The Godard Interview: I, A Man Of The Image

Film still for The Godard Interview: I, A Man Of The Image

The upbeat mood of Godard's Notre musique, in which war is hell, Sarajevo a purgatory and heaven a lakeside idyll, was not built to last. "It's exhausted," the director tells Michael Witt.

Jean-Luc Godard's luminous, polyphonic film Notre musique (2004) combines lightness of touch, depth of thinking and pleasure in formal experimentation to evoke and confront such pressing contemporary issues as post-war reconciliation in the Balkans and the quest for mutual understanding between Palestinians and Israelis. More essay-like in style than his previous two features For Ever Mozart (1996) and Éloge de l'amour (2001) and more immediately accessible, the film is organised as a Dantesque triptych of three kingdoms: 'Hell' (a found-footage collage depicting war and decimation); 'Purgatory' (contemporary Sarajevo); and 'Paradise' (an idyllic lakeside wood guarded by US marines). The heart of the film is devoted to 'Purgatory', which centres on a lightly fictionalised restaging of the European Literary Encounters, an event organised annually since 2000 by the André Malraux Cultural Centre in Sarajevo, in which Godard took part in 2002.

Godard today is as much a multimedia artist as a conventional feature film-maker, and Notre musique displays strong thematic and stylistic affinities with his voluminous output of the past decade, much of it made in collaboration with his longstanding companion, the film-maker, photographer and writer Anne-Marie Miéville. In addition to his features, this work includes Histoire(s) de cinéma (1988-98, now released in video, book and CD form along with a 90-minute 'best-of' compilation designed for theatrical release, Le Moment choisi des Histoire(s) de cinéma); six further video essays (three co-directed with Miéville); six books of "phrases" derived from his audiovisual work (one co-authored with Miéville); and a hitherto unreleased short film destined for a collective cinematic portrait of Paris. Moreover he has found time to act in Miéville's Nous sommes tous encore ici (1997) and Après la réconciliation (2000) and, most recently, to prepare for his much anticipated gallery installation project Collages de France, due to run at the Centre Pompidou for nine months from April 2006.

"Once upon a time..." announces the opening shot of 'Purgatory' - by way of a poster on a passing tram bearing the words "One Day". Then we observe the inhabitants of Sarajevo going about their daily lives and meet a variety of visitors from elsewhere: Spanish writer Juan Goytisolo, Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwich, French author and sculptor Pierre Bergounioux, French architect Gilles Péqueux (responsible at the time of filming for the rebuilding of the famous 16th-century Mostar bridge), Godard himself (who delivers a lecture on the topic of text and image), and a handful of fictional characters such as a young Israeli journalist, Judith Lerner (played superbly by Israeli actress Sarah Adler), and a Jewish French student of Russian descent, Olga Brodsky (played by French actress Nade Dieu). Much of the power of this section - at times strongly reminiscent of Rossellini's Germany Year Zero (1948) - derives from its documentary portrait of a city scarred by recent war.

The film explores the reconstruction of Sarajevo and Mostar in the wake of the Bosnian war as a metaphor for potential reconciliation between warring factions around the globe. Imagining a future less catastrophic than the recent past, the film strikes an optimistic note. Godard is interested in the possibility of people approaching one another in a spirit of sincerity and openness, in anticipation of a dialogue that might allow a tentative step forwards into a less dreadful future. During his lecture in the film he displays an image of Richmond, Virginia, a town razed to the ground in 1865 during the American Civil War. This image is a simple way of suggesting that, just as the United States were once less united than they are now, so there is hope for other places torn apart by hatred.

Standing in the burnt-out shell of Sarajevo's famous public library (destroyed by Serb artillery fire in 1992), Goytisolo - whose remarkable 1993 eye-witness account of the siege of Sarajevo Cahier de Sarajevo includes a furious indictment of the European Union's failure to act decisively to stop the slaughter - calls not for revenge but for a great wave of creativity to counter the barbarism: "Just as our age has endless destructive force, so it now needs a revolution of a comparable creative force to reinforce memory, clarify dreams and give substance to images."

The fictional Judith is drawn to Sarajevo by the possibility of finding a fresh way of thinking about the relationship between Palestinians and Israelis. Driven by hope, she dreams of setting aside entrenched differences and opening a simple conversation about a shared love of the same piece of land. "Can one start from there?" she asks. "From the land. From the promise. And then from forgiveness?" Notre musique provides no easy answers but raises endless questions. Like much of Godard and Godard-Miéville's work of the past 30 years it functions simultaneously as a bulwark against the tyranny of received ideas and as a laboratory for the generation of fresh perspectives.

The film was finished a year ago. When I visited Godard recently in his Rolle studio he was less concerned by its weak box-office performance in France than by what he perceives as the poor quality of the critical response. On the whole he feels people didn't know what to say, partly, he suggests, because the film addresses the issue of Palestine and Israel in an unconventional way.

Michael Witt: One of the most striking aspects of the film is its exploration of the streets of Sarajevo, which recalls the documentary curiosity of the New Wave in Paris.

Jean-Luc Godard: That's something I've retained, as has my friend Anne-Marie Miéville, who knows so well how to shoot cars as things that really exist. At the time of the New Wave we wanted to have our characters walk through locations we knew and respected, whereas today's directors use any old street: if you see Bruce Willis in a street, it's not because the director or the character played by Willis loves that street. In times gone by they would have used the studio. But we wanted the camera to welcome the places we loved.

The film uses documentary imagery to evoke a strong sense of the unknown.

The script is based on my experience of having participated in the European Literary Encounters the previous year. One could have documented it at the time using video cameras to film the various participants and me giving a lecture to students, which I re-enact in the film. But I sensed that it wouldn't have been at all the same, that the film required the weight of a film crew and the fictional apparatus of cinema. The people who shot the film felt there was something about Sarajevo that touched them. It wasn't just a film we made about a war zone - like Michael Winterbottom's Welcome to Sarajevo, for instance, where it seemed he saw nothing in Sarajevo, or that everything he saw he knew already. And then he created a theatrical mise en scène.

You've suggested that all too often film-makers merely film what they've decided in advance rather than exploiting the power of the camera as a quasi-scientific tool - along the lines of a microscope, telescope or stethoscope - to probe the world around them.

One needs a camera to see certain things. The majority of films today are filmed without using the camera as an investigative tool - instead of drawing on this analytical power during filming, people substitute a great mass of explanation: 'I meant to do this. I meant to do that.' Whereas a scientist or chemist who uses a microscope needs that microscope. And when Hawks filmed Rosalind Russell and Cary Grant, he needed a camera to do it. He wasn't writing a book.

Do you still feel this great need to use the camera to record and study the world?

Yes, like using a stethoscope to examine reality. The camera makes possible certain things. Literature and painting are different, and allow other things.

'Notre musique' indicates a receptivity to the world that I associate with the New Wave and with your exploration of U-matic video in the 1970s. Does it signal the beginning of another phase of renewal?

There was a desire to start again after the end of a certain idea of Europe, which corresponded to my life, or to my intellectual trajectory. Is there a possible start point that might allow us to begin again? As far as cinema goes, it hasn't been found and one wonders whether it's possible since we don't appear to be capable of speaking or filming differently. It's more like an end for the moment.

I'm surprised that you say that. For me the film is remarkably light in tone and forward-looking.

It's true that it's rather cheerful compared to others; those who have called it pessimistic are wrong. On the contrary, it's rather childlike and optimistic - but we've lived for a year on that optimism and now it's exhausted.

The 'Hell' montage reworks many film clips sampled elsewhere in your work, including one from Armenian film-maker Arthur Pelechian's montage film 'Beginning' (1967). Is Pelechian a useful point of reference in your own exploration of symphonic film form?

Yes, at least in 'Hell', which was constructed on the basis of the music I used. I did this part last, knowing that I needed ten or 12 minutes of it. I started by editing the three or four pieces of music, then I looked for the images that corresponded to the ideas I wanted to express. First, that there have always been battles everywhere, with people killing each other - which is accompanied by the quote from Montesquieu about armed men emerging from the earth after the floods and exterminating one another. Second, come images of the machinery of war. Third, those of the victims. And fourth, images of Sarajevo during the war.

Several years ago I saw a synopsis of a film of yours entitled 'Notre musique' which revolved around the idea of visiting some of the musicians associated with Manfred Eicher's ECM Records. The finished film bears virtually no trace of this project.

The idea of music remained. Then it disappeared until we went to Sarajevo and it was as if the tramways were making us hear a certain kind of music, so I called it Notre musique: theirs, ours, everybody's. It's what makes us live, or makes us hope. One could say 'our philosophy' or 'our life', but 'our music' is nicer and has a different effect. And then there's also the question of what aspect of our music was destroyed at Sarajevo? And what remains of our music that was there?

Your two-minute homage 'Je vous salue, Sarajevo' (1994) is shot through, like Goytisolo's 'Cahier de Sarajevo', by fury at the cynicism, sloth and indifference of the EU towards the inhabitants of the besieged city. Was Goytisolo's 'Cahier' an important reference?

I didn't know Goytisolo's work well at all, but that little Cahier was the best thing I found at the time written by a European about Sarajevo.

Sarajevo has recurred constantly in your work since the start of the war.

It's a little like with Vietnam before 1968, when making regular allusions was my way of protesting.

The Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwich also occupies a key position in the film. In 'Purgatory', in his staged interview with Judith, he repeats his own lines from a real interview with an Israeli journalist: "Do you know why we Palestinians are famous? Because you are our enemy. The interest is in you, not in me... You've brought us both defeat and renown."

Darwich is important because, as he says, Israel is important. But he's on screen no longer than anybody else.

In the lecture you deliver you revisit an idea already explored with Anne-Marie Miéville in 'Ici et ailleurs' (1975): that prisoners on the verge of death in certain concentration camps during World War II were described as 'Muslims'.

I first came across this in an account by the ethnologist and resistance fighter Germaine Tillion of her incarceration in Ravensbrück. It had always amazed me that nobody had noticed that those who were at the final stage of physical existence and were beginning to let themselves go a little, who were waiting to die and were no longer even a part of the family of deportees who did what they could, were called 'Muslims'. At the time I assumed it was the Germans who must have called them that, which is strange: why didn't they call them 'dog' or 'filth' or all the words they used for the Jews or Gypsies or others? But I think now that it's the Jews who called them that: that for them the Muslim was a hereditary enemy and it was he who would not try to survive, which is against Judaism, which must survive irrespective of the difficulties.

Your lecture uses a brief discussion of Hawks as a means of criticising the crudeness of the standard 'shot/reverse-shot' familiar from classical narrative cinema, while simultaneously proposing it as a model for the composition of a genuine poetic image.

A good example of a real shot/reverse-shot is one I took from a book by German physicist Werner Heisenberg who, on visiting his friend Niels Bohr before the war, arrived at Elsinore Castle. Here the shot is the castle, the reverse-shot the description "Hamlet's castle". In this case the image is created by the text. It's what poetry does - like two stars whose rapprochement produces a constellation.

And which provokes a question.

Provokes a question or introduces another response in the form of a question, so that we don't just say the same things over and over again.

When you are asked during the lecture whether lightweight digital cameras are going to save cinema you don't respond.

I wanted to keep the scene short. But in any case I know nothing about it. What's bad is that students think that because they've got a little camera, they can film something. The manufacturers, even the critics, say: 'It's great! Everyone can make cinema!' No, not everyone can make cinema. Everyone can think they're making cinema, or say, 'I make cinema.' But if you give someone a pencil it doesn't mean they're going to draw like Raphael or Rembrandt. If I'd said all that, however, it would have been too long for the scene.

But why include the question if you don't pursue it?

Because they are film students and it's me speaking. Besides, three quarters of the questions would have been stupid. Those are the kinds of questions they're educated to ask.

I remember when I was lecturing in the US I'd spot a girl who looked pretty and address myself to her, as I find talking directly to one person rather than to a group helps me speak. Then she'd formulate a long sentence: 'Mr Godard, do you blah blah blah' followed by 'can you elaborate?' And I'd just been elaborating for an hour. So anyway, I'd start to elaborate further only to look up to see she's picked up her file and is leaving. I don't know what your students are like, but I have my suspicions.

The film pursues your critique of the domination of the image by the text, yet suggests a more conciliatory attitude.

I, a man of the image, was pleading on behalf of the other, like the Bosnian who pleads on behalf of the Serb. I was pleading in the name of the text.

You've described the film elsewhere as a book.

It's not a book, it's a film. But that was a way of saying to the book people: "See it as a book. But see it, don't read it." Certain ministers of culture in France are saying young people should be taught how to read images and films. No. They need to learn how to see them. Learning to read is different.

In amateur video footage from 1993 we witness the collapse of the Mostar bridge after its shelling by Croat artillery, followed by a depiction of the early stages of its reconstruction, including the salvaging of the original stones from the Neretva river. The bridge carries a high metaphorical charge: as project architect Gilles Péqueux puts it, it's not simply a quest to reopen the bridge but to both "restore the past and make possible the future. Marry suffering with guilt."

This wasn't done. Gilles Péqueux was fired and replaced by a Croat who made a bridge like any other, constructed out of new stone clad to make it look authentic. It's what they do on DVDs: a restoration. All the stones I filmed, which were retrieved from the river and individually numbered, weren't used - though watching the film the viewer thinks they're going to be. They're now in a spot the inhabitants of Mostar call "the cemetery of stones".

Judith dominates the first half of the 'Purgatory' section but after your lecture there's a shift in tone as the darker Olga character comes increasingly to the fore.

There's a shift towards fiction. Several critics in France confused the two girls, some not even realising there were two.

In the relationship between them there's a sense of doubling or of the same person appearing twice.

Here there's perhaps an idea of reverse-shot - not so much in relation to character, but as if the second girl were a reverse-shot of the first. I didn't think of it like that, but I'm pleased when someone points it out. It's part of the creative unconscious.

In the early stages I envisaged just one girl, a Jewish Israeli journalist who at the end commits suicide. But it was a bit excessive, and there was something provocative about having such a character return to Tel Aviv to blow something up. Then the actress Sarah Adler, an Israeli, wanted to play this girl but didn't want to do the suicide part. She said, "No. I'm not doing that. That's your opinion, it's not mine." So I thought of introducing another girl for the suicide trip, which was better: it introduced a doubling but not a simple doubling.

The theme of suicide recurs regularly in your work. While Olga doesn't actually kill herself, she invites death and at the same time draws attention to her campaign for peace by acting like a suicide bomber when in fact she's carrying only books.

I'd already sketched this problem of suicide via the Kirilov character in La Chinoise. Here I reuse the same text from Dostoevsky for Olga in her conversation in the café towards the end of the 'Purgatory' section. Shewants to commit suicide because she finds it an interesting philosophical problem. I wanted to include this idea, but didn't want to defend terrorism in the name of terrorism, and then have to enter into debates - in a film at least - such as 'but you're killing innocent people...' 'yes, but so are you...' 'I was first...' and so on. I thought to myself, 'She has to do something that I'd be capable of doing myself.' And I think about suicide often, in the abstract, as a philosophical problem.

A phrase from Camus - the opening line of The Myth of Sisyphus - has stayed with me: "There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide." I thought, if I were to commit suicide, I wouldn't want to throw myself out of the window - I'd be afraid of hurting myself; I don't know how to buy a gun; I can't ask my doctor to give me cyanide - he'd refuse; I can't ask someone who loves me to suffocate me while I'm asleep. On the other hand I could, little by little, join some terrorists and commit a terrorist act.

But I'd do it like Olga. I would achieve my suicide because I'd know the soldiers would shoot me three minutes later - despite Sarah Adler's argument that Israeli soldiers would never do that. And it would be done in the name of peace, with my friends the books. I am an image who has his friends, the books, in his pocket. And I said to myself, that I can do. I expected this to be criticised, but nobody has mentioned it. It's unchallengeable.

The 'Paradise' section is beautiful, realistic, funny and a little sad.

Critics have said it's anti-American. But in the 'Marines' Hymn', which we've heard hundreds of times in American films, they say, "If the army and the navy/Ever look on Heaven's scenes/They will find the streets are guarded/By United States marines." People say, "It's just words." It's not.

Last Updated: 10 Feb 2012