Avant Godard! Musical Subversion In The Films Of Jean-Luc Godard. (Part 1)

Avant Godard!

Musical Subversion And Fictional Interaction With Non-Diegetic Music In The Films Of Jean-Luc Godard.

Introduction – French New Wave As Avant Garde.

When discussing Avant Garde cinema, the most obvious choices of cinematic subject would no doubt be linked to the likes of Dali, Buñuel and Cocteau.  However, the gradual movement from Avant Garde to Art House cinema presents a more interesting case for Avant Garde aesthetics; if an Avant Garde idea or practice is found within a film that has some vague form of narrative it must surely be more obviously opposed to the illusion of “realism”?

Non-narrative cinema has become synonymous with Avant Garde film yet some of the most Avant Garde attacks on realism have come from films that do posses a story-line no matter how non-linear.  The visuals of freeform colour will no doubt be far more effective as a breakdown of reality in a narrative world than one already in the context of a freeform environment and this is why the French New Wave is such an apt movement to look at, not just in its assimilation of Avant Garde tendencies, but how the movement explicitly uses the relationship between sound and vision to break away from its narrative in order to question and highlight the very medium itself.

With the literal translation of Avant Garde being vanguard, the French New Wave sits nicely within this definition.  Its traits foreshadowed much of what was to come in the 1970s movements such as the German New Wave.  Its use of pioneering cuts that, at the time seemed dangerous and new such as the jump cut, would become natural editing language for future cinema in all forms whether it was modern Hollywood or 1970s European Art House.  Carol Flinn uses our main director of focus, Jean-Luc Godard as her contrast to Douglas Sirk as the experimental to the classical while speaking of ruptures caused in film by certain uses of music showing just how Avant Garde the movement became; “By prompting interpretative and creative practices that exposed moments of textual “rupture” and “excess”, proponents believed that spectators critically distanced and thus moved to challenge the politics of representation, be it through the works of classical practitioners like Sirk or experimental practitioners like Godard” (Flinn, 1992, p. 52).  It is telling that Godard is the litmus test for the experimental.

Godard’s characters would often reference his own films and films of other French New Wave directors too.  This focussing on film’s obvious role as a fiction has been a point of contention with critics but as Barr states “Objections to the arbitrariness of his endings are undercut by this emphasis on the convection, on the fact that we are watching a film” (Barr, 1987, p. 220). The most interesting aspect of Godard’s films, however, is their relationship with music.  This relationship was to be experimented with and permanently changed by the French New Wave movement, making it proudly and undeniably an extension of Avant Garde film even if it does want to tell a story at the same time as subverting one.

Musical Interaction And Subversion in Une Femme Est Une Femme.

With a non-diegetic, classical score born from the most simplistic of Romantic traditions, the relationship between music and the fictional people presented in mainstream film is clear; it is one that the viewer is aware of but not the people portrayed in the film.  By questioning this role and breaking down this relationship simply by recognising that it exists, characters in Godard’s films destroy the sense of realism  built up while at the same time fighting for the ideal that it creates a purer and more honest film due to it being blunt about its role as an artistic medium.  Now this had, of course, been happening for sometime in Hollywood musicals and the like but for it to happen in a film that is implicitly played for real, early French New Wave film brought Avant Garde tendencies, chaos and formlessness to the strict narrative cinema of crime films and genre pictures.

Godard was the chief exponent of this.  One of a number of Cahiers Du Cinema writers to make the transition from critic to filmmaker, he comes from a background of critical, academic analysis and questioning.   A number of Godard’s films present us with interesting uses of music and visuals that casually but deliberately disrupt the cinematic realities that are created.  Gorbman briefly discussed the effect of this cutting on the tonal aspects of music saying “This does not mean there are no rules for musical syntax in cinema.  In Jean-Luc Godard’s Vivre Sa Vie (1962), music cues by Michael Legrand are often interrupted in mid-phrase, before the tonal resolution one expects of its pseudoclassical style.  This technique of robbing the musical statement of its closure has the effect of drawing attention to the score” (Gorbman, 1987, p. 14).  Though his first film À Bout De Souffle (1960) was stylistic bombshell in terms of visuals and editing, it’s not until his second feature length film that he begins to question the use of music in his films.

Une Femme Est Une Femme (1961) is a film loosely about a stripper who wants to become pregnant but can’t because of the refusal of her boyfriend so plans to have a baby through his best friend instead. The film boasts a number of musical eccentricities, some of which Godard would continue to expand on in other films over the intervening years.  Whyte talks about its visual qualities stating “The film has a beauty that is brash and pathetic, like splintered coloured glass, fragments that somehow compose a picture while refusing to hold together; musical, sad, uproarious, definitely frail.” (1975, p. 179) but this succinctly sums up the film’s musical aspects too.  One scene in particular stands out at its questioning of realism and fourth wall teasing.  Anna Karina is performing a striptease in the bar where she works.  She starts a record playing and the viewer hears some form of clinky piano music which she starts to dance to.  The visuals are already mocking the unnatural presence of music with a man sat at a piano behind her (not playing it of course) yet Godard goes a step further into the Avant Garde to break his reality.  Karina’s character also sings as well as dancing and stripping yet, when her character does start to sing, the music harshly and abruptly cuts out.  Now occupying the sound world is the vocal performance of Karina alone, whose dancing is increasingly at the camera, the fourth wall and the viewer.

What at first seems to be a blip in the record she has put on turns out to be an element in the control of some higher power, i.e. the director.  As she stops singing, the music (which is clearly diegetic) comes back in, again abruptly.  All seems well until she starts to sing the next verse when the diegetic music again cuts out; something clearly being done from outside of the reality of the characters.  Contrasting it with a Hollywood film, for example Casablanca (1942), it’s the equivalent of Dooley Wilson stopping and starting in between Bogart and Bergman’s dialogue.

This is by no means the only technique presented in Une Femme Est Une Femme.  Before this scene, non-diegetic music is put so high in the sound mix that it obtrusively and deliberately drowns out the dialogue of the characters.  Michael Legrand’s score mixes all sorts of genres of music from the traditional, Romantic traditions of Hollywood genre films to Jazz, Pop and sound effects.  However, even with this eccentric mix, it is how Godard uses the music to subvert his own narrative world that is its most interesting aspect.  “Music comes in operatically full-blown rushes after each sentence spoken at the dinner table, underlining the speech as in a recitative” (1975 p. 182) states Whyte, implying the oddly operatic elements of Godard’s musical timing.

The musical interaction that appears more heavily in Pierrot Le Fou is briefly touched upon here too with Karina’s character breaking out into a small song and dance a la “Gene Kelly!”  “From Belmondo’s imitations of Bogart in À Bout De Souffle to the sudden outbursts of musical dancing in Une Femme Est Une Femme: folding what the films show into a memory of films seen at the expense of a coherent, linear narrative is a signature gesture of Godard’s work since its inception” claims Hediger (2007, p. 157), meaning that, for Godard at least, this is normal for his narrative worlds. This, however, is away from the actual scenario and seems like a representation of an erratic daydream.  Minutes before, the same character has managed to completely dress after stripping thanks to walking through some sort of magical door showing that anything is possible in Godard’s worlds, whether visually or musically.

Dramatic musical motifs appear when characters speak certain sentences.  The dialogue isn’t dramatic but the music is, as if Godard is trying to parody the more conventional uses of music in romantic dramas.  Even in the film’s first movement, which in normal circumstances would seek to reinforce the narrative reality, music is used to completely destabilise it.  Name checking fellow directors in the French New Wave movement would become one of its traits and, here, the name check of Francois Truffaut brings the drama out into the viewer’s reality by an odd use of music and sound.  When asking another character where she has been, she at first doesn’t tell the character through words but instead mimes out the title of Truffaut’s Shoot The Pianist (1960).  This isn’t just silent but is accompanied by the sound of gun fire and a short piano motif.  While this seeks to question where the reality of the film sits in relation with the viewer’s, it doesn’t seem as surreal as it sounds on paper, especially when a few scenes back, the characters both acknowledged their role as performers and bowed to the audience before starting the drama of acting.  In other words, this moment of surrealism is tame.

The Truffaut references would continue minutes later in another record player scenario where a character’s emotional realisation at her partner’s cheating is mirrored by a record being played by Charles Azanovore; the lead actor in Truffaut’s Shoot The Pianist.  The scene is less disjointed than the other uses of music in the film which is often cut up in a distracting, loud and haphazard fashion:  “Tu te laisses aller, Azanavour’s song coming from the jukebox in the bistro sequence, is heard complete, its three minutes in the soundtrack  being filled on the screen by close-ups of a worried Karina inspecting photographs of Brialy and Belmondo with some cheap whores.” (Whyte, page 181). This makes it very easy to believe that, in this record scene, Godard was simply advertising his friend’s film.

Part 2.

Adam Scovell.

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