Le Gai Savoir – Godard teaches while we experience the Joy of Learning. (film review)

And not of the fear of dying – I have always been reconciled to that – but of this expanse in front of me, on all sides, like a forgotten path.

Terrified to find myself in front of a mirror without any images.  To feel the shadow on an absent being detached from me. Engaged in a realm of dreams where I have no place, where I cannot follow him. And even if tomorrow I learn from him, followed… I wont believe any of it.  And anyway, I would only have been attached to his steps for an instant.  IN this manner I spent half of our life, in the streets, the metro, in this despair that if it sank, in the end, in my sleep, in my dreams, was only comparable to prison, a punished life, a sort of madness where I could even forget those that I had lost.  I have never, in my life, awoken without wailing. A profound wail. Mute.  Of all the justice of the night. Sometimes the feeling in me was so strong, that it remained with eyes open for a long time, and you would ask me, what’s wrong?  And I couldn’t tell you.  Believing it was the fog of bad dreams that was still obfuscating my gaze, and still struggling in the tangled memories of the shadows…

This above is a quote from at beautiful section at the end of Le Gai Savoir when Patricia and Emile (Juliet Berto, Jean-Pierre Léaud) Speak about all they have learned in their failed attempt at making a revolutionary film. Just when I think I can’t love Goadard any more than I do, I watch a film like this and the passion takes me over again and in new ways.

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Le Gai Savoir, or The Joy of Learning in a rough translation, is Godard’s ultimate effort at “semioclasm” the name Roland Barthes gave to the necessary job of breaking down the signs of languages we take for granted in order to rebuild them on stronger foundations.  This is the film that film scholars claim heralds a new era for Godard.  Godard’s problem (a problem just as strong today) is the extraordinary capacity of bourgeois liberalism for co-opting and subsuming opposing ideas. If there is one thing the middle class love, it is to have their guilt appeased by art that points out their errors. Godard had to do something new.  he had to go back to a kind of zero in order to build a new cinema. This is without any doubt, one of Godard’s finest films, but it is also one of his most difficult to grasp and understand.

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The basic plot line is this (taken from a wonderful essay by James Monaco to whom the copyright of this essay belongs – if you have the time, inclination and interest, leap over to this essay and enjoy it as much as I did.):

Émile Rousseau (Jean-Pierre Leaud), the great-great-grandson of Jean-Jacques, and Patricia Lumumba (Juliet Berto), daughter of the Third World, stumble over each other one night in an unused television studio. They embark on a series of seven late night dialogues during which they try to develop a rigorous analysis of the relation between politics and film. They meet for seven evenings (that is the structure of the film). More often than not, one of them is late (that is its plot). Needless to say, in an hour and a half of film time Godard, Émile and Patricia cannot give us the kind of detailed, closely reasoned exposition that we (and they) would like to have. What we can expect, however, and what we do get is a filmic summary of the areas that should be investigated.

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The film is divided into three parts, and takes place over seven days. If the static is confused and confusing, that is because Godard wants to convey his sense of the then contemporary existential revolt as ideologically confusing, a mixture of bourgeois romanticism (Émile Rousseau) and third-world realism (Patricia Lumumba).  In order to distance himself from the fact that he is making the film he is also breaking down, Godard will use images, sounds and movements in a pared down fashion so that we are forced to examine (as is he) each piece of critical influence as it appears on screen. He will also have his characters claim they are making a television program, when really we are watching  (and Godard is making) a film. Oh, Godard also credits the 16th-century philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau as co-writer, so you might want to really watch out!

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One of the central questions of Le Gai Savoir is where do image and sound intersect and how does this inform what we know and what we think we know. For Godard, part of the key to the revolution – the revolution that disposes corrupt officials and changes “the system” – is to understand how we are affected by these various ideologies in the first place. How does Capitalism get its grip on us?  Where are the hooks that are dragging us in a certain direction? Eventually, the argument even turns back on itself and Godard is forced to question the role cinema plays in this dialogue. This is where the manifesto element of the movie comes into play, the director issuing a challenge to the world directors, from Italy to Cuba, to create material that challenges and provokes. Always one to wear his influences on his sleeve, Godard throws the names of Bertold Brecht and Antonin Artaud in with Mao, Guevara, and Castro. Certainly the long, loud electronic pulses that periodically blared from my speakers fly the flag of Artaud’s theatre of pain. Godard himself speaks as a professorial narrator, instructing his actors through the robotic voice box that he used in other films like Alphaville and Oh, Woe Is Me! He also cuts up documentary audio of real speeches and protests to show us how information can be manipulated. The auteur even self-effacingly accepts that compromise can touch his own work, fabricating censorship with missing audio and excised scenes that never really existed. (Aspects of this are taken from DVD talk)

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For a film with no plot, three characters, one of whom is the director and a co-writer who was dead hundreds of years before the first shoot, the film runs at a terrific pace, so much so that there was too much for me to take in after just one sitting. But so many Goadard films are like this. In Le Gai Savoir he has put behind him the Bogart obsessed gangsters and followed the Sartarian command for the writer to lay down the pen and take up the sword. I know there will be more for me to gain in future watchings. I think this is one I will have to own.

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Oh – Senses of Cinema have a lovely article on this film as well here. Do not bother with any of the Rotten Tomatoes “reviews”.

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