Jean-Luc Godard’s immaculate conception
Now on DVD from New Yorker Video
Written and directed by Jean-Luc Godard. Cinematography by Jacques Firmann and Jean-Bernard Menoud. Edited by Anne-Marie Miéville. With Myriem Roussel, Thierry Rode, Philippe Lacoste, Manon Andersen, Malachi Jara Kohan, and Juliette Binoche. 107 minutes. France/Switzerland; originally released in 1985.
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On its cover, New Yorker Video’s new DVD of Jean-Luc Godard’s Je vous salue, Marie
, 1985) features a quote from the late Bishop of Rome, Pope John-Paul II, issued in the hour of its turbulent theatrical release. Hail, Mary
, the Pontiff stated, “deeply wounds the religious sentiments of believers.” New Yorker’s marketing execs plainly thought this a blurb for the ages; well worth resurrecting some two decades later. But even when allowing for the linguistic gracelessness of translation, it was still
a rather limp denunciation, rendered more in sorrow than anger; certainly more even-tempered than the diehards out on the front-lines of protest—the army of the faithful who’d been howling for blood nonstop since the film came up on the radar—were expecting from their Holy See.
I remember catching that demented circus firsthand when Hail, Mary
opened at the old Orson Welles Cinema in Cambridge back in November of 1985. The controversy, as they say in the papers, had been raging for weeks, stirred to a fine froth after the film’s appearance at that year’s New York Film Festival. I went to see it the second night of its run and, while I fully expected the most flamboyantly offended segment of Boston’s Roman Catholic community to be out in force—just as it had been in news reports the previous day—I daresay nothing could have prepared anyone for the chanting, singing, shrieking gauntlet they were forced to run just to get into the joint: cordoned off by the cops on both sides of the entrance and ringed by local news media, a mob of at least one hundred brought more protest action to that long-gone cinephile palace in an evening than most abortion clinics see in a year. To them, Hail, Mary
was anathema made manifest, a foul, impertinent thing, the soul of soulless blasphemy itself.
Now, it’s almost axiomatic that when a work of art is charged with blasphemous intent, it’s usually guilty of either recasting the scriptural narratives into unexpected form or exploring the unseen, difficult corridors of these familiar tales. Rarely is it ever more than that. As in all things, Cinema does this with far greater immediacy than other media, thereby drawing the wrath of fanatic elements more efficiently. Martin Scorsese’s 1988 adaptation of Nikos Kazantzakis’ The Last Temptation of Christ
, for all the brouhaha it generated (mostly from the same quarters who went batty over Godard’s film three years earlier), was an exceptionally heartfelt, devout work that merely depicted Christ imagining for Himself, momentarily, a prosaic existence; with all the attendant compulsions.
Jean-Luc Godard’s Marie (Myriem Roussel), by contrast, doesn’t have to imagine anything of the sort. She’s an altogether ordinary—if strikingly beautiful—girl in mid-1980s Switzerland; an agile basketball player who works in the evenings at her father’s Shell station and has thus far been chaste fiancée to a slightly dim cab driver named Joseph (Thierry Rhode). One evening, Joseph unwittingly delivers from the airport to her workplace a surly man named Gabriel (Philippe Lacoste) along with his niece, who waste no time informing Marie that she is, very soon, to be with child. Accepting their heraldry with a trace of bewilderment but no real emotion, she gazes at the light of a crescent moon and quietly insists that this cannot be so, that she sleeps with no one. It doesn’t matter. She asks whose child she will carry, but apart from telling her that it will never be Joseph’s, Gabriel has no more to say, leaving it to his niece to advise her before they drive off. “Marie,” she says, “be pure, be rough. Follow Thy way.”
As her pregnancy (along with the steadfastness of her virginity) is confirmed by her doctor, Marie proceeds to do exactly that. But the way for her is not easy. “Being a virgin,” she laments, “should mean being available, or free, not being hurt.” She does not pretend to understand what is happening to her, nor does she ask about such unknowable things. She simply follows the light; accepting the circumstance to which she is now prisoner with a kind of determined tranquility; giving in to fits of fear and anger only in her solitude. Joseph, for his part, is a ball of wounded masculine pride who makes no effort to conceal his lingering doubt over Marie’s fidelity (the whole concept of virgin birth being, under the best of conditions, a hard pill to swallow). In a sense, he’s every bit as trapped as she is; finally committing himself to a girl whom he cannot touch—heretofore it had been her decision; now it’s completely out of both their hands—even as it begins to dawn on him that he will never be more than an accessory to her, or to the life of the child to come.
(Photograph copyright © Carlos Freire)
is a film of often extraordinary feeling and tenderness—only errant flashes of which could be found in earlier Godard—but I question those critics at the time who saw the shade of orthodoxy in his approach to this material. A good many, even today, have mistaken its general lack of what we might call irreverence for a sign of . . . cautious
reverence, if not outright veneration; as if there suddenly dwelled in Jean-Luc Godard, behind the formal complexity and intellectual rigor, the heart of an old softie who now embraced the Baby Jesus. Roger Ebert, for one, went so far as to close his negative review of the film by observing that the only people Godard could conceivably interest with a work so ultimately pious were the people protesting it most vocally. This was plain nonsense, of course, but somewhat understandable. Since the film itself clearly fell short of its alleged, over-baked infamy—being in no respect the squalid burlesque of the New Testament its detractors assumed it to be—Ebert and others went perhaps a little bit farther than they needed to in drawing their distinctions.
The only crucial difference between Myriem Roussel’s Marie and the women in Godard’s previous work, after all, is the element of divinity implicit in the character she’d been given to play, not in Godard’s fundamental re-composition of her. It’s important, I think, to remember that before he all but gave up on serious filmmaking in the late 1960s to set out on his stillborn crusade to formulate a true Cinema of the Barricades with Groupe Dziga-Vertov, Jean-Luc Godard had constructed the majority of his narrative film work around women. It mattered little whether a given role was played by his then-wife Anna Karina, or an international sex bomb like Brigitte Bardot, or some Yé-yé singer who could easily tumble into obscurity before the film ran out of the projector. The very fact of women—their manner as well as their matter—absorbed his attention, and they rarely failed to dominate the proceedings.
Of course, much in Godard’s filmmaking had changed by the time he returned to a more or less narrative form in the early ‘80s. After a decade of failed agit-prop and frequently brilliant video creations, his films were colder, his technique more atomized and dense than ever before. But the baseline centrality of women in his work remained. It was a form of exaltation that could never be erased, not entirely, by the dystopian conclusions he often seemed to arrive at about them. Hail, Mary
was merely the first instance where one of his female protagonists had already been raised to a rather odd standard of glory long before he got to her.
New Yorker Video’s release of Hail, Mary
on DVD is a rather ascetic affair, with two extras worth mentioning:
The first, Anne-Marie Miéville’s La Livre de Marie
(The Book of Mary
, 1985) played as prologue to Godard’s film during its theatrical engagements (despite a near total absence of connection between the two works). At a mere twenty-five minutes, it is the swift, sad chronicle of a young girl’s effort to hold off the psychic wounds of her parents’ separation and divorce. Miéville’s is a spare and distant work that, to its vast credit, militantly refuses to harvest this familiar dramatic situation for its dubious emotional rewards. There are even moments when it has the look and feel of a Godard film (at one point literally quoting from Godard’s Contempt
)—albeit a Godard film as it might be seen through the eyes of a too-innocent bystander. The second (and last) extra of note is A few notes about the film ‘Hail, Mary’
, a fascinating twenty minute video essay—made ostensibly for potential investors to raise cash for the production—that gives some insight into Godard’s philosophical intentions, at least at the starting line.
The essentially unanswerable question Marie is forced to confront by her circumstance, as Godard states it, is where does the body end and the soul begin? Are they ultimately interchangeable, or is the existence of one conditioned by the other? Forbidding stuff, to be sure, but to hear him tell it this is a routine matter everyone faces; though never quite so forcefully as Marie and Joseph do. To regard Hail, Mary
as a work of even marginal piety in this context, as some critics did, comes dangerously close to flirtation with that soft-witted outpost of Creationist dogma known as Intelligent Design. In retelling of the Annunciation and the Virgin Birth, in removing from them every implication we might consider Spiritual, Jean-Luc Godard leaves us with a world where every event is, like Cinema itself, conditioned by light; a luminance so common that its power seems to escape everyone else’s notice, but before which Marie and Joseph feel compelled to surrender themselves, body and
Whether it’s the light of the sun or the moon, the mud-gray light trickling through a bedroom window in mid-morning, the florescent glare thrown on students in a classroom, or on a Shell station after dark, the guiding lights in Hail, Mary
are strange and enigmatic, but their sources are never in doubt. And whatever spiritual dimensions you or I might conjure out of them are created by us, the viewers, more than God or Godard or anybody else.
Tom Sutpen is a frequent contributor to Bright Lights Film Journal and co-founder of the blog If Charlie Parker Was a Gunslinger, There’d Be a Whole Lot of Dead Copycats.
Copyright © 2006 by Tom Sutpen