Godard ON Godard
1958 marks a year of cardinal importance in Godard's development: the period of the last shorts before he made A Bout de Souffle, and of busy critical activity. Godard was in fact writing regularly for both Arts and Cahiers du Cinema at the same time.
29: The Killing
This is the film of a good pupil, no more. An admirer of Max Ophuls, Aldrich and John Huston, Stanley Kubrick is still far from being the bright boy heralded by the excited publicity surrounding this little gangster film which makes even The Asphalt Jungle look like a masterpiece by comparasion. Kiss Me Deadly even more so. I shall not mention Ophuls, who would have nothing to do with the matter except that Kubrick claims his influence through irritating movements of the camera resembling those beloved of the director of Le Plaisir. But what in Ophuls corresponds to a certain vision of the world, in Kubrick is mere showing-off.
The enterprise is not without its sympathetic side, however. An independent production, The Killing was shot quickly and on a low budget. Although the story is not particularly original (robbery of the Los Angeles race-track), and the ending very little better (banknotes fluttering away in the wind after a very badly filmed stroke of bad luck, exactly as in The Treasure 0f the Sierra Madre), one must praise the ingenuity of the adaptation: by systematically dislocating the chronology of events, it maintains one's interest in a plot which otherwise never leaves the beaten track. Once one has commended the newsreel-style camerawork and Sterling Hayden, there is little left to do but wait, not too impatiently, for Kubrick's next feature, Paths of Glory, which has been very highly praised by the American Press.
On 24 August 1956 the greatest of Japanese film-makers died in Kyoto. Or, quite simply, one of the greatest of film-makers, as has been proved by the Cinematheque Francaise's retrospective devoted to his work. Kenji Mizoguchi was the peer of Murnau, of Rossellini. His oeuvre is enormous. Two hundred films, so it is said. No doubt there is a good deal of legend about this, and one can be sure that future centuries will bring quite a few Mizoguchi Monogatari. But there is also no doubt that Kenji is extraordinary, for he can shoot films in three months that would take a Bresson two years to bring about. And Mizoguchi brings them to perfection.
Farther than the west
Since Japanese films appeared on our screens after the war, an aesthetic dispute has ranged the admirers of Kurosawa (Rashomon, The Seven Samurai, The Idiot) against those of Mizoguchi. A dispute made even more furious by the fact that both directors have been frequent prize winners at festival. Our thanks are due to Jean-Jose Richer for having cut authoritatively across the debate: 'This double distinction awarded in strict equality (to The Seven Samurai and Sansho Dayu, Venice 1954) is unwarranted. Not because of the mobilization of two Golden Lions, but because of the confused values is engenders. There can be no doubt that any comparison between Mizoguci and Kurosawa turns irrefutably to the advantage of the former. Alone among the Japanese film-makers known to us, he goes beyond the seductive but minor stage of exoticism to a deeper level where one need no long worry about false prestige' (Cahiers du Cinema 40).
Gallantry and metaphysics
If poetry is manifest in each second, each shot filmed by Mizoguchi, it is because, as with Murnau, it is the instinctive reflection of the film-maker's creative nobility. Like the director of Sunrise, the director of Ugetsu Monogatari can describe an adventure which is at the same time a cosmogony.
His heroines are all the same, strangely resembling Hardy's Tess of the d'Urbervilles. The most terrible adventures befall them, one after the other. And if Mizoguchi shows a marked predilection for brothels, he refuses - unlike Kurosawa, who is merely a more elegant Ralph Habib - to become trapped by the false glitter of the picturesque. When he re-creates old Japan, he goes beyond tinsel and anecdote to give us the unvarnished truth with ai mastery equalled only by a Francesco, Giullare di Dio. Never have we seen" seen with our own eyes, the Middle Ages exist with such intensity of atmosphere.
A revolutionary technique of simplicity
Efficacity and sobriety are the characteristics of great film-makers. And Kenji Mizoguchi does not belie this rule. As Philippe Demonsablon pointed out in a pertinent article on The Life of O'Haru, his art is to abstain from any solicitation irrelevant to its object, to leave things to present themselves without intervention from the mind except to efface its traces, thus increasing a thousandfold the efficacity of the objects it presents for our admiration. It is, therefore, a realist art, and the mise en scene will be realist.
This simplicity is not without paradox, for it must achieve its austerity through an accumulation of matter. The compositions are guided initially by the laws of movement. But there is no Baroque embellishment, no purpose other than to allow the substance itself to reach us. No image is comic, tragic, fanciful, erotic in itself, and yet is all these things at once. Mizoguchi's art is the most complex because it is the simplest. Camera effects and tracking shots are rare, but when they do suddenly burst into a scene, the effect is one of dazzling beauty. Each crane shot (here Preminger is easily outstripped) has the clean and limpid line of a brush-stroke by Hokusai.
The most wonderful of films
Admired at the time at the Venice Festival, Ugetsu Monogatari is Kenji Mizoguchi's masterpiece, and one which ranks him on equal terms with Griffith, Eisenstein and Renoir.
The action takes place at the end of the sixteenth century, during the time of the civil wars. It tells the story of Genjuro, a humble country potter who is bewitched by the beautiful Machiko, and of his brother, a vainglorious brute who dreams of military prowess. After many disappointments in the city, they both return home to spend the rest of their lives in the fields.
Everything which made the power and magnificence of Chikamatsu Monogatari, the cool cruelty of Sketch of Madame Yuki, the jovial bawdry of Street of Shame, the tenderness of Naniwa Elegy, is here combined and the effect increased a thousandfold. It is Don Quixote, The Odyssey and Jude the Obscure rolled into one. An hour and a half of film which seems to last an eternity. Subtlety of mise en scene is here carried to its highest degree. Mizoguchi is probably the only director in the world who dares to make systematic use of 180 degree shots and reaction shots. But what in another director would be striving for effect, with him is simply a natural movement arising out of the importance he accords to the decor and the position the actors occupy within it.
Let me quote two examples of technical conjuring tricks which are the acme of art. Genjuro is bathing with the fatal enchantress who has caught him in her net; the camera leaves the rock pool where they are disporting themselves, pans along the overflow which becomes a stream disappearing into the fields; at this point there is a swift dissolve to the furrows, other furrows seem to take their place, the camera continues tranquilly on its way, rises, and discovers a vast plain, then a garden in which we discover the two lovers again, a few months later, enjoying a picnic. Only masters of the cinema can make use of a dissolve to create a feeling which is here the very Proustian one of pleasure and regrets.
Another example. Having killed the enchantress, Genjuro returns home. Be does not know that his loving wife, O'Hama, is dead. He enters, looks in all the rooms, the camera panning with him. He moves from one room to the next, still followed by the camera. He goes out, the camera leaves hint returns to the room and frames O'Hama, in flesh and blood, just at that moment when Genjuro comes in again and sees her, believing (as we do) that he didn't look properly and that his gentle wife really is alive.
The art of Kenji Mizoguchi is to prove that real life is at one and the same time elsewhere and yet here, in its strange and radiant beauty.
Seen in a cinema at La paz as the machine-guns rattled and rebels stormed the Bolivian government palace. This is Max's best American film. Roben Ryan plays a sort of Howard Hughes, brutal and tender, James Mason an admirably sad suburban doctor, and Barbara Bel Geddes a charming provincial gradually corrupted by dollars. As for the technique, it is already Le Plaisir.
People have often wondered why Ophuls was so anxious to film L'Mauvaises Rencontres. Just see Caught and you will understand. The synopsis in effect the same as that of the Cecil Saint-Laurent novel adapted by Astruc, except that there are only two male characters instead of three. By the basic situation remains the same: a girl arrives in New York and serve her apprenticeship as a city-dweller while passing from one man to the other. The title, Caught, is also the moral of this cruel and delicate film. Our model Eve, admirably played by Barbara Bel Geddes (the Simone Simon of Broadway), is finally well and truly caught after confusing love with what she thougth was love and falling into traps she herself had set. Caught is a Marianne made in U.S.A., or else simply a Lamiel, Stendhal revised by Marivaux.
33: Le Temps des Oeufs Durs
It is difficult to analyse Norbert Carbonnaux's comedy style. Pushed in one direction, it would end up as Jacques Tati. Pushed in the other, as Marx Brothers. But as Carbonnaux, one of the laziest of good French directors, never pushes things to their conclusion, one often finds oneself between two stools. With him we are faced with the sort of person who takes twentythree hours to get out of bed, works like mad for an hour, and then cries 'I've had a terrible day.' The worst of it is, he isn't exaggerating all that much. Put into terms of cinema, this means that Carbonnaux is incredibly lax and lazy at the script stage or in preparing gags, but wakes up during shooting, and by the time it comes to the editing has really collected all his wits. Witness his latest film: Le Temps des oeufs durs.
It has an excellent non-subject. Impossible but good. How could a producer have found commercial possibilities in this satire on failure? Difficult to say. But the fact remains that it was a subject imposed on Carbonnaux, whose dream was to do something different. Maybe, though, it is in this dislocation between dream and reality that one can grasp the Carbonnaux mystery. What I mean is that he transposes this dislocation to another level - no longer that of commercial success but of pure mise en scene. Curiously, in fact, Norbert Carbonnaux is a priori less an auteur than a pure metteur en scene. But with him more than anyone else, it is because he is first and foremost a metteur en scene that he becomes an auteur, in other words a complete film-maker. Le Temps des oeufs durs takes one even further in this direction than Courte Jete. Every quarter of an hour, some dazzling bit of poetic invention (Darry Cowl in the cafe, Altariba's strip-tease, the hammock, the garage at the end) makes the audience slip the brakes and introduces them into a universe which is semi-fantastic in that it is semi-real. If one had to suggest literary references, it is to Henri Calef one should turn, rather than Raymond Queneau as one might have thought after seeing Courte rete. The director of Corsaires du Bois de Boulogne has the same quicksilver irony, the same sharp and caustic touch which prevents laughter even while provoking it, as the author of L'ltalie a la paresseuse.
34: Rafles sur la Ville
One wonders how. And yet the fact remains. This routine little thriller is most engaging. Personally, I rate it third in my list, after Le Grisbi and Rififi. Why? Simply because French cops are for once shown as ordinary people with the same reactions as anyone else-trying to make a colleague's wife, for instance, if she happens to be pretty. It doesn't happen often, but here, given a hackneyed story, Auguste Le Breton has written some excellent dialogue. All the scenes between the inspector (Michel Piccoli, excellent) and the charming chick from the 16th (Danick Patisson, perfect) have an accuracy of tone, almost an elegance, which cuts right across the routine production. It is a too rarely in a French film that one finds characters who talk simply for the pleasure of it and not to tell us something. Is Pierre Chenal's direction responsible for all this? It isn't easy to say. There are some good ideas. The end, for instance, when Piccoli, seized by remorse, throws himself on the grenade hurled by Charles Vanel in the police-office, and dies amid his unscathed colleagues. 'A real film', says the publicity. I say, 'A real film.'
Godard ON Godard/Critical writings by Jean-Luc Godard/Struggle on Two Fronts, Arts and Cahiers du Cinema: February - December 1958