Criterion Files #275: Godard Fights Cinematic Imperialism with ‘Tout Va Bien’

By  · Published on June 1st, 2011

Much of Jean-Luc Godard’s cinematic output is inaccessible to American audiences. His most prolific period, the 1960s (in which he made 18 feature films) is almost entirely available, due in no small part to the Criterion Collection’s well-justified infatuation with the cineaste’s important and influential work. The output of much of his later career, however, isn’t commercially accessible in the US including much-lauded work like Nouvelle Vague (1990) and the Histoire(s) du Cinema entries (1988–98). In fact, Tout va Bien (1972 – his most recent title included in the Collection) is to my knowledge the only film he made in the 1970s that’s available on Region 1 DVD.

This is all to say that here in the US, what we know of Godard we know mostly the first decade of his career. While it’s unfortunate that cinephiles have minimal access to his later work, this complaint is not meant to undervalue the importance of the work he did in the 1960s. Godard made an unbelievable amount of brilliant and challenging work in an astoundingly short amount of time, and by 1970 he had emerged as a different kind of filmmaker altogether. Godard’s 1960s work is, in a sense, the only logical starting point in order to approach an understanding of this later work. Godard’s films are an ongoing exercise in personal growth, aesthetic experimentation, and political criticism. Each work builds off of what came before. With this weekend’s US release of Godard’s most recent work, Film Socialisme, the gaps in our access to his oeuvre become abundantly clear.

In other words, to be denied a segment of Godard’s work history is to miss his process of ascension into more recent work. Tout va Bien’s inclusion in the Collection, then, provides an interesting anomaly.

L’histoire du Godard

The temporal range of Godard’s work represented in the Collection runs a scant twelve years (for decidedly unprolific filmmakers like Tarkovsky, Malick, or Kubrick, this may as well be time spent in between individual films), but the expressive gap between Breathless and Tout va Bien is vast. In the early 1960s, Godard’s work was enamored with cinema, specifically the Hollywood and American brand.

Even though films like Breathless, A Woman is a Woman, and Band of Outsiders formally and narratively challenged or outright deconstructed the conceits of convention in terms of both genre and mainstream cinematic language, they always did so with affection for the possibilities of American cinema’s mainstream expressive mode. When Jean-Paul Belmondo emulates a photograph of Humphrey Bogart in Breathless, the gesture is both a literal and a metaphorical tip of the hat to Bogie’s legacy. Even as Godard critiqued American imperialist policy (like the “playing Vietnam” scene in Pierrot le Fou (1965)), he was still able to separate the rotten (American military policy) from the rest (the films of Nicholas Ray, which he believed showed the potential for progressive political action through the mainstream).

But soon Godard’s political concerns evolved. Reflected in the emerging political critiques of American cinema made by his former home as a critic, Cahiers du Cinema – a significant departure from his mentor Andre Bazin’s auteur and realist theory – in essays like “Cinema/Ideology/Criticism” and “John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln,” Godard likewise saw Hollywood as an extension of American imperialism, a powerful ideological force that regulated and conditioned subjectivity through the routine implementation of categorized cinematic codes. In other words, the notion of Hollywood as convention was stratified by the idea that mainstream American cinema was the way to make cinema, and that the message ultimately delivered was a politique of commercial consumption.

In order to break America’s stranglehold, Godard sought a more politically radical cinema that would challenge the aesthetic and consumerist imperialism of Hollywood: he sought a new Marxist cinema. Inspired by 1920s Soviet cinema, Godard broke from the New Wave and formed the Dziga Vertov Group with political and cultural theorist Jean-Pierre Gorin. Godard and Gorin (similarly to the intents of Third Cinema) sought to make films that engaged in Marxism and Brechtian breaks of form. Aesthetics and content, for Godard, became one in the same effort.

Commercial Radicalism

Because of the Criterion Collection, Tout va Bien is the only film commercially available in the US that’s made specifically by the Dziga Vertov Group. But it’s also, arguably, one of the only titles that resembles a feature film, especially if one is familiar with Godard’s emergence into the his new political aesthetic through its resemblance to late 60s work like 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her and La Chinoise (both 1967). While I appreciate that such films are made available where they otherwise may not be because of home video distributors like The Criterion Collection, I struggle with the fact that films like Tout va Bien and The Battle of Algiers, whose efforts are made in the name of collectivist, anticonsumerist cinema, are distributed by a company whose success amongst cinephiles is predicated on conspicuous consumption (like any “collection”) and enculturated taste (like any “criterion”). For a company who only distributes films that should be appreciated, such an unavoidable contradiction effectively ignores their real “value.” How much does radicalism cost? Apparently $23.96-$39.96.

But on the other hand, this is a contradiction that is explored in the film itself. Jacques (“He”) the filmmaker (played by Yves Montand) reveals halfway through the film, in an interruption of the increasingly chaotic riots happening at the sausage factory that he intends to document, that he is only able to finance the projects he wants to do by making commercials. As in his May ’68-predicting depiction of student radicals in La Chinoise, Godard is never afraid to critique the ideology he aims to support. In a truly Brechtian fashion, he sees himself, as a filmmaker, fully implicated in the unavoidable realities of capital (as Brechtian technique is not only the breaking of the fourth wall, but doing so to permit new possibilities of introspection). To do otherwise would be to deny the truth the Dziga Vertov Group aimed to represent.

Thus, the aim for Godard and Gorin wasn’t necessarily revolution (by the 1970s, the idea of revolution had a stench of futility present in the film’s tone), but the training of new critical audiences who weren’t willing to blindly accept imperialist cinematic codes (which was, arguably, already happening with the development of New Hollywood and the emergence of American independent film). In order to build a critical audience, one needed to be a critical filmmaker.

The Jane Factor

It would originally seem to be a problem, then, that Godard employed an actual Hollywood movie star, Jane Fonda, for a film that positions itself against mainstream cinema and everything associated with it. After all, any movie star is essentially a walking commodity: they’re used to sell products. But Tout va Bien is an interesting film not because it’s a Marxist film, but because it positions a dialectic between Marxism and capital in its contemporaneous context, as one inevitably encounters capital when attempting to give Marxism a voice. Like Jacques’s commercialism, Fonda’s stardom represents an intersection of various ideologies. A star is a collection of images, and the capital acquired by those images can be used to various ends, as Godard and Gorin explore in their essay documentary Letter to Jane (1972). As the son of Henry Fonda (a leftist of a different era), Jane’s name alone held inherent capital. But as the politicized Jane Fonda who controversially and infamously visited Hanoi, the pervasiveness of the star image demonstrates that it can be decisively employed for anticapitalist ends through the benefit of the star’s existing capital.

In this way, Tout va Bien isn’t so different from Breathless at all. As Belmondo looks at Bogart, Bogart looks back, and Belmondo proceeds as a radically new kind of Bogie, as Breathless is as anarchist in its breaking of aesthetic norms as Belmondo is in his self-destructive actions. With Tout va Bien, Godard does the exact same thing again in demonstrating that the best way to fight Hollywood is through Hollywood itself.

Fight/Celebrate Hollywood by reading more Criterion Files