Mark Lee Hunter's Paris Journal
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My nights with Godard
l. to r.: The US poster for "In Praise of Love"; a famous scene from "Breathless"; Jean-Luc Godard in the 1960s; Godard when I met him.
His films shaped my dream of Paris. And then he put me in one.
This true story about Godard's making of "Eloge de l'Amour" ("In Praise of Love") was purchased by three different magazines, but never published in print. My thanks to media scholar David Berry, author of an excellent new book on the politics of open source and "copyleft" called "Copy Rip Burn", who suggested to me that it might still be of interest to Godard scholars and fans.
It started when someone called my publisher in Paris claiming to be the assistant of Jean-Luc Godard – the director who co-founded the New Wave in French cinema with François Truffaut and a handful of others, four decades ago – and said the Master wanted to meet me.
I figured one of my clever friends had penetrated my secret fantasy: A movie director decides I look interesting, casts me, and I win an Oscar for best supporting actor. Except I’m not an actor. So someone was definitely setting me up.
So the day of my rendez-vous near the Champs-Elysées, I armed myself with a counter-gag – a book on stage direction that I picked from the trash on the street. Then I mounted the stairs to what was supposed to be Godard’s office.
The slender, professorial guy who opened the door said, “Thank you for coming.” He was Godard.
He seated me on a high-legged, sloping armchair on which a Betacam was trained. He asked me what I do, which he already knew. I’m an investigative journalist, and he’d seen me on television, promoting a book I’d written about France’s neo-fascist party, the National Front. He said he was writing a film in which the American embassy in Paris is hired by Stephen Spielberg to buy the rights to the memoirs of a Resistance hero.
He said, “American diplomats are the servants of business.”
I was trying not to slide off the chair, while the Betacam recorded my trouble. I said, “Well, that’s true in a metaphoric sense. They don’t actually work for Hollywood.”
He didn’t react. Godard lets others react to him.
Meanwhile he was printing me, like a cop mugshots a suspect, checking out my sound and look. When it was over an hour later, I gave him the theatre manual I’d fished out of the trash. “I adore reading about direction,” he exclaimed. He also adores found words.
Godard sent me home with a treatment of the film. “Read it and tell me what you think,” he said.
Most stories about how Godard writes his films claim that he makes them up as he goes along. His ex-wife Anna Karina, who starred in the great Pierrot le Fou (1965), told an interviewer last year, “We didn’t have the dialogues until the morning we shot them.” And now I was getting a chance to see how he actually did it. Given that Godard is now 70, and spends between three and four years on each film (compared to three or four months in the 1960s, when he made 24 features), there might not be many more.
The treatment covered fifteen single-spaced pages in large type, under the title “Elogy to Love.” It was a fairly conventional narrative, which amazed me. If you’ve watched any of Godard’s recent movies, you can’t help wondering where the story went. What he cares about, what he puts in the foreground, is the background – everything that happens on a story’s edges, the mess and confusion of a world that doesn’t leave you alone. (That may be why his production company is called Périphéria, “peripheral stuff”.) The effect on the viewer is like breaking up with someone in the midst of a bar fight. There’s plenty of action, emotion and people, but you have no idea where they’re going.
In “Elogy to Love”, a filmmaker drives through a Paris littered with the homeless, looking for a young woman, and discovers that she’s dead. Her name is Iphigenia – in Greek mythology, the daughter of Agamemnon. She was to be sacrificed to guarantee victory in the Trojan War, but escaped and became a priestess of Artemis. Any foreigner found on her sacred ground was burned in sacrifice.
The second part takes place three years before the first. Iphigenia is a lawyer, and the filmmaker is helping Steven Spielberg buy the rights to her family’s history. Her grandparents fought in the Resistance, but now they’re broke and forgotten, and Spielberg’s 156-page contract promises the cash and glory they crave.
But Iphigenia screws up the negotiations. The filmmaker rides the train back to Paris, sitting between a famous writer obsessed with “the future of French literature” and a bunch of unemployed people practicing “the slogans they’ll shout on their next march.” It’s like watching the world die, not with a bang, but with Parkinson’s.
Godard called back and pressed me for an opinion. “It’s very powerful,” I replied. “But I don’t understand what I can do for you.”
I’d said the right thing. Only Godard understands what you can do for him. He invited me and my fiancée, Sophie, to dinner.
In the restaurant, he asked again for our opinions, then raved: “You told me what you think! It’s been years since anyone did that for me!”
He was flattering us, and we flattered him back. Sophie said, “Well, maybe that’s because you are Godard. It isn’t easy to criticize a legend.”
“I make films that don’t work,” he parried. “People don’t go to my films anymore.” He mentioned Germany Nine Zero, which he made soon after the Berlin Wall came down. “No one saw it,” he complained.
Almost true. In Paris, even the natives complain that only high-brow snobs watch Godard’s latest movies. It was nonetheless weird to watch him play Mr. Pitiful. No one ever forced this guy to make a movie he didn’t want to make, which is more than you can say for most Hollywood directors.
“I saw it,” I said.
He stared at me. “Where?”
“Isn’t that the one where Eddie Constantine is standing by the road, looking into nowhere?” I asked.
Eddie Constantine was an American who played the detective Lemmy Caution in low-budget French gangster pictures in the 1950s. Godard built Alphaville around him in 1965. In Germany Nine Zero, Constantine’s confused, aged face is all that’s left of an American hero the world no longer needs.
“Where did you see it?” he insisted. I named a TV network.
“Oh,” he said. “Television.” Which doesn’t count.
Throughout the evening he addressed himself mainly to Sophie, who had made herself glamourous for the occasion. And as he spoke, her glamour gave off more and more light. I would see him do the same thing with his actresses on the set. I don't know how he did it, I just know what I saw: He made women radiant with beauty.
At one point he mentioned the ugly role played by the Louvre museum after the war, when it seized Jewish art collections that belonged to the survivors of the Holocaust. And I told him about a case I’d covered: In 1942 the Milice, a sinister force that recruited in French prisons, had looted the famous Schloss collection of Flemish masters for the Nazis. After the war pieces of it turned up on sale at Sotheby’s and Christie’s, with the Louvre’s tacit approval.
The next week he sent me a full shooting script. Now it read like a Godard movie, meaning there was no longer a story I can describe. The theme of stolen memory had been transmuted into stolen art. I was in three scenes, and when Godard called again I told him that I still had no idea why he needed me.
He said, “This movie is critical of America. But there are good Americans, too. That’s why you’re in the film. You are the good American.”
He was embarassing me, and worrying me. At this moment in France, Americans are more despised than at any time since I arrived in 1982; we are considered bad-mannered conquerors who can’t be bothered to look at what we’re trampling.
And Godard’s relationship with Americans has always been very ambiguous. He told me more than once that he’d rather see a bad American movie than a bad French movie – “The Americans have a certain something,” he explained – but that isn’t exactly a compliment. Neither is the description of Jack Palance’s character, a Hollywood producer, in the scenario for Contempt: Godard sees him as driven by “a sort of strange and ferocious passion for impossible things.” In Breathless, the French hero, Jean-Paul Belmondo, is betrayed to the cops by America’s own gorgeous Jean Seberg. His gut-shot dying words to her are: “You are a déguelasse.” She says, “What’s a déguelasse?” No one tells her the answer: “A disgusting thing.” That’s Godard’s America – beautiful, strange, dumb, ferocious and disgusting. Not just good.
So I changed the subject: “I noticed that one of the characters is named Schloss.”
There was silence on the other end. When I hung up the phone, I said to Sophie, “I wonder why that upset him.”
“Because you’re the one who told him about the Schloss collection,” she said.
If by chance Godard ever calls you – weirder things have happened – keep in mind that whatever you say to him can be used.
At the beginning of October 1999, soon after Godard began filming, I was invited to lunch with him and his crew. Godard had said that since he became a New Wave icon no one dared talk to him on the job, but he made it pretty plain that he wasn’t to be spoken to until he spoke.
Once I broke the unwritten rule and asked why he was always writing on index cards. “I’m seeing what what we’ve done,” he said. “Keeping the film in my head.” All of it? I asked. He said, “You have to keep as much of it in your head as possible.”
He patiently told me how to prepare: Read the script a few times out loud, he said. Don’t bother to memorize it.
“And bring your hat,” he said, nodding at my fedora.
In Contempt, Godard made Michel Piccoli wear a narrow-brimmed black fedora like his own, even in the scenes where Piccoli has nothing else on but his underwear. The scenario specifies, “He always has to wear a hat, like Dean Martin in Some Came Running.” Godard’s Americans wear hats, and I was his American.
One night later that month, I took my place with a half-dozen other actors in a mall off the Boulevard Montparnasse. The scene took place in a bookshop, where I was supposed to be giving a lecture on my experiences in Kosovo (which I have never visited, let alone covered). There was one 35 mm camera, and a single microphone for the sound. The only lights were the rack and desk lamps that belonged to the shop. It was student filmmaking equipment, which may be what Godard can currently afford. No wonder he was casting people like me. None of the other actors had a name you’d know, either.
He pulled me into a corner and handed me a new copy of my script, in which the two typewritten pages had been divided into eight sections. He didn’t explain the change. Instead he asked me to read the entire speech, tuning me like a guitar with rusty pegs.
“What you hear in Kosovo, once you start asking questions and listening to the answers, is a definition of disaster –”
“Slower,” he said. “Like an orator, but in a familiar tone.”
“It’s a 12-year-old boy, a little chubby –”
“Wait,” he said. “Let’s make him a girl.”
Previously I had suggested a couple of changes to the text. He had refused them: "These are archives," he said. "We don't change history." We don't, but he could.
We rehearsed it four times, then started shooting. When we got it right, we did an insurance take. He shot every scene I saw the same way. Between takes, there was absolute silence on the set, except for Godard’s instructions. The silence generates tremendous tension, which has the curious effect of calming you down as soon as the action starts.
An actress was called in and seated at a table in front of me. Her role was to doze through one piece of my speech, and awaken when I pronounced a particular word. My speech was the excuse for more important happenings in the room – like people catching up on their sleep.
A technician attached a thin sheet of black metal to a desk lamp, manipulating it at Godard’s direction, illuminating the planes of the actress’s face. Her skin took on the soft-edged luminosity you see in silent films. “It’s different when she opens her eyes,” said Godard, as if he’d made a discovery.
Probably he had. In 1975, at the age of 45, he told an interviewer, “I always made movies without lighting, because I don’t know how to do it.” Then he’d said, “I want to learn, because I’m too old.” Godard was famous before he could master the medium he claimed to be reinventing. Yet he made himself keep on learning.
My favorite vignette began when a girl in the crowd glances at the man beside her, glances at him again, then starts flirting: “Where are you from?”
He names a Paris suburb: “Aubervilliers.”
Her: “No, I mean, what nationality?”
Him: “I’m a Kurd. But I lost my nationality.”
Her (seductively): “I’m from Madrid.”
That little number hadn’t been written when the actors showed up on the set. Godard noticed the man’s dark complexion, and said, “Where are you from?” The actor spoke the lines that we shot. Godard simply added the tag – a girl who tells a man from nowhere, “I’m from Madrid.”
Then Godard decided to try it with the couple straining to be heard over me, and me over them – a tricky counterpoint. I stumbled through two takes, and saw a side of Godard that I’d dreaded. A cameraman had told me that one of his colleagues was fired on the set by Godard for some infinitesimal cause. His rage is as spontaneous as his writing, and I brought it out. As every take began he held his breath, clenched his hands and showed his teeth.
Then he rushed around me and put his hands on my shoulders. “When I tap, speak your lines,” he said.
It worked. He hurried back to the camera. I waited until the other actors left the room, then went over and said to his back, “Thanks, Master. I needed you.” He looked up, astonished, but did not reply.
The next time we all showed up, the couple redid the scene with a new handwritten dialogue, out of my sight.
Her: You know, he’s got a terrible American accent.
Him: You wanted America, you got it.
Her: Who, me? I didn’t ask for anything.
Him: What about your parents in 1944, and your grandparents in 1918?
Her: What are you talking about?
Him: Nothing. It’s just History.
On a rainy night we were shooting on the Square Edgar Quinet, behind Montparnasse. Godard walked up with a Russian girl in tow and told me: “You’re reading a newspaper.” He handed it to me.
He said to the girl, “You think he’s the man who borrowed $100 from you in Moscow, and never paid you back. So you knock aside his newspaper –”
Whap! went the journal in my hands. I flinched, like the guilty deadbeat I am.
“– and you say, in Russian, ‘Where are my dollars?’ Then you grab his arms and say it again.”
Back to me: “And you say, ‘What dollars?’ In English.”
Which the girl can’t understand, so she keeps beating on me.
With every scene, I looked sillier. Next he had me mouthing off about what’s wrong with the French, saying, “don’t even talk to me about liberty, equality and brotherhood.” This is what the French call “the-American-who-gives-lessons,” a creature to be politely ignored. I was playing a clown who doesn’t know he’s a clown.
What could I do? Walk off, whining? Refuse to play it his way, and get sent home? Out of the question – where I come from, quitters are despised, and Spielberg isn’t calling me every day to see if the next remake of Jurassic Park fits my busy schedule.
Instead I did my best to be ridiculous. And that’s when this odd job became interesting – because Godard saw what I was doing, and for the first and last time, he let me do it. He stayed in control, and I got the privilege of playing the fool without feeling like one.
Seventeen months went by, and an envelope came in the mail announcing a pre-release screening of Elogy to Love. I was at work, and missed it. It opened at the Cannes Film Festival in May, and won no prizes and distinctly mixed reviews. I went to see it in Paris later that month. There were ten people in a big theatre, trying to follow the dislocated final version of the story Godard had sent me two years ago. There were some other, dreadful Americans in the film, and some of them were true to life.
A scene from "Eloge de l'amour"
And me? I appeared as a shadowy profile, as the clown I’d tried to be, and as a speaker who makes pretty girls cry – another scene I hadn’t noticed Godard filming. All in all, I’m presented as a pretty decent American. As a friend who saw the movie told me, “Godard was kind to you.”
He kept his promise to me, yes. But he had to break it first.