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.

Getty
Show Hide image

The Underground Railroad is a novel which offers hope for the very strong of heart

Whitehead’s prize-winning novel of slavery in America is his finest work yet.

30 DOLLARS REWARD will be given to any person who will deliver to me, or confine in any gaol in the state so that I can get her again, a likely yellow NEGRO GIRL 18 years of age who ran away nine months past. She is an artfully lively girl and will, no doubt, attempt to pass as a free person, but has a noticeable scar on her elbow, occasioned by a burn.

 

“Want ads” for runaway slaves serve as section breaks throughout Colson Whitehead’s searing novel The Underground Rail­road, which takes a familiar story – concerning the manifold injustices of American slavery – and brings it to terrible, terrifying new life. Whitehead does so by revealing, in close view, just how brutal and businesslike were efforts to ignore, obscure and destroy the dignity and humanity of so many men and women for so very long.

The novel begins with an auction:

 

Onlookers chewed fresh oysters and hot corn as the auctioneers shouted into the air. The slaves stood naked on the platform. There was a bidding war over a group of Ashanti studs, those Africans of renowned industry and musculature, and the foreman of a limestone quarry bought a bunch of pickaninnies in an astounding bargain.

 

Thereafter we learn that “A young buck from strong tribal stock got customers into a froth”, that “A slave girl squeezing out pups was like a mint, money that bred money”, and that a mother “maintained a reserve of maternal feeling after the loss of her five children – three dead before they could walk and the others sold off when they were old enough to carry water and grab weeds around the great house”.

Finally – and this is still just in the opening pages of the novel – we discover, through the eyes of a young woman named Cora, what happens when any of these persons resists living as purchased property: “She had seen men hung from trees and left for buzzards and crows. Women carved open to the bones with the cat-o’-nine-tails. Bodies alive and dead roasted on pyres. Feet cut off to prevent escape and hands cut off to prevent theft.”

Whether in spite or because of these consequences – and mindful, even haunted by the knowledge, that her mother managed to escape her own bondage – Cora decides to join a fellow slave named Caesar in running away. In Whitehead’s treatment, a metaphor for the secret network of support that helped black slaves reach the free (or at least freer) American north and Canada becomes an actual makeshift train that travels underground, which Cora and Caesar ride across the South. They are in constant peril, relieved by passing periods of respite: sleeping in a bed for the first time, learning to read and write, and even coming into a small amount of money, which, Cora soon discovers, “was new and unpredictable and liked to go where it pleased”.

Throughout their escape, they are pursued by a vicious slave-catcher called Ridgeway, who is motivated by far more than merely financial reward: “Charging through the dark, branches lashing his face, stumps sending him ass over elbow before he got up again. In the chase his blood sang and glowed.” Ridgeway, Cora and their respective others meet throughout the novel, their positions of advantage and opportunity revolving in ways that make for flat-out suspenseful reading. Many others are grievously harmed in the meantime, as they move through a small-town, 19th-century American world of crafty and hypocritical politesse and ritualised violence. The violence is never rendered more awfully than in the festive, Friday-night lynching sessions that take place at a picturesque park which Cora watches from an attic refuge.

The Underground Railroad, awarded the American National Book Award for Fiction last month, is Whitehead’s sixth novel. Following the more playful novel of manners Sag Harbor and Zone One, a zombie romp, it is his most ambitious and accomplished book since the Pulitzer-nominated John Henry Days of 2001. In fact, the lack of literary showiness – vividly presenting the rudely built underground railway and the hard lives of those riding it – makes The Underground Railroad perhaps his finest work. Although the repeated encounters between Cora and Ridgeway across such a sprawling set will strain the credulity of anyone save a diehard Victor Hugo fan, Whitehead is a confident enough writer to let their lines of escape, pursuit and capture braid and break apart again and again, building to an exciting and rending conclusion. It is one that offers hope for the very strong of heart. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage