Jean-Luc Godard is one of the most significant filmmakers of all time, but it has become a cliche to dismiss much of his work as cerebral and impenetrable, saturated with obscure philosophical musings and uncompromising political harangues. Like the filmmaker in Woody Allen's Stardust Memories, whose fans — and even a visiting alien — are constantly telling him they prefer "the early, funny ones," one often hears that after the early successes of the New Wave — his "early, funny ones" — Godard lost his way.
That position is one of the loose ideas floating around in Michel Hazanavicius' fuzzy satire Le Redoutable, which is showing up on American screens as Godard Mon Amour. (The original title is a struggling metaphor involving a French nuclear submarine.) The new film covers Godard over a period of two or three years, from the filming of La Chinoise in 1967 to Wind from the East in 1970.
Already made an international celebrity by a string of acclaimed films such as Breathless, Vivre sa vie and Contempt, Godard was swept up in the intellectual and political climate of the day, which would lead to the national protests that immobilized France in May 1968. Perhaps more importantly, the director had fallen in love with Anne Wiazemsky, a nineteen-year-old philosophy student who had earlier starred in Robert Bresson's Au Hasard Balthazar. As with his previous marriage to Anna Karina, Godard saw no barriers between his personal, professional and political lives and began putting his new muse in his work, even as she reportedly wished for a more conventional acting career.
That summary may sound fairly loaded, but there's actually a lot less going on in Hazanavicius' film than you would expect. Loosely based on an autobiographical novel by Wiazemsky (the actress, who died last year, was also the author of twenty books), Godard Mon Amour is essentially a one-joke movie in which the filmmaker is presented as an arrogant and pretentious egotist, ambivalent about his success and oblivious to the poor reception of his new, politically loaded work. (OK, there's a second joke, if you insist: Godard keeps breaking his glasses.) The romantic relationship is doomed from the start; he's overbearing and jealous, she's young and naive. (The couple separated just three years after marrying, although they didn't divorce until 1979.)
Much of this seems forced, a thin romantic comedy padded out with historical names and predictable mimicry of a few Godardian elements, like chapter headings and jump cuts. Hazanavicius imitates the censor-defying nudity of the 1964 film A Married Woman, but opts to show all of the flesh that Godard discreetly avoided. Stacy Martin, who plays Wiazemsky, is undressed frequently in the film; one gets the sense that Hazanavicius is somehow trying to pin his own voyeurism on Godard.
As a biography of Godard (or Wiazemsky), the film is unreliable at best, but at worst, and more frequently, it's just plain inaccurate. As a satire of French culture circa 1968, it's superficial, showing as little interest in Godard's late '60s work as in the political events of the time. Hazanavicius, who was only a year old when students and workers took to the streets in 1968, stages the demonstrations unconvincingly as sight gags. And while both Martin and Louis Garrel, as Godard, are amiable performers, they're never given a chance to reveal their characters or do much more than stumble (him) or smile seductively (her).
What is Hazanavicius really saying here? After the international success of The Artist, the director made his own attempt at serious, politically relevant filmmaking with The Search, only to be met with derision. It's tempting to read Godard Mon Amour as sour grapes, a form of gloating over Godard's misinterpreted politics as well as his failed marriage. This isn't a return to the comic form of his earlier films; it's an explosion of resentment. Hazanavicius doesn't just disagree with Godard's ideas; he resents him for having any ideas at all.