“His angst is neverending”: In Defense of Le Redoutable

With that being said, avoid the trailer at all costs.

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Jean-Luc Godard once said that cinema is the most beautiful fraud in the world — and no genre continues to stay true to this statement more than the the biopic.

The typical verdict on the biopic can easily be summed up in three words: Plus ca change. The more that artistic legacies are tarnished by ideas that lead to Zoom-grade editing, the more that we’re truly convinced that the stagnance in refusing to challenge biographical subjects goes beyond the Lifetime trademark. It’s no wonder that the bar for this kind of filmmaking continues to be set at an astronomically high level for the simplest reasons that humans fail to adhere to when wanting to do justice to documenting a famous face. Studio-made budgets are thrown around frivolously like clusters of autumn leaves, only to be left with (and accept — to no one’s surprise) a directorial effort that reads like its subject’s Wikipedia page.

The reason why so few directors are able to give a person’s legacy the truth that it deserves is because the subject’s life crumbles at the hands of studio executives’ decisions in choosing directors who will completely eradicate an authentic portrait of humanity in favor of a profitable highlight reel that would be better off as the placeholder for digital ads projected on buildings in Times Square. Thus the person’s legacy is erased by a vision so alien to public perception, and we’re presented with cookie-cutter wax statues of Freddie Mercury, of Nina Simone; of Aaliyah, Britney Spears, Jeff Buckley, and Elton John. It’s not very often that we truly get to see ourselves reflected in these people, let alone recall their presence as we initially remembered it. This is often because very few on-screen portrayals of these figures reveal a sense of consciousness that goes beyond and within the three-dimensional depth of two-dimensional fame. To add fuel to the fire, many directors alone who have brought humanity and resonance in their interpretations barely get the rights and privileges to the works of these subjects themselves, even when these films are created with good intent.

In short, today’s biopics are either celebratory preservations of artistic legacies or a mere failure to even delve into personal problems (rarely unbeknownst to the public) that reminds its audiences that the members of society’s upper echelon are no different from those below it. It is a genre that breaks ground and houses a typical output that barely ripples across the surface of its narratives. Thus cementing its place in film by continuing to challenge the authorship over narratives and their respective artistic (or artless) renderings. Regardless, the biopic often feels particularly disgraceful in its tropes, hardly taking the time to grow attached to the world that its subjects inhabit, let alone truly immerse its intended audiences within it. Being accustomed to seeing how much these films treat its figures with neglect is even more concerning, given that the self-realizations of even the most distasteful personalities are considerably absent and intentionally dismissed as unimportant to the essence of their identities. Very rarely does the modern biopic present us with portraits of humans who succeed and succumb under the human condition, and whenever it does, it’s mostly overlooked. Not only do they fall victim to miscasting and overproduction, but they are marketable artlessness’s favorite customer.

So while one may claim the biopic to be the box office’s antithesis to the superhero movie, it is barely the antidote, as any form of easy money remains one in the same. Biopics are like politics, and politics are like shoes. There’s left and right, and the state of it all can be so overwhelming that at some point, you eventually want to go barefoot.

Plus ca change indeed.

Michel Hazanavicius was the last person that anyone expected to make a biopic on Jean-Luc Godard. Keep in mind that this is a director whose works have impacted the face of contemporary French cinema both for better (OSS 117) and for worse (The Artist).

Alors, fais les roulements des yeux.

On paper, the idea of a Godard biopic can be best said by Godard himself — that it is in fact “a stupid, stupid idea”. With a cast that includes Louis Garrel (Little Women, Les amants reguliers) as the enfant terrible and Stacy Martin (Nymphomaniac, Vox Lux) as his then-spouse Anne Wiazemsky (who looks more Chantal Goya than the leading lady of L’enfant secret), Le Redoutable can be easily dismissed as the French equivalent to current Hollywood A-listers being casted for a biopic on Andy Warhol. Think of the most famous faces at the moment gracing the screen as the likes of Elvis and Litchenstein, then proceed to sit back and cringe. It’s an idea that simply wouldn’t work, but in the case of Le Redoutable and all of its self-consciously comedic charm, it somehow manages to pull off the complete opposite.

It is made clear that Le Redoutable aims to associate itself with a line of biopics that center themselves on challenging its subject’s identity to back their two-hour montage of life-changing events. Although Godard’s life is all too broad for the film to even pull an Edvard Munch (and it’s definitely no innovative recount of a Mishima), it does not hesitate to focus in on its primary subject through the lens of a person whose role is of relative importance to him as Anna Karina. Throughout the film’s runtime, Wiazemsky’s perspective is present (albeit passive at times) out of necessity in showing Godard’s progressively alienating identity. Moreover, Le Redoutable clearly presents itself as conventionally entertaining (in which it is) and therefore completely contradictory to Godard’s intriguing and simultaneously frustrating body of work. This is largely due to Hazanavicius’s sense of humor, as he often approaches its subjects by presenting them as caricatures whose flaws hang loose. Nonetheless, he doesn’t hesitate to to the same with Jean-Luc Godard.

Although Hazanavicius already manages to retain Godard’s blatant influence on the film through its visual accuracy, not once will you find Godard being taken seriously, as Hazanavicius makes emboldened blots out of the director’s most inherent flaws. Hazanavicius’s satire essentially doubles as a critical commentary on Godard himself, and it’s just as biting as what made him excel as a director with OSS 117. This is nothing particularly surprising given that a majority of his work often revels in hackneyed comedy and visual pastiche. It’s also why The Artist feels disastrous in comparison to OSS 117, as the Best Picture winner makes a homage to silent film that feels more like a shallow ass-kisser to the Hollywood studio system than a film that reaffirms a predecessor’s importance in redefining artistic merit and value through a cinematic medium. OSS 117 works in favour of Hazanavicius’s style for the very reason that the spy genre — more specifically the James Bond cinematic franchise — has always been a refined pastiche of anti-intellectualism and hypermasculinity. It gives Hazanavicius even more of a reason to challenge it when Bond is as M describes him to be.

What makes Le Redoutable work in favour of Hazanavicius’s confrontational satire in particular is the very fact that Godard’s works challenge to the point where they were meant to be challenged. For one, his stain on the French New Wave is too big of a blot to smudge. As much as it has paved the way for movements such as the American indie (Gallo, Jarmusch, Hartley twice) and cinema du look, each of these movements have carried their share of misogyny with visual pastiche (looking at you, Joe Swanberg), Godard’s being overt presentations of uncomfortably revelatory transgressions towards its female characters, save for pretty much anything he has made after 1964 (1961’s A Woman is A Woman being the only exception).

Of course, Le Redoutable barely shies away from this by establishing its narrative through Wiazemsky’s eyes. It is through her that we are able to see Godard’s charisma and increasingly broad openness to the political climate that challenged France in the late 1960s. We see his constant engrossment in incorporating said politics within his own ideas as he passionately expresses the urgency to craft films that speak to its nation’s youth-fronted and youth-driven revolutionaries. More importantly, we do not go without seeing his domineering and contradictory ego affecting the personal lives and decisions of those around him, himself aside. This comes through in a scene involving an overblown argument in a car that ultimately sinks into muted disappointment.

As a result, it sees him through for who he really is — contrived, repulsive, and undeniably pretentious. With this being taken into consideration, Wiazemsky’s perspective humanizes Godard as much as it pushes him into caricatural territory, ultimately resulting in anything but unexpected when Godard’s presence is made to be more than a handful to sit through. No matter that it’s everyone’s favourite Frenchman nailing the Swiss accent in his shoes. Him breathing alone is enough to induce collective sighs from a virtual audience. While one may understand Wiazemsky’s love for Godard to stem from her admiration for his seemingly neverending creative drive, it becomes increasingly difficult for audiences to resonate with him beyond his blatant arrogance.

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In a scene involving an overblown argument in a car, the film does not go without seeing Godard’s domineering and contradictory ego affecting the personal lives and decisions of those around him, himself aside.

At the same time, this doesn’t go without saying that framing Godard’s life through Wiazemsky’s point of view isn’t at times very ineffective, all the more when it’s just as difficult to side with her as it is to have a bit of sympathy left over. This is mostly due to her physical passivity in the film, which does an injustice to its source material given that her presence teeters more towards the vague than it is about someone who is truly invested in the inner workings of an interesting relationship. It may just be that the film presents her sympathy as seemingly causal to vagueness, as its sympathy towards her only goes so far. This is also inherent within this film’s ambivalent ending, which leaves Anne out of the picture altogether. Perhaps this questions who exactly is given authorship over a narrative, and especially who demands it, but if this was Anne’s point to prove, it makes this attestation unclear. Nevertheless, what should have been a more nuanced biographical perspective on Wiazemsky ends up playing out as a brilliant mistake that allows Godard’s on-screen ego to bring Wiazemsky’s minimal anecdotes to living proof.

To add onto this, the silliness with which the film presents Godard’s self-reflexivity works effectively to the benefit of Hazanavicius’s signature (albeit tired to some) mockery of Godard, which is arguably functional in a lot more areas of this film than in a majority of Godard’s own work. One may want to drive Hazanavicius’s constantly nudging satire off a cliff, but with a film as self-referential as Le Redoutable, it’s hard not to understand how the effectiveness of Hazanavicius’s humor plays an integral role in its most farcically prime example. The recurring act of Godard’s broken glasses further reflects Le Redoutable’s, Hazanavicius’s, and even Godard’s greatest (human) strength. It’s a classic slapstick gag that doubles as a metaphorical commentary on the ways in which Godard’s lens on the world becomes irrevocably shattered. With each literal crack, Godard’s empathy for the youth that admire him hollows out until near nothingness is left. When he claims his desire to capture the reality of the May 68 student protests, he chides an actual student for blocking his shot. When he claims his Maoist lens to be solidified and intact, he declares yesterday’s Jews to be today’s Nazis — to the uproarious disagreement of the very demographic that he is trying to resonate with. Godard becomes less in touch with his continually undetermined self, and far more terrified to be a part of the bourgeoisie that he can’t stand.

Although this film’s politics are where it tends to fall flat (the protest footage barely scratches the surface as we are not made known of anyone else’s views), it does not affect the strength that the conclusiveness of this statement ends up holding, let alone its superficial yet voluminous clarity of Godard’s political and artistic disillusionment. Godard’s actions guide his activism, and it is through his quest for humanity through revolution that makes him more despicable than he already is. If a quick Google search of a Godard interview does not already convince you of his contemptuous nature, then this film does not fail to further clarify the man as a human paradox. What fascinates us about him makes us understand how boring he is. He lacks a concrete expression of personal and political ideals, yet makes no mistake in telling other peers that he is a full-fledged Maoist. He doesn’t know how to speak for himself, yet remains so highly convinced of who he is. Godard cannot speak for himself whenever he can and has the opportunity to do so, simply because he cannot listen to others as much as himself. When Godard claims to be one thing — and that is often outspoken — it only presents itself simply as contempt. Contempt for others, and contempt for his own unpleasant self.

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From left to right: Felix Kysyl as Jean-Pierre Gorin, Arthur Orcier as Jean-Henri ‘Jean-Jock’ Roger, and Louis Garrel as Jean-Luc Godard

In his review for The Guardian, Mark Kermode stated that one’s enjoyment of Le Redoubtable comes down to their reverence for Godard’s work. For most parties, this film succeeds because their enjoyment of the film is no doubt rooted within their inversely proportional reverence for the filmmaker. It’s enough to put someone like me in conflict, given that I am someone who enjoys most of Godard’s work while keeping his insufferable persona in mind. Le Redoutable depicts Godard as a tragicomical figure, again another recurring pattern with anything Hazanavicius touches. If OSS 117 was a dimwitted and desperate ladykiller who failed to see that his female pursuits (and everyone else) don’t think much of his prideful ego, then Jean-Luc Godard is a man whose youth was his peak, youthfulness being his figure of unrequited worship. Godard is worshipped by the youth as much he worships them, yet fails to reconcile with how this demographic fails to see him through. The result is him capitalizing on his weariness by spewing cathartic bursts of vitriol at his peers, elders, and adolescent spouse. Even then, such releases as repulsive as these are about as half-baked as one’s common knowledge of the way that he writes women in his films. It’s unintentionally but inevitably etched into a part of his being by general association. While it may not take away from some people’s enjoyment of his work, it most certainly fails to be erased from his identity. It’s almost ironic how his own political views in 1967 deeply reflect that of commonplace Internet Leftists of today — specifically the ones who slander the working class without applying their theoretical knowledge to help them move forward. It’s akin to Godard’s reputable refusal of cinematic and interpersonal convention (both of these cross paths in this film when said director throws a hissyfit at [an impressively cast Guido Caprino as] Bernardo Bertolucci— in real life, the late Agnes Varda). On top of his social class being the common source of his second-hand embarrassment, the film comes to terms with something he cannot: That his own brand of revolutionary zeal is just as elitist as it is self-servient and incredibly out of reach with anything that has nothing to do with his work.

As much as Godard’s place in cinema can be agreed on in the realm of his ever-present influence, this film doesn’t hesitate to speak to the skeptics. After all, such a criticism of him could only be this spot-on if it came from a director whose admiration for Godard does not erase the fact that he is nowhere near Godard’s cinematic domain. Hazanavicius projects Godard’s often abstract and distinctively sociopolitical statements with stunning clarity, given how difficult it is to comprehend him and his work alone. The result is a filmic folly — a forgery of his signature that tips its hat to Godard and spits in his face by breaking his glasses more than once. It presents the contrast between life’s choices and our own ego through none other than cinema’s best and most primary example, one whose personal decisions and personality are by all means as interchangeable as his need to break and establish convention. By Godard’s standards, Le Redoutable is an unrealistically entertaining spectacle of overlying irony. For everyone else, it is the ideal cinematic paradox that its subject so rightfully deserves.

Le Redoutable is available to stream on Kanopy and iciTouTV. It is available for physical purchase on iTunes and Amazon.

Afterthought

I’ll admit one thing about this film to begin with: As a person whose partial introduction to world cinema was through Godard himself, I wouldn’t ask for anything else. I enjoyed the stylistic accuracies, homages and references to Godard’s work, from the blatant aestheticism of A Married Woman and La Chinoise down to the staggering slow-mo of Sauve Qui Peut. This was all the more rewarding on a second watch alone as a result of Hazanavicius’s cleverly placed Easter eggs began to truly emerge. Louis Garrel nails Godard’s accent, and this time, he isn’t hampered by the nepotism we so often see if not for his father’s works singlehandedly saving him from the otherwise questionable game of Pokemon that his filmography tends to reflect. Instead, he surprises me by literally showing us how much of a joke Godard can be, and more often is.

That’s not to say that the director doesn’t make any valid points. In fact, he makes several that fail to lose relevance as much as his works from 1967 and beyond (“Never say thank you to a cop”). But the more and more that this film satirizes cinema’s enfant terrible (as the pretentious hack that he often is), the more that I must continue to applaud it for what it is. This doubles as a self-reflection that’s hard for the director and even harder for his fans to swallow (both Godard and Hazanavicius; I guess that makes me fall into the grey area).

For those who can praise Godard and loathe him, for those who loathe him completely, and for those whose praise and loathing are often grouped together because we truly have no other way to understand what he’s really been about, this film makes for a three course meal and so much more. I can go on all day about how this film is intentionally indecisive and how it’s up to us to decide if we’re seeing this through the perspective of Anne, Godard, or ourselves.

I can easily justify the question it poses; if its punchline is the audience’s perception of the director, Anne’s perception of the director, Godard’s perception of himself, or ourselves. It’s quite funny how a film on Godard in the style of Godard ends up posing Godard-esque questions in return.

But after years of conversations upon multiple conversations on Godard, I think my father has always said it best: “It seems that the man’s angst is neverending.”

And won’t it always be just that.

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Passages in time through words, images, and sound.

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