The late actress Anne Wiazemsky was briefly the muse of and married to Jean-Luc Godard – and, well away from his influence many years later, managed to get her side of the story down in a pair of slim memoirs which writer-director Michel Hazanavicius (the OSS 119 spoofs, The Artist) has used as the springboard for a witty, yet not entirely comic picture, which riffs on a few items from Woody Allen’s filmography (the ‘early, funny films’ running gag from Stardust Memories, the subtitled subtext from Annie Hall) while matching some of the tone of the breezy, yet rigorously engaged Godard of the 1960s.
The relationship is bookended in Godard’s filmography by La Chinoise and Vent d’Est, with ‘les evenements de ‘68’ in between – and the all-too-familiar tale of the latest muse being displaced is played out with Godard (Louis Garrel) moving from Anne (Stacy Martin) not to another young actress but to a whole new style of filmmaking in collaboration with Jean-Pierre Gorin (a very dry funny bit from Felix Kysyl) who uses politics to nag the ‘Maoist’ J-LG out of his successful mode into taking on a more collaborative, ‘revolutionary’ form that will lead to a big Arrow box set of films no one in the world would ever want to watch again. The climax of the film – shockingly, for those who don’t know the memoir – is Godard’s suicide attempt, which suggests that his political-romantic-artistic torment is deeper than we have judged it, but the punchline is the making of Vent d’Est, which remains one of the dullest films I’ve ever seen, made under collective conditions that take Godard at his word in political commitment but certainly lead to his death as an artist (at least for a decade or so). Anne is here a sly, shy observer … but all the attention is on Godard, which is how he would wish it, as the director keeps getting his distinctive tinted glasses broken while his radical chic lifestyle takes a beating as he is repeatedly shat on by the Chinese he has hoped will be pleased with his Mao movie and rooms full of argumentative students who think the 37-year-old is an ancient fogey and get irked by his half-baked adoption of positions like ‘the Jews are the new Nazis’.
In this portrait, Godard emerges as a complete git – which is one of the things about the film the real J-L might well like … a long, crowded, fractious ride back from the Cannes Film Festival he has personally helped shut down — with a good friend (Gregory Gadebois) whose film premiere was called off because of his action trying not to seethe at his smugness — is excruciatingly credible, down to the moment when the actual proletarian in the car, who is doing these bourgeois communists a favour by driving them home during a national strike they agitated for, says a few things about liking films to be entertaining and escapist and the revolutionary auteur dismisses him as a peasant. That all this politicking may have a neurotic angle emerges when he is manipulated by another filmmaker, Marco Ferreri (Emmanuele Aita), into letting Anne star in Ferreri’s The Seed of Man – which prompts a hilarious sequence as the stark naked couple talk about whether nudity is ever valid in films while wandering about the kitchen or brushing teeth – and seethes with envy as he sees a film company who are enjoying themselves.
In the end, though the Dziga Vertov films are unwatchable and the whole idea of being a Swiss Maoist now seems demented, Godard genuinely does make artistic and political decisions which have very real consequences – essentially self-exiling himself from bourgeois approval, or indeed any audience approval, in order to make a point, dismissing his own earlier films as ‘shit’ while saying that all of cinema apart from the Marx Brothers and perhaps Jerry Lewis will have to be jettisoned if permanent revolution is to be achieved. With Micha Lescot and Berenice Bejo as loyal friends and sounding boards, who are always around to make up a foursome for debate. Hazanavicius – a master at film pastiche – takes a lot from Godard’s ‘fun’ films, including features like a lengthy argument in a hotel room (a centrepiece of Breathless and Contempt) and Brechtian alienation effects which have a modish, unalienating jokiness. Martin, so winning in Nymph(o)maniac, is a believable gamine, but shows a little steel as Godard’s endless commitment to not having fun becomes completely unbearable.