Nouvelle Vague (1990, Jean-Luc Godard)

I have a rocky relationship with late Godard, but was determined to watch this because of its appearance on Rosenbaum’s top-hundred list, so I watched a few others to prepare: from the pre-’68 Weekend to the Criterion-issued Tout va bien to a couple more Rosenbaum-approved films, Ici et Ailleurs (hit) and King Lear (miss). Even with all those and Histoire(s) and In Praise of Love under my belt, I don’t feel like I understand or appreciate post-’68 Godard sufficiently, but I reluctantly watched this one anyway, sure that it’d be a flop. Sure enough, it’s completely impenetrable, possibly even pretentious. But I loved it.

The picture is divine, shot by the great William Lubtchansky (the year before La Belle Noiseuse) with art direction by JLG’s Ici et ailleurs partner Anne-Marie Mieville. The camerawork feels closer to the Straub/Huillet movies I’ve seen than to anything by Godard (maybe if I remembered In Praise of Love better). Sound design draws attention to itself (music cutting on and off abruptly), as do the editing and camera. The complete soundtrack to the movie (dialogue and all) was released on CD, and I think the music of both Nouvelle Vague and For Ever Mozart was compiled from the works of the ECM label – have to check them out sometime.

There’s as much voiceover as onscreen spoken dialogue. The characters, if that’s what they are, talk past each other in quotations and philosophy. There’s very little direct story that I was able to decipher, but apparently there’s a plot going on with Alain Delon playing identical twin brothers (or possibly not), one of whom drowns (or possibly he doesn’t). Delon hangs with rich Helene (Domiziana Giordano, the guide in Nostalghia), whose maid Cecile (Laurence Cote of Gang of Four) keeps getting hit by people. That’s all the overt class warfare I found – Helene visits a factory she owns at one point, but no Tout va bien-style uprisings occur. Oh, maybe there’s more class warfare than I realized, since apparently Delon was a drifter taken in by Helene. I caught that at the beginning, but after seeing him in all the nice suits later on, then the identical twins thing, I got thrown.

Rosenbaum on theme: “In part a sustained reverie on what it means both to be rich and not to be rich, and the contrapuntal role played here by the wealthy characters and their servants is part of what makes this film so operatic in feeling.” Elsewhere he’s called it “a meditation on the end of the world.”

M. Sooriyakumaran on plot:

While driving along a stretch of highway in the Swiss countryside, a wealthy industrialist, Helene Torlato-Favrini, finds a drifter, Roger Lennox, lying by the side of the road. They instantly become lovers, but it’s not long before they start bickering with one another. One day while swimming, Helene (accidentally?) pulls Roger into the water and then watches from her boat while he drowns. Several months later, Roger’s twin brother Richard (or perhaps Roger himself, pulling a Lady Eve) turns up at Helene’s mansion, driving a convertible and wearing a fancy suit, to ask for a job in her company. He and Helene also become lovers, but this time it’s Richard who wears the pants in their relationship.

G. Santayana:

Although Nouvelle Vague has more of a story than many recent films by Godard, it is his most rigorously composed. It is his most insistently citational. With texts drawn from William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Baudelaire, Jacques Chardonne, Rimbaud, Dante, Dostoievsky, Howard Hawks, and innumerable other sources, everything in the film comes from somewhere else.

I’d heard this – an interesting idea, making a movie using only stolen dialogue. But the dialogue is all really great, and I couldn’t identify any of its sources, so the thought that it’s stolen hardly matters. Ah, the recurring dead bee query comes from To Have and Have Not, and Helene’s last name was nabbed from The Barefoot Contessa.

Santayana again:

If Passion is about light, Nouvelle Vague is about time. It is about waves ever returning – and the gift of empty hands. Indeed, the outstretched hand is the recurring visual motif in the film. … It is the natural world to which the characters aspire – to be at one with the cyclical rhythms of nature, mute in their magnificence, like the horses ever-present beside the cars. … For all their playfulness and outstanding inventiveness, [Godard’s] late films are, however, mournful in tone. They seem like products of a civilization that is coming to the end.