I try to be wary of sweeping claims because usually they sweep away too much of details that matter, but here I feel confident in saying Hélas pour moi is perhaps the most difficult, demanding Godard film I've encountered thus far. The dialectic tappestry is perfected here, which Godard would subsequently use for the Histoire(s) films, and it's presented to us in the form of a dreamlike reverie. To disentangle this web the film requires we go deeper than the level it operates, an almost insurmountable task.
Charles Baudelaire mused on the idea of the "flaneur", the "stroller" who walks the city in order to experience it. In the emergent observer-participant dialectic, it is important for the observer to remain detached so that free association, the spontaneous and impromptu, can suggest its own portals of understanding. This dissolution of apparent order by which we're taught to experience the world, opens doors in the mind. Likewise, I believe it is important to experience Godard with a certain detachment, to walk through the film in order to experience it.
The other aspect is the dreamlike nature.
Where we do we go when we sleep? Some will say we go in the mind, where we enact vivid, abstract bits of life. Without making the distinction any more overbearing than it needs to be, I'll say that instead we go back into the body from where, in the silence of sleep, we can hear faint traces of the mind's constant, routine stream of thought. Sleeping, we can hear the mind murmur to itself. This should be the most tangible, profound awakening to the illusionary reality of the mind available to us.
The film is this state of consciousness as existential murmur, where characters tenaciously grapple with ideas of love and death in vivid, abstract bits that begin or end abruptly. In pursuit of these ideas, it's thought that the mind should matter, the greatest folly of the French Renaissance, and which notion the young French artists (dandies, surrealists, Dada, Nouvelle Vague) continuously assailed and challenged.
When I say Helas is a difficult film, is when Godard complicates all this by the presence of strange entities that omnipresently exist outside the frame of that consciousness. These entities are in the narrative but not of it, instead they appear as visitations to that world.
One is a book editor who wanders the movie trying to piece together a crucial moment that happened between two lovers in the past, looking for the "missing pages", first of this affair as though it's a book written somewhere, second of the narrative of the movie itself since now his quest for answers becomes ours and we also want to find out what happened, then on a third level life in general. This quest for answers Godard wisely leaves frustrated, as reflection of the uncertain and peremptory. All these properly remain enigmas, as we know life to be true.
The other is a significantly curious device, where the woman cannot recognize her lover, played by Gerard Depardieu, who then poses as or is occupied by God. In the fantastical, surreal conversations that follow in a veranda overlooking the sea, love is put to the test, purpose in life, all of creation.
Here, more importantly than anywhere else in the film, Godard gives us one of his famously thunderous cuts (like the one in Le Mepris). The woman faces away from him as if to scorn him, the screen pulses with light for a second, then another character, elsewhere, muses to the book editor that "God is a character, like me and you, only forms exist". Perfect!
What I see as a desire for contemplation that begins in Godard's work in films like Prenom Carmen, here for the first time leads to a degree of awareness. Bergman never saw this far in his metaphysical anxiety, Antonioni saw further yet because he escaped that murmur of the mind. This awareness of the world as it is he examined again in JLG/JLG, his self styled portrait, and the several Histoire(s) films. Histoire(s) though ends with a more profound realization, that only when life is lived in full, with all the forces available to our body, only then can life stop questioning itself and accept itself as the true answer.
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