During the English lessons in Bande `Part the teacher asks Odile to quote what T. S. Eliot says about tradition: ‘Everything that is really new is by that fact automatically traditional’. Godard’s films may strike one at first as a bewildering complex of inter-related themes: all the central contemporary concerns turn up and are developed in them: the difficulties of communication, the problem of identity, the possibility of personal freedom and what it means, the sense of alienation, and so on. I want to detach from this complex one thread that seems to me essential: follow it, and we may find that it makes sense of all the others, that they come to form a coherent pattern round it: the sense of tradition.
Godard’s films abound in cultural references, and they are remarkably wide-ranging. Even in A Bout de Souffle—and in a sense all his films are embryonically present in A Bout de Souffle—there are visual, aural or verbal references to Bach, Brahms, Chopin and Mozart; Renoir, Picasso and Klee; Shakespeare, Cocteau, William Faulkner, Rilke; the Arc de Triomphe, the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame de Paris; Humphrey Bogart, Robert Aldrich, Budd Boetticher, Cahiers du Cinéma; and doubtless several more I’ve overlooked. Many people are annoyed by this: they regard it as a silly and conceited intellectual game, an ostentatious name-dropping. But it is of fundamental importance to Godard’s work, something not decorative but integral, pointing to a thematic preoccupation that receives its most explicit treatment, perhaps, in Alphaville, but which has so far remained a constant factor throughout Godard’s work and seems likely to continue to do so.
To start with the English lesson in Bande `Part, besides Eliot, great use is made of Shakespeare. The scene as a whole offers a striking example of that tension between naturalism and stylization that is an essential characteristic of most of the leading directors of the Nouvelle Vague. The class-room setting instantly evokes memories of bare and dingy evening course institutes for anyone who has been inside one; and the behaviour of the students, especially of the three leading characters, Franz, Odile and Arthur, is observed in close naturalistic detail. Yet the lesson is in naturalistic terms preposterous. The teacher declaims passages from Romeo and Juliet in French which the students (who appear to be far from advanced) are then asked to render in, apparently, Shakespearean English in a matter of a few seconds. The teacher collects all the papers and announces a ten-minute recess, during which she proposes to correct the lot. I want to consider in some detail what Godard is doing here.
First, there is the fairly obvious irony of the contrast between Romeo and Juliet and what is going on in the class-room. Arthur has decided to seduce Odile, and during the lesson he whole-heartedly sets about doing this, moving surreptitiously about the class-room, giving her meaningful glances, passing suggestive notes. Odile, in her youthful innocence and vulnerability, is rather like Juliet; Arthur is not at all like Romeo. We may recall here the references to Romeo and Juliet in A
During the Shakespeare lesson Arthur passes Odile a note: ‘To be or not to be contre votre poitrine, that is the question.’ Arthur, certainly, is as unlike Hamlet as he is unlike Romeo; yet, like Hamlet, he rejects the standards and values of the society in which he exists. And Hamlet’s contemplation of suicide is not so far removed from Arthur’s tendency (albeit unconscious) to move steadily towards his own destruction (he delights, it will be remembered, in miming the death of Billy the Kid, and dies, horribly and grotesquely, allowing himself to be shot repeatedly in the stomach before he retaliates).