Sunday, October 3, 2010

Godard as Godard: Analyzing Surrogates in Breathless and Contempt

Within the discourse of cinephilia, authorship and domestic relations, there exists another element of Godard’s work that has been highly prophetic.  Embedded within the exploration of the Author with a capital “A”, the presence of self-identification is readily apparent.  Whereas most theorists cite Godard’s relationship with Anna Karina as a defining foundation of his films, I find that his depictions of self are more robust and influential.  In short, Godard repeatedly represents himself as a surrogate assumed by his male protagonists.  Various tiers of literary criticism, including Lacanian mirror stage theory, the doppelganger and the myth of Narcissus, support this assumption.  In contrast to Roland Barthes, Godard is not only the originator of the work, he is noticeably intertwined within the oeuvre.  This reflective quality is noticeable via detailed analysis of the protagonists in Breathless and Contempt.

Most analytical writings make clear mention of the cinematic references within Breathless.  The film represents a clear homage to the American and Italian cinema of the late 40’s and 50’s.  Nonetheless, little is mentioned about the obvious similarities between Michel, the Jean-Paul Belmondo character and the “Young Turk” that was Godard.  A drifter, at times petty criminal, interested in exploring the fringes of Parisian living - this description is equally applicable to Michel and/or Godard as filmmaker.  It is not difficult to imagine Godard undergoing the same pressures and obstacles that are encountered by Michel.  Even more to the point, it is likely that Godard would view his protagonist as an extension of his own personality and exploits.  Dudley Andrew highlights the tempestuous demeanor of Breathless era Godard when he writes “One finds in his writings and memoirs of this period a winning mixture of the brash, pugnacious smart ass (proud of petty thefts from stores, from friends) and of the young romantic, dreaming of the purity of artistic expression.” (4, 5).  Hence, Godard and Michel as drifters and dreamers.

Several ironies are also noticeable within this assumption.  Most noticeably, Godard plays the “newspaper witness” in Breathless.  Upon viewing Michel’s image on the front page of the paper, he proceeds to the nearest police officer to report his sighting.  In recognizing Belmondo’s face, it quotes a similar scene in which Michel observes the image of Humphrey Bogart. Just as Michel appears to visualize his own persona within that of Bogie, it is equally plausible that Godard recognizes the image of Michel as an extension of his own identity.  The fact that he reports the sighting opens further interpretations in regards to the status of both Godard and Michel – two figures who were previously unrecognizable, yet who were developing notice within the public view.

In Contempt, this personal connection becomes even more obvious.  Paul, a screenwriter, mimics Godardian aura more closely than any previous work.  Once again, the “contempt” between Piccoli and Bardot supposedly refer to tension between Godard and Karina.  However, the personal aspects of Paul are more closely tied to Godard as filmmaker.  Noticeably, throughout the course of the film, Paul appears torn between two spheres of influence.  First, the pompous film producer, Prokosch, who writes the checks and has little interest in cinema as art.  Secondly, by Fritz Lang, the creative visionary who defines cinema vis a vis his mere presence.  Once again, it is not difficult to consider how Godard the filmmaker was split between these two forces – an industry force that generates income and, in doing so, commands decision making power and an identifiable, God-like character straight from the chapters of cinema history.

The irony in Contempt rests in Paul’s rewriting of the Odyssey.  Throughout his career, Godard was renowned for quoting classical works of literature.  In this case, it is the Godardian surrogate who must assume the task of rewriting Homer’s classic tale.  This bold responsibility is parallel to Godard consciously winking at himself.  He quotes classic material. However, his cinematic surrogate is afforded the opportunity to author the classics.  This rewriting manifests itself in the last shot of the film when the camera pans to the image of the empty horizon.  The narrator discusses the plausibility of returning home versus the potential to remain at sea and, by extension, continue the adventure.  The conflict that Paul faces reflects the same journey that consumed Godard – to be hopelessly trapped between the industry of movies and the art of cinema.  Ultimately, Paul and Godard are depicted with the same appeal as a character from Greek mythology.  Honorable, voyagers of a ten year journey…cineastes without a definitive home.


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