GODARD, WELL– KEPT SECRETS
Ever since he emerged in the early 1960s, Jean–Luc Godard has never ceased to question, change, transform and revolutionise his film–making. Accumulating books, objects, tapes and notes, the genius who gave us Breathless, Contempt and Pierrot le fou has m
The genius behind Breathless and Contempt has a habit of wiping the slate clean. But his invaluable archives still exist as hidden treasure, somewhere in France. Exclusive revelations.
Flashback to a conversation, published in 2010 in a French cultural magazine, between Jean–Luc Godard and Daniel Cohn–Bendit. Both activists in the May 68 student uprisings, they shared much more than those heady days of insurrection and strikes: in the summer of 1969 they came up with the idea for a film, Vent d’est ( Wind From the East ), a “political western” shot in Rome that ended in one big free–for–all. When Cohn–Bendit arrived at the film–maker’s home in Rolle, he was taken aback to see a team of guys busy stuffing boxes into vans: “Jean–Luc! You’re not seriously getting rid of all these screens, all this equipment, tapes and books and stuff?” A cigar clenched between his lips, squinting behind oversize glasses, Godard chuckled in response: “No–one’s getting rid of anything. Those days are gone. Over. It’s almost impossible to create anything now. That stuff’s done its time. What do you expect me to do with it? Open a museum? It’s a machine, half– material, half–intellectual, that functioned with me. Stop! I can live for a year off what I’m getting for it.” He claimed to have sold everything to an archaeology–mad Egyptian. Apparently he’d done a deal with a production company, Wild Bunch, that allowed him to go on making films without dragging the weight of the past behind him.
Making a clean sweep has always been a way for Godard to start afresh; to clear the decks both literally and aesthetically. It’s been his technique throughout a remarkably coherent career that’s changed tracks repeatedly nonetheless, unexpectedly veering off and washing the old world down the drain. He did it when, at the height of fame, he joined the Dziga Vertov film–making collective. He did it again when he left Paris for Grenoble, filming only in video ( something he later described as a “bad patch” ). This led to another, more permanent move to Rolle, the Swiss town of his childhood. During these ten years of soul–searching, each move was a chance to make that clean sweep, to abandon books and correspondence and notes for projects that never got off the ground. In Rolle, where he still lives and works, Godard’s studio is an unremarkable, two–storey building where he’d be hard–pressed to store much anyway. And Godard is a hoarder, as Cohn–Bendit observes in his comment on the two hundred books he accumulated for the one Film Socialisme.
So what became of these archives that spent 2010 shifting from place to place? A certain amount of mystery surrounds their whereabouts, known only to be a secret location, under lock and key, somewhere in the centre of France. Stephan Crasneanscki of Soundwalk Collective, an art music group based in New York and Berlin, was given access to this peculiar treasure. Working with Godard’s sound engineer François Musy, he assembled unreleased fragments of sonic material recorded on Godard’s film sets, mixed them and set them to music as What We Leave Behind — in answer to the question of the traces we leave, of memory and the fleetingness of memory in a ribbon of crackling voices freed from the weight of oblivion, prophets swirling in limbo. Stephan Crasneanscki returned several times, photographing whatever happened to catch his eye, from emptied boxes to notes scribbled on pages torn from books, from stacks of equipment whose purpose — none of it works — we’ll never know, to white plastic bags like the body bags in American crime dramas. “I only photographed a tiny part of this enormous accumulation of things, tapes, film rushes, books stashed in boxes on shelves … The master’s house was sinking under its weight so he threw it all overboard to prevent the ship from going down. The energy behind this gesture was ‘getting rid’ and the grammar that structured it was ‘get out!’,” says Crasneanscki. The archives are stored in a “neutral space” starkly lit by fluorescent lights that has all the glamour of an intellectual’s attic, yet Crasneanscki insists on the intensity of simply bringing these objects into view, the suspended state between dust and legend — in the ( superb ) 2002 short film Dans le noir du temps ( In the Darkness of Time ), a man and a woman empty a library of its books, calming dropping them into black bin liners. —›
“Jean–Luc! You’re not seriously getting rid of all these screens, equipment, tapes, books and stuff?”
One of the boxes that Crasneanscki photographed was packed with dog–eared books by Charles Ferdinand Ramuz, a Swiss author and particular favourite of Jean–Luc Godard. At one point Godard had plans to adapt one of Ramuz’s 1919 novels, Les Signes parmi nous, describing the project thus in 1988: “A bible hawker arrives in a village near Vevey and declares that the end of the world is nigh. A terrible storm rages for five days, then the sun comes out again and the hawker is kicked out of the village. Film is that hawker!” An earth–shattering announcement, a group reaction, a final storm, a return to calm and closing credits. The maker of Bande à part ( Band of Outsiders ) compares the role of film to that of an angel who, on his way to earth, forgets his message and crash–lands in the middle of an indifferent crowd. “Film has nothing but projects, unlike television which has nothing but rejects. It spits, seeps and vomits. Film opens, shows and welcomes. [ … ] Hence the overwhelming sentiment that film is the infancy of art …” wrote Godard in 1987. This infancy has grown old and so has Godard, that most impetuous and avant–gardist of all the young Nouvelle Vague film–makers, who went from the enthusiasm of the 1960s to the sterile anonymity of the 1970s before returning, without illusion, to the starified cinema of the 80s ( Huppert, Delon, Depardieu and the aborted project for Prénom Carmen ( First Name: Carmen ) with Adjani, who left the set in tears ). Spunky, sporty, insolent and funny at first, he came within inches of death in 1971 after a motorcycle accident put him in hospital ( and, briefly, a coma ) for six months — a replay, almost, of the car crash that killed his mother in 1954. Godard was thrown off–balance by the experience, which left him agoraphobic and prey to bouts of anguish. The Brazilian film–maker Glauber Rocha, who visited Godard on the set of Vent d’est ( which by then had descended into chaos ), described an acutely melancholic figure: “Seeing this thin, balding, forty– year–old man, I felt like a kindly aunt who feels bad about giving candy to a sad nephew. He inspires great affection. It was like seeing Bach or Michelangelo eating spaghetti in a blue funk …”.
One of the many pages annotated by Jean–Luc Godard, taken from one of the archive boxes, and photographed by Stephan Crasneanscki.
Some of the original masters and final sample prints of Histoire( s ) du cinéma sit beside recordings of leading critic Serge Daney.
Above, an annotated photo in Jean–Luc Godard’s handwriting; Opposite, a production schedule for Notre musique.