The Best DVD of the Year: Jean-Luc Godard’s Histoire(s) du Cinema

A quarter-century after the French director began it, his grand film essay on movies is finally available in America

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New Yorker Films / Everett

Director Jean-Luc Godard in 1980

Some works of art, like Vladimir Nabokov’s The Original of Laura or the Beach Boys’ Smile, spend decades in the tantalizing mists of rumor. We’ve heard they exist but can’t get access to them, because their creators wouldn’t let them go. The legend of Histoire(s) du Cinéma, by the crafty, cranky, utterly unique French filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard, was even more frustrating for American movie lovers. Parts of this eight-part series were shown on French TV and at a few film festivals between 1987 and 1998. But because Histoire(s) comprised hundreds of clips of movies, music and poetry, clearing the rights was nearly as heroic an accomplishment as the series itself. In 2007 Gaumont finally produced a DVD edition, which became available in the U.S. last month, in a two-disc, no-frills edition from Olive Films.

Histoire(s) was worth the wait. This show-and-tell lecture on film history is everything you’d expect, and more, from the man who in the ’50s was a penetrating, iconoclastic critic for the film magazine Cahiers du Cinéma; whose debut feature film, Breathless in 1960, brought the French New Wave of moviemakers crashing on international shores; and who has kept on astounding and confounding film lovers in the half-century since. Both a work of criticism and the creative capstone of Godard’s career, Histoire(s) crams the grand, sordid spectacle of American and European cinema into a 4 hour and 24 minute-long love letter, an eloquent rant, a majestic atonal symphony. Godard scholar Jonathan Rosenbaum compares this towering triumph to James Joyce’s last novel, Finnegans Wake. Maybe, but Histoire(s) is a lot more fun — and, hands down, the year’s most enthralling, infuriating, must-have DVD.

(MORE: Find Godard in the All-TIME 100 Movies)

A long-distance swimmer outside the mainstream of film naturalism, Godard, who turned 81 on Dec. 3, tells the story of movies in a virtuoso movie style. He piles clips and film stills atop snatches of dialogue and music atop his own aphoristic commentary — layers upon layers of information and enlightenment — until the work is as densely illustrated as a medieval Bible or a madman’s diary. In an early segment, Godard’s voice tells us that MGM’s boy genius Irving Thalberg “was the only one who thought of 52 movies a year”; a photo of the producer dissolves into a shot of Greta Garbo kissing John Gilbert in Thalberg’s 1927 Flesh and the Devil; the movie’s title appears on the screen; and under Godard’s narration, Rita Hayworth sings the first few bars of “Bewitched” from Pal Joey — the whole thing in about 10 seconds. No question, a familiarity with old films increases the pleasure of watching this ceaseless cascade of movie lore, but any adventurous amateur can be entertained and moved by the wash of potent images and piquant opinions.

Back in 1964, when the French authorities saw Godard’s La Femme Mariée (The Married Woman), they were so unsettled by his depiction of a young wife who juggles the demands of husband, child and lover that they insisted the title be changed to Une Femme Mariée (A Married Woman). She was not all French women, just one, Similarly, Histoire(s) du Cinéma is not the but a history of movies — a single, singular view, and one occasionally at war with its own opinions. “Do I contradict myself?” wrote Walt Whitman. “Very well, then I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes.”  The panorama of one man arguing with the world and himself makes for the most teeming crowd scene in film history.

I. HISTORIES AND STORIES

Histoire du Cinéma is French for the “history of cinema”; Histoires du Cinéma means “stories of movies.” Histoire(s) du Cinéma is a clue that Godard’s approach will be both synoptic and anecdotal; he’s the professor declaiming to a packed classroom and the brilliant auto-savant overheard at the next table in a Left Bank café. As addicted to puns as Gene Shalit or the headline writers on The Daily Show, Godard bends his title further into “HisTOIre du CineMOI,” which could be translated as “the You Story of My Cinema” or, crunching it into Franglish, “His You Reducing Me.” Language, no less than film iconography, is a plaything for Godard, Silly Putty for his probing mind.

And in his hands. Histoire(s) begins with Godard — the familiar craggy figure in dark glasses, his cheeks Eastwoodishly stubbled, his teeth clenching a cigar — guiding a reel of film slowly through an editing machine. Then he sits at his typewriter, seemingly oblivious of the boom mic swinging in front of him, intoning the titles of classic films (The Rules of the Game, Cries and Whispers, Broken Blossoms) in his thin, gruff voice, sounding like Tom Waits after a gulp of helium. This is hands-on, handmade art, the director snipping frames of a masterpiece and pasting it to run next to a shot of Hitler or Stalin, or a porno clip.

(MORE: Richard Corliss’s Top 10 Best Movies of 2011)

In the 1920s Sergei Eisenstein, the Soviet film director, adapted Marx’s theory of dialectical materialism to create an aesthetic of editing: placing images in collision, to produce a visual and emotional synthesis — in Godard’s phrase, to “bring things together that don’t seem ready to be.” Taking a century of cinema as the raw material for his dialectic, Godard is the impresario of a virtual cage match of old movies fighting to stick in our memories. A snippet of the “Girl Hunter” ballet from The Band Wagon, with Cyd Charisse vamping Fred Astaire, is played over the lover’s monologue from Last Year at Marienbad. Imperiled Lillian Gish from D.W. Griffith’s Broken Blossoms is intercut with the helmeted soldiers from Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky. Shots of the young Ida Lupino, the English beauty turned Hollywood director, abrade against photos of the older Lupino. The vital young director Nicholas Ray turns instantly into a Dorian Gray portrait — his sexagenarian self.

(Late-breaking news: After I wrote this review, Ed Grant, host of the invaluable Media Funhouse blog and Manhattan cable access TV show, alerted me that the French scholar Céline Scemama has compiled a key to Histoire(s), itemizing in order virtually all of the myriad cinematic, sonic and literary references. It’s part of Scemama’s 2006 book Histoire(s) du cinéma de Jean-Luc Godard: La force faible d’un art (The Weak Force of an Art), which hasn’t yet been translated into English. Even if it were, I’d hope some anglophone Godardian would write a book-length treatise on Histoire(s) in the spirit of Joseph Campbell and Henry Morton Robinson’s pioneering 1944 study, A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake. Paging Mr. Rosenbaum?)

An adherent of director Samuel Fuller’s dictum that all movies need are a girl and a gun, Godard explains essential film technique in terms of sex and violence. “The medium shot,” he says, is “framed at the belt — all because of the gun, therefore the genitals. But only for the men. Women were framed at the breasts. And deep inside each love story lurks the story of a nurse.” In his episode on Hitchcock, he defines film style by synopsizing the romantic necrophilia of Vertigo: “It’s a bra-less blond followed by a detective scared of heights who will prove this is all just cinema. Which means it’s child’s play.”

Godard’s memory bank is overstocked with priceless pictures, beginning with James Stewart holding a camera to his eye in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window. That is the central image of movie voyeurism, and Godard — habitual connoisseur of the female form, and promoter of such entrancers as Jean Seberg, Anna Karina and Juliette Binoche — believes with John Berger that cinema is a man looking at a woman. We look at the young Harriet Andersson, topless and abloom on a beach in Ingmar Bergman’s Monika; at Fay Wray in King Kong’s embrace; at dusky Jennifer Jones, writhing in the desert at the end of her Duel in the Sun; at a whole Photoplay parade of female glamour. The first face to grace the episode called “Fatal Beauty” is, of course, Ava Gardner’s.

But the central image of Histoire(s) is from Bergman’s 1949 Prison, also known as The Devil’s Wanton. An attractive young couple, Birger Malmsten and Doris Svedlund, with a small movie projector between them, stare urgently at the unseen screen. They are both the actors and the audience: the lustrous stars, inhabiting a story, and the little people in the dark, awaiting the wonder.

II. THE INDUSTRY OF MASKS AND MAGIC

In his commentary, Godard spins tart maxims on the movies’ interactions with politics, religion and economics. He argues for the medium’s essential trickery: “Cinema is not part of the communication industry, or the entertainment industry, but the cosmetics, the industry of masks, which is only a small branch of the industry of lies.” He contrasts the mediocrity of most films with the searing nature of art: “Movies are merchandise. Movies must be burnt… Art is like fire; it’s born from what is burnt.” He thinks of film as a theological hallucination: “Cinema, like Christianity, isn’t grounded in historical truth. It tells a story and says, ‘Now, believe.’ Not ‘Have faith in this story as you do in history,’ but ‘Believe, whatever happens.’”

In some ways this eternal radical is a traditionalist: he loves the seductive shadings of black-and-white movies. (“Technicolor films were as bright as funeral wreaths.”) He decries television, which both democratized the screen image and shrank it: “bringing entertainment from all over the world into the poorest bedrooms, by reducing the giant sky of the shepherds” — he means the celestial ceilings of movie palaces — “to the level of Tom Thumb.” He thinks the medium erased the audience’s cinema literary. “Those who watch television have no tears left to cry. They unlearned to see.” Yet here he is, in Histoire(s), as a French TV host, the Alistair Cooke or Simon Cowell of the European avant-garde. “And this is why I speak with words,” he says. “Because I am on television. Or rather, in the TV set.” And he puts a TV frame around his face. A title card reads: “Cogito ergo video.” I think therefore I see; I want to share my thoughts, therefore I’m on home video.

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