In the film canon, few figures enjoy a more divided reputation than the innovative Franco-Swiss director Jean-Luc Godard, an artist of discontinuities, contradictions, and quotations who has spent his nearly 60-year career in a one-sided dialogue with the rest of cinema. His accessible early films—a run that spans from his game-changing 1960 debut feature, Breathless, to 1966’s Masculin Féminin or 1967’s Weekend, depending on who you ask—represent the French New Wave at the height of its convention-flouting experimentation, and remain icons of style and cool, filled with existentialist hoods, tragic doe-eyed women, and cockeyed movie-making artifice. His late period—basically anything from the 1980s on—has tackled questions of communication and myth through increasingly esoteric means and basic terms (wars, animals, children, pairs of lovers, flashes of text), and can be as challenging as Finnegans Wake.
Popular critical wisdom dictates that the breaking point came in the mid-to-late ’60s, during Godard’s political agitprop period, when the once-ambiguously-right-wing filmmaker embraced Maoism with a convert’s zeal. But the truth is more complicated. For all of its paradoxical expressions, his vast body of work has remained consistent in its shortcomings (he’s always been better at filming actors than directing them), artistic-intellectual development, and relationship to film as a medium—an easy line to follow, given his extreme early productivity (he made 18 features in the ’60s, plus countless shorts and anthology film episodes) and taste for autobiographical name games. Godard may be one of the most enigmatic and gnomic artists to ever get behind a camera, but he’s also the director who taught the world that you could make movies entirely out of personal taste, ironically spawning generations of imitators.
One would need unreasonably high standards to expect anything more than a superficial engagement with the art in question from Godard Mon Amour, an ostensibly cheeky biopic about about the filmmaker’s turn to Maoism and his 12-year marriage to the late actress turned writer Anne Wiazemsky that comes courtesy of Michel Hazanavicius, the Oscar-winning director of The Artist. The real problem is that the movie is never laugh-out-loud funny (its best gag involves the filmmaker repeatedly breaking his famous glasses) and is too simplistic to work as drama or elaborate homage. That the film—originally and more evocatively titled Redoubtable, after a French nuclear submarine—characterizes its subject as a petulant dick should come as no surprise to Godard fans. As with the parallel figure of Bob Dylan, his prickliness has always been a part of his artistic mystique. His tendency to break off relationships and friendships (most recently “featured” in Agnès Varda’s Faces Places) is the stuff of movie legend. If anything, Godard Mon Amour could be accused of going too soft.
In a bit of stunt casting, Godard is played by Louis Garrel, an actor who is a head taller and a few shades more model-handsome than the real man, in eyewear and a fake receding hairline that makes him look like the world’s largest Woody Allen. The story begins with the release of La Chinoise, his impasto 1967 film about a Maoist student cell, and his marriage to its young lead actress, Wiazemsky (Nymphomaniac’s Stacy Martin). The marriage is his second, having previously been married to Anna Karina, the Danish-born star of many of his best-known early films. He is a celebrated director in the middle of what we are led to believe is a career slump, chasing the cool of the young radicals who dismiss him as old hat. Everywhere he goes, he is accosted (with even more shades of Allen) by fans who want him to go back to making funny movies, “with charm and lightness.”
It’s an opinion that seems to be shared by Hazanavicius, who wraps his kitschy-cute period aesthetic—the sort of swinging ’60s that never appeared in Godard’s own films—in a cover-band medley: thick stripes of blue and red paint; a black-and-white sex-scene montage that mixes up Une Femme Mariée with the Ingmar Bergman-parodying film-within-the-film from Masculin Féminin; actors winking to the camera about the bogusness of movies; lots of inter-titles; and so on and so forth. The cosmetic French New Wave references aren’t exclusive to Godard’s work; Michel Subor, the narrator of François Truffaut’s Jules And Jim, even contributes some voice-over. (Subor also starred in Godard’s underappreciated sophomore feature, Le Petit Soldat and later puzzlingly reprised the role in Claire Denis’ Beau Travail, though that doesn’t seem to be the reference Hazanavicius is going for.)
It’s possible to complain about the quality of the homage (the typefaces are all wrong) and still conclude that there might not be enough of it. Apart from his eventual agitprop partner Jean-Pierre Gorin (Félix Kysyl), Godard’s French contemporaries and collaborators are conspicuously absent as characters, though a trip to Italy does afford Garrel a slightly in-jokey scene with Bernardo Bertolucci (Guido Caprino), who decades later would give the actor his breakthrough role in The Dreamers. This is, in other words, purely the Jean-Luc show, though the film—set from 1967 to 1969, with an early-’70s epilogue—barely shows any interest in his work that goes deeper than movie-movie stylings. Like The Artist or Hazanavicius’ earlier OSS 117 spy spoofs, it’s a featherweight pastiche with a narcissist at its center. The difference is that this narcissist is a grump instead of a matinee-idol type—and also a genius, a fact that the film is just worshipful enough to acknowledge and too shallow to dissect.
Wiazemsky is the viewer surrogate, an increasingly alienated ordinary young woman in over her head. Never mind that the real actress was the granddaughter of a Nobel Prize winner, born to an exiled Russian prince from a cadet branch of the ancient, pre-Romanov Rurik royal family—or that she’d already achieved a certain iconic status as the teenage star of Robert Bresson’s masterpiece Au Hasard Balthazar. Though adapted from her memoirs, Godard Mon Amour dubiously minimizes her character. The most it offers is a depiction of a deteriorating marriage between a beautiful woman and an asshole who’s in the middle of a crisis of artistic conscience. And Godard already made one of those. It’s called Contempt.