In my recent readings on editing I came across a curious commentary on fiction vs. documentary. One of the editors described a construct of fiction as a traditional-three act one, first, having to build a suspense to later resolve it, whereas a documentary as a structure where the conflict is revealed at the very beginning and the drama lies in the detailed depiction/explanation of the problem. Although simplistic, this type of genre definition suggests an interesting perspective and serves the purpose in that Godard's narrative construct more often reminds me of documentary than fiction. Godard's films come as a socio-political commentary of his times. The questions he chooses to address are introduced right at the start, they become the core principle, the situation, the conditions that persist never being fully resolved: Godard introduces the problem, then contemplates it in detail through the actions of his characters, which in turn give us insight into their inner motivations, their inner struggle (interior through exterior), and that very struggle will continue through the remainder of the film.
In Le Mépris, a couple grows contemptuous towards one another. We, as audience, know the relationship is over: we do not expect them to finally overcome the situation, but maybe to find out how they came to it, what is it that makes it impossible to continue, will they try to change it and why? It turns out Michel Piccoli's character compromises his art and suffers because of it. It is all, he says, in order to satisfy the needs of his partner played by Brigitte Bardot. She, in turn, detests his attitudes towards his craft and towards her, yet finds herself to be completely dependent. Although both characters are aware of their condition, they are incapable to resolve it. It seemed to me as if each were setting up situations to test each others patience as to not be the one to cause the change, to avoid being held responsible. That inability to take responsibility for one's live is where the drama and the tragedy of their characters lie. And although Bardot's character finally makes a move for change and leaves with the producer, she is not entirely liberated, she falls into somebody else's hands, and finally dies in an accident. The circumstances we find ourselves in are overpowering, the hope for a better life is empowering, and the time is limited.
Godard continues to raise questions in a similar manner in Vivre Sa Vie. Except that Nana, the protagonist, is in many ways a more empowered character. She is introduced as already looking for a solution to her dissatisfaction: she is separated from her husband and her child in hopes to live a more fulfilling life, to become an actress. That hope once again is a driving force. Initially Nana is waiting for that change passively, she is looking for a positive sign, for the right person to notice her. The scene in the record store speaks for itself: Nana is utterly bored, her effort to be self-sustained is not paying off, she is broke, yet still hopeful, still waiting, as if for Beckett's Godot.
"Why are we here, that is the question. And we are blessed in this, that we happen to know the answer. Yes, in this immense confusion one thing alone is clear. We are waiting for Godot to come.
We wait. We are bored. (He throws up his hand.) No, don't protest, we are bored to death, there's no denying it. Good. A diversion comes along and what do we do? We let it go to waste. . .In an instant all will vanish and we'll be alone once more, in the midst of nothingness!
Let us not waste our time in idle discourse!"
(from Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett)
Not being able to pay her rent, Nana becomes a prostitute and soon finds herself dependent on her pimp. We realise the contradictions in her condition: in her effort to be free, she is not capable to self-sustain in the existing socio-economic system. Yet she is willing to pay the price. "I believe we're always responsible for what we do, and free. I raise my hand, I'm responsible. I turn my head to the right, I'm responsible. I'm unhappy, I'm responsible. I smoke a cigarette, I'm responsible. I close my eyes, I'm responsible. I may forget that I am responsible, but I am..." She takes responsibility for her life not because she does not understand the relative absurdity of her effort to live authentically under conditions that predetermine her choices, but because she believes in commitment to live a conscious, authentic life despite it. Like in the Myth of Sisyphus, Nana continues to live following her conviction, as we continue to watch Godard's films knowingly there is no full resolution to the problem of human condition. What makes it worthwhile/bearable is being aware of it.
To continue contemplating on the subjects of existentialism, absurd, the theater of the absurd, distantation, female protagonists, film and poetry, poetry in film, fiction vs. documentary, I am including a clip from Rockaby, one of Beckett's plays on film, I believe shot in the 1980s during rehearsals by D. A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus.