Here’s a pithy pullquote for Godard Mon Amour’s posters and trailers: “Boy, it sure is French!” Its language, of course, is French, as one would expect from a biopic about Jean-Luc Godard and Anne Wiazemsky. Itsideology is French, whether the ideology orbits around politics or cinema. When characters argue about either, they argue with confidence that ignores rationality and passion that defies gravity. Most of all, the film’s emotional temperature runs French, in the sense that happiness and melancholy tend to be virtually indistinguishable from each other and anger is a dialect unto itself. Hell is being stuck in a car on an interminable road trip with bickering French culturists.
Hell is also watching a movie about Godard by the director of The Artist. Say what you will about Michel Hazanavicius’s love letter to the silent film era, his grasp on the style and sensibility is delicate, but his fondness for the period and for the particulars of its cinema is sincere. The Artistis fluff, but it’s harmless fluff. Godard Mon Amour is fluffy, too, but any movie about Godard should come packaged with sharp edges. Whether you love or hate him, respect his movies or reject them, Godard is a complicated, controversial and completely essential figure in movie history, responsible for forcibly evolving the medium and notorious for going out of his way to polemicize literally any subject on which you ask him to comment. (He’s compared Zionists to Nazis, for instance.)
Godard Mon Amour captures the complications and the controversy, but Hazanavicius struggles to drum up meaningful insights into what makes Godard Godard. He’s a rock star, a genius, a thought leader in the art world. We know as much because we’re familiar with Godard as cineastes, and for viewers less acquainted with New Wave cinema, Hazanavicius routinely drops reminders of Godard’s esteem into the script. He’s brilliant because we’re told he’s brilliant. Godard Mon Amour opens as Godard (Louis Garrel) begins his affair with Wiazemsky (Stacy Martin) and makes preparations for his latest opus, the 1967 Maoist statement film La Chinoise. Here, Jean-Luc’s on top of the world: He’s in love with a beautiful young woman, he’s revered by his peers and he’s on the cusp of revolutionizing movies for a second time.
Then La Chinoise happens, and everything goes to hell. Maybe Hazanavicius has it right, and the shift in Godard’s perspective on film’s intersections with politics is the product of La Chinoise’s critical and commercial rejection. Maybe Godard really did denounce his own work, his past masterpieces, because of his newfound fiery political sentiments. But if the Godard Hazanavicius wishes to portray in Godard Mon Amour is truly driven by deep, abiding political beliefs at the cost of his oeuvre, then the film never adequately dramatizes his pivoting worldview. Picture Godard not as a character based on a very real person but as fiction, and suddenly Godard Mon Amour becomes a movie about a guy who discards his name and reputation out of petulant spite rather than a sense of conviction.
The real Godard probably doesn’t give a damn how Godard Mon Amour makes him look, but Hazanavicius’s infantilized interpretation is embarrassing all the same. In a way, Garrel’s performance is robbed of complexity as a consequence of that interpretation. He’s effectively stubborn, so sullen and brooding and ill-tempered that you’ll wish someone, anyone, would step into frame and sock him in the gob, but that’s more or less all he is. So as not to take away from Garrel, he’s good. He’s just limited by a script that never imagines Godard’s midlife metamorphosis as anything other than episodic cringe comedy and an excuse to mimic the master’s best-known flourishes: A shot of negative footage here, a fourth wall break there, an associative montage elsewhere. It’s Godard’s aesthetic with none of his anarchic poetry.
Odd that a man whose movies speak to ingrained antisocial tendencies should be honored by a movie best enjoyed with a crowd. Godard Mon Amour’s problem isn’t that it’s unfunny or dull. It’s that a movie about one of cinema’s most divisive rabble rousers should aspire to be more than amusement. At the very least it should aspire to be a decent love story, but Garrel is the center of Hazanavicius’s universe. Martin revolves around him from the sidelines, given little to do but tolerate the gaze of the camera brushing over her body, clothed or naked, in scene after scene. She’s a clever, surefooted actress capable of more than Hazanavicius requires of her here (which is puzzling, considering that he used Un an apres, Wiazemsky’s memoir, as the basis for his screenplay).
The story is hers. The movie should have been hers. Instead it’s Godard’s, so much so that it hardly ever even feels like Garrel’s. Someday, another director might try their hand at the Sisyphean task of figuring out the honest to goodness truth of the man. Until that day, we have Hazanavicius and the well-intended failure of Godard Mon Amour.
Director: Michel Hazanavicius
Writer: Michel Hazanavicius
Starring: Stacy Martin, Louis Garrel, Bérénice Bejo, Grégory Gadebois
Release Date: April 20, 2018