The next few scenes catalog melancholy aspects of that life as Sandrine and Pierre live it. In the first, Sandrine again walls herself off from their quarreling with a pair of stereo earphones, listening to a lugubrious performance about loneliness at night. Pierre tries to break through her isolation with vicious names (whore, bitch) and complaints about their marriage.
In the second, Pierre offers suppositories to Sandrine, who is suffering from two weeks of constipation. She asserts her independence: "It's my kitchen, they're my children, it's my ass." But she admits that "too much" has accumulated, and that the situation is more "complicated" than Pierre's solution implies. He goes off to participate in a strike at his workplace, leaving Sandrine to droop over her coffee and tell Nicholas about her physical problem.
The third scene in this sequence presents two views of Sandrine at home. On one screen she continues to mope in the kitchen. On the other she returns from a shopping trip "all charged up," flops onto her bed, and masturbates, sending Pierre away when he shows some interest in joining her. "When we don't get on with a man we can always leave him," she soliloquizes. "But what do we do when it's a state, a whole social system that violates us?"
The next scene is more positive in tone, yet also more transgressive in its view of sexuality as a family affair. Naked on their bed, Sandrine and Pierre call the children for a sex-education session. Using their own bodies for the demonstration, they describe their genitals as lips (the vagina) and a mouth (the tip of the penis) that embrace during lovemaking. "It's like we're kissing. It's like we're talking," Sandrine explains. "It's love that teaches us how to talk," she adds. "And afterward when it's finished," Pierre continues, "death lays a finger on our lips and silences us. Off to school now, kids! Goodbye!" The idea of orgasm as petite mort or "little death" smacks of an old-school romanticism out of keeping with Numero deux as a whole. Still, it suits the more conventional aspects of the household's fundamentally bourgeois outlook; and a satirical undertone may be intended.
As an essay on family life, among other things, Numero deux has taken care to show mother, father, daughter, and son in a variety of situations and interactions. Largely missing so far has been the older generation, which now arrives with a near-ferocious energy that opens a whole new dimension within the film.
The grandmother peels vegetables, makes a bed, and scrubs a floor while her off-screen voice speaks on the sound track. Her activities are stereotypical "woman's work," but the words accompanying them - from The Female Eunuch, feminist Germaine Greer's pioneering 1971 study are hardly the innocuous pablum with which a nice old lady might pass her time in a traditional picture of middle-class life. Rather, they continue the movie's focus on abjection - on matters of the body, on female oppression, on oscillation between "high" and "low" states of physical and mental life.
"Women do not realize how much men hate them," the voice-over says. "She is punished as an object of hatred, fear, and disgust because of her magical orifices: the mouth and cunt." The text then indicts masculine domination and suggests that women should "deliver" men from sole responsibility for sexual power. "Women must have rights to their sexual organs," it continues, implying that female subordination results from suppression of bodily awareness and control. "Most women only become aware of their ovaries and womb when something goes wrong," the text goes on. "Which almost always happens."
This is followed by a word-and-image combination that might seem disconnected if not for the film's unifying theme of abjection, centered on "low" social states (the infantile, the feminine) and separation anxieties. On the screen, the grandmother cleans a floor; on the sound track, her voice-over turns to the subject of children, noting their desire to "become independent of adults." What is desirable for children is elusive for women, however, since they face ongoing burdens of social and sexual subordination. Given the difficulties of both celibacy and conjugal life, the narration goes on, "women must learn to view happiness as a victory. The greatest service a woman can provide to the community is to be happy."
This is followed by a key statement that crystallizes much of the film's radical philosophy: "The depth of rebellion and irresponsibility she must achieve to become happy is the only indication of the social metamorphosis that must be effected if there is to be sense in being a woman."
The voice-over repeats what may be the most important words in this statement: the depth of rebellion and irresponsibility. At the same moment, the scene's images of domestic drudgery are replaced by the old woman removing her robe and standing naked before a bathroom mirror and the camera.
This gesture confounds commercial-film notions of visual pleasure as exemplified by conventionally "beautiful" bodies. It also gives Numero deux a fresh infusion of vitality, welling from the unembarassed selfexposure of a woman whose nudity would be rigidly excluded from any mass-audience commodity that traded in traditional glamour or eroticism. While she washes herself, her off-screen voice proceeds with a diatribe from Greer that takes on a scathingly sarcastic tone, begining as a Utopian celebration of woman-as-Venus-figure ("The sun only shines to gild her skin and hair. . . . She is the crowning glory of creation") but passing to a catalog of death and depredation (pillaging of the sea, slaughtering of fur-bearing animals) committed in the name of fetishized beauty.
Might one argue that Numero deux itself fetishizes woman? Godard's use of female nudity in this and other films - to be discussed further in the next chapter - has led to charges of insensitivity, exploitation, and commodification not unlike the charges he levels at the prostitution business and other forms of sexual trafficking. If the unglamorized female images in Numero deux are simply the other side of this sexist coin, substituting gender-political novelty for old-fashioned titillation, they might be called equally problematic. Evidence can be found for either argument, here and elsewhere in Godard's work. However, it seems to me that the balance is tilted toward the progressive end in Numero deux by the film's innovative focus on cultural abjection, which is examined from a commendably wide range of perspectives, most of them centered firmly and sympathetically on challenges faced by women.
As the film proceeds, it adds to this interest a growing concern with social ramifications of the aging process. By paying sustained attention to young Vanessa and grown-up Sandrine, it examines the "low" status of both the still-developing child and the dominated wife. The grandmother's presence brings in the crucial subject of old age - to which Bakhtin accorded great importance in his carnival theory, regarding the last stage of life as a natural borderline state that should be greeted with humor, good will, and cheerful impropriety. The old characters of Numero deux seem somewhat in tune with such an attitude (the impropriety part, if not the humor or cheerfulness part) as they shed their clothing, bare their bodies and their thoughts, and help the movie accomplish its inversions of narrative-film convention.
Despite their feistiness in some respects, however, their lives are full of frustrations and sadnesses bred by their suffocating society. This becomes mournfully clear as the grandfather reminisces about his years at a warequipment plant. Death punched in every night at 8 P.M., he recalls. The plant was isolated from its community, he continues, by flowers that made it virtually invisible. (This revives a familiar motif; plants hiding a plant - is it a landscape or a factory?) A strike gave him and his colleagues time to reflect on their work as manufacturers of deadly devices that would inevitably hurt "women and children" as well as combatants. "I don't mind earning my living by death," he candidly admits, "but I won't die in order to live." So he found a new job, in the concession stand of a Gaumont movie theater - an amusing but not-quite-satisfactory outcome for this moral dilemma, as Godard and Mieville hint by throwing in an intertitle that says MERCHANDISE.
Grandpa is a central presence in three more household scenes, all involving the media saturation of daily life. He quarrels with Nicholas over whether to watch a soccer game or a Russian movie on television. He listens to a doleful, somewhat surrealistic Leo Ferre pop song about the modern world, briefly sharing his headphones with Vanessa and Sandrine, and commenting that he sees the world as one sees "the unbelievable," that is, what cannot be seen. Finally, he joins the family to watch a tangled TV show about a secret agent, a financier's daughter, skullduggery in Mexico and Dachau, and international communism.
He then becomes the film's main attraction again, sitting naked in a chair and recounting a misadventure he had in Singapore during his days as a communist organizer. "It was stupid," he comments, "but this is history, not the movies." Further insulting cinema, he says the movies are time-consuming in contrast with words, which can relate forty years of life in two minutes. Taking hold of his penis, he decides to give up moviegoing and look at his genitals instead. "This way to the exit, ladies and gentlemen," he sarcastically chants.
The films egues back to Pierre by way of a voice-over about the landscapeand-factory theme. The screen shows Sandrine's sleeping (dreaming) body appearing and disappearing over an outdoor shot. "In the end," Pierre's voice says, "there is not one factory and one landscape. There are two in one. There's a landscape that we cross like idiots, to punch in at home. And a factory, where we can never work while we sleep in the shade of the trees, because there aren't any."
By now we are well-schooled in Godard's criticism of the cultural divide between working life and private life, but he renews its freshness with another revealing household scene. Nicholas asks Pierre why he used the word "impossible" during an argument. Pierre describes the quarrel, saying Sandrine complained that he helped too little with the wash, whereupon he responded that it's impossible for a man to consider his "home" a workplace or "factory," as a housewife naturally would. To ask if her underwear is dirty, moreover, would be as embarassing as asking if her body were soiled.
Pierre's musing continues in the next scene, counterpointed by nonsensical static on two video screens. Nicholas brought home some pornography, he recalls. The boy quickly forgot about it, but Pierre himself fell to thinking about Sandrine's vagina and his irrational anger at the idea of other men occupying it. In their own lovemaking, he says, he sometimes feels their genders are reversed, especially when he asks her to touch his anus. This returns abjection to the foreground, evoking "low" or "dirty" behavior and using anal sexuality to blur divisions between male and female roles.
Indeterminacy also dominates the visual style, as we see Sandrine's face superimposed first over Pierre's body and then a prosaic shot of the couple doing domestic work. Sandrine has taken a shop-assistant job to get out of the house, we learn; but she has already decided to quit, realizing that more extreme measures are needed to make a woman's life fulfilling. "I know how to manufacture tenderness," she says of her role as a culturally conditioned woman. "I know how to cook. I know how to do Nicholas's homework. I know how to suck a cock." In the end, she concludes, there is too much in her life - and yet not nearly enough.
Sandrine probes this condition more deeply in a voice-over linked to images from earlier scenes: Grandma scrubbing a floor, herself touching Pierre's penis with her lips. In other words, two kinds of labor.
"I felt like I was producing," she says, "but they'd already distributed my products. I was producing at a loss. And who profited from this? Not him. Someone behind him. Something between us. Work." Once again the film sees behind and between as incredibly complicated places, capable of providing great pleasure and taking shameless advantage of anyone not fully aware of socioeconomic pressure points outside and inside the individual body. We have seen that between is the natural habitat of abjection, a state thriving on ambiguity and ambivalence. The mention of behind recalls Sandrine's opening speech (when she replaces "left" and "right" with "before" and "behind") and Pierre's sexual aggression.
Also important is Sandrine's statement that the "products" of her household work have been distributed in advance, at no profit to herself or anyone she cares about. Godard finds this a great tragedy, feeling that all production should be a joyful process linking creativity and dissemination; and he bitterly resents the frustrations that result when this is blocked or aborted. In a text written fourteen years after Numero deux, he contrasts the authenticity of true cinema - "freedom speaking" - with the commercialized deadness of mass-market television, which "doesn't create any goods" but rather "distributes them without their ever having been created."7 This describes the flip side of Sandrine's predicament, as she produces real benefits that society simultaneously exploits and undervalues, meanwhile draining away their possible rewards before she ever has a chance to enjoy them.
The text just quoted also supplies another reason why Godard and Mieville use video - a form including TV, although not limited to it - in Numero deux, which takes blockage of private and public fulfillment as a primary subject. "To program is the only verb of television," Godard writes in this 1989 statement. "That implies suffering rather than release."8 This comment about the public world (television) applies ruefully well to Sandrine's private world. In the next scene, she tells Nicholas of a biological blockage ("I haven't shit for two weeks") that mirrors the social blockages of her domestic life. Her constipation is not a simplistic symbol for psychosomatic discontent, moreover. In another transgressive maneuver, Godard and Mieville stress the productivity of defecation by likening it to childbirth, also a natural human activity. "Eight years ago, in a sense, I shit between my thighs," Sandrine muses. That was a normal event, but she can no longer function so harmoniously. "Now everything is blocked," she laments.
My tissue is cracking. I feel like everything I say is shit. . .. Everything that should happen in my ass happens somewhere else. In my ass nothing is happening. It's me who does the cooking. It goes in and it goes down, but nothing comes out. I'm becoming both a giver and taker of shit. I wonder if there are many women in France like this?
And with this large, difficult question Numero deux starts moving quickly toward its end - not by achieving some conventional sort of closure, but by falling apart in a deliberate and purposeful way that echoes its step-by-step coalescence some eighty minutes earlier.
Godard sits in his studio, slumped over a recording console. "Suddenly it's over," Sandrine says, continuing her last voice-over. "Something happens. My role is finished. What are we playing at? He interprets me - but he shouldn't, because it's me who understands." What she understands is the eternal scam whereby men order the times and places for everything from work and dishwashing to sex and vacation - and, too often, filmmaking.
To whom, however, are we listening here? Is it Sandrine the movie character speaking of her problems with Pierre, or Sandrine the movie actress (i.e., Sandrine Battistella, who plays the part) departing from her fictional role to address the deficiencies of our age? And where does Godard figure in the situation, especially now that he has returned visibly to the film?
Answers begin to emerge as Sandrine notes how difficult it would be for a man to occupy or understand her place. Godard raises his head from the console, watching the video screen that now carries her image. He is one who "tells the news about others," in Sandrine's sarcastic phrase. "That's special work," she continues, "especially if you get paid for it. But letting others tell you news about yourself is a crime. Especially if we don't get paid for it."
Women conspire in this crime against themselves, she continues. "We go to the movies. We buy a ticket, and in exchange we sell our roles as producers." Also guilty are women and men who purchase "news" as disinterested observers. "You turn on the TV and become an accomplice. Worse, you become the organizer of the crime. We look for news about ourselves where there's only news about others. We want others with us, but without danger. An animal would never do that. But we are men and women, we are superior," she says with withering irony.
Vanessa's face, visible over the edge of a bathtub, has now appeared on another monitor. Sandrine's voice muses on, offering a brief catalog of paired concepts that correspond to the Number i and Number 2 that have run as leitmotifs through the film: again and already, yesterday and today, child and parent, today and tomorrow, now and later.
"And me?" she concludes. "Finally in my place, Number 3.... Between my past and my future, between a girl and an old man. I invent the grammar, I find the words - and those 'shes' and 'hes' who have already invented music."
Godard is still at the control panel, but Sandrine is not without power of her own. As she mentions "words" and "music," her image disappears from the monitor (Vanessa has already vanished) and, as if she had willed it, a Ferre song replaces her monologue on the sound track, with lyrics conjuring up nostalgia for the night and the past.
The movie continues toward dissolution by recalling that while society attempts to order and discipline its members, its oppressive efforts face ultimate limitations. Pierre recites the rules for living in a rented home ("The lessee ... should meet all the orders of the city and the police, and fulfill his role as head of the family") to Vanessa - and she responds by asking whether he'll still be her daddy when he's dead.
The screen fills with a close-up of the sound-control panel. Sandrine and Pierre ask Vanessa two questions: "Do you know what a landscape is? Is Papa a factory or a landscape?" Godard's hand slides a switch on the panel and pop-song lyrics take over again:
These eyes look at you night and day,
Not just at numbers and hatred, as they say.
These forbidden things you're creeping toward . . .
Nicholas's voice returns: "I'm carefully studying my plan. I see that it can't be realized." Vanessa repeats the beginning of the film: "There was a factory and we put a landscape around it." And finally, Godard's gliding fingers fade in the song-poem that terminates Numero deux:
These eyes look at you night and day,
Not just at numbers and hatred, as they say.
These forbidden things you're creeping toward . . . which will be yours . . . when you close the eyes . . .
Of oppression. . .
Godard closes the cover of the sound console as the song reaches its last lines. His hands leave the frame. Lights go out, one by one, until the screen is dark. A blur of random noise continues for a few seconds, followed by a single orchestral chord. Its orderliness and finality assure us once again that this seemingly chaotic film has been firmly under the control of its makers from first moment to last.
Godard's appropriation of pop-culture material dates to the early stages of his career, but the song lyric that ends Numero deux is almost uncannily apt for its context, and the importance of its message is clear. Godard and Mieville have indeed been creeping toward "forbidden things" in this movie, which oscillates between politics and pornography via purposely transgressive devices - reenacting the primal scene, mixing childhood innocence with adult sex and power games, looking closely at anal sensuality and other manifestations of the abject. This fascination with the forbidden will continue in future Godard films; pungent examples include the father's incestuous fantasies in Sauve qui peut (la vie) and the anal sex in Passion, where this is not abusive but romantic. Never will it be elaborated as single-mindedly as in Numero deux, however.
In addition to their self-contained meanings, the words of the song join with the film's visual conclusion to create an elegant cinematic equation. The lyrics tell us that forbidden things will be ours when we close the eyes of oppression - and immediately the lights of the screen go dark, closing the eyes of the movie itself. The lesson is clear: image = oppression. This is an enduring Godardian theme, stated directly and economically.
The reference to oppression also takes us back to Godard's familiar feud with notions of "normal" and "decent" in our stifling society. The oppression evoked by Numero deux is identical to the conspiracies of "official" power and "authoritative" knowledge that Foucault warns about in his analyses of social self-regulation. An earlier philosopher calling for rejection of "civilized morality" was Herbert Marcuse, who also anticipated Godard's cry against alienated labor by noting that its limited pleasures have "nothing to do with primary instinctual gratification" or the satisfactions of a healthy erotic sensibility.
"To link performances on assembly lines, in offices and shops with instinctual needs is to glorify dehumanization as pleasure," Marcuse writes,9 in a critique that Sandrine and even Pierre would surely endorse. Marcuse calls for a new "reality principle" based on freedom rather than repression. "No longer used as a full-time instrument of labor," he predicts, "the body would be resexualized." Sexual energies would spread across all zones of body and personality, "genital supremacy" would decline, and the polymorphous eroticism of infancy would be joyously reborn. "The body in its entirety would become ... a thing to be enjoyed - an instrument of pleasure," blasting away the suffocating institutions that hold us in their grip, including the "monogamic and patriarchal family"10 that Numero deux so critically examines.
As dark and disturbing as this film frequently becomes, therefore, its conclusion can be seen as Utopian. Freed from the division of labor that bisects life into separate domains of work and domesticity, Sandrine would no longer suffer from blockages of mental creativity, bodily productivity, and sexual gratification; and Pierre would stop channeling his energies into exhausting work, alienating arguments, and alternating fits of sexual aggression and dysfunction. Their relationship with the children might be modeled on the convivial sex-education session rather than the morbid dynamics of the domestic rape scene. The older generation might exchange its drudgery (Grandma) and nostalgia (Grandpa) for a productive and companionable role in the household's daily life.
Might our culture actually see the changes that would enable such bright metamorphoses to occur? Only tentative responses to this riddle will emerge from subsequent films by Godard and Mieville, whose explorations of aesthetics and mysticism will search more for suggestive clues than definitive answers.
In the end, the filmmakers' response to the question may be most clearly visible in the very existence of the movie that raises it. "Art attracts us," wrote Godard as early as 1952, "only by what it reveals of our most secret self."11 His own secret self is never closer to the surface than in Numero deux, his most radical effort to close the eyes of oppression and glimpse whatever visions this passionate blindness may provide.
excerpt from the book: The Films of Jean-Luc Godard: Seeing the Invisible by David Sterritt
If this "charging and discharging" refers to the body's built-in biological functions, then this "hurt" may simply be the existential pain of what Freud called the "ordinary unhappiness" of life. One suspects Sandrine is less worried about this "natural" human discomfort, however, than about humanly caused sufferings brought by social, economic, and political abuses specific to the industrial and postindustrial eras - sufferings not limited to the "factory" or "power plant" aspects of capitalism, as conventional reformers would often have us believe, but wreaking more havoc as they spill into the domestic sphere with which Numero deux is largely concerned.
The porn movie is back on the upper-left monitor and brassy jazz has joined the sound-track cacophony as Sandrine continues, "We play music. But why play music? To see the unbelievable." The monitor with the little girl now fills much of the screen, displacing commercially jaded sex with a reminder of how promising childhood is before dehumanizing forces have a chance to sour it.
"What is the unbelievable?" Sandrine concludes. "The unbelievable is what we don't see." This is of course a resonant phrase for Godard and Mieville, who are dedicated to exposing the limitations of the visible and locating the invisible dimensions where power and influence often reside. Here as before, their goal is to refute two propositions: that seeing = believing (which allows film to deceive us) and that believing = seeing (which allows us to deceive ourselves). Numero deux wants to explore the unbelievable by probing the limits of "what we don't see," as Sandrine puts it. This focuses the film on two sorts of material: that which is socially forbidden - a child should not witness the sexuality of its parents, for instance - and that which is psychologically inaccessible, such as the repressed desires that surge through our subconscious minds. (Later films by Godard and Mieville will approach the "unbelievable" from another angle, using cinema to locate a spiritual dimension within the material realm.)
The child works away at her blackboard, meanwhile, writing a very unchildish slogan: "Before being born, I was dead." As noted, many elements of Numero deux evoke childhood: the girl and boy who speak at the beginning, the nursery-rhyme cadence of "once ..." and "twice upon a time," the composite image of adult sexuality and a young girl's face. The child's blackboard phrase now implies concern with a still earlier stage, speculating on the nonexistence that precedes birth. What both separates and joins the obscurity before birth and the self-awareness of life is, of course, the pivotal moment of conception. Numero deux follows Freud in recognizing the disavowed but unbreakable links among eros, the sexual drive; thanatos, the desire to reclaim the equanimity of nonexistence; and the lifelong urge - beginning in infancy - to understand and resolve the tensions generated by these powerful forces.
More than one contemporary thinker has investigated the territory that Godard and Mieville delve into here, and a glance at some of their ideas will illuminate Numero deux and its place in an important cultural tradition. I recognize that the movie is dense and strange enough in itself, without bringing in a host of cultural references to complicate it further; but Godard and Mieville are ardently intellectual artists, and to trek through a work like this without at least touching on its philosophical "backstory" would be antithetical to their spirit. Since one of the movie's most striking (and controversial) qualities is its fascination with the interplay between sociopolitical norms and the body's indecorous demands, I focus on modern theorists who give intellectual weight to aspects of human experience that have traditionally been considered too "low" or "base" for consideration by serious-minded persons.
One we have already encountered is Mikhail Bakhtin, who celebrates the carnivalism of freethinking works that challenge the social, cultural, and political norms of their day. Such writings frequently dwell on urges of the body (especially the lower body, where sexuality and excretion blur the boundaries between self and other) at the expense of rules, regulations, and laws designed to squeeze the unbridled individual into governable patterns. Another is Georges Bataille, whose concept of the informe argues that materiality is irreducible and "unformable," and that theory must resist the impulse to shape it with abstract schemes and systems. Still another is Julia Kristeva, who states that infants pass through an abject stage of development, during which they cannot conceive of being either part of on separate from the mother. At this time they inhabit a borderline mental realm that oscillates among the exhilirating prospect of independence, the smothering fear of being entrapped or reabsorbed, and the dread of unmoored existence in an outside world of solitude and instability.
Numero deux refers directly to none of these authors, but its concerns are rooted in the tradition they represent. Like the outwardly chaotic Weekend, with its casual cannibalism and cartoonish violence, it exudes a subversive spirit through polymorphous sexuality and a seemingly disjointed structure; both movies also have quick-as-lightning mood changes that reflect the proud instability of carnival grotesquerie. The superimposed video images in Numero deux are especially effective in this regard. Although their implications can be unsettling, as in the primal-scene material, their fluid form and provocative content create a transformative atmosphere in which ingrained rules may be bent, broken, or reshaped beyond recognition in the blink of an eye.
Two facets of Numero deux would have earned Bataille's particular applause. One is its rejection of linear narrative in favor of a thematic density that foregrounds the physicality of word and image. The other is its focus on "unformed" materials, defining this territory broadly enough to encompass phenomena as different as the still-developing mind of the young child and the presence of excrement as an intimate ingredient in daily life. Moreover, the filmt reats such "low" material without necessarily twisting it into shapes held acceptable by social convention. Bataille calls for a new brand of theory that he names "heterology" - actually the opposite of a theory since it "is opposed to any homogeneous representation of the world, in other words, to any philosophical system." Such systems, he says, always aim at deflecting our "sources of excitation" and developing a "servile human species, fit only for the fabrication, rational consumption, and conservation of products." What needs to be reclaimed are the substances rejected by these processes, "the abortion and the shame of human thought," so that philosophy can become a servant of "excretion" and introduce "the demand for the violent gratifications implied by social life." Those gratifications took center stage in Weekend, which asked how cultures and classes might "consume" and "excrete" one another in acts of war and revolution. The same gratifications assert themselves in Numero deux, here taking more homely forms (power games linked with bodily functions) but still charged with potentially disruptive power operating within and around the individual human being.
Kristeva's notion of the abject is perhaps clearest of all in a movie preoccupied with intersections of "low" and "high" material, and with a wide variety of borderline conditions: political/pornographic, natural/ artificial, public/private, sound/image, attraction/repulsion, and so on Among the most important of these is film/video, since even the production methods of Numero deux are designed to blur conventional boundaries. For the infant, Kristeva suggests, the abject stage is marked by profound ambiguity as to where the parent leaves off and self-identity begins. Manifesting this condition in cinematic terms, Numero deux embodies the ambivalence of a young medium (video) caught within its parent medium (film) at precisely the moment when its newly acquired powers, purposes, and sensibilities are ready to assert themselves but are still uncertain as to what their own distinctiveness and usefulness will be. One of the qualities that make Numero deux unsettling is the fact that it doesn't just allegorize but vividly actualizes - one might even say incarnates - the abject.
Numero deux is also concerned with the difficulty of crossing sociocultural barriers, be they physical or psychological. Rarely has a film concentrated on the concept of blockage in so many forms. This starts at the beginning, when the title has trouble appearing on the screen, as if the movie were facing some invisible block or obstacle on its way to the audience. The film does get started eventually, but various devices keep the sense of blockage going. Some operate through the film'ss tyle: the uneven progress of the story; the frequent interruption of one scene by another; the competition between filma nd video images, which sometimes seem to get in each other's way. Others operate through the movie's content: the stopand-start pictures on the monitors in Godard's workshop; the image of a primal scene that must be repressed as soon as it is witnessed; the linkage of birth (commencement) and death (cessation) in the girl's blackboard sentence. When the narrative proceeds a little farther, we will encounter the film's most blunt metaphors for blockage: the constipation and impotence that plague Sandrine and her husband, respectively. When she compares her mother with a "factory" that "hurts" when it "charges and discharges," Sandrine is also describing herself and many others - women who feel cut off from life's flow by the demands of work, and deprived of healthy sexuality by the insensitivity of their husbands. We will also learn that Sandrine's spouse is abusive, using anal intercourse (blocking a channel) to punish and control her.
One more aspect of Numero deux that Kristeva's ideas illuminate is its Godardian use of sound (immediate, surrounding, ungraspable) to combat the tyranny of the image (distant, hard-edged, authoritarian) that dominates commercial cinema. Kristeva holds that early infancy is bathed in sound as the child develops within the "chora," which is both the fleshly envelope of the womb and the sonic envelope of the noises (most notably, the mother's voice) that filter through to the infant's hearing. Nostalgia for this stage of life persists long after its peace and plenitude are ruptured by the rude awakening called birth. This helps explain the power of music (increasingly important in Godard's cinema) to touch us in ways for which rational considerations can't wholly account. It also helps explain the cacophonous sounds in Numero deux, a film that extravagantly favors physical immediacy over coded communication. Numero deux loves noise - noise for the ears, such as the gobbledygook of overlapping sound tracks, and noise for the eyes, such as video static and on-and-off television pictures. Godard told us earlier that language games can cure sickness, so it isn't surprising that verbal and visual puns are a major component of this movie (which was produced after he himself had recuperated from his serious motorcycle accident). The way to heal blockage is with slippage - and nothing slides more easily, or with a more liberating effect, than a word or image whose meaning has no fixed abode other than in-the-moment dialogue with its audience.
Even as it pursues its fascination with the materiality of sight, sound, and cinema, Numero deux has ideological goals in mind, with specific analyses to conduct and sociopolitical messages to convey. Accordingly, some of its mostly brief episodes reduce the frequently high level of verbal and visual "noise," presenting lucid images with synchronized sound - in other words, coherent "scenes" appearing one at a time. Though these often range from difficult to obfuscatory, if measured in ordinary movie terms, they gather significance and force as the movie progresses.
As we would expect, many episodes continue the film's concern with culturally "low" subjects, focusing on women, children, housework, and biological details that transform the "abject" from an abstract category into an everyday affair. Inflecting their meaning are Godard's familiar intertitles, drawing our thoughts from the manifest content of the scenes to the ideas behind them, generally in punning, allusive ways. As the girl writes her "before I was born" statement on the blackboard, for instance, the intertitle REPRODUCTION appears and then changes to REGULATING, suggesting a long list of possible meanings and interconnections.
Soon afterward, Sandrine irons clothing in her kitchen while the little girl, Vanessa, paces restlessly about. Perhaps prompted by the seminudity of her mother, naked beneath an open bathrobe, Vanessa asks whether she herself will have "blood between [her] legs" when she is older. "Yes," replies Sandrine, adding, "You'll have to watch out for guys. They're not reliable." (Intertitle: REGULATING becomes EDITING.)
The composite image of sexual intercourse and the face of a girl (Vanessa) returns, and now the child makes an apparent reference to it: "Sometimes I think what Mama and Papa do is pretty, and sometimes I think it's caca." (Intertitle: MONTAGE becomes FACTORY.) Then we see Vanessa's lower body as Sandrine washes her in a bathtub. "Do all little girls have a hole?" the child asks, and a bit later, "Is that where memory comes out?" Answered with a cheerful "yes," the child asks where memory goes after it "comes out," and Sandrine replies, "It vanishes. It vanishes into the landscape. There's a factory in the landscape now."
The film's chain of associations is becoming more complex: Factory and landscape are still tightly connected, but the latest intertitle uses FACTORY as a link between MONTAGE and the body, which produces memories (residues of images previously consumed?) that disappear into the landscape, where (completing the cycle) they join another factory! It would be a challenging task, and perhaps an endless one, to count up all possible meanings of this visual-verbal rebus; but its most important point may be the comparison of the (female) body to a factory, at once physical (complete with "holes" that produce both excrement and new life) and psychological (there is a memory "hole" too).
We have seen the foregoing shots on a video screen that almost fillst he larger surface of the movie screen. Doubling this arrangement, two video screens now appear. A little boy (Nicholas) sits at a school desk, doing calculations and reading from a book about a "stupid wolf" who is ignorant, hungry, and lost. Then we see him at home, sitting moodily apart as his mother and little sister (Sandrine and Vanessa) dance nearly naked to a song with political lyrics. Sandrine likes the song's message that "anarchy is not a bomb, it's justice and liberty."
Intertitle: SOLITUDE becomes NUMBER ONE. A pop singer yowls about loneliness on the sound track, and we cut to Nicholas and Vanessa conversing about pop culture. More accurately, they are trading narratives obviously borrowed from pulp fiction or B movies - as they gaze at each other across a table. Nicholas begins, "She's the one who betrayed him, eight years ago.... She decided to kill everyone in her way." Vanessa continues, "By way of welcome she plowed five bullets into his belly. He'd committed two murders, but he loved her. What an odd time!" The scene is photographed to favor Nicholas, with the camera facing him over Vanessa's shoulder; yet her image often scrolls videographically over his, and her face dominates the whole screen for a moment near the end.
Once again, two important points emerge from a moment with little story or character development. For one, this represents a new approach to improvisation in cinema, made possible by video technology that allows artist(s) to manipulate or "play" the contents of the screen as spontaneously as if it were a musical instrument or the canvas of an "action painting." Godard's longtime interest in improvisation (dating back to Breathless) thus finds a new outlet and a host of fresh possibilities.
As for this particular improvisation, it is as if the two makers of Numero deux were making their own voices heard through the on-screen children, with the lesser-known Mieville wrestling the world-famous Godard for her fair share of attention. Reinforcing this interpretation (and the notion that Numero deux deals largely with gender politics) is the intertitle reading NUMBER TWO that appears just as the girl starts to speak. For years now, the names of Godard's films have cropped up at odd moments during the action; but this particular instance does not seem merely random and interruptive, especially since NUMBER ONE materialized just before Nicholas began his turn in the spotlight. These intertitles remind us that society indoctrinates even the youngest males and females into their "natural" places: Number i and Number 2, respectively. Fortunately, this movie is named after the "lesser" person, and an invisible hand at the video panel makes sure her image gets fair representation, despite the primary camera's all-too-typical position privileging her male companion. This is improvisation with an agenda.
The adult world returns on side-by-side video screens. On the left, the grandfather of the household tries to amuse a clearly bored Nicholas by burning a piece of cigarette paper and exulting over how completely the paper is consumed - a Godardian joke, perhaps, suggesting the minimal value placed on (old-fashioned) paper in the age of (fashionable) cinevideo. On the right, Sandrine and her husband (Pierre) quarrel violently as he tries to remove the stereo earphones that allow her a temporary escape from domestic life.
Two new screens then appear. On the right, Sandrine lies sleeping while factory-and-landscape imagery scrolls and unscrolls over her image, as if revealing her dreams. On the left, Pierre soliloquizes about city discomforts and the inadequacies of education; then he explains his job (as a recording technician) to Sandrine. He keeps talking after she leaves the room. "I've had kids," he says. "I never screw them. It's not allowed. I agree with that. I screw my wife, but it's no good. Thanks, boss." This remarkable speech points in three directions at once: toward the id impulses raging within him, toward the social norms restraining his behaviors, and toward the domestic unhappiness brewed by these unresolved tensions.
Intertitle: LANDSCAPE becomes NIGHT. Compressing to a single screen, the film returns to physical blockage as a metaphor for the repression of abject urges. "Shit! It's blocked up again! Awful plumbing in these projects," Pierre complains, moving from the toilet to the bathroom sink, where he urinates after getting Sandrine's permission. Talk then turns to sex:
SANDRINE: Do you want to tonight?
PIERRE: I don't know. We'll see.
SANDRINE: Thanks, boss.
She grasps his penis and massages it, complaining that he or "his job" always determine whether they'll have sex. He agrees with her anger, adding that getting an erection is often impossible for him nowadays. She sympathizes with him, but he makes a wisecrack about her periods and stalks out. "It all has to change," Sandrine wistfully laments. "But where does this [change] happen?"
The quarrel continues in the next scene. As a static-filled video monitor pulses on one side of the screen, Pierre does a household chore on the other, arguing with Sandrine about his reluctance to spend time with her. "There's always other [available] guys," she says - apparently a casual threat, but actually a turning point in the film'sm inimal story. An abrupt cut brings back the jolting primal-scene image, and Pierre finally reveals what this image means in narrative terms, integrating it into the movie's plot structure for the first time. "Something awful happened," he tells us. "Sandrine screwed another guy. She wouldn't say who. I wanted to rape her. She let me, and then I screwed her in the ass. She screamed. Afterward, we realized Vanessa was watching. Family life - maybe that's what it is."
This is strong stuff, and the filmmakers take immediate steps to defuse any melodramatic effect it may have, following it with a sort of grim comic relief: Pierre tries to help Sandrine figureo ut the controls of a new washing machine, and Sandrine's bent-over position echoes her posture when Pierre violated her. She wins this round by managing to start the washer - a victory for woman as "domestic engineer" in her household factory and fixes Pierre with a told-you-so look.
The next scene returns Pierre to dominance, however, as the couple has intercourse in what we learn is his favorite position, with Sandrine straddling him and facing toward his feet. She ostensibly has some control in her on-top location; but the camera views the scene from his perspective, and he tells Sandrine that he likes this position because it allows him to see parts of her that she cannot see herself. He then describes the view, offering (his) words as a replacement for (her) images. His description turns out to be surprisingly poetic, likening Sandrine's body to a river and its banks; yet the scene's visuals are deliberately awkward, as we stare past Pierre's nose to Sandrine's buttocks. His dominance of the situation is suspicious at best and unacceptable at worst, given our knowledge of his capacity for sexual violence.
Accordingly, the film counters this scene with another bedroom episode that privileges Sandrine, who faces the camera across Pierre's body as she masturbates him (without much effect) and delivers a monologue far more practical, poignant, and meaningful than his:
Every morning you leave. You get out of here. I'm not criticizing, but / don't have a job. I see your ass leaving, going off to work. That's a part of you that you never see. At night. . . and when you come home, I see your prick. ... I think love would have to be a job for you. ... If we were rich, I think I'd pay for it.
They aren't rich, Pierre quickly points out. The next scene finds Sandrine looking for a job of her own, while turning away a politically active neighbor who wants to interest her in the oppression of Chilean women. Problems in Chile are too distant for a woman preoccupied with difficulties close to home; but then again, oppression is a phenomenon Sandrine knows something about. As the right-hand video monitor reminds us of Pierre's sexual problems - his penis remains flaccid as she repeatedly takes its tip into her mouth - on the left-hand screen we watch her read a pamphlet describing female Chilean prisoners who are blindfolded, manipulated, and subjected to the desires of male guards.
"They are other women," she concludes. Then she adds, "Me, too." Could this be the beginning of a radicalized consciousness, or at least a politicized one?
We will not find out right away, since Sandrine must still give most of her attention to household chores, which she does not associate with political thinking. Raising her children is one of these, and a new challenge may be looming here, since Vanessa appears to be brooding over sexual subjects. While this is normal for a growing girl, it is surely more complicated than usual in this case, given the violent sex scene that Vanessa recently witnessed.
Sandrine greets Pierre cheerfully, then scrubs at Vanessa's shoes while the girl questions her about intimate matters: "Does Papa touch your breasts when you sleep together? Is it he who likes it, or is it you?" Sandrine answers directly: "Both of us do. But it's not the same. Sometimes it hurts. I like it anyway." Vanessa asks if she can watch them sleep together, and Sandrine replies with a noncommittal "we'll see," as if they were discussing a favorite dessert or some other casual treat.
This family is uncommonly candid about sexuality, and Godard and Mieville see this as a mixed blessing. It has liberating aspects, such as the parents' willingness to discuss sex with the kids; and it has oppressive sides, such as the sexual threats and abuses thrown heedlessly about the house. In any case, the family's day-to-day dynamics are steeped in the bland regularity of middle-class routine, suggesting that the filmmakers see sexual openness in itself as a weak defense against the bitter forms of alienation brought by blockages and brutalities of contemporary life.
excerpt from the book:The Films of Jean-Luc Godard: Seeing the Invisible by David Sterritt
Printed words fill the screen again: A L'ARRIVEE, signaling the delayed arrival of the film proper. Godard starts it off by noting that many kilometers away, the Vietcong are thinking about Saigon - while "three meters away, in this factory, you have to produce. Have to produce. But what to produce? And to go where?"
The notions of work, creation, and manufacture, here centered on the punning word "produce," will be central to Numero deux as it proceeds. For now, the words meaning ARRIVAL turn into THERE WILL BE, and the screen lights up again with a pair of video monitors, showing an old man at a stove and an old woman on a sofa. Looking distinctly unhappy in their domestic setting, they call out impatient phrases like "Always that!" and "No more of that!"
The word REPRODUCTION takes shape, and the video screens display a soccer match on the right and a household scene (grandparents, father,child) on the left. Reproduction has obviously taken place in this family - that is how families are made! - and reproduction now establishes itself as one of the film's subjects.
As the older folks sit in the background, the father leans down to talk with the young girl, then leaves with an abrupt swipe at her head, just as the sports announcer reports a penalty play on the sound track. Have we finally settled into an absorbing domestic drama? Evidently not, since the film's title appears again, and then we are back in Godard's studio, with two stacked-up video monitors dominating the screen. Godard is dimly visible, too, watching and occasionally adjusting the monitors. The upper one fast-forwards through the beginning of Vincent, Francois, Paul... and the Others, a French commercial drama (Claude Sautet, 1974) about male buddies whose hard knocks are softened by weekends of shared friendship. The lower one shows a news report on Southeast Asian developments (Saigon's name has changed to Ho Chi Minh City after a "pure and hard" revolution) and on Paris's traditional May Day parade, surely a poignant event for leftists like Godard seven years after the near-revolution of 1968. (May Day now focuses on conventional union demands, according to the report, but left-wing demonstrators are present, suggesting the continued possibility of radical change.) Occasionally the image is replaced by more printed words that change their messages one letter at a time, THIS SCREEN is transformed into A FILM THAT, foregrounding the movie as a material object. The capitalistic MERCHANDISE becomes the cultural MUSIC, calling attention to the Sautet film's lugubrious melody, as well as to the commodification of art in the commercial marketplace. Most important, WORK becomes SHIT and EQUALITY becomes LIBERTY - two pairings that foreshadow major themes of the film.
Numero deux then undergoes a larger transformation. We still see the video workplace with its two monitors juxtaposing news and entertainment, but we hear the voice of a new narrator: a character called Sandrine, adding her presence (invisible so far) to that of Godard, until now the film's dominating voice. Her delayed appearance suggests a subordinate status - she might be the "Number Two" of the title - but her position within the movie is not passive, as she shows by commenting on its content. "What about this film called Numero deux}9 ' she asks, competing for attention with continued sound from the TV monitors. "It shows incredible things. Ordinary things. Shitty things. Good things."
At about this point, the attentive viewer will notice that the Sautet movie on TV has been replaced by a different production: a hard-core sex picture with an emphasis on oral pleasures. "Pleasure isn't simple," observes Sandrine, ringing a less melancholy variation on Nana's discovery in My Life to Live that "pleasure is no fun." Printed words do another on-screen dance as CINEMA changes to POSSIBLE. "I think pain is simple," Sandrine goes on, ratifying Godard's earlier statement to that effect. "Not pleasure. Unemployment is simple. Not pleasure. I think that when unemployment is pleasurable, then fascism moves in." A sign in the porn movie reads "Dead End."
Sandrine then speaks again about the movie itself. "Numero deux is not a film of the left or the right," she informs us, "but a film 'before' or 'behind.' Before, there are children. Behind, there's the government... les enfants de la patrie .. . the nation. You learn that it's a factory." As she speaks the words "before or behind," the shot of Godard's audiovisual workshop is replaced with a jarring new image: a composite video picture that combines a little girl's face with a superimposed view of a couple having sexual intercourse; both partners are standing as the man (his pants around his knees) penetrates the woman (her skirt over her hips) from behind.
So much is going on here that again it is necessary to dwell in detail on one fleeting moment. By combining images of a child's face and two adults having intercourse, the composite shot strongly suggests that the girl is watching this sexual activity. This makes it a reenactment of what Sigmund Freud calls the "primal scene": the moment when a child witnesses (or fantasizes) intercourse between the parents, is seized with jealousy at being excluded from this intimate act - and also stunned with fear of such overwhelming physicality - and instantly represses the experience into the unconscious, where it will retain its haunting (and tantalizing) emotional energy forever after.
Heightening this moment in Numero deux is the image's interplay with Sandrine's narration. At first, her replacement of "left and right" with "before and behind" appears to be a whimsical example of the "word games" defended by Godard a little earlier. However, the sense of whimsy diminishes as her monologue continues: "Before, there are children. Behind, there's the government.. . ." If children are "before" or "in front," they must be in the position of the woman on the screen; and if the government is "behind," it must be in the position of the man, mechanically "screwing" its passive and possibly unwilling partner.
If government = power and children = innocence, Sandrine and Godard clearly see modern society as corrupt, brutalizing, and sick. Moreover, the government is not some alien entity that exercises power through its own self-generated strength. Sandrine links government with les enfants de la patrie - the "children of the nation," as citizens are called in "La Marseillaise," the French national anthem. She then labels this hydra-headed monster a "factory," thus returning us to the film's opening words, about a factory and a landscape locked into close but uneasy coexistence.
By this point it is clear that Numero deux aims to analyze and criticize a number of interlocking phenomena: the home, where children must cope with such daunting existential challenges as the primal scene and other parental mysteries; the education system, which ill prepares them for present or future tasks; the industrial world, where people's lives are not their own; the government, which uses and abuses us; and the mass media, including the film and video technologies used to make Numero deux itself.
Continuing the latter thread, the shot of Godard's audiovisual workshop returns to the screen, its monitors still showing a commercial movie and a news report. "Film is also a factory," Sandrine observes, "a factory that manufactures images, like television." She then offers a sort of mediasavvy nursery rhyme, again confirming childhood (and its comparative innocence) as an organizing factor in the movie:
Once upon a time there was an image.
Once upon a time there were two images.
Twice upon a time there was a sound.
Once upon a time there were two sounds.
Number One and Number Two.
This leads (at last!) to the credits of Numero deux, which Sandrine recites aloud. But wait a moment - surprises are frequent in Godardian cinema, and this turns out to be not the credit sequence after all but a "coming attractions" teaser. "Numero deux: coming soon on this screen!" announces Sandrine, with typically deadpan delivery.
Has the film actually started, or are we still in some kind of preamble? Does Numero deux have an "official" beginning at all? It is probably better not to worry about such things, turning our attention to the momentby-moment progress of whatever it is we are watching.
Sandrine encourages us in precisely that direction. "This screen is on a wall," she notes, pointing out the obvious. Then she problematizes her simple statement by asking, "A wall between what and what?" We know from earlier films that Godard loves to challenge the commonsense borders, boundaries, and dividing lines - that is, the conceptual walls - that we customarily use to organize our everyday thoughts and activities. He is willing to grant that movies and videos materialize on screens, an these screens generally have walls behind them. What, however, do those (metaphorical) walls separate the movies and videos from? Is it the multitude of real-life problems continually thrust at us by families, governments, schools, factories, and the market forces that determine what cinema and television will comprise? If so, our fascination with screens and spectacles - our willingness to gaze at them without really thinking about them - ties in with far-from-ideal social situations that cry out for critical reflection.
The two-sided coin of separation and combination is a fundamental theme of Numero deux. The movie's interests range from common yet ambiguous categories like "before" and "behind" to such filmic phenomena as the juxtaposition of different shots, which are separated by "cuts" in conventional film, but can merge and combine in video composites like the "primal scene" image we've just watched.
Most profoundly, Numero deux is concerned with the hazy boundaries between different people - boundaries that are both affirmed and erased by sexual activity - and between different aspects of a single person. These aspects may be conflicting facets of the mind, forever split between conscious and unconscious, reason and unreason, influences of the past and imperatives of the present. Then again, they may be various parts of the unruly human body; we have noted Godard's tendency to see the body in fractured terms, using strings of words or images to represent bodies as collections of separate part-objects rather than coherent wholes.
All of which explains why Numero deux is itself simultaneously divided and unified in its interests and methodologies. "So another political film?" Sandrine asks rhetorically. "No, it's not political," she immediately answers, "it's pornographic. No, it's not pornographic, it's political. So is it pornographic or political? Why do you always ask either-or? Maybe it's both at once."
She then restates the phrase "twice upon a time," which is becoming an unofficial motto of the film, and another video screen lights up with a little girl writing on a blackboard. Sandrine proposes that we put aside "talk, talk" and attend to quiet looking and listening.
"Look at what?" she queries. "You don't always need to go far. There's a lot to see.... Your sex, for example. Have you ever looked at it? Did you let others know you looked at it? Honestly. Not like in commercials or adventure movies."
The idea of gazing at a part of one's own body, instead of at manufactured body-images in entertainments and advertisements, suggests that visual pleasure can be found by (a) distinguishing between two ways of seeing and (b) choosing the one that is most often overlooked. The overrated way is institutional, fabricated for consumption by a wide, lowestcommon-denominator audience. The underrated way is introspective, focused on the everyday and close at hand.
Another key metaphor of Numero deux then reappears in a new form, further blurring divisions between personal and public, animate and inanimate, natural and artificial. "Didn't you ever ask yourself if Papa is a factory or a landscape?" Sandrine asks. "And if Mama is a landscape or a factory? In my opinion, a factory.... Or maybe a power plant. It charges and discharges. And it hurts."
excerpt from the book: The Films of Jean-Luc Godard: Seeing the Invisible by David Sterritt
Abjection - at the crossroads of phobia, obsession, and perversion. ... Its symptom is the rejection and reconstruction of languages.
- Julia Kristeva
Weekend does not mark the dawning of abjection - that drastic preoccupation with the low, the dejected, the discarded - or the beginning of narrative breakdown in Godard's work. He had been traveling in these directions from the beginning, picking up speed when My Life to Live brought new radicalism to his complex relationship with movie conventions. His skepticism toward linear narrative made a major leap with A Married Woman in 1964, grew more pronounced in Pierrot le fou and Masculine/ Feminine over the next two years, and became a dominating factor in 2 or 3 Things I Know about Her and La Chinoise, which show their disregard for storytelling by largely ignoring it - rather than disintegrating it in full view of the audience, as Weekend does.
Pulverized beyond repair, narrative remains mostly absent from Godard's work for a dozen years after Weekend. What replaces it is an ongoing extension of the Weekend scene where the Arab and African laborers deliver their ideologically charged speeches - bringing the already tenuous plot to a standstill in order to address the spectator as an alert, thinking presence who is engaged with the film's ideas as actively as Godard himself.
Le Gai Savoir (1968), his first picture following Weekend, consists largely of political conversations held by a young man and woman who are seeking what theorist Roland Barthes calls a "degree zero" of language - a verbal "style of absence," to use another Barthes phrase, emancipated from limiting burdens of conventional meaning. Following this in Godard's filmography is a series of radical cinematic experiments, including a group of collaborative Cine-Tracts, revolutionary essays lasting a few minutes each and intended for distribution outside the theatrical circuit. Other works of this varied and provocative period include Un Film comme les autres (1968), the first movie bearing the Dziga-Vertov Group signature; One Plus One, alternating record-studio footage of the Rolling Stones with stylized dramatic scenes about race, revolution, and violence; and Wind from the East (1969), cinema's first Marxist western.
Adding notions of authorship, individuality, and identity itself to the list of conventions he wanted to interrogate, Godard put a disorienting spin not only on the styles and subjects of his movies during this time but on his own auteur status as well. Seven projects completed between 1969 (the year of British Sounds and Pravda) and 1972 (the year of Tout va bien and Letter to Jane) are attributed either to the Dziga-Vertov Group or to Godard and one of his collaborators, Jean-Pierre Gorin and Jean-Henri Roger, both as committed to radical cinema as their famous partner. Still, it was Godard's established (if contentious) reputation that played an essential (if ironic) role in getting such outlandish projects out of the discussion group and onto the screen.
Not many screens, however. Godard's determination to revolutionize society by contesting the pleasures of bourgeois entertainment was audacious in theory, problematic in practice: As one critic wrote, the audience for the Dziga-Vertov Group shrank and shrank until even Godard and Gorin were no longer speaking to each other. In their penultimate project together, Tout va bien, they sought wider attention by employing movie stars (Jane Fonda and Yves Montand) and telling the more-or-less linear story of a strike by angry workers against an exploitative factory and the greedy capitalist who runs it. The result was a qualified artistic success but an unqualified commercial failure, reinforcing the growing suspicion that whatever the potential might have been for an effectively subversive cinema in the years immediately after 1968, there was little prospect of its realization now that the 1970s were in full swing.
Events in Godard's personal life - never all that separate from his professional life - provided more impetus for change. His marriage to Anne Wiazemsky, who around 1967 had initiated him into the ways of Maoist idealism, ended as unhappily as had his earlier relationship with Anna Karina. His new companion, Anne-Marie Mieville, helped him recover from his serious motorcycle accident a few months before Tout va bien started filming, and soon became his artistic as well as domestic partner. Godard's last collaboration with Gorin was the 1972 essay film Letter to Jane, a fifty-two-minute critical analysis of a still photograph of Jane Fonda, star of Tout va bien and all-around leftist agitator of the period. This was followed by two years of cinematic silence and then Here and Elsewhere (1974), the first of several Godard-Mieville collaborations. Here and Elsewhere grew from a 1969 trip that Godard and Gorin had taken to Jordan and Lebanon, where they shot material for Until Victory, a documentary on the Palestinian revolution. A year later the Palestinian effort was smothered by events of Jordan's civil war, and the two filmmakers proceeded to terminate both their Palestinian project and the DzigaVertov Group itself. Godard was learning to capitalize on seemingly unusable footage, however. Shots from the unfinished 1 A.M. I One American Movie had been recycled into the proudly eccentric 1 P.M. I One Parallel Movie (1971) under a joint Jean-Luc Godard-D. A. Pennebaker signature. In a somewhat similar move, Godard and Mieville now edited material from Until Victory into the very different Here and Elsewhere, which deals not with the Palestinian movement as such but rather with the ways in which media representations conveyed (and distorted) its meanings for people close to it (here) and in distant places (elsewhere). The result is as radical and polemical as anything the Dziga-Vertov Group produced during its three years of existence; yet along with a now-familiar dissection of political issues and cinematic forms, it also suggests a renewed interest in self-examination by Godard and his collaborators. Much the same can be said of Comment ca va, a 1976 docudrama that uses discussion and debate to seek ideologically acceptable ways of spreading information about progressive activities.
It was between these two political-essay films that Godard and Mieville produced their signature work of this period: Numero deux, a picture steeped in dissidence and dissonance. Although rigid sociopolitical norms had been on Godard's enemies list for years, his partnership with Mieville appears to have stimulated his outrage on this subject to new intensity. If moralizing, standardizing, and circumscribing are the weapons used by cultures to enforce "proper" thinking and "correct" behavior, thereby erecting arbitrary borders around our potentially unlimited lives, then he and Mieville would attack these insidious practices without mercy. They would do this not through the abstract theorization that had proved so hard to manage in the Dziga-Vertov Group films, however. Instead they would make an aggressively concrete movie capable of grabbing attention and galvanizing imagination through the sheer extremity of its approach.
The arrival of Numero deux in movie theaters was surrounded by what amounted to an elaborate practical joke. Godard was still a celebrity in 1975, despite his years of "hiding" from conventional audiences behind a barrage of unpopular films. He also knew that revolutionaries of his generation had a tendency to "mellow" and "mature" as they grew older, particularly as the widespread radicalism of the 1960s gave way to a more conservative Zeitgeist. Playing on expectations that he might follow this pattern, he let it be known that he planned to leave radical cinema and return to the "mainstream" filmmaking that he had done so much to energize in bygone years. The impression spread among his admirers that his comeback vehicle was called Numero deux, or Number Two, because it was a remake of Breathless, the hugely acclaimed film that had launched his filmmaking career; evidently they overlooked the fact that his partner in the production was the same Anne-Marie Mieville who had worked by his side on the demanding Here and Elsewhere, and few observers took his hints about the new film to mean it would be as drastic in style and confrontational in content as any of the works that had lately been testing their patience.
Whether despite this misunderstanding or because of it, Numero deux was greeted respectfully by thoughtful critics who looked far enough beyond its sensational elements to see that it contained an effective set of solutions to many of the problems Godard had been posing for himself and his audience. The movie told a story without being enslaved by narrative; it developed characters without being confined by their insular concerns; it probed social, political, and philosophical issues without sliding into rarified abstraction.
None of this means that Numero deux is a remake of Breathless in any readily detectable sense, of course, or that it recognizably returns to some earlier form of Godardian cinema. Among its other new departures, it is his first feature-length work to make extensive use of video footage, much of it filmed from video monitors that retain their television "look" within the larger motion-picture frame. During much of the film, two monitors with different images are shown at the same time; filmmaker and critic Harun Farocki suggests that Godard picked up this idea from his recent experience in video production, since video editing is normally done with a pair of monitors showing edited and unedited material, respectively.
The film does mark a clear continuation of theories and practices Godard had explored earlier, however, and its logical place within his body of work is confirmed by three of its central qualities. One is a deep concern with modern society's division of everyday life into separate domains of "labor" and "leisure," allegedly a "natural" arrangement but really an unnecessary attack on human fulfillment, perpetuated by its own alienated victims. Another is a continued interest in sexuality as both human behavior and artistic metaphor, dissected here with a psychosocial intensity that makes Weekend look almost well-mannered. The third is an undimmed enthusiasm for discursive interruption, cinematic interference, and creative obstruction of the image flow that seduces us so effortlessly in regular movies.
All three of these interests can be traced back to Godard's early features; yet they acquire extraordinary force and clarity in Numero deux, indicating the undiminished desire of its makers not merely to communicate with but (in proper Brechtian fashion) to stimulate and activate the widespread audience they hoped to attract with this "return to mainstream cinema."
As previous chapters have indicated, perhaps the most straightforward way of reading Godard's career is to see it as a steady trajectory away from conventionally seamless cinema (resisted since the early shorts) and toward an energetic fracturing of the film-watchinge xperience. From the impulsive jump cuts of Breathless to the collagelike rhythms of Weekend and the wholesale rejection of narrative in the Dziga-Vertov Group films, Godard shows growing interest in fragmentation - of movies, of the creative processes that produce movies, and of the places and objects (especially bodies) that appear within movies.
Numero deux is another milestone on this path, as its very first images make clear. The screen is divided into three distinct areas. On the left is a patch of bright red video static. On the right is a rectangular patch containing close-ups of a man and woman, who turn to gaze into the camera. In the center are printed words, some (the column on the left) steadily readable but others (the two on the right) blinking on and off
SON IMAGE SON
Translations are easy: mon = my, ton = your, son = his, image = image. However, the word son also means "sound," and we certainly hear sounds as we read these words: chirping birds, distant voices of children, and kitchen or household noises. (Note also that Numero deux is the second film - after Here and Elsewhere the preceding year - from the Sonimage production company, set up by Godard and Mieville as an alternative to the commercial studios.) Instead of inviting us into a story, therefore, the movie starts by establishing the screen (and sound system) as a place not of narrative illusion but of visibility and audibility for their own sakes. This explains the barrage of disconnected images, random sounds, and printed words that assert their punning personalities here (also getting in a plug for the outfit that made the film!)
The next scene is equally fragmented. We see two side-by-side video images. On the upper left is a city view with a plaza in the foreground, trees in the midground, and buildings in the background. On the lower right are two children, a boy and a girl. "There was a landscape," the boy says, "and a factory was put into it." The shot of the children then starts alternating with a shot of two adults, a man and woman, puttering in a kitchen and talking about injustices faced by workers who lose their jobs or labor in unsafe conditions. The little girl speaks a variation of the little boy's comment: "There was a factory, and a landscape was put around it." Since this is still the very beginning of the movie, one might hear in this sentence a hint of "Once upon a time. ..."
Preceding these images, we saw the film's title in provisional form: NUMERO 2 / TEST TITLES. Now it returns more formally, with NUMERO DEUX fully spelled out; but no sooner does it materialize than it starts to change, one letter at a time, until the screen spells out AU DEPART, meaning "departure." (The metamorphosis happens in stages, so evocative fragments like ERO and DEO make fleeting appearances along the way. This happens with intertitles throughout the film, and although the transformations are generally simple letter-by-letter replacements from left to right, some produce more puns and double entendres than space allows me to trace here.)
The movie then begins all over again, this time with Godard himself appearing as a sort of host or master of ceremonies. He stands at the right of the screen, resting his hands on a TV monitor that displays his face, which is otherwise hard to see because of the camera's angled position. He faces various pieces of audiovisual equipment, including a couple of movie projectors. Talking in the manner of an introductory speaker leading up to a main topic, he remarks on subjects that have long been important to him: language, politics, control. Given its in-person delivery and its position at the beginning of a major work in a transitional phase of Godard's career, his monologue is worth sustained attention.
"When the delegate makes a speech," he begins, "he reads the words of others. I think it's the paper that gives orders, and that's the trouble." Assuming that Godard functions as a sort of "delegate" in this movie appearance, he is evidently criticizing the scripts that supply conventional films with their prefabricated, predigested content. Like a jazz musician (or Beat poet) warming up some favorite riffs, he then launches into a few vague anecdotes based on puns or slippery definitions. In one he uses the word "machine" in both its standard meaning and its specifically French meaning (machin) of "what's-his-name." In another he calls his roomful of audiovisual equipment a "library" with no books. In a third he speaks of "paper" in the different contexts of books, printing, and money.
He then introduces a subject that will be central to the movie as a whole: the factory as a metaphor with a wide range of applications, from the intensely personal to the sweepingly social. "In biology, you know, this is a factory here," he says, still speaking in his free-associative manner. "You could call it a factory. The body's a factory, too. I listen to the machines. That machine's going faster. That machine's going slower. And I'm the boss, but I'm a special boss because I'm a worker as well. And because I'm not alone as a worker, we've taken power."
Godard is probably being ironic here, since his "power" is only that of an independent film artist operating far from the financialr esources of commercial cinema. Nevertheless, this speech appears to come from his heart, and its personal nature is underscored by a reference to his stillrecent road accident: "I was sick for a long time, and that made me think, about the factory." Also sincere - wistful, even - are subsequent remarks about his "factory" being different from others with names like Fox, Metro, Mosfil'm, and Algerian National Cinematography, all connected to "a multinational company that does the programs." He then complains that people are programmed, too. "You can't ever use what you learn in school," he gripes. "If I did literature, I'd tell you that the government programs people with methods that are full of holes. Stepping stones: workers, the children of workers. They go to school, and after school to the factory. It's all the same."
Good point. Still, in a monologue that slips so mercurially from multinational film factories to shortcomings of the French school system, we may be wondering by now whether Godard is wholly in earnest or if he has shifted into his stand-aside-and-ironize mode.
Staying a quick step ahead of us, he anticipates our question - "Games with words, you say?" - and affirms the importance of hard-to-pin-down language that ambushes our ingrained habits. "In democracies there's something that doesn't surprise me: Word games are banished in a certain sense.... We say they're not serious. But puns - a word that slides on a thing - it's a language, and after all, love taught us language." Wordplay should liberate instead of enslaving, he continues, expanding on a perennial theme. "It slides. That shows short-circuits, interference, and so on. We use it to cure sickness sometimes. So it's serious. We say it's complicated ... but it's things that are complicated. Pain is simple."
The monologue ends with a lengthy anecdote about a friend named Georges (probably Georges de Beauregard, his erstwhile producer) who came to visit, saw Godard's machines, and said the filmmaker should put them to use. Godard replied that he needed money, and the two repaired for a drink at a nearby bus station, where Godard agreed with the proprietor that provincial Grenoble is "smaller, sweeter, softer" than Paris, his former home. Georges then boarded a Paris-bound plane, promising to raise 600,000 francs for a movie. Godard concludes his story, "A newspaper would have said, 'It was a chilly November morn. The tires squeaked on the runway....' But no literature. Money, commerce, beauty."
That last phrase is Godard's three-word definition of modern filmmaking.
excerpt from the book: The Films of Jean-Luc Godard: Seeing the Invisible by David Sterritt