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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Mathias Énard is the most brazen French writer since Houellebecq

Énard's latest novel, Street of Thieves, has ideas and charisma to burn.

This book, though no kind of failure, may seem a little pinched and bashful to readers of Mathias Énard’s novel Zone, a 500-page, single-sentence rumination on European cruelty that was published last summer to giddy applause. A back-cover blurb by the writer Patrick McGuinness, who also teaches French at Oxford, claims that Street of Thieves is “what the great contemporary French novel should be”, but this is a description better deserved by its predecessor – and possibly its successor, Boussole (“compass”), a grand-scale effort published in French this month by Actes Sud, which promises the reader “staggering erudition” and “heartbreaking lucidity”. Street of Thieves never calls for adjectives of that order (“involving” would be closer to the mark) though it still confirms Énard as the most brazenly lapel-grabbing French writer since Michel Houellebecq. Even on a quiet day, he has ideas and charisma to burn.

In a doomy, plague-ridden future, Lakhdar recalls a late adolescence torn between his duties as a Moroccan-born Muslim and the temptations extended by the north, an alternate universe situated just across the Strait of Gibraltar. In one scale sit “prayers, the Quran and God, who was a little like a second father, minus the kicks in the rear”. In the other sit miniskirted female tourists and the pleasures portrayed in the French detective novels that Lakhdar consumes “by the dozen”: “sex . . . blondes, cars, whisky”. When he is thrown out by his family for having an affair with his cousin, it looks as if fate is tipping the balance. But it doesn’t work out that way. Poverty keeps him tethered to his homeland, and he takes a job working as a bookseller for Sheikh Nureddin, the local imam.

Meanwhile, Lakhdar’s best friend, Bassam, is playing out the same conflict in more volatile ways. Though no less lustful and weed-smoking, he is devoted to Nureddin, for whom, it soon emerges, the Propagation of Quranic Thought is an activity broadly defined, accommodating sticks and stones – and knives and bombs – as well as the pamphlets peddled by Lakhdar.

For much of the first half, the novel is an odd mixture of picaresque and parable. Lakhdar is sometimes an object or victim of fate, sometimes a plaything of his author’s purposes, and the gear changes required can be jerky. One moment, Lakhdar will tell the reader, “And that’s how I entered the service of Marcelo Cruz, funeral services,” in a fish-out-of-water, “isn’t life funny?” sort of way. The next moment, he coolly notes the thematic overlap of his work for Cruz with a previous position that involved digitising the records of an Algerian infantry regiment in the First World War. “The idea of sending real stiffs back to Morocco after having imported dead soldiers to it virtually was rather amusing, I thought.”

Énard’s parable-making instincts frequently take control of the plot, with results that verge on tiresome. When Lakhdar sets sail on a boat named after one of his heroes, the 14th-century traveller Ibn Batuta, the vessel equals Freedom. But lack of an exit visa confines him to the port of Algeciras, then a dispute with the Spanish government keeps the boat there, too. So the Ibn Batuta becomes a symbol for the way that life dashes our best hopes – or upends them. Dreams of freedom produce a nightmare reality. An ideal of escape leads to more stasis.

Yet it feels churlish to grumble about the novel’s design when it enables so much potent writing. Sending Lakhdar from Tangier to Barcelona is a contrivance that you wouldn’t want undone. As well as furnishing different possibilities in terms of scene-setting and atmosphere, it turns the novel into a comparative portrait of two societies through their common factor circa 2011: a period of civic unrest and popular anger that failed to produce a revolution. Morocco is the country that the Arab spring forgot, while in Barcelona the deepening despair is only punctuated, never alleviated, by the occasional protest.

In the Barcelona section, richer by far than those set in Tangier and Algeciras, Énard uses Lakhdar’s outsider perspective to lay bare the shallowness of the type of dissent you find in a democracy. He notes that a general strike is claimed as a victory both by the organisers, because “they reach such-and-such a percentage of strikers”, and by the government, which didn’t have to make any changes. To Lakhdar, Spain appears “a land beyond politics”, where the nationalist government “no longer gave a shit about anyone” and industrial action has become an end in itself.

The workings of orientalism – or whatever cross-cultural logic shapes European responses to North Africa – are exposed with clarity, even flair. A feeling for paradox crowds out the platitude, derived from ­Edward Said, whereby representatives of the developed west are only ever blundering and stupid. It’s true that Judit, a student of Arabic literature at Barcelona University, so narrowly associates Tangier with sexual licence and foreign visitors (Burroughs, Paul Bowles) that Lakhdar, as a Muslim from the suburbs, feels that “we were discussing a different city”. But Énard – who teaches Arabic literature in Barcelona – is careful not to present Lakhdar’s Tangier as the “true” version and Judit’s as a romantic Other-laden mirage. Despite her overemphases, Judit never comes across as a dabbler, and it is Lakhdar’s mistiness about Barcelona that receives the harsher humbling. (The “street of thieves” lies not in Tangier, but in the Raval district of Barcelona.)

So, it is a shame, given this balancing of myopic perspectives, that Énard also feels the need to grant the older, reminiscing Lakhdar, smug in his 20/20 hindsight, a prominent place in the telling. But then Street of Thieves gives the consistent impression of a writer who, not unlike Houellebecq, views formal choices as not just secondary, but irritating. The unpunctuated first-person rant, as used in Zone, is surely Énard’s ideal device. It turns crude technique into an engine. The more intricate demands of the novel – the niceties of plotting and narrative point-of-view – merely serve to slow him down. Lakhdar is most convincing when neither a picaro nor a symbolic type, neither totally himself nor entirely representative, but a balance better suited to Énard’s analytic needs: specific enough to be vivid, while clearly standing in for the migrant who, drawn by fantasies of easy passage to streets paved with gold and teeming with blondes, finds instead an obstacle course from one site of crisis to another. 

Street of Thieves is available now from Fitzcarraldo Editions (£12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism