s-p.org/Flyers/Cinema-and-Intermediality--The-Passion-for-the-In-Between1-4438-2879-3.htm

Ágnes Pethő is Associate Professor at the Sapientia Hungarian University of Transylvania in Cluj-Napoca (Romania) where she is currently head of the Department of Film, Photography, and Media. She has published a volume in Hungarian on cinematic self-reflexivity and edited several books on intermediality both in her native Hungarian and in English. She is also the executive editor of the English language journal of the Sapientia University, Acta Universitatis Sapientiae: Film and Media Studies