Jean-Luc Godard has arguably been the most misunderstood of film-makers, if only because he keeps devising drastic new ways to confound our understanding. From his swaggering reinvention of film form in the nouvelle vague years of A Bout de Souffle and Le Mépris, through his Maoist-inspired essays such as Vent d'Est, up to the intensive contemplation of his Histoire(s) du cinéma, Godard is so hard to make sense of in conventional terms that you have to redefine the sense of "making sense" - as with James Joyce, to whom Colin MacCabe compares him.
Godard may or may not be "the great French poet of the 20th century", as MacCabe at one point proposes. What he is for sure is a sui generis act, too prolific and protean to encapsulate in a single work. This book is not a conventional biography, but a review of five phases of Godard's career, seen through different optics: family history, intellectual history, film history and political history, with added reminiscence.
At times, the book seems less a portrait of Godard than an account of the multiple paths of investigation that MacCabe felt inspired to follow. Working from the conviction that little in Godard's life makes sense outside its context, MacCabe fills us in on Swiss Protestantism, the legacies of Brecht, the vagaries of the postwar left in France. This is necessary and informative but, since it all tends to squeeze discussion of the films, you wish MacCabe had resorted to a few more Godardian jump-cuts. Still, you come to appreciate the Tristram Shandy-like difficulty of portraying a subject whose intellectual life is so omnivorously active that there's no end to the footnoting and back-story required.
This is not the book for on-set anecdote or juicy revelation. On the one hand, we never learn what Godard chatted about with Mick Jagger, Woody Allen or, indeed, Molly Ringwald. On the other, MacCabe is discreetly to the point about Godard's relationships with his wives Anna Karina and Anne Wiazemsky, both of whom seem to have had fairly miserable times. Conversely, we are given a touching account of Godard's attachment to Anne-Marie Miéville, his partner and collaborator of the past 30 years. The most intriguing biographical insights come in Godard's years as a precocious critic, when we find him stealing petty cash from Cahiers du cinéma and enjoying late-night snacks with André Gide.
You sense MacCabe being both protective of, and somewhat awe-struck by, Godard, whom he has known as both a critic and a commissioning editor. Unashamedly partisan, he is open about the awe and points out that he's not the only one: Bernardo Bertolucci was so overcome that he threw up on meeting Godard for the first time.
One major merit of the book is to take seriously parts of the career that some might prefer to write off as an aberration outside the bounds of cinema proper: Godard's 12 or so years of militant essay-making. Some products of this period MacCabe describes as conventionally "unwatchable" yet more relevant now than ever - one way of saying that Godard is a committed critic's film-maker par excellence.
The lack of a single focus often makes this a frustrating book, but MacCabe richly conveys the complexity of Godard's modes of thought. His book persuasively argues for Godard as a great modernist whose work, in all its excesses and opacities, is intractably ambitious in a way that transcends mere cinema.
Jonathan Romney's new book on Atom Egoyan is published by BFIReuse content