The Discreet Bourgeois

Possessed by an urgency to make sure all this stuff I love doesn't just disappear

OK, JLG! I Give Up!


For most of my cinematic life I have striven to become as familiar as possible with the works of great directors.  Repeated viewings of Ozu, Ford and Bergman have yielded untold pleasures.  Immersion in other directors’ work was not as pleasurable, but was fruitful in advancing cinematic knowledge (Ophuls, later Lang, later Renoir, later Fellini).  But there is one director whose work has mocked just about every attempt I have made to understand it or, at least, become familiar with it: Jean-Luc Godard.


To date, I have seen at least 15 of his films.  I can say that I adore Vivre Sa Vie, was delighted by Une Femme est Une Femme and have tolerated multiple viewings of Breathless, but that’s it.  I finally waved the white flag earlier this week about half-way through Masculin-Feminin.  After 50 minutes I realized that I had no idea what I was watching.  I stopped it, and vengefully deleted it from my DVR along with a copy of Contempt, which I refused to watch.

As readers of this blog know, I don’t shy away from the austere and the dense.   I love Jeanne Dielmann. Andrei Rublev I find sublime, all 205 minutes of it. I have had fun puzzling out Last Year at Marienbad,  and have luxuriated in Persona, while admitting I was mostly baffled by most of it.

But Godard is something else entirely for me.  His are the only films that make me feel inadequate. I watch and I watch and I never, ever connect.  I keep coming back because many people who I deeply respect are people who revere Godard.

So, I am making a request. If you are one of these people, please help me here.  Let me hear from you how to engage these films.  And I want concrete answers.  I don’t want to hear ‘Let it just wash over you!’ ‘Don’t get hung up on what it means.’  When I hear that kind of thing, I hear you saying to me,  ‘I have no idea either, but I am not going to admit it.’

So please, no flaming (if anyone still uses that term!).   Just practical advice.


Your pal,





15 thoughts on “OK, JLG! I Give Up!

  1. It sounds like you’ve given him more than a fair shake. Maybe you don’t need people to explain why he’s worth watching, but just to let JLG rest and if anything, try it again in a few years and see if your taste has changed (& if not, no big deal). For a long time, I didn’t get why people were so nuts over Wallace Stevens’ poetry, and I tried and tried and tried to read and like it, but it just didn’t work. Then after a few years, I tried it again and fell in total love.

  2. Thanks for the sage advice. Of course you are right, one should try to engage art that is deemed important. It would be far too arrogant to say ‘I am the only one who realizes that this is Emperor’s New Clothes’. I don’t feel this way in the case of JLG. I just have gotten over myself to realize that I need help. I need a passionate explainer! Maybe you should watch more of him and do me the service. You know I revere your insight!

  3. I do really love Breathless, which is like a poem to me, or a Miami Vice episode. Like the plot and characters are interesting-ish, but far less pleasing to me than simply spending time in the atmosphere and catching the hyper-stylized vibe of it all. The general weather of the film is what I love about Breathless.

  4. Great post 🙂 I love the films of Jean-Luc Godard, but then again that is just me. I have a confession to make: I could never understand the appeal of Billy Wilder films 🙂 Anyway, keep up the great work as always 🙂

  5. I would love to hear what it is that you love about Jean-Luc Godard. I want someone who is passionate about him to talk to me about him! I agree with you about Billy Wilder. Sunset Boulevard, which is so much about being sick and decadent and creepy, is the one film of his that I love, because it wears its sickness, decadence and creepiness on its sleeve. So many others of his films are sick, decadent and creepy but pretend to be romances (Sabrina or Love In The Afternoon) or hilarious comedies (Some Like It Hot – ugh!) Oh, I am fond of The Apartment but just because Jack Lemmon and Shirley Maclaine are so adorable – but it does veer of into some pretty creepy corners, too!

  6. Late to the party — and I’m not really qualified to speak to this point (WHEN HAS THAT EVER STOPPED ME?!) — but I’m wondering if maybe your lack of connection with Godard might have something to do with his approach to technique. I’ve only seen a couple of his early films (Breathless, Pierrot le Fou) but what most struck me about them was their casualness: they ignore the standard grammar of the films that preceded them, or employ it in a way that’s not transparent or functional (i.e. they make us aware of it AS technique, but it doesn’t actually do that much to advance the story). Some of Godard’s methods and gestures were innovative and widely-imitated; some them also weren’t and weren’t. I never get the sense that he cares all that much about the effectiveness of what he’s doing . . . although I think he DOES care about the effect.

    I guess maybe the thing about Godard — at least the Godard that I’ve seen — is that he seems to be intentionally resisting the use of film as a storytelling tool: a set of techniques that becomes transparent to the viewer, or that amplifies the viewer’s emotional and/or visceral accord with the film. I’m not sure this is valid, but my tendency is to associate him with certain near-contemporary goings-on in structuralist theory, in that he seems to hand a lot of the authority typically asserted by a director over to the viewer: YOU can decide what to make of this. I’m not sure there’s really anything to GET in Godard . . . only things to notice.

    But, like I say, I haven’t seen enough of his stuff to say for sure. I suppose we’ll have to wait for the Godard partisans to descend.

    • So far no Godard partisans have descended at all! I wish they would. I take all your points. I’m fine with, and in fact I encourage, artists to bend genres and flaunt received techniques. But I think that the casualness is what loses me. I don’t feel like even he has a clear idea of what he is trying to achieve and I’ll be damned if I am going to do all that work for him!

      I don’t need traditional narrative to become immersed in a film (I am fascinated by Bresson and of course Bergman). But you have to discern that something is intended, and I am just not convinced that anything is intended. That is why I desperately need the Godardites to descend. If you find any, send them my way.

    • Was thinking of your comment this morning as I watched Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket. There is a director who is devising his own cinematic grammar and not necessarily to tell a story but to depict the inner workings and spirituality (or lack of spirituality) of his characters. It is radical in a very quiet way and I respond to it immensely.

      Perhaps you are right in that JLG doesn’t care about the effectiveness of what he is doing but he does care about the effect. And it leaves me cold. Same feeling I have about Baroque opera.

      • Not helpful, directly maybe, on Godard, but of interest if you haven’t already read it? Sontag on Bresson:

      • Ooh. Yippee one genius commenting on another, recommended to me by yet a third genius. Let’s play soon

      • The Sontag essay is really wonderful and I often teach it in my workshops to talk about how art can work on various parts of our responsiveness, intellectual, emotional, etc. and why sometimes something leaves us unmoved, whereas other things move us greatly. Dinner soon is a must!

      • Yes about dinner. We feel bad about missing you at 57th but we will play soon. We should really show you
        some of the Bresson – especially Pickpocket or Diary of a Country Priest. Amazing stuff

      • No worries about 57th Street–we missed you both, but understand that it’s not an ideal place for you guys because of the inaccessibility. Believe it or not, I’ve never seen *any* Bresson. We’d love to invite ourselves over to eat food and watch one of his movies. Whichever one you think is the best introduction to him–we leave ourselves, as always, in your cinematically capable hands.

  7. It may be that Godard partisans (Godardisans?) don’t actually descend. They may just shrug dismissively and light up Gauloises.

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