On the 50th anniversary of the Cannes Film Festival being shut down by French New Wave icon Jean-Luc Godard amid a period of civil unrest, and with a new Godard feature in competition for the festival’s coveted Palme d’Or jury prize this month, there’s an exceptional timeliness to the UK release of Michel Hazanavicius’s Redoubtable (‘Le Redoubtable’ in France, and ‘Godard Mon Amour’ in the States, obviously). Set largely against the backdrop of the May ’68 protests, the film views the infamous auteur (Louis Garrel) through the eyes of his then-wife, the actress Anne Wiazemsky (Stacy Martin), as he begins a radically political chapter of his filmmaking career spurred on by the critical failure of his polemic La Chinoise (1967). As Godard faces an artistic crisis – the choice between politics and cinema – his marriage with Wiazemsky catastrophically deteriorates.
Like the French director’s OSS 117 spy-spoof flicks (2006 and 2009) and his Oscar-winning silent homage The Artist (2011), Hazanavicius’s latest oscillates between earnest pastiche (most of its visual cues are appropriated from Godard) and irreverent parody (it doesn’t gloss over fact he was an ‘asshole’). Moreover, as with all his films to date, Redoubtable is a period piece crafted with formidable visual accuracy.
Talking at a roundtable interview at the London Film Festival last October, Hazanavicius explains that he sees the past as “work[ing] like a mirror. Looking at a period, it creates some distance and you don’t realise we are talking about today.” He couldn’t have known it then, but Hazanavicius’s words have proven prophetic – Godard’s revolutionary spirit of ’68 is echoing loudly at this year’s Cannes, with a major red-carpet protest against the lack of female representation at the festival resulting in the creation of a new charter aimed at improving gender parity.
Despite Redoubtable’s political undertones, Hazanavicius doesn’t overplay it; presumably owing to the critical mauling of his last film The Search (2014), set in war-torn Chechnya at the turn of the millennium. In fact, the director brings a certain cheekiness to his portrait of revolution. “May ’68 was really funny,’ he insists. “The slogans were really funny. When you see images of [student leader] Daniel Cohn-Bendit he was always smiling, there was something almost arrogant, but in a cool way, in front of the police.”
Hazanavicius also saw humour in the portrait of Godard sketched by Anne Wiazemsky’s books Une année studieuse (A Studious Year, 2012) and Un an après (One Year Later, 2014), the memoirs on which Redoubtable is based. “Sometimes [Wiazemsky] says in the book Jean-Luc was really funny. The book itself is not funny, but you can feel that these years were happy years for him. So I thought to make a light movie, sometimes funny, sometimes just fun, could be more genuine in the flavour of that period.”
Wiazemsky was resistant in selling the rights, and had already refused a handful of offers when she heard from Hazanavicius. “When I first called her, she said she didn’t want a movie made based on her books,” he says, “and just before I hung up I said, ‘It’s too bad, because they are really funny’. And she said ‘What? You think my books are funny?’ I said ‘Yeah, hilarious … I think it could be a really funny movie.’” Delighted that he had recognised the comic potential in a biopic of the venerated director, Wiazemsky gave Hazanavicius her blessing. “She was very moved by the movie,” the director says proudly, “She told me the best compliment – she said, ‘You made a comedy with a tragedy.’” Some high praise, coming from the woman who lived it.
Previous to reading Wiazemsky’s books, however, Hazanavicius had little desire to make a movie about Godard. In fact, he’s not really even what you’d call a fan. “I don’t adore him, I don’t hate him,” he confesses. “I respect him, but I am very classical [in my] relation to his cinema. I think his movies from the ’60s were very, very good, very charming and seducing, and after I lose [interest] a little bit because I don’t really follow him.”
Though the director professes to have had no extreme opinions of Godard prior to making the biopic, he certainly wasn’t unaware that others do. There are, he notes, “those who adore him, and who can’t say anything that could put him down” and “those who hate him, because they think he’s a snobbish, non-interesting crook, an intellectual that we don’t understand”. If Redoubtable’s rendition of Godard had to fit into one camp, it would certainly be the latter – Hazanavicius doesn’t glam up Godard’s nasty side. At best he’s portrayed as a bolshie, narcissistic misery guts, often condescending his talented wife. At worst, he’s an attention seeker and has-been whose default setting is throwaway provocation, as when he announces to a deeply unimpressed student rally that “the Jews have become the new Nazis”.
If the game plan was to rile up Godard devotees, Hazanavicius has stacked up some well-earned contempt (Godard himself called it a ‘stupid, stupid idea’ – and inadvertently provided the film with an advertising tagline). “For those who adore him, I did something really wrong,” the director acknowledges with a smile, “and it was that I made fun of him, blah blah blah.” But, he suggests, there’s a flipside to the ridiculing of Godard. “For those who hate him or those who don’t care, I humanised him. … I think it’s good for him.”
Hazanavicius’s film is not a process of dethronement, but rather of demystification; a refusal to accept the deification of Godard among certain cinephiles while remaining compassionate. “He was an asshole,” Hazanavicius bluntly puts it, but “even when he was really mean he was not mean just to be mean, he was mean because he was pursuing a very high goal for him, which was some sort of truth … I think he’s a sick man, and his own victim. When you realise he’s his own victim you can have empathy for him.”
Indeed, underpinning the film’s silly puns, relentless meta-humour and breathless slapstick is the profound melancholy felt by an artist hell-bent on self-destruction. Reflecting on the death of Mozart, Hazanavicius’s Godard comes to the conclusion that “All artists should die at 35”. What we’re watching, then, is an artist past his self-prescribed sell-by date. Is Godard’s tragedy, I ask Hazanavicius, a fear of becoming old and irrelevant?
“It’s not just being old,” he clarifies, “I think it’s much deeper than that. It’s being innovative, being revolutionary. You know he made his first movie when he was thirty years old, and it was a revolution in cinema. There’s really a before and an after Breathless, a before and after Jean-Luc Godard. But seven years after, when he did La Chinoise, thinking he was doing a revolutionary movie, he realised it was not. He was just 37.”
The depression Godard experienced through ’May 68 was, according to Hazanavicius, an unbearable transitional phase. “When you look at his work, each ten years he starts a new period. He did very activist, very political movies in the ’70s, then he came back with some more classical movies with actors, big actors – Depardieu, Alain Delon, Johnny Hallyday, a lot of huge stars – and in the ’90s he did something different, and then he came back in the 2000s with something more experimental. Then since 2010 he’s doing more contemporary art. I mean, he’s always doing something new – that’s what he was seeking.”
And still is – just last week, following the Cannes premiere of his new film, The Image Book, the 87-year-old Godard claimed that “great cinema makers are close to anarchists” during a FaceTime press conference. His latest is, to fuse the early reviews coming out of the festival, an experimental, apocalyptic cinémosaic, and maybe in part an examination of the modern Arabic world – it’s hard to tell with Godard.
Those expecting something similar from Hazanavicius had best not get their hopes up. “I’m not a revolutionary. I’m much more simple, I’m much more classical,” says the director. As for his next film? More of the same, it seems: “I love comedies. I hope it will be a comedy.”
Redoubtable is in cinemas across the UK now.
Images: Thunderbird Releasing