Ihad intended to write about Godard before reading Robin Wood’s article; the first thing which struck me as I read it was that, though I agree that the issue which he raises is one of the key ones, the words which he uses and stresses are quite different from those I would choose. This springs of course from an underlying difference in critical method:
The cultural references in Godard’s films are, as Robin Wood writes, ‘not decorative but integral’. For Godard culture is hardly able to sustain itself; it is not intelligence, but violence, which makes the world go round. ‘Il faut avoir la force quelquefois de frayer son chemin avec un poignard’. It is the world of Les Carabiniers, of Ubu Roi, which Godard has said he would like to film. It is a world in which the newspapers, as in Bande `Part, are full of almost surrealistic excesses of violence; it is a world of Algeria, of San Domingo, of Vietnam, to which Godard makes constant references and which give the larger context of his films. And this all-pervasive violence is also vandalism. It is the execution of the girl who recites Mayakovsky, in Les Carabiniers, it is the destruction of books, in Alphaville, it is the suicide of Drieu La Rochelle or Nicolas de Stael.
But we need not condone this world of violence and vandalism into which we are thrown. Where is the vein of optimism which prevents us from committing suicide? The answers which Godard explores are the romantic answers of beauty, action, contemplation. The antinomy between action and contemplation or reflection is recurrent in Godard’s films. Action is the correlate of adventure; it is to leave behind the everyday norms of life, to leave for Rome, for Brazil (both Le Petit Soldat and Bande `Part), for the Outerlands: topographic symbols for a world in which all conduct is improvised, experimental—yet at the same time symbols also of withdrawal, of distancing and hence of contemplation, of repose (the Jules Verne paradise of Pierrot le Fou). In Le Petit Soldat reflection follows action (‘Pour moi, le temps de l’action a passé! J’ai vieilli. Celui de la reflexion commence.’). In the story of Porthos told by Brice Parain in Vivre Sa Vie reflection prevents action, it is a form of suicide; in Pierrot le Fou action, incarnated by Marianne and contemplation, by Ferdinand, prove mutually destructive.
The problem is also that of time: above all, of the ambiguous nature of the present. For Godard, the present is both the moment in which one feels oneself alive, the existential moment of responsibility for lighting a cigarette, and also the monstrous unstructured, dehistoricized desert of Alphaville or La Femme Mariée. Increasingly, in Godard’s films, the present has become the realm of woman: he remains uncertain whether it is a realm of innocent hedonism or of mindless viciousness. Alreadyin Veronica, in Le Petit Soldat, we see this dilemma: the beautiful cover, girl who likes Paul Klee and Gauguin and who is at the same time a terrorist who dies under torture. In Pierrot Le Fou it is even more evident. (While on this point, it may be worth commenting on the resemblance between Alpha 60’s interrogation of Lemmy Caution and Nana’s of Brice Parain.)
Another recurrent feature of Godard’s attitude to women is that they
Hence too the instability of his portrayal of women: certain constant features remain, but with different degrees of emphasis and in a number of different combinations. Thus, for instance, there is a crisscrossing of roles between A Bout de Souffle and Pierrot le Fou: the car-stealer, murderer, gangster is no longer Michel but Marianne; the companion is not Patricia but Pierrot. (The character of Patricia is further complicated by a reversal of roles between Europe and America—a kind of anti-Henry James—in which Michel is the B-feature Bogart hero, Patricia the intellectual reading Wild Palms). Again some of Patricia’s innocence survives in Veronica and is then further refined into the girl who recites Mayakovsky in Les Carabiniers. And she, in turn, is the polar opposite of the protagonist of La Femme Mariée, who herself inherits something of Patricia’s shiftlessness and casualness and capacity for betrayal.
Next there is Godard’s attitude to freedom. For him, freedom is always personal freedom: he recognizes no social ties. His heroes, like those of Samuel Fuller, operate in a perpetual no-man’s-land, a labyrinth in the interstices of society. Freedom is, in very simple terms, doing what you want to when you want to. The sharpest test of freedom, for Godard, is torture. Bruno, in Le Petit Soldat, does not want to give information: even if he did, he would not want the occasion forced on him. To do what one wants—to be silent—when under torture is the extreme of personal freedom. Yet at the same time freedom is interwoven with destiny: men choose their own fate, but it remains a fatality also in its impact on us. Thus Michel Poiccard chooses, by not escaping, to be shot by the police—but when he is shot, it takes on the form of destiny. And when Ferdinand dies at the end of Pierrot le Fou he has both chosen to commit suicide and, at the same time, the image of the spark travelling along the fuse makes it a fatality.