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DVD Review: Jean-Luc Godard Collection Volume 1

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For a director who produced maybe his most important and accessible work almost half a century ago, Jean-Luc Godard has been granted the kind of career that would have jaded many film-makers long before now. It’s reached the stage where he’s such an institution in both French and mainstream cinema that he can pretty much film what he wants. It’s not committing stuff to videotape now that’s the challenge – it’s quality control.


Godard was born to be a director, although the route took him from poacher to gamekeeper. Starting out as a film critic for influential magazines, including the so-hip-it-hurts Cahiers du cinéma, Godard fell in with a group of like-minded aesthetes including François Truffaut and Claude Chabrol. Although like most popular movements bound loosely by a style rather than an idea, the main thrust of what would come to be known as the ‘New Wave’ shared contempt for the classic narratives of cinema’s old guard.


À bout de souffle (Breathless), unleashed in 1960 by Godard was a “team” effort involving the input of a selection of his contemporaries, including Truffaut. No Godard collection is complete without it (although why you’d try and start one and forget about it is another point entirely) and Optimum wisely use it as the first shot in the arm for purchasers.


You’ll probably know the story by now (what there is of it). Petty crook and cop-killer Michel (Jean-Paul Belmondo) finds his way to Paris and gads about town while he waits for the cash to flee to Rome, and takes his American girlfriend Patricia (Jean Seberg) along for the ride. Smoking huge cigarettes and spouting ice-cool lines, Michel’s past finally catches up with him after Patricia calls the police, and in one of cinema’s iconic shots, Michel staggers up the street, his shirt covered in claret from a fatal gunshot wound.
   

It seems almost trite to say that À bout de souffle isn’t really about plot, but about style. Godard found himself short of both film and cash, and so the film is full of jerky edits. Continuity isn’t considered, and it gives the film a tremendous energy. It’s the cinema equivalent of Kerouac’s On The Road. Another innovation was the use of long tracking shots (decades before the innovation of the Steadicam) that Scorsese and various Hollywood brats wow contemporary audiences with.
   

It’s a tussle between Godard and Belmondo for master of the screen: who is responsible for making a moral-less murderer seem like such a cool bloke? In its way, À bout de souffle was the prototype for Belgian film Man Bites Dog, along with most of Tarantino’s shtick about music, film, and contemporary culture. It remains the original and best. 
   

Godard was a cinematic god by the mid-1960s, surfing the wave of adulation. The only problem was that his work became more elliptical, and by the end of the sixties he would have completely broken with narrative tradition. The two films in this new release, Alphaville and Made in U.S.A., are companion pieces that show Godard wasn’t bothered about the plaudits that were heading his way on a regular basis.
   

Alphaville (1965) is a dystopian sci-fi story in which Lemmy Caution, a private detective from Outland visits the eponymous city in which logic is worshipped and all love, art and emotion is banned by a super-computer called Alpha 60. The dick (played by Eddie Constantine) is really a secret agent hell bent on the destruction of Alpha 60 and its creator, Professor Von Braun.
   

Shot entirely in Paris, Alphaville has the hallmarks of conventional noir but it’s slightly twisted. At times the plot is difficult to follow as narrative threads begin and end all the time, but like his earlier work it looks stylish and there are some thought-provoking ideas. Given repeat viewings, it may turn out to be a favourite of cineaesthetes.
   

Made in U.S.A. (1966) is a different proposition. The lead role of Paula Nelson is taken by quintessential Godard actress Anna Karina, later to be his wife. She travels to Atlantic City in order to meet her partner, only to find he’s been murdered. That much is clear, but from then on Godard takes enormous liberties with convention, which in the world of the New Wave was a good thing. For people who suffer headaches, maybe not so good.
   

Godard freely admitted that his aim was to create a completely fractured detective story, and he’s come up with a kind of psychedelic noir. It needs extra concentration to focus on what’s happening, and in New Wave tradition style rules over realism. In this case, repeated viewings are obligatory for any kind of enjoyment.
   

The sweetest plum of the collection is the UK DVD premiere of Passion (1982). This was the next film after his “comeback” Every Man For Himself. He’d spent most of the seventies immersed in short films, making whatever he wanted. Passion followed a critical and commercial success, reminding Godard why he made films in the first place.
   

Set against the backdrop of a strike at a factory, a Polish film-maker is attempting to make a picture based around famous paintings. At heart a critique of rampant commercialism and the Solidarity movement in early-eighties Poland, it’s dialogue heavy and damn-near impenetrable.
   

The narrative being fractured beyond repair, this has a real following among Godard fans. There’s nudity all over the place, characters come and go, and the dialogue truncates itself when it should open out. Even film critics can’t help – Godard biographer Colin MacCabe marks it as “incredibly complicated.” It’s worth having to complete the collection though.
   

So after all’s said and done, is it worth owning, given it offers a few documentaries and an unseen later film? The answer has to be yes, which I would say for À bout de souffle alone, but the other films have merit too. It’s a strange volume to kick off with, when they could have bundled his most famous work with more prosaic works like Le Weekend or A Woman Is A Woman. But for everyone who takes films seriously, this collection is a must.


Extras: A real treasure trove. A bonus disc includes two documentaries about Anna Karina and a classic interview between Godard and Fritz Lang. There are short films, posters, trailers, credits, and each offering includes an introduction by Godard biographer Colin MacCabe, and a press kit.

Find out more about the Jean-Luc Godard Collection Vol.1 at Amazon.co.uk

Chris Stanley

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