Michel Hazanavicius’ Oscar for directing The Artist was one of five awards the film won that night in Hollywood in 2012. Even if it was French-made, such accolades for a black and white, silent film harked back to the Golden Days of the silver screen and sent its creator into the major leagues.
His latest film, Redoubtable, is about another classic era of film-making, this time focusing on the Nouvelle Vague and its chief figure: Jean-Luc Godard. Not only that, it takes place in May 1968, marking 50 years since a student revolution on the streets of Paris shook the world’s imagination and changed French culture forever.
And, on the anniversary of what the French still politely refer to as “les evenements”, thoughts turn again to the Cannes Film Festival which, 50 years ago, was cancelled at the behest of Jean-Luc Godard and other new wavers such as Francois Truffaut, to show support to the student protesters and general strike. “I’m talking about solidarity with the students and workers, and you’re talking about tracking shots and close-ups!” Godard famously retorted when someone dared oppose his interruption of the festival.
But make no mistake, Godard is back. Of course, he never really went away, such is the cult that continues to surround him, in France and at Cannes. Now 87 and fairly reclusive, he has a new film, The Image Book, premiering in the competition; the festival’s poster this year features a breezily romantic kissing scene from his 1965 film Pierrot Le Fou; and Redoubtable, the film about him and which first screened on the Croisette last year, is now released in the UK and in the States (under the clever, new-wavy title Godard Mon Amour).
Known for directing comedies, Hazanavicius must be aware of his perfect timing? “I’m not sure anything’s changed, though,” he says. “Not regarding Godard. He’s always a presence, always a big shadow at Cannes. An image from his film Contempt was on the poster two years ago as well. He is part of the fabric of the festival, of cinema itself, so that doesn’t change. But there is definitely a big sadness now that Anne Wiazemsky, who is really the main character of my film as much as Godard, has passed away. Although, I am just so glad she got to see the film and approved of it very much.”
Redoubtable is not about Godard the film maker as such, but rather about his love affair and marriage to the young actress Anne Wiazemsky, on whose book, Un An Apres, the film is based. Wiazemsky, who died aged 70 last year, starred in Godard’s controversial La Chinoise, a political, Maoist movie and the first of his films to receive a negative reception. This film is loosely about the making of La Chinoise and the months following. Anne wrote the book years after her break-up with Godard (they divorced officially in 1979 but separated in 1970) and it’s an intimate recollection and reflection on her time in love with, working for, and married to the world’s most revered director.
“I was very touched by their story as she told it,” says Hazanavicius. “I had never looked at Godard the way she wrote about him and so I found her book so original, moving, sexy and simply beautiful. You have to remember that she was a very young woman, 20, from a well-known establishment family, grand-daughter of novelist Francois Mauriac and she was very much in love; Godard was a famous man, a provocateur, a great artist, but also a pop culture icon. Certainly in France, he’s one of the key figures of the 1960s, as much as Andy Warhol, Muhammad Ali, Elvis or John Lennon. He belongs to the popular imagination, a cultural figure through whom we can explore many themes common to all of us: love, politics, history, ambition, meaning…”
His film, he admits, could have been a disaster but is, in fact, a delightfully playful and profound piece that throws much light on the iconic yet distant figure of Godard. Played by the actor Louis Garrel (a famous fan and expert on Godard), it’s about a man, a film maker, struggling with his age, love and work and idealism and the impossibility of purity.
Hazanavicius gives his film everything in terms of energy, fizz and looks. It has funny, pop cultural touches that reference various scenes, famous moments and sequences or just single shots in Godard movies, sometimes parodical, sometimes pretentious, sometimes really smart. Experts can play a bit of Godard bingo to themselves (there are even a few cameos to spot from former Godard associates) but that never distracts from the overall mood.
There are bright 60s colours and fashions, and dazzling Mediterranean sunlight. It is great fun to watch, constantly shifting, and Stacy Martin as Anne is very impressive, capturing all the youth and beauty yet making us believe in her love and her fear. Set against all that, in a remarkably busy film, is the onset of political unrest, riots in the street, the brown of institutions, the zeal of revolution and the dark, downward spiral prompted by artistic struggle.
1968 sparked a change in Godard the artist. Against the backdrop of revolution on the streets, he too turned his attention away from the cinema with which he’d made his reputation, wanting to deconstruct the form further and use it for political ends, forming the radical Dziga Vertov collective, named after the Soviet documentary film pioneer.
“It was moment of crisis for him,” says Hazanavicius. “He was not young anymore. He was an older guy, a bit clumsy, but he once was a cool, rebellious youth, but now the revolutionaries were in the street and they were 20 years younger than him. He was once their hero but now it was he who was jealous of their spirit, maybe, and it provoked a deep change in his thinking. I wanted to capture that moment in a man’s life.”
Through Garrel’s performance and Hazanavicius’ direction, Redoubtable manages to capture all the facets of the man – and his lover – at the time. This Godard is brilliant and difficult, a complex figure whom we also laugh at, someone we admire yet often abhor. His commitment to his ideals could be comical, were it not so very French, so very 60s.
Says Hazanavicius: “If we look back, yes, maybe our generation now doesn’t have such full commitment to causes or to their art. So there is a bit of this character that looks ridiculous, certainly. But for me, there is something heroic in that devotion. I wanted this Godard to be a hero.
“In his search for ideals and the love of revolution – the prevailing spirit of the age, remember – this man will destroy everything around him: his idols, his background, his work, his friends, but also his relationship, even his name, and will end up destroying himself. And Anne will love him as much as she can but can’t follow him all the way. She’s powerless against his self- destructive drive. Deep down, one cannot blame him for his commitment to his ideal. Nor her. But they drift apart in spite of themselves, they can only break up. I found this very glorious as a love story.”
It’s ok playing around with silent-era Hollywood, I say. Nobody is that attached to it and in any case The Artist was a loving pastiche of that time, that genre. But toying with May ’68 and the image of Godard, the memories are still so ingrained and people, French people in particular, are so attached to that time and still defined by it. It could have been very dangerous.