Tout va bien(The Criterion Collection, 2.15.2005)
After almost ten years of playful, energetic, and wildly experimental filmmaking, Jean-Luc Godard turned his (already partly turned) back on narrative filmmaking in the late 60s. Motivated by France's student protests of May 1968, he teamed up with youthful intellectual Jean-Pierre Gorin and made a series of impenetrable, non-narrative exercises in Mao-inspired, political filmmaking. However, after a few years of commercial and critical failure, Godard and Gorin decided to hire some stars (Jane Fonda, Yves Montand) and expand their audience with Tout va bien. Of course, they failed miserably.
But don't let the film's commercial failure dissuade you. Not only is this one of Godard's best post-Weekend films, it's one of his best films, period. Any attempt at synopsis -- either narrative or thematic -- is futile, as Godard's rapid-fire intellect knows no boundaries. But I'll try anyway. Essentially a film about workers struggling to overthrow the consumerist establishment, Tout va bien is broken into roughly four parts: workers take over a factory, Fonda and Montand go to their respective jobs, their relationship breaks down (a la Contempt), and the revolution is re-located to a department store (in terms of sheer long-take bravado, this sequence easily surpasses the legendary traffic jam sequence from Weekend). Overflowing with cinematic brilliance -- and, yes, a few tedious ideas -- this is sure to thrill Godard's admirers and annoy his detractors in equal measure.
With Tout va bien, Criterion crams more onto one disc than I thought possible. In addition to the film itself, this disc includes another essential Godard-Gorin collaboration from the same period, A Letter to Jane. By reputation, this is a Warhol-like experiment in which Godard and Gorin verbally dissect a single photo of "Hanoi Jane" Fonda for 52 minutes. In fact, this is a far more dense and visually varied film than that description suggests. Executed with exacting visual precision, Letter to Jane actually includes dozens of images, all considered in relation to that one famous photo of Jane Fonda.
Reflecting the critical consensus of 1972, Pauline Kael called the film "didactic, condescending, and offensively inhuman." More than 30 years later, that assessment seems a bit unfair. The filmmakers aren't always fair to Fonda -- they read far too much into her facial expression, for example, drawing links to Young Mr. Lincoln, The Grapes of Wrath, The Green Berets, FDR, and Fonda's own performance in Klute -- but Godard and Gorin's analysis is consistently fascinating and thought-provoking. And even if you're not game, be sure to catch Godard's alternately hilarious, brilliant, and semi-incoherent anti-American rant in the final minute. It's priceless.
"Jean-Luc Godard, 1972" is a 7-minute interview with the misunderstood genius from a documentary entitled La Politique et le bonheur: Georges Kiejman. Dressed in a red bathrobe, Godard discusses the relationship between workers and intellectuals in his typically contradictory, dialectical style. Most interestingly, he claims that the ultimate political film, for him, would be a worker's home movie. In spite of his combative reputation, he comes across as friendly, humble, and, above all, passionate.
"Jean-Pierre Gorin, 2004" is significantly more thorough (27 minutes) and current. While Gorin often comes across as irrational and overly sure-of-himself in older interviews, he has obviously mellowed with age. Speaking exceptionally good English -- he moved to the United States in the mid-70s -- Gorin tells the story of his relationship with Godard. He also speaks of their notorious 70s college tours. Greeted with violent responses throughout the United States, Gorin claims they were extremely well-paid and ultimately became "cultural rock n' roll stars."
Gorin also makes intriguing distinctions between the films he made with Godard and other films of the period. While most political films preach to the converted, they made films that aimed to annoy both sides equally. Also, while most filmmakers were interested in the classical film idiom, they were preoccupied with visual grammar. This partly explains why their "unwatchable" made-for-TV films never reached the audience they were intended for.
If that's not enough, Criterion includes an impressive 40-page book of essays. This is essential reading for anyone hoping to view the film from an informed perspective. J. Hoberman contributes an essay about the Godard-Gorin alliance, while Kent Jones writes a letter to Godard and Gorin about A Letter to Jane. There is also an essay about May 1968 by Godard biographer Colin MacCabe and a conversation between Godard and Gorin from a 1973 issue of "Sight & Sound." Godard makes his most interesting points about A Letter to Jane, claiming that it cost only $500 and has no more than 5 worthwhile minutes.
This is another powerhouse DVD from Criterion. Truly a must-own for Godard fans. -- Jonathan Doyle