Jean Luc-Godard’s First Death: Letter to Jane and Tout Va Bien 50 Years Later

Movies Features Jean-Luc Godard
Jean Luc-Godard’s First Death: Letter to Jane and Tout Va Bien 50 Years Later

On June 7, 1971, Jean-Luc Godard was riding on the back of a motorcycle that lost control and slid under a bus. After barely over a decade working as an already legendary director, the 40-year-old was lying on the pavement with a fractured skull and broken pelvis. His injuries would leave him in a week-long, life-or-death coma (and ultimately cost him a testicle). Godard was kept alive with insurance from the largest production he had worked on since his abandonment of so-called “commercial cinema,” if his ‘60s works can be called that in the first place. Now that his life was in jeopardy so was the production, and therefore again his life. Godard’s wife, Anne Wiazemsky, was able to arrange for doctors to keep his condition a secret, leaving his collaborator—the other half of his mind during his radical era—Jean-Pierre Gorin, to maintain a ruse that the film was still going to be made.

Tout va bien was not a return to commercial cinema, but it was a return to the larger stage of the international festival world. After 1967’s Weekend, Godard told his usual bunch of collaborators that they would need to look for work elsewhere, as he was leaving the industry that they’d so revolutionized. Not the medium, but the industry, and soon he would try to apply his increasingly radical left-wing politics to his modes of filmmaking. After the failed revolution, the political flash-in-the-pan, or whatever you want to call the events of May ‘68 in France, Godard and Gorin started work on a collaborative film project that would reject any bourgeois notions of filmmaking like story or character, and instead serve as tools of revolutionary provocation.

They started calling themselves the Dziga Vertov Group, after the futurist agitprop-maker from the Soviet Montage school they thought best represented a filmmaker whose personality dissolved away in favor of revolutionary representation. They survived off of college and lecture tours, where the duo would screen their films as openings to dialogues between themselves and the audiences. The works weren’t meant to just be seen on their own, but as beginnings to conversations. After four features as the collective (which would also ignite the collapse of another failed marriage for Godard, as Wiazemsky was also an essential collaborator), they were ready to apply their format to a larger stage, and to get the attention of big festivals and wider audiences, they needed stars for their film about the role of artists in the coming revolution.

Yves Montand, a sort of progressive-liberal French Sinatra, and Jane Fonda, that Old Hollywood star’s daughter who had wholeheartedly embraced the left-wing, feminist counterculture of the time, were chosen by Godard and Gorin both for their political affiliations and their immediate recognition as stars, their off-screen personas being reflected back on screen. They were much easier to get on board initially than to keep on call when Godard was in the hospital. Fonda, who was hesitant to take on a project with two male directors when, at the time, she was advocating for more collaboration between women, looked like she was going to drop out of the project. Gorin, infuriated, trying to keep both his project and collaborator on life support, drove to her house in the south of France and told her, “At least have the guts to tell him face to face.”

Even when the film was shooting and Godard was out of the hospital, he still needed intensive physical recovery, and although he was his ever-playful self, he didn’t have the energy to maintain a usual level of work. As recounted by Richard Brody in his biography Everything is Cinema, Godard’s contributions were “largely of a theoretical nature,” while Gorin worked to mimic the filmmaker’s famous visual stylings. Gorin was perhaps too good at this, as contemporary critics—who weren’t aware of the production woes—questioned what Gorin’s purpose was on a film that seemed to bear only the signatures of Godard.

It is an easy critique to make: Gorin, who debuted as a filmmaker with Tout va bien, was a co-author with Godard, one of the most visually recognizable filmmakers of his generation. But to only latch onto the immediately recognizable is to ignore the content of the texts, in which Gorin’s Marxist analysis is essential (it should also be noted that Gorin’s left-wing journalism was instrumental in Godard’s political development earlier in the ‘60s). Godard commented in an interview in 1972 that “the only aim of the self is to be two,” and as the Dziga Vertov Group sought to dissolve personality, both of the filmmakers—their ideas, aesthetics, inclinations—became fused. In fact, if anything truly revolutionary did happen in their time together, it was the triumph of collaboration—something the broader French left completely failed at. Their next and final project together would add clarity to this, and offer a culmination of the dialogue the two had been working through the last five years.

Letter to Jane was originally designed as a companion to Tout va bien, an opener to be screened before that film’s North American premiere at the New York Film Festival 50 years ago. Speaking to the audience in English, they explain that the companion does not exist to distract from Tout va bien—as if the film was some kind of failure or needed an explanation—but instead as a “detour” along a journey, one which can add clarity to many of the same questions in the main feature. Primarily: “What part should intellectuals play in the Revolution?”

We’re shown a frame capturing Fonda in a solemn look as she listens to a Vietnamese man, presumably a soldier from his helmet. In the center background, out-of-focus, we see an anonymous Vietnamese man, with whom Godard and Gorin find the primary tension inherent in the image. Foregrounded is the actress-militant in crystal-clear focus. In reality, they say “It is the American left that is blurry and out of focus, and the Vietnamese left that is exceptionally sharp and clear.” But of course, they go on to explain that, “The photograph was taken in a certain way… to be published.” The photo, so expertly and intentionally taken by American photographer and columnist Joseph Kraft, feels more composed than it does vérité. Fonda’s face takes up most of the left third of the image, with an eyeline that the filmmakers point out implies a reverse shot, but one we never see. It is almost like a film still of a movie that was never made, the Hollywood star catching our eye and drawing our attention like a piece of advertising, towards that which those creating and republishing the photo think is of grave importance: The war in Vietnam. Yet, they can only understand a topic as important as this if filtered through that pop-celebrity lens.

However this evocation of star power, the inherent performance of Fonda being the militant and the “facial expression of the militant in the photograph is in fact that of a tragic actress.” But as the filmmakers go on to say, “For Revolutionaries, there are no obvious truths… Imperialists use obvious truths to oppress those who are small.” In other words, the direct nature of foregrounding Fonda opens itself up to something that is obvious, rather than forcing provocation (and if there is a single word to describe the works of Godard and Gorin in this era, it is “provocation”). While the photo serves as a means of propaganda towards a cause, its entanglements make it open to easy attack from the other side. That is not to say that Godard and Gorin have found a magic formula around this—they’re all too aware of the issue and have been working to get around it through their collaborations, trying to make works which cannot be anything but revolutionary, and in their pursuit have been stuck in the world of criticism.

Most contemporary critics weren’t too interested in Letter to Jane. Kent Jones called it “unsatisfactory and incomplete” in a 1975 review, which could be true if considered as a work that stands completely alone (which he acknowledges it is not meant to). James Roy Macbean, in his book on Godard Film and Revolution from the same year, argues that, “The main problem with Godard’s and Gorin’s revolutionary line in Letter to Jane is that it is divorced from any concrete situation. It is an abstract line, all the more dangerous for its impressive militancy.” Macbean claims the two are stricken with a “disturbingly fastidious…rejection of immediacy,” something which would be a substantial problem for filmmakers interested in the current moment. However, Godard had seemed to be straying away from the immediate since ‘68, and all of his work with Gorin had been headed more towards the abstract, even though, contradictorily, they were more concerned with the present moment than ever.

It would have been clear to Godard and Gorin while making Tout va bien that the film would likely take on a long-term life of its own, more so than their other collaborations, if only because it would be an artifact of two celebrities at a politically interesting moment. Perhaps, more than anything, that is why Letter to Jane exists: As a document of the dialogue that the two had been bouncing off of each other over the last five years. And as they were moving on to new work away from each other, it acted as a kind of final statement, an end to a certain line of questioning. Jones, in his video essay “Revolutions per Second,” points out that Godard’s post-Gorin work has his concentration shifting “from the immediate now to poetic time.” All of his films from this point forward exist in an atemporal state of past, present and future flowing in and out of each other. And as his body of work grew over the decades, sometimes even the films themselves moved in and out of each other. If Letter to Jane is the bookend of one collaboration and one question (the role of the artist in the “capital R” Revolution), it is the preamble to his longest and most fruitful collaboration, that with Anne-Marie Miéville, the filmmaker who would explore with him the role of an artist in a world where the revolution never came, and who would be his partner until his death this September.

It would be hard to say the last 50 years of Godard’s career since his near-death accident have been taken for granted, as they have hardly been taken at all. For many, the man has been a living monument to his seven-year run in the ‘60s. Martin Scorsese, in his eulogy for Godard written for the Cahiers du Cinéma, which once fostered the New Wave, talked about how, of the filmmakers in that generation, none were more exciting and liberating than Godard. He concludes by referencing a foreword Godard wrote for a collection of Truffaut’s letters, saying that “Godard… is perhaps dead…But the work is absolutely and indisputably alive.”

While ever the champion of world cinema, Scorsese is only explicitly referencing that first step into Godard’s work, an era whose imaginative power has thoroughly overtaken the popular imagination of the man. But it was just the first step. Scout Tafoya put it best in his video essay on Godard’s Hail, Mary: “He outlived nearly every one of his peers. Every maverick of the French New Wave, gone. But he’ll never die. Because he’s been stitched into the fabric of cinema now. He brought it back to life. And then he spent the rest of his existence wrestling with what he’d done. The only thing he never knew how to do was stop.” For many, Godard could have died in that motorcycle accident in 1971 and his reputation would be all the same, if a bit more of an artist who never had the chance to grow old and keep innovating until his last breath. But that is precisely what he did, and it is worth paying attention to.

Alex Lei is a writer and filmmaker. Born in Portland, OR, he got a BA in film from Montana State University, and after working in politics for a time relocated to Baltimore. He spends his days working behind bar, endlessly editing old projects, researching new ones, and occasionally putting out writing. Words can usually be found at Frameland, Splice Today, his newsletter CompCin for longer-form writing, and Twitter for things that are barely written at all.

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