What happens to a Marxist dream deferred? That question is at the heart of 1972's Tout Va Bien, a film profoundly haunted by Jean-Luc Godard's New Wave past and the poignantly unfulfilled promise of the society-shaking upheavals of May 1968. Coming after a string of strident political and formalist experiments that alienated all but the heartiest of the filmmaker's ever-dwindling fan base, Tout Va Bien found Godard once again working with a decent budget and name actors (lefties Jane Fonda and Yves Montand). Godard's strange fusion of his pre- and post-radicalized styles turned off critics and audiences alike, but Criterion's lovingly assembled new DVD suggests that it warrants reappraisal. Though certainly dull and didactic at times, Tout Va Bien is remarkable foremost for its sustained twilight mood of exquisite resignation, of exhausted sadness and bone-deep world-weariness.
A haunting meditation on the '60s legacy, and a film that's aged in fascinating and instructive ways, Tout Va Bien casts a drained Montand as a has-been New Wave filmmaker, and Fonda as his reporter wife; they're both well-intentioned leftists who visit a sausage factory during a wildcat strike and get swept up in the conflict. Godard and co-director/co-writer Jean-Pierre Gorin use the relationship between the strikers and the bourgeois couple to examine the complicated interplay of art and politics, intellectual thought, and radical class action. Watching Tout Va Bien 33 years later is like viewing it from a bleak dystopian future, an epoch in which the international left has strayed irrevocably, not just from the youthful utopian idealism of '68, but also from the resigned-but-not-hopeless confusion of '72.
Gorin and Godard explore similar themes with vastly more frustrating results in the film's 52-minute companion piece Letter To Jane, which is also included on the Tout Va Bien DVD. Letter To Jane uses a still photo of Jane Fonda taken during her infamous trip to North Vietnam as the springboard for both an extended two-handed lecture on the politics of representation, and a vicious personal attack on Fonda's peculiar brand of celebrity militancy. Working their way back through time, the filmmakers trace the stern look of concern and compassion Fonda exhibits in the photo not only to previous Fonda performances, but also to similar gazes employed by her father in The Grapes Of Wrath and Young Mr. Lincoln. While crucifying Fonda for impotent activism and fake compassion, Gorin and Godard lionize an out-of-focus Vietnamese man in the photo for his ostensible purity of vision and intent. After they commented so incisively and ambiguously on both the photo and Fonda's celebrity radicalism in Tout Va Bien, their attack on her for not adopting the proper revolutionary position seems like a gratuitous afterthought.