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Jean-Luc Skywalker

The best of Godard can be found on video

By Richard von Busack

JEAN-LUC GODARD'S WORK falls into three periods, as Jonathan Rosenbaum explains in Placing Movies (UC Press). First, there's the early period, which contains his best films: Alphaville, Breathless, Contempt, Weekend. The 1967 Weekend concludes with the title card "The End--Of Cinema." Now begins Godard's second period. After the near-revolution in Paris in 1968, the director became so deeply political that he abandoned style for polemics, all but losing his audiences.

In his third period, after a comeback of sorts in 1980 with Every Man for Himself, Godard moved to Switzerland and found a more tranquil, more personal--and all the same highly unpopular--style. As the years passed, it wasn't so much a case of watching Godard as deciphering him. In Placing Movies, Rosenbaum does a remarkable job unwinding Godard's difficult King Lear, released in 1987. John Waters also wrote a less reverent but still admiring critique of Godard's last really notorious film, 1985's Hail Mary!, in his book Crackpot. A freestyle retelling of the story of the Virgin Birth in modern settings, Hail Mary! attracted a condemnation from the Pope. Picketers who actually saw the movie would have been more baffled than shocked. (By an appropriate coincidence, Hail Mary! was dropped by its distributor, Triumph Films; Triumph Films is also the name of the company run by the Prokosch character in the Moravia novel that's the source for Contempt.)

All told, Godard has made more than 35 films. Good prints of most of his films are hard to find, but a healthy sampling can be found on video if you look hard enough. This selective guide to the best of his early films is only a beginning for the serious student of cinema.

Breathless (1959) Godard once said that he considered himself an essayist, which begs the question of what this is an essay about. Is his debut film an essay about all of his influences, about the whale vs. giant squid conflict between American pop and the French intellectual tradition? The two leads are, respectively: an amoral, affluent, passive American girl named Patricia (Jean Seberg) who has come to Paris to stir around in the culture; and a petty criminal named Michel Poiccard (Jean-Paul Belmondo), a culturally colonized Frenchman who loves American movies--Belmondo's tenderest moment comes as he regards a photograph of Humphrey Bogart. Jean Gabin, France's answer to Bogart, would have felt at home in this plot of a criminal undone by love for an elusive, chic little sphinx.

It is a speedy movie, charged up with jump cuts and tracking shots, and the photography is as much a star as Belmondo. Here for the first time in Godard's work is the stalemate between men and women (seen again in Contempt), in a long scene in which Michel tries to coax Patricia into bed; and in the collage of cigarette packets Patricia has on her wall spelling out the question/answer: "Pourquoi--Parce Que." ("Why?" "Because"--Godard's anticipation of today's favorite skeptico/nihilist put-down "Whatever.") But nihilism never looked more seductive. This masterpiece is littered with more inside jokes than anyone will ever unearth. (Available from several distributors.)

Le Petit Soldat (The Little Soldier) (1960) Godard's second feature (although its release was delayed for several years) replicates the hand-held, quick-cut visual style and male-female dynamic of Breathless, substituting Michel Subor and Anna Karina for Belmondo and Seberg. This time, the restless young man is a secret agent of some kind, a self-proclaimed creature without ideals, fighting leftist terrorists and betrayed by his own right-wing handlers. The woman, Veronica, is a flirt with a political agenda of her own. The film is Godard's response to the Algerian crisis, but he is not simply on the side of the rebels. The harrowing scene in which Bruno is tortured by terrorists includes a sharply satirical reading of Marx's doctrine while electric current is applied to the captive's feet. The real heart of the film, however, is a long dance of seduction between Subor and the ineffably beautiful Karina. Subor, pretending to be a photographer, snaps Karina's picture and delivers the most famous of Godardisms: "Photography is truth. And cinema is truth 24 frames a second." (Foothill Video; $14.96) (Michael S. Gant)

Les Carabiniers (The Riflemen) (1962­63) Two everybumpkins go off to a nameless conflict because they have been promised by the "King" that they can visit exotic places, kill people and loot Maserati dealerships. The tone is ruthlessly deadpan even as the horrors and humiliations of war keep mounting. News footage of carnage is intercut with scenes of Ulysses (Marino Muse) and Michaelangelo (Albert Juross) wandering across the global battlefield, occasionally sending brutally descriptive postcards about their exploits back home to their womenfolk. This savage fable about the inanity of all wars was so controversial in France that the film was pulled from theaters. Its satire can be heavy-handed, but the cumulative effect is devastating. (Foothill Video; $14.95) (MSG)

Alphaville (1965) From the close-up on the flashing warning light to the battered froglike face of Eddie Constantine, this is the film that Lars Von Trier was trying to pay tribute to in Zentropa. An alternative title is Tarzan vs. IBM; and that sums up the dialectic here. Constantine is Lemmy Caution, Agent 003, a pulp hero of several European films, here infiltrating the futuristic city Alphaville. "All that's weird is normal in this city of whores," rumbles Caution as he wends his way through a maze of robotlike furniture girls (tattooed with numbers, tranquilized and subservient), computer-operated interrogation centers and corridor after corridor in alienating office buildings. Caution, searching for a nuclear scientist controlled by Alpha 60, the malevolent mainframe, uses his fists and his pistol to force some sense out of the computer-enslaved Alphavillians: "I'm too old to argue, so I shoot. It's my argument against fatalité." Alphaville still impresses through the visuals: the alienating surfaces and the nighttime city streets contrasted against Constantine's lumpy, strong form in the usual fedora and raincoat.

Weekend (1967) This riot of a film is strangely neglected today, since it's exactly the sort of art film that a Tarantino-loving modern audience would embrace: a jovial shocker, seemingly as big an influence on John Waters as on David Cronenberg (whose Crash picks up where Weekend leaves off). A couple of middle-class Parisians heading out into the countryside for the weekend on a nefarious errand get caught in the world's largest traffic jam. To bypass it, they end up on back roads, where guerrilla war has broken out. Mireille Darc's triple-X monologue about a three-way affair she may have had is one of the most erotic moments in the history of the movies, but it takes place in a film in which animals (a goose and a pig) are butchered in front of us. Godard's habit of directly preaching at the audience ages the film more than any of the remarkable imagery, particularly the film's set piece: that three-mile-long traffic jam. It is a circus, an idiot's parade; people picnic and play chess among the overturned cars and bloody bodies as the horns blare in chorus. (New Yorker Films; $29.95)

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From the Sept. 4-10, 1997 issue of Metro.

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