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.


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.


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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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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