Jean-Luc Godard: a rare interview

The enigmatic French director speaks about the furore over his recent Oscar award.

An interview with Jean-Luc Godard was published last week in the Swiss newspaper Neue Zürcher Zeitung (available in translation here), and is so far strangely unreferenced in any of the passionate Anglophone articles written about the furore over his being awarded an honorary Oscar by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences last Saturday (an event he was conspiciously absent from). In the interview, Jean-Luc Godard seems to allay part of the storm growing over accusations of anti-Semitism, by commenting: "When the Holocaust happened, I was 15 years old. My parents kept it a secret from me, despite belonging to the Red Cross. I only found out about it much later. Even today I still feel guilty, because I was an ignoramus between the age of 15 and 25. I am sorry I couldn't stand up for them."

There is, though, much evidence to suggest otherwise (summarized here by The Guardian or given at length in this article for the American fortnightly, The Forward). The much recycled story of Godard calling the producer Pierre Braunberger a "sale juif" ("dirty Jew") in 1968 in François Truffaut's presence (an event which allegedly led to the collapse of the two director's longstanding friendship) is indeed, if true, shocking. But some of the other accusations leveled at him are more ambiguous. Benjamin Ivry, in his article for The Forward, submits that a line from Godard's 1964 film Une Femme Mariée ("Today, in Germany, I said to someone, 'How about if tomorrow, we kill all the Jews and the hairdressers?' He replied, 'Why the hairdressers?") is demonstrative of an underlying anti-Semitism. This seems both unwise and unfair. The film is after all a fictional work of art. Whilst the line is undoubtedly a tasteless joke, it is the character in the film and not Godard who is making it.

The interview with Godard in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung is enlightening in other senses though, namely how gratified Godard was to receive the award. When asked what the honorary Oscar would mean for him, Godard replied, "Nothing. If the Academy likes to do it, let them do it. But I think it's strange. I asked myself: Which of my films have they seen? Do they actually know my films?" He goes on to claim that the Academy must be making their award largely on the basis of his early criticism. When asked why he didn't attend the awards ceremony, Godard answered simply: "I don't have a visa for the US and I don't want to apply for one. And I don't want to fly for that long." It's hard, though, not to partly attribute Godard's no-show at the awards ceremony to a longstanding rancour towards the Hollywood establishment, who up until now have almost entirely ignored his oeuvre.

Godard's latest release Film Socialisme won't be coming out in Britain until April 2011, though when it showed in the Un Certain Regard category at Cannes last August in was popular with critics, despite deliberately provocative sub-standard subtitles ("L'argent est un bien public" was subtitled in English as "Money public good") and the fact that Godard didn't deign to attend the screening. In Jean-Luc Douin's pensive review of Film Socialisme for Le Monde , he points out that what obsesses Godard, as it has done throughout his cinematic career, is the idea of "rejoining a family after having been excluded from his own, of reuniting with a tribe after having been excluded from the Godard house, after having seen the fraternity of the Nouvelle Vague fray at the edges." When Godard talks about himself as "the Jew of cinema", it is this continual search for a tribe, a band, a group, to which he refers. As he says in his most recent interview with Neue Zürcher Zeitung: "I want to be together with everyone else, but stay lonely."

Read Colin Maccabe's review of Antoine de Baecque's recent biography of Godard in the New Statesman.

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The Big Sick is well meaning, rather than groundbreaking

There’s a chemistry shortfall between the actors, and some limits to Kumail Nanjiani’s range.

When real romances are adapted for the screen by those involved, the process usually occurs after the flame has gone out. Woody Allen and Diane Keaton were just good friends by the time they made Annie Hall; Julie Delpy and Adam Goldberg had broken up long before they played lovers in 2 Days in Paris. The Big Sick, however, is based on the relationship between its lead actor, Kumail Nanjiani, and his wife, Emily V Gordon (played by Zoe Kazan), who wrote the script together. Their story, a loose retelling of real events, shifts the emphasis away from whether or not their love survived (we know it did) and on to how it endured in the face of unusual odds – with Emily lying comatose in hospital when they had scarcely got to know one another.

The director, Michael Showalter, is not a man scared of spelling out the obvious (during an argument between Kumail and Emily, a road sign behind them reads “Speed bump ahead”) but even he draws the line at putting The Smiths’s “Girlfriend in a Coma” on the soundtrack.

Kumail is a Pakistani comic on the lower rungs of the Chicago stand-up circuit. His family is trying to marry him off to a nice Muslim woman but Kumail is more interested in Emily, a graduate student in psychotherapy who heckles him at a gig one night. His family, given to openly disdaining any relatives with white partners, isn’t aware of her existence, but it hasn’t watched, as we have, the cutesy montage of their courtship.

The couple finish most of their dates with a joke about never seeing one another again. When Emily becomes ill and is placed in a medically induced coma, this running gag becomes unexpectedly resonant, along with Kumail’s choice of date movie: The Abominable Dr Phibes, in which Vincent Price takes revenge on the doctors who let his wife die in surgery. In a piece of timing that adds an extra tartness, Kumail and Emily have broken up shortly before she falls ill. Strictly speaking, they aren’t even in a relationship when Kumail first encounters Emily’s mother, Beth (Holly Hunter), and father, Terry (Ray Romano), at the hospital. Meet the Parents coincides unexpectedly with While You Were Sleeping. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner lurks in the background.

The estrangement might have been definitive were it not for the coma, though the film can’t quite bring itself to acknowledge the helpful part played in the couple’s relationship by a life-threatening medical emergency. In common with anything in which Judd Apatow has a hand (he gets a producing credit here), The Big Sick is in the business of reassurance. Emily mentions that she works with men convicted of domestic violence but the world of the film is one where harm is only ever inflicted inadvertently.

Discomfort surfaces in the two brief scenes that come closest to holding to account Nanjiani’s likeable, mildly neurotic persona. The tremendous Vella Lovell stands out as one of Kumail’s prospective brides, who upbraids him for his cowardice. And Emily rages at him over a perceived betrayal in a scene that would be more persuasive still if the pair seemed like actual lovers rather than just room-mates. There’s a chemistry shortfall between the actors as well as some limits to Nanjiani’s range, which extends from “genial” to “a bit cross”.

He also suffers from the problem, common to stand-ups who become actors, of not always knowing how to integrate material into characterisation. Seinfeld handled it well by showing Jerry getting caught out trying to sneak “bits” into casual conversation, but in The Big Sick the gags often sit on top of the action. The movie’s best joke is Kumail’s response when Terry, who has clearly never met a Muslim before, asks his opinion on 9/11. No man would ever say what he says to the parents of a woman he was hoping to win back, let alone whose life was hanging in the balance, and if we forgive him, it’s only because it’s an ingenious line. It is also one of the thousand or so reasons why The Big Sick is well meaning rather than groundbreaking, and why a Judd Apatow production will never be confused with a Preston Sturges one. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue