The first time I saw anything from a Godard film, I hated it.
My first encounter with his work was perhaps appropriately abrupt and fragmentary. I was in my first year as a Film Studies major, in an introductory class about the French New Wave. Having grown up on a steady diet of Hollywood classics, I was hoping this would be an exciting new discovery. Mid-lecture, the professor showed a clip from the near the end of Tout va bien, his 1972 film co-directed with Jean-Pierre Gorin. The scene was the famous ten-minute-long tracking shot in which the camera moves laterally along a supermarket’s checkout aisles as student demonstrators wreak havoc. Going in, the professor warned us that we would likely find the scene annoying and overlong, and that that was “the point.”
I watched. I waited for enlightenment.
I was unimpressed.
I did not get it, but I was a quiet, young student and insecure enough to pretend that I did. French New Wave was presented in contrast to Hollywood film, and list-based PowerPoint slides attempted to break down the Nouvelle Vague into discreet binaries, culled from Peter Wollen’s writings on Counter Cinema (Identification vs Estrangement, Pleasure vs Un-pleasure, etc.) For new university students, such lists are easily digestible, and easily regurgitated into a year-end exam. I got the French New Wave only so far as my ability to rote-memorize a reductive set of criteria. Luckily for me, I have an excellent memory.
But I didn’t really get it at all.
By the time I graduated, I had been exposed to and thoroughly enjoyed films from Godard’s contemporaries: Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows and Jules & Jim, Eric Rohmer’s The Green Ray, Jacques Rivette’s Celine and Julie Go Boating as well as French New Wave-adjacent works like Jean Eustache’s The Mother and the Whore and of course Agnes Varda’s seminal Cléo from 5 to 7. But as for Godard himself, I was left cold. I understood and appreciated the artistic and historical significance, but beyond that I was at a loss.
It wasn’t until I returned to Tout va bien later in my academic career that I got a taste of what all the rage was about. It was a screening during my Master’s programme, and I was armed with a newfound interest in self-referential filmmaking and documentary. From the moment the opening credits began, something clicked. Starring Jane Fonda and Yves Montand as a working couple (she the ex-pat American journalist Suzanne, he a former New Wave filmmaker turned commercial director Jacques) Tout va bien (or Everything’s All Right) covers a period of political instability in France’s post-May ’68 cultural upheaval. Fonda’s journalist is assigned to cover a worker’s strike at a meatpacking plant, where she and her husband are trapped when the strikers barricade the factory owner in his office for several days. At the time of viewing, I was drawn to the gender and class struggles as reflected by my own growing political awareness as a woman entering her mid-twenties. Characters address the camera directly in documentary-style talking head segments some answering Suzanne’s off-screen questions (the factory boss poo-poos the significance of the strike, and demonstrates his blind-faith in capitalism), and some comment on the action seemingly unprovoked by the aesthetics of journalism, like when a female employee regards Suzanne with distain, unconvinced that a mainstream reporter could ever understand the myriad of (at times) conflicting reasons the workers have decided to strike.
But more than that, it was a film about filmmaking. In lieu of opening credits, a hand signs cheques to pay the individuals involved in production: director, cinematographer, production designer, etc. In voiceover, two people discuss what is needed to finance a film: “if you use stars, people will give you money” (enter credits for Fonda and Montand). Also required, according to the voices-that-be, is a story:
“Actors want to see a story before they agree to anything.”
“We need a story?”
“Yes, usually a love story.”
“There’d be Him and Her, and they’d have relationship problems.”
This is, perhaps a sly take on the admission that “all you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun” (a quote oft attributed to Godard, who in turn credited D.W. Griffith):
Many sequences at the meatpacking plant feature a bifurcated set that give the appearance of a dollhouse configuration, a production design choice that is likely a visual reference to the Busby Berkeley musical Footlight Parade (1933), and the 1961 Jerry Lewis vehicle The Ladies Man (and popping up again in 2004 with Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou). Here the effect of each part of the plant being visible at the same time—the office containing the factory boss with the trapped Suzanne and Jacques, the reception area with workers barricading the door, employees in blood-spattered aprons marching and singing through the halls and staircases—offers a political function. It not only calls attention to the film-as-a-film but invites a balanced overview of the strike, quite literally revealing all sides of the issue.
It should be noted that for the bulk of Tout va bien, Gorin was the primary director on set, with Godard serving as a sort of philosophical and political collaborator. I do still regard Godard without a certain amount of skepticism. I frequently find his purposefully alienating, confrontational style infuriating, much of his uncompromising personal politics are problematic, and his attitude towards the women in his personal life tends towards the type of asshole persona that is for some reason tolerated in culturally-recognized “geniuses.” But I can’t deny the conceptual genius at work in Tout va bien, one that I find gets richer with each repeat viewing, which marking a critical turning point between the cheeky genre-plays of his early 60’s work and the essay films of his later oeuvre.
In the aftermath of the factory strike, Suzanne experiences a political awakening, which causes her to re-evaluate her relationship with Jacques. It is a turn away from the self-absorbed love stories of Hollywood and a call-to-arms for more a socially engaged cinema.