The look of Godard’s ‘First Name: Carmen’ offsets the cruelty displayed on screen

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“If I love you, that’s the end of you.” — Carmen x

Following Passion (1982) and Scenario du film passion (1982), Jean-Luc Godard directed First Name: Carmen (1983), starring Marushka Detmers, Jacques Bonnaffe, and himself. Godard was inspired by Otto Preminger’s Carmen Jones (1954), a musical-comedy about a woman that seduces a soldier ordered to escort her to the authorities. Preminger’s film is an adaptation of a 1943 stage production by Oscar Hammerstein II, which is itself an adaptation of the 1845 novella Carmen by Prospere Merimee. Anne-Marie Mieville was very interested in writing a script that was similar to the spirit of Preminger’s film, and Godard loved that film as well but wanted to change the music. Exit Bizet’s music and enter Beethoven’s “Late Quartets”, which are integral for First Name: Carmen.

Godard again collaborated with Raoul Coutard, but this time the famous New Wave cinematographer was billed as “lighting consultant” and Godard composed and shot the film — partially with a lightweight camera engineered by Jean-Pierre Beauviala. This camera did not work the way Godard had planned, so they eventually switched to the more typical Arriflex camera. All of the lighting is natural and, much like Godard’s other work from this period, the lighting and composition is the most obvious point of discontinuity between his New Wave period and his post-68 films. Gone are the vibrant colors we usually associate with Godard and in their place are muted, soft, neutral images that have their own type of intimacy created by natural light. Intimacy is certainly an important concept for this film, which is about sexual obsession and violence, and the natural lighting offsets the cruelty displayed on screen.

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Godard’s work with images is in many ways unparalleled, but his sound design and editing are also exceptional. Most films during this time use twelve audio tracks for a film (some Hollywood productions used more), while Godard only used two. His penchant for abruptly cutting between the sound track and diegetic sound was already present in his New Wave work.  In this film, the sound feels like it is happening right in front of you. Because of the simplistic technical sound editing he used, there is no attempt at creating a naturalistic diegetic soundtrack. The sounds come in and out; they strike like bursts of live music, approximating improvisational music and much different than the Beethoven songs sampled throughout the fim.

Like the Preminger film, Godard and Mieville wanted to set the Carmen story in a contemporary setting. In their version, Carmen X (Detmers) is a member of a terrorist organization and her uncle Jeannot (Godard) is an old film director trying to contract an illness so he can stay in a hospital. Carmen asks uncle Jeannot if she can borrow his house and film equipment to direct a film. This is a cover-up for her organization’s attempt to rob a bank. During the robbery, Carmen falls in love with Josephe Bonnaffe, a police officer, and they go on the run together. Joseph is eventually captured by the police but then reunited with Carmen. The film ends with a film shoot and a botched robbery happening in the same space whilst a quartet performs Beethoven.

Most of the moments that follow involve Carmen and Joseph together in hotel rooms, discussing their relationship while smoking and in the nude. In several scenes, Carmen is bottomless with her pubic hair in full sight. She stands elegantly and provocatively for the camera, invoking the desire for her body that Joseph is experiencing. Sexuality is depicted tragically in this film, and the final shootout embodies Carmen’s words to Joseph: “If I love you, that is the end of you.”

Godard ends First Name: Carmen with the caption, “In memoriam small movies”. Whatever he means by this caption, First Name: Carmen is certainly a “small movie”, from the size of the budget to the production crew, to the cast, and scope of the story, but it is filled with big ideas and artistic exuberance. Godard’s character in the film is a washed up director hoping to direct again, but his character certainly does not represent the reality of Godard as an artist. First Name: Carmen is made in the memory of small movies, but it also prefigures Godard’s continuing artistic success in the years that followed.

— Cody Lang

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