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

A visitor in French, and now American, homes, Godard often discards the manners of the docile guest. He twists the name of the Italian TV channel RAI3, owned by the media mogul and Duce Sergio Berlusconi, into “Reich3” — the Third Reich. He mocks France’s impotence against the Nazi invasion, saying, “The German army took the French army from behind.” And he seems to anticipate the lurid excesses of reality TV when he compares moviegoers with televiewers: “For 50 years in the dark, the audience burned imagination to heat up reality. Now it’s seeking revenge. It wants real tears and real blood.”

(MORE: Mary Pols’ 10 Best Movies of 2011)

In these sideswipes, the old rebel is just warming up for his big dialectic: the fantasy of movie escapism vs. the nightmare of those for whom there is no escape. His contrasting footage can be sobering or shocking — as when Vera Miles in the Psycho basement is intercut with a girl in a Nazi concentration camp; or when the poor pinhead in Tod Browning’s Freaks seems to be laughing at an old stag movie, and this is followed by an emaciated female cadaver being tossed into a pit of Auschwitz flesh. Born in 1930, and growing up during World War II, Godard sees an essential movie connection between love and death, couples and corpses, Hollywood and the Holocaust.

He devotes his fifth episode (“The Coin of the Absolute”) to the consideration of politics and cinema during the war. He shows French stars gaily boarding a train to visit the movie studios of the Third Reich, and intercuts this with footage of other trains taking Jewish prisoners to their awful destiny. “Why wasn’t there a Resistance cinema in 1944-45?” he asks of French filmmakers, too cozy with their German overlords. And “The British did what they always did in cinema: nothing.” (Ka-pow!) Flashing forward 50 years, he notes acidulously that the Polish film industry “ended up welcoming Spielberg [for Schindler’s List], when ‘Never again’ became ‘It’s better than nothing’.” Godard then cuts to a brief, repellent image — the rough prelude to interspecies copulation — as if the Poles’ hosting a serious film by a world-class director amounted to a crime against not just humanity but nature.

Only the Italians, with Roberto Rossellini’s 1945 Open City and other neorealist films, shine in Godard’s eyes. “With Open City,” he says, “Italy won back the right for a country to look at itself.” He likens the nation’s postwar cinema to two millennia of Roman and Italian poets, and in a rapturous montage called “Viva l’Italia” he conjures potent scenes from Bicycle Thieves, Umberto D, Bitter Rice, Senso, Il Bidone, La Strada, Stromboli and The Flowers of St. Francis, interspersed with pertinent (untranslated) quotations from Ovid, Lucretius and Dante — and all set to the 1993 song “La Nostra Lingua Italiana,” Riccardo Cocciante’s tribute to the Italian language. If this seems a stunning display of emotion from the famously acerbic director… well, these are beautiful films. They were also the films Godard saw when he was young, and impressionable, and discovering the magic of movies.


Youth is a time of boundless ambition, and in that sense Godard is forever young. But knowing so much of film history — and having made a good deal of it himself — is a blessing and a curse for Godard. He seconds Virginia Woolf’s observation, in The Waves, that “It is terrible to have the gift of feeling, feeling with such intensity.” In one episode, he confesses to Serge Daney, the Cahiers editor and film theoretician, that writing about and making movies “was the only way of making, telling, realizing, that I have my own story. Without cinema, I wouldn’t exist; there would be no ‘me’.”

At one point in Histoire(s) Godard says he wants not only to share his thoughts about every film ever made but also to tell “all the stories of movies that were never made.” Yet he realizes the futility of trying to pack all of cinema’s history into one film. “I need a day to make the story of a second,” he says. “I need a year to make the story of a minute. I need a lifetime to make the story of an hour. I need eternity to make the story of a day.” Besides, can any of us say what’s real in the movie world or beyond it? “Sometimes, at night, someone whispers in my room,” Godard says, sounding like a haunted child in a Paranormal Activity movie. “I turn the television off, but the whispers remain.” The young firebrand also must acknowledge that, as he slowly morphed into an old firebrand, many of the film images stocked in his brain may blur or vanish. “I don’t remember any more. I imagine.” .

But refining memory into essential images is exactly what movies do, exactly how directors create their own worlds for the moviegoer to live inside. In his Hitchcock episode, called “The Control of the Universe,” Godard says, “We forgot why Joan Fontaine leans over the cliff edge [in Rebecca]. And what was Joel McCrea doing in Holland [in Foreign Correspondent]? We forgot why Montgomery Clift remains forever silent [in I Confess], and why Janet Leigh stops at the Bates Motel [in Psycho], and why Teresa Wright is still in love with Uncle Charlie [in Shadow of a Doubt]. … But we remember a handbag. But we remember a bus in the desert. But we remember a glass of milk, the wings of a mill, a hairbrush. But we remember a row of bottles, a pair of glasses, a music sheet, a set of keys. Because through them and with them, Alfred Hitchcock succeeded where Alexander, Julius Caesar, Hitler, Napoleon failed. Take control of the universe.”


Any 264-min. history lesson, especially one with literally thousands of images and assertions, is bound to harbor errors. Godard let a few creep in. He cites Howard Hughes as “the producer of Citizen Kane” (though Hughes bought RKO seven years after it sponsored Orson Welles’ debut film); says the German producer Erich Pommer founded Universal Pictures (he founded the Berlin studio Ufa); identifies Tyrone Power as Dolores Del Rio’s co-star in Bird of Paradise (it was Joel McCrea); says “Kodak made its fortune with X rays, not with Snow White.” (Actually, the company flourished by selling film to the general public. And Walt Disney’s first animated feature was made on Technicolor stock, not Kodak.)

But someone else can fact-check the professor’s treatise. The rest of us can be awed by this capacious vision of movie history — indeed, of music, literature and art history. Leonard Cohen’s “Came So Far for Beauty” aurally caresses images of Jane Russell and Janet Leigh. Cohen is a recurring bard, as is Bernard Herrmann in his Hitchcock period; but Godard’s musical taste ranges from Waits and Otis Redding to Beethoven’s Sixth and Seventh Symphonies and Giya Kanchelli’s Abii ne viderem. In addition to quoting the Latin and Italian poets, Godard borrows from Proust, Pound and Borges. And if all the old movie clips aren’t elevated enough for your taste, bathe in all the paintings on display — by Goya, Seurat, Gaugin, Manet, Auguste Renoir and Picasso. In separate episodes we are treated to shots of the shirtless Picasso and, at his typewriter, the shirtless Godard. If these two images were intercut, the painter and the director could be two sinewy seniors ready for an arm-wrestling match, Genius division.

(MORE: Read Corliss on Godard’s recent feature Film Socialisme)

Is Godard Picasso, or Joyce? Is Histoire(s) his Guernica or Finnegans Wake? It’s certainly up there with the most ambitious, audacious achievements of the great modernists. The breadth and depth of the enterprise is amazing; no one had dreamed this mountain before, let alone scaled it. In his review of Histoire(s), Rosenbaum cites Godard’s 1958 observation about the Jacques Becker film Montparnasse 19: “He who leaps into the void owes no explanation to those who watch.” That is just as true of this film-essay moviepalooza. We gaze up at the man on the cliff, spouting epigrams as he flies through the air and, miraculously, keeps his arguments and himself aloft.

So, please, watch the DVD; I think you will be transported, perplexed, outraged, thunderstruck. And I predict that, in the distant future, we may look at the masterwork of some as-yet-unborn artist and proclaim, “That is his, or her, Histoire(s) du Cinema.”

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