Le Redoubtable, a biopic of Jean-Luc Godard, is condemned by the man himself for its hard truths.
French Director Michel Hazanavicius first captured audiences’ delight overseas in 2011, when The Artist won five Academy Awards. At Cannes this year, Hazanavicius returned with another delightful story about the world of film, albeit one not as accessible or all-ages.
It is called Le Redoubtable, named after a French submarine. While The Artist sought to expose the political and emotional world of silent era Hollywood, Le Redoubtable is far more concretely based on a true story but has a similar mission in a similarly cinematic era. In France, 1968, worker’s rights movements were disrupting the entire nation in what appeared to be a Communist revolution. And directing auteur Jean-Luc Godard had just married his first wife, Anne Wiazemsky.
The subject of Le Redoubtable, Godard’s name inspires little mainstream recognition in the United States, but his place in France, and in cinema, is ordained as one of the bastions of the New Wave. Hazanavicius’ aspirations, therefore, have moved from a seat at the Oscars to a place in the hearts of cinephiles everywhere. It’s also a great chance to have a little fun. Still alive today, Godard is notorious for his reputation as a pedantic prankster, compounded only by the fact that he takes himself all too seriously. Before we go any further, it’s worth noting that he called the idea of a movie about his first marriage “a stupid, stupid idea.”
Few could make more out of it than Hazanavicius. He wraps a love story in a bundle of contemporary politics and lets it unfold before us. Godard played magnificently by Louis Garrel, spent 1967 making the film La Chinoise, when he falls deeply in love with the movie’s delicately beautiful star, actress Anne Wiazemsky (Stacy Martin). The movie, in which a group of French students study Mao and consider methods of Maoist insurgency, is a flop (as it was in real life) even though France is in the throes of striking and calling for an end to the capitalist structure. Newly married, and to one of the most beautiful actresses around, Godard finds himself in an artistic crisis – worrying his best films are behind him (they are) – and decides the only option is to declare his allegiance to the proletariat uprising. What follows is the absurd joy of trying to watch a narcissist practice Communism.
Godard called his biopic “a stupid, stupid idea.”
The unauthorized biopic did not have to look far to get ridiculous. In real life, Godard, Truffaut, and a few other New Wave directors disrupted the 1968 Cannes Film Festival, demanding it be shut down in solidarity for the protesting unionizers. (Perhaps also, the movie posits, because La Chinoise was not included in the Official Selection). The festival was postponed, and Director’s Fortnight was launched that year as an alternative. This all takes place in Le Redoubtable, as well, but mostly from Anne’s perspective, as she suntans scantily on the deck of an achingly beautiful villa just outside Cannes, half-watching her new husband fume around the house, shaming their rich friends and looking for a book to read.
He is surrounded by fellow film types, the most glamorous profession in France at the time, and soon finds, despite his wife’s sympathy, that he’s fighting for revolution alone. Desperately searching for action, a movement he can galvanize and start to lead, Godard returns to Paris and drags his friends and his camera to student protests, hoping in vain for a chance to be a revolutionary or at least a mascot. Instead, he is met with bitterness, not only because his career is failing but because he himself is trés bourgeois – he’s just the last one to see it.
If the film sounds boring and politically quagmired, it would be – in anyone else’s hands. Hazanavicius, however, uses every trick in his wheelhouse to make the movie as cherubic and winking as possible. In The Artist, he shot on cameras capturing 22 frames per second and didn’t use zoom shots to convey the technology associated with the silent era. In Le Redoubtable, the film’s style functions both as a grand homage to Godard’s style and debriefing on his personality, a flippant combination of brashness and subtlety. Early on, what could perhaps be described as a sex scene occurs between Anne and Jean-Luc – so sparse and stunning in its symmetrical framework that it delivers as more joyously moving than actually sexy.
Beyond this, recurring gags render the film both vaudevillian and deeply personal. At the rallies and meetings, Godard is all bluster, but time and again in the midst of revolutionizing he loses and breaks his sunglasses, thereby ending the scene. (Godard was famous, for a while, for always wearing sunglasses, a better indication of façade and insecurity than even Hazanavicius could invent). One in a slew of recent of films trying to evoke the sense of uprising, Le Redoubtable is also accessible political commentary, meditating on the subject of meaningful insurrection in developed countries today. Many of us, especially young people, want the world to change right now, but it is ourselves who are unable to change for it.
Hazanavicius gives us the absurd joy of watching a narcissist practice Communism
At one point in the film, after Anne has just gotten an offer for an acting role, she and Jean-Luc stand across a room from each other and debate the necessity of nudity in film – both fully in the buff. Similarly, in the height of his artistic crisis, Godard (or rather, Louis Garrel) declares: “I’m not Godard. I am just an actor playing him. And I’m not even a very good one.” This kind of meta-entertaining revelry is the most potent case for Hazanavicius’ work. The cherry on top of all this, selfishly, was thus being able to watch a movie about one of the more tumultuous incidents in the history of the Cannes Film Festival while I was at it.
Here, and throughout, the acting is impeccable. Martin plays a charming and ultimately righteous wife whose naiveté is revenge by her occasional voice overs, declaring herself the true protagonist of the story. Garrel’s Godard is unmatched in eyebrow-raising egotism (his brows and yours) as much as his deep-seated insecurity, and we love him even as he proves himself unlovable to all others on-screen. The mise-en-scene alone gives the movie a place in French New Wave 101, capturing an era where the film was crisper and the color was still a revelation. The newlywed’s apartment and costumes both look like they could have been designed by Mondrian. Pasted cutouts of eyes adorn their wall enamel.
I go to such lengths to honor the little things here knowing full well that the story alone is not enough to grab most audiences. And why should it? Godard is the type of cult member with a connotation of ‘you’d have to have been there’, and the film makes much of this – it’s not far off to see it as a ninety-minute inside joke. But Michel Hazanavicius is the rare breed of director who knows that the best part of watching a movie if done right, is simply the feeling of watching it. In this sense, his purpose his obvious: poking fun at Jean-Luc Godard is clearly the highest form of flattery. In the end, even as the man is shrunken down to size, and rendered insufferable, the artist is uplifted in a way that continues to move and inspire us further.