Godard: biographie

Antoine de Baecque is the leading historian of postwar French cinema. His two-volume history of the journal Cahiers du cinéma is a model of intellectual history, and his mammoth 1996 biography of François Truffaut, co-written with Serge Toubiana, is the standard authority on that director. It would be natural to conclude, therefore, that a biography of Godard would complete de Baecque's picture of the nouvelle vague.

If one weighed books, rather than read them, de Baecque's volume would be a mighty tome. With 900 pages of small print, no bibliography and the scantest of filmographies, this is a book of getting on for half a million words. And de Baecque, a cultural historian by training, has thoroughly mastered the very considerable Godard archive. Every review and interview has been collated and read, and the book tracks the director's profile in the French press with remorseless paraphrase and quotation.

That said, there is little new here. Anyone who has read either of the biographies in English already published (my own and Richard Brody's) will be disappointed at the lack of fresh material. De Baecque offers no fresh insight into Godard's family, nor any genuine clarification, neither of the early voyage to South America (which Truffaut held to be the defining event of Godard's life) nor his frantic journeying between Paris and Switzerland in the 1950s. The account of Godard's most significant relationships follows what we already know, and de Baecque makes no attempt to place his subject in the wider intellectual and cultural history of postwar France.

As de Baecque's prose ploughs monotonously through the material, one feels that he has almost no interest in what he is recounting. This is partly a question of method. As in the Truffaut biography, he structures his narrative around the production of each film. A synopsis of the plot and an account of the casting and finance is followed by the story of the shoot and a summary of the critical reaction. In the case of Truffaut, this had its longueurs, but it was not a bad method - because Truffaut's films had plots and because, for him, almost every new film involved a fresh love affair.
Godard's relationship to his films is much more complex. Plot is of minimal importance for him, and is always made up of fragments of narrative rather than a full-blown story.

Furthermore, the films come in groups, with a set of intellectual questions and obsessions surfacing in various ways across each series. To take a particularly significant example: de Baecque is unable to trace the development of method in Godard's masterwork Histoire(s) du cinéma (1988-98) through the earlier films Soft and Hard and King Lear, still less to link them with his concern for autobiography in the mid-1980s.

De Baecque also uses a particularly crude form of psychologising that is incapable of unpicking the complexity of Godard's behaviour. Towards the end of the book, he pronounces that Godard is unhappy, and that he makes everyone around him unhappy as well. But I remember Christine Aya, an editor who worked with the "Dziga Vertov" group of political film-makers (established by Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin) in the early 1970s, saying that she had never known a period of such happiness in her life, and that Godard was the focus and source of this happiness. De Baecque's technique cannot deal with such contradictions.

His unwieldy schemas also lead to factual errors. When I first encountered Godard in the late 1970s, I had been asked by the British Film Institute to edit a book of essays on the little-known work from his Dziga Vertov period. For more than a decade, Godard had lived reclusively, so I was astonished that he responded to my suggestion of a book with great enthusiasm - though he stipulated that the book should be more than just a collection of essays.

In retrospect, I see this transformation as part of his decision to return to the cinema with Sauve qui peut (la vie) (1980). De Baecque, however, is determined to make the change fit a reductive picture of Godard as exploitative. Not only does this lead him to get almost every fact about this minor episode wrong, but, much more seriously, he portrays Godard's generous efforts to teach me about his film-making as "manipulation".

De Baecque has combined his work as a historian with a considerable journalistic career, editing both Cahiers du cinéma and the culture pages of the newspaper Libération for significant periods. This may go some way to explaining why the book reads like the longest Libération article ever written. There is simply no attempt to provide foreground and background, or to meditate on the extraordinary variousness of Godard's life and career. Event just follows event and - perhaps because de Baecque is often recounting the facts for the third time, after the Truffaut and Cahiers volumes - he is much less subtle and interesting this time round.

To take one example: the history of Cahiers du cinéma presented in this book is a travesty of de Baecque's own past magisterial analyses. There are also several incomprehensible mistakes. For instance, he writes that Le mépris, Godard's 1963 adaptation of Alberto Moravia's Contempt, is faithful to the Italian novel, even though there are numerous studies that list Godard's drastic changes at the level of plot, character and theme.

Towards the end, as de Baecque leaves behind periods that he has already covered, the book does begin to gather energy and pace, and his account of the past decade deals with topics unexamined in previous biographies. Unfor­tunately, even here, he misses a great opportunity. There can be no doubt that there has been no project in Godard's life more difficult and painful than his exhibition "Voyages en utopie", held at the Centre Pompidou in Paris in summer 2006. When the exhibition opened to almost unanimous derision from the French press, Godard broke in the most brutal manner possible with his Pompidou patron, Dominique Païni. De Baecque chooses to recount this story entirely from Païni's perspective, with more-than-ample quotation from the latter's papers. However, he makes no attempt to understand the show, which was less the banal provocation dismissed by the French press and de Baecque himself, and more another attempt at autobiography that mixed the elements of Godard's life in a way that was at once familiar and completely original.

Without question, this book will be valuable to Godard scholars. Although there are no important revelations or discoveries, there is at least a painstaking accumulation of detail. I found particularly illuminating the description of Godard's office in the glory years of the early 1960s and the story of how he turned himself into a video technician during the making of Histoire(s) du cinéma.

It is as a source of historical material, and not as a work of analysis or interpretation, that de Baecque's book will endure.

Godard: biographie
Antoine de Baecque
Grasset & Fasquelle, 935pp, €25

Colin MacCabe is distinguished professor of English and film at the University of Pittsburgh. He is the author of "Godard: a Portrait of the Artist at 70" (Bloomsbury, £14.99)

This article first appeared in the 31 May 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The war on the veil