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Nouvelle Vague (Jean-Luc Godard, 1990)


    Godard, and especially late-period Godard has a notorious reputation for being excessively difficult, and while I would certainly agree that his films are rather challenging, I donít necessarily find them unduly complex. As a director, he still wants to radically push forward our ideas of what cinema can be, and such a shift doesnít come without some growing pains. In his late period, heís using outright provocation less and a constantly wavering essay-style more, and that approach invariably attracts both less attention and critical support. With increasing frequency, critics seem to have taken to suggesting that there is no discernable human presence behind the camera in a Godard film. I find that suggestion almost preposterous. To my eyes, thereís no director more achingly human. Instead of settling into the automatic groove that a genre provides or taking the conventions of cinema at face value, he always tries to push himself forward, showing his audience his unsuccessful experiments with as much gusto as his most brilliant ones. His disappointments are usually grounded in his inability to express more with the medium that has come to define him and that he has come to define. 

    To begin unraveling Nouvelle Vague, perhaps itís best to start with the title. Among other things, it refers, obviously, to the French New Wave, and I think specifically the movement's predilection for self-reference. The movie examines, first and foremost, how self-awareness can be a trap once it pervades a person's mindset since it prevents one from passively experiencing things (of course it can be ultimately liberating, but only the last few minutes of the film really seem to hint at that). The central theme in it seems to be the intelligent mind's tendency to create contextualization for ďnewĒ experiences. We understand nothing that Godard, or any filmmaker for that matter, shows without first considering something that we've seen in the past. This is a natural process, of course, and our ability to do it probably defines our intellect, but the vision presented in Nouvelle Vague is a chaotic one and the conflict in the film arises between the viewer's desire to make sense of it and the chaos that Godard dishes out. The plot is scarcely discernible among the cacophonous sound design, the seemingly arbitrary shot sequences, and the elusive characterization. For me, it's a challenge as a viewer, but the sense of humor (especially the comically simple Godard figure that was the gardener...) and completely unconventional approach keep it from feeling didactic in any unpleasant way.   


    Though itís a necessary evil employed so that the director can make his point without seeming overly simplistic, the deliberate confusion caused by Godard seems to be a turn-off for a lot of people who watch Nouvelle Vague. I guess when I see a movie with such a radical approach, I question why that approach is being used. The sensory overload that Godard challenges us with alienates us, but also challenges us to search for meaning. He wants his audience to be in a position where they're always struggling to define things. Our job as a viewer is to take as many of the wacko sound effects and initially nonsensical images and put them into an order that makes sense for us, and in this case that's a lot of work. 

    Throughout Nouvelle Vague, Godard demonstrates an uncanny talent for creating images that are triggers for recollection. I missed an infinite number of references, I'm sure, and the rest of the time, I wasn't quite certain if the references that I suspected were the same that Godard intended. Still, I am not sure it matters, since the viewer's act of contextualizing images seems more important to me than the intended meaning of the images themselves. Among many, many others, an image of a fork in a road made me think of Robert Frost and a shot of a woman in her underwear made me think of Chloe in the Afternoon, but I'm not sure that he intended either. Instead the director simply seems to create a playground for the audience that encourages such connections. The movie encourages you to measure your own responses to it (which is admittedly one of my favorite things for a movie to do.). It's vastly rewarding when you're able to start making sense of the images because you have to use your awareness of the references Godard is using and the rhyming shots he employs and your ability to contextualize his images to make sense of it, and in doing that he's reminding you of how you make sense of everything that you see.   


    Part of the significance of the main plot strand (or at least that of it that I could discern) is that it works up to a potential revenge killing. Past deeds here define present action. Godard is telling us that we can't operate or understand without our past knowledge (and of course when the revenge doesn't happen, heís suggesting, ultimately, growth from that knowledge). To make that more evident, Godard recycles his images to simulate intertextuality even within the film itself. For example, after a glorious shot of snow-like pollen floating onto a lake, he has a businessman ask another character to recall the image of snow falling on a lake during a dialog exchange. Several such images and sounds are used repeatedly throughout the film so that it's hard to escape such associations. 

    To me though, perhaps the film's most impressive set piece was an extended tracking shot through a large apartment at night. First the camera glides gracefully to the right as we examine the contents of the rooms. After reaching the black sky outside, the camera changes direction and heads back to the left, showing us the rooms that we've previously seen, but this time they are (obviously) familiar to us. With the experience of seeing them the first time behind us, we are now seeing them in the context of our previous knowledge of them. As the camera pans left, a woman walks from room to room, turning off lights in each room as each leaves the screen, and with that action, our memories of the rooms begin to fade. I've seen few more succinctly and poetically made statements about the creation and transience of memory than that shot.   


    Nouvelle Vague isn't a simple movie, but I really appreciate that about it. I am glad it isn't simply content to show us that past sins can define present forgiveness, and as difficult as those opening moments were for me, I appreciate them for giving me a sense of incomprehension to climb out from. The challenging experience of watching it, I think, is key to understanding what it has to offer, since a key part of his meditation on memory seems to be the way that we distort it and allow it to control our present and future in unpleasant ways (e.g. by encouraging revenge killings).




Jeremy Heilman