In May of 1968, France experienced a flurry of violent riots and acts of protest as tension grew insurmountably over capitalist practices and an overall rejection of cultural attitudes. While this resulted in the social revolution of the country, it also resulted in the artistic revolution of many of its creators. Already a rebel and outspoken critic of narrative conventions, Jean Luc Godard had a major turning point around these times, completely disavowing any association with the Hollywood style of storytelling and tending toward a more didactic and formalist school in cinema. While he would still go on to make films with a narrative bent, this film would represent the major premier of his forays into the more essayistic style, which we have seen in his landmark Histoire(s) du Cinema project and his most recent Adieu au Language 3D.
Le Gai Savoir can be seen as among the geneses of this turnaround, a defining film in Godard’s repertoire of difficult-to-access, visually and cinematically theoretical works. The film is pure experimentation, presented in the form of some kind of visual essay, using two characters which exist in some type of black void of a soundstage, discussing abstract concepts and philosophies, sometimes candidly and sometimes in humorous, Godard-esque riddles. Intercut with these lengthy main segments are interludes of archival footage, and sometimes still photographs with handwritten phrases on them. These segments fly along in a free verse manner, turning the film into the type of thing you’d see in an installation, breaking down every conceivable component of a motion picture back to its basic parts.
Performances are isolated with the actors Jean-Pierre Leaud and Juliet Berto. Sound is dysfunctional, disjointed, and overlaid over almost everything, announcing itself always and inciting direct contemplation rather than simply feeling. The reused footage parallels the social and political unrest of the times, referencing the film’s contemporary inspiration and basis. And most interesting are the still images, in their timing and juxtaposition with the text written across them and their placement among the other elements, suspending the raw element of the photographic medium into an elongated specimen. The whirlwind combination of all of these things, ironically, reveals the disparate parts of a cohesive film and presents them almost as a slideshow. In this fractured state, the film refers to itself and to the machinations of all films: sounds, images, and semantics.
It’s not something I’d tell you to go and watch to introduce yourself to Godard, but it is something that could help supplement some of his more experimental works that come with less explanation. Both the audio commentary, the video by his occasional cinematographer Fabrice Aragno, and the booklet that comes with this release provide a helpful background to the work and also a useful, understandable analysis. And when watching the film with these precursors, it becomes easier to access the other films in the line of his that I’ve spoken of. In the sense that a filmmaker’s early work sometimes shows the seeds that inspires his or her greater, more monumental works, Le Gai Savoir shows the seed which grew into many of the form-driven films Godard has made and continues to make today. | Nic Champion