Godard's Sons: Why Are they all Bastards?

By Laurence Remila

Life after God may be tough, but life after Godard seems nigh on impossible. In an article in Vertigo magazine's fifth issue, James Leahy writes of "The Children Of Godard" (and, in smaller, apologetic letters: "And 90s TV"), describing, at length, films by Wong Kar-Wai, Matthieu Kassovitz and Hal Hartley. What he finds these Sons have in common is a casual attitude towards narrative, in which "chance plays as important a role as conventional motivation." However, even in Leahy's praise, there lies an indication of the films' failings. Having said that Chunking Express is "incredible", Leahy adds "The photography and the editing are in the contemporary style associated with MTV. This has often been criticised when used in drama, but it suits the chaos of the milieu depicted here." What kind of back-handed praise is this? The MTV style suits the milieu depicted? What's shown is so wretched that the best way of depicting it is to borrow from MTV? While he's at it, why not admit that the culmination of the Godardian aesthetic is Baz Luhrmann's frenetic rendering of Romeo and Juliet? Surely, it's got all the necessary ingredients? A youthful, besotted couple, crazed editing and a largely discarded printed source.

At the start of the Eighties, Godard was making one of his comebacks. Two of Cinématographe's writers caught up with him, lurking around Coppola's doomed Zoetrope studios. One of them questioned Godard on the influence À bout de souffle had had, but the director insisted that his influence was mainly on advertising. "It's easy for them to copy and steal," he expounded, "but they don't think. They think they're influenced by my way of setting up a shot, but that doesn't change the way their film is financed, how it's shot, how it's developed, how it's copied, how it's sold. What does it mean, to influence? It's as if you played tennis with someone, and they ate the balls instead of returning them. You don't know if they're winning, but you're certain to lose if you carry on playing them" (Cinématographe 66, March-April 1981).  This sentiment recalls Truffaut's thoughts on the partial influence Hitchcock was having on film-makers. "Today in 1977, Hitchcock's work has many disciples, and this is natural because he is a master. But as always, they can only imitate that which is imitable - the choice of subject matter, even the treatment of that subject matter, but not the spirit, the personality which permeates it" (François Truffaut, Hitchcock, Paladin, 1978.)

The worst of the offenders, Hal Hartley and Wong Kar-Wai, fit into the movement the French call "le Cinéma du Look" (which I call a "Cinema of Surface"). (Leahy lists Kassovitz along with these art-film fakers, but his inclusion's irrelevant. The only influence he bears is indirect; it's the Godard aesthetic as mediated by Americans, by Scorsese and gangsta flicks.) It's damned by Cahiers du cinéma for being nothing more than "postcard aesthetics", and by me for being soulless (Beineix, Besson and Jeunet and Caro are the other designated practitioners, but they don't claim Art as an excuse to the extent these Sons/Bastards do.) “The 'look' of the Cinéma du Look," Ginette Vincendeau writes in The Companion to French Cinema, (Cassell/BFI, 1996) "refers to the films' high investment in non-naturalistic, self-conscious aesthetics, notably intense colours and lighting effects. Their spectacular (studio-based) and technically brilliant mise-en-scène is usually put to the service of romantic plots." Going by these criteria, Wong Kar-Wai, Hal Hartley and Leos Carax are the chief directors of the "Cinéma du Look."

"I don't think you should feel about a film. You should feel about a woman, not a film." - Jean-Luc Godard, Rolling Stone, June 1969

"When I start going out with someone, I take her to see Rio Bravo, and she better fucking like it." - Quentin Tarantino, 1995

Hartley has made worthwhile features and shorts, each one promising more than it delivered, but promising nonetheless; and he has finally made good with Flirt. Amateur, however, is inexcusable. Like Atom Egoyan, whose insipid Exotica suffers from many of the same weaknesses, Hartley's calculated attempt at making a larger-budget arthouse crossover film results in a vapid, poorly thought-out and poorly executed mixture of European arthouse clichés with an American freshman's sensibility. The main characters are an amnesiac crim and a lapsed Nun who ekes out her living writing one-fisted stories. Hartley even has the temerity to end his film with an echo of Belmondo's death in À bout de souffle.

"I'm under the impression," Hartley once told the Cahiers du Cinema, "of following a tradition that goes from Brecht, via Godard, the Talking Heads, etc. " From Godard to Talking Heads? Who's next on the list? They Might Be Giants?

Wong Kar-Wai's Fallen Angels is ostensibly about a professional killer and the woman who arranges his schedule but whom he rarely meets. Camera lenses distort characters' faces, wide-angled close-ups disorientate the viewer. The images ape MTV's disjointed aesthetic, stretching out one of its videos to bursting point. It's simply a feature-length MTV promo, without the narrative coherence. In many ways Wong Kar-Wai's work offers a pointless flipside to Leos Carax's films. (With three feature films, Carax has proved himself the only son worthy of the father, and his inclusion as a "Surface"/"Look" director does him a disservice.) Both can muster up enough style to make aesthetically challenging films filled with youthful hors Ia lois who consider crime to be lighting a cigarette the wrong way. The main difference between the two is that Wong Kar-Wai is no iconoclast. That probably explains why he's feted by the likes of ID magazine while Carax, the only cineaste maudit of his generation, struggles to make his next film. Wong Kar-Wai is not - if I may use so outmoded a term when discussing one so concerned with style - an auteur. Both these Sons of Godard share a lot in common - their use of music, of colours, their exploration of the dynamics of the outlaw couple - but Wong Kar-Wai's films are characterised by an absence of emotion and an overbearing concern with the film's surface. And let's not forget, a Cinema of Surface is no Cinema at all. Wong Kar-Wai occasionally makes a clumsy point about the breakdown in communication - the partners keep in touch through the fax machine or by leaving notes, a character has lost his voice - but this doesn't adequately explain why he should have made a film that singularly fails to engage. Even voice-overs reveal nothing. Just because Fallen Angels' muddled protagonists are incapable of communicating with each other, that's no reason why the film should so woefully fail to communicate with its spectators.

What generations of post-nouvelle vague directors have failed to grasp is just how literate the films they claim inspiration from were. These directors - and they're by no means the worst culprits, just ones who should know better - are happy to refer to other films, perpetually feeding off Cinema's celluloid carcass. Aiming for a pure, autonomous cinema which would feed on nothing but itself, they have made something vile and impure. But they forget how nouvelle vague films were equally up to quoting from literature, from painting, from music. Its originators were at ease with Art as a whole. Rather than proclaiming their discipline as being worthier than another, they were equally at ease quoting Velasquez's paintings or Handel's music; Philip French once referred to Godard's films as being "a sort of personal culture collage" ("The Better Books." Sight and Sound, sometime in the Sixties) in an article which indicated the emergence of a new "literary cinema" which couldn't be further in spirit from Papa's cinema of literary adaptation.

The reason these Sons/Bastards get away with it is because of Godard's effective silence and the quiet deaths his anti-films die, denied any chance of a (box-office) life. In their place, you get Godard's cloying acolytes creating loud, empty vessels of films. And Godard maintains a profile so low he might as well be silent. But his isn't the ostentatious silence of a Kubrick or Salinger, the kind around which cults flourish. Instead, he's stepped down from the stage, this limp father of thousands, and retreated into a near-artisanal conception of what a film-maker should be. He doesn't condemn the sons he never conceived of, he leaves that to their films.

The main problem is, these directors assimilate Godard's surface influence, without taking on any of Godard's depth. Theirs are films influenced by the look of Godard's major films, but not by Godard's iconoclasm. This is something that advertising has managed for years, but which few feature films bother with. What's galling is that Godard and the nouvelle vague made anything possible, and this is what their self-proclaimed descendants choose to do. They should know better, but it's obvious they don't. As knowing directors of a Cinema of Surface, Wong Kar-Wai and Hal Hartley know a lot about cinema's past: they know how great films were made, but not why theirs is a cinema that bursts with tricks, but contains precious little magic.

Laurence Remila is a Paris-based film critic.