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15 May 2018

Taking the God out of Godard: Michel Hazanavicius’s Redoubtable is an irreverent portrait of the French filmmaker

By Ryan Gilbey

With its promiscuous distribution of gold stars, the modern movie poster has come to resemble the uniform of a distinguished general or a diligent fast-food employee. So it was refreshing to see that early ads for Redoubtable, a new film dramatising a tumultuous period in the life of Jean-Luc Godard, had taken a different tack. Over an image of Godard’s trademark tinted specs was a quote from the nouvelle vague provocateur himself, now 87, calling the movie a “stupid, stupid idea”. Clearly he was never going to give his blessing to a breezy comedy which places his love life and public persona on an equal footing with his political activism. But this is what lends Redoubtable its sparkle. Adapted from Un an après, a memoir by Godard’s second wife, the actor Anne Wiazemsky, it’s a fragrant, lightweight film on a heavy subject.

The picture covers just over a year in the couple’s life, beginning with the making of La Chinoise, Godard’s brilliant and exacting 1967 study of a Maoist cell shot in the confines of their own apartment, before taking in their involvement in the May 1968 uprisings. At six feet tall with pin-up looks, Louis Garrel (whose director father, Philippe, was admired by Godard) is a poor fit for the scrawny, scuttling filmmaker. He is also saddled with the challenge of portraying him as reasonably contented during the first third of the movie; a smiling Godard feels all wrong, like a gurning Mona Lisa. But as the director begins to fret about his own relevance, Garrel finds a twitchy rhythm that compensates for these discrepancies. Stacy Martin is less effective as Wiazemsky, never quite capturing her inscrutability and coming across merely as a dreamer who just wants her man to be happy.

Disciples of Godard will be gritting their teeth during the voiceover (“He revolutionised cinema and now he was about to revolutionise himself”) but then Redoubtable isn’t really for them. Hazanavicius has already proven himself an accomplished pasticheur – he made the joyous OSS 117 spy spoofs, which were like Austin Powers movies but with brains, and won an Oscar for his silent era comedy The Artist – and he has Godard’s style down pat: the Mondrian colours, the slogans and title cards, the dispassionate tracking shots gliding from left to right. His irreverent approach sensibly removes the “God” from “Godard,” portraying the filmmaker at times as a bumbling Woody Allen figure whose efforts at protest are forever being thwarted by fans who just want him to make another Breathless.

Hazanavicius specialises here in self-reflexive episodes in which characters seem to be commenting on the action itself. A discussion of nudity in cinema is conducted with Godard and Wiazemsky in their birthday suits, while another scene has Godard railing against the stupidity of his performers. “If you tell an actor to say actors are dumb, I bet he’ll do it,” he says, before Garrel gives a perfectly judged look down the lens. The personal and political are amusingly intertwined, nowhere more so than when Godard interrupts oral sex to propose curtailing the 1968 Cannes Film Festival out of solidarity. “I’m talking about us,” Wiazemsky says later, “and you’re talking about cinema.” The movie asks: what’s the difference?

A less edifying example of current French film-making can be found in the sadistic exploitation thriller Revenge. In a luxurious desert chalet, Jen (Matilda Lutz) is raped by one of her lover’s friends. When she refuses to keep quiet about this, she is shoved off a cliff and impaled on a jagged tree stump.

The rest of the film isn’t nearly as delightful as that. Rising miraculously from the edge of the grave, Jen tracks down her attackers, an ammo belt slung across her like a Miss World sash. Torture and injury ensue, but nothing is as off-putting as the visual excesses which smack of student film-making beneath the high production values: repeated shots of a rotting apple besieged by ants, an abundance of garish, sun-scorched images that don’t always match.

Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez had more fun with this sort of material in Grindhouse, though the Revenge director, Coralie Fargeat, does at least prove that male film-makers don’t have a monopoly on aestheticising the suffering of size-zero women in torn panties. 

Redoubtable (15)
dir: Michel Hazanavicius

Revenge (18)
dir: Coralie Fargeat

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This article appears in the 10 May 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Israel vs Iran