The following is my English translation of an interview by Jean-Marc Lalanne with Jean-Luc Godard, dated May 18th 2010, in the French cultural weekly Les Inrockuptibles. The original French text can be accessed at the Inrocks site here.
The filmmaker received us at his home in Switzerland for a provocative, and intimate, interview. Welcome to Rolle.
Rolle's not exactly the center of the world. Just a small, slightly dreary town on Lake Geneva, 40 kilometers from the city of Geneva. But it's also an Eden for multimillionaires seeking a tax-haven. For the nice taxi driver who takes us to the gare de Genève, this geography of celebrities has kept few secrets: "You see the house on the shore at the bottom of the hill — that's Michael Schumacher's. And there's where Peter Ustinov lived. Phil Collins is right over there..."
And what about Jean-Luc Godard? "Once, a Japanese guy got into my car," the driver continues, "and asked me if I knew where monsieur Godard lived. I told him yes, and I took him there, at which point he said: 'Wait just one minute,' — he took three photos, got back into the cab, and asked me to take him back to the gate. He's known all the way to Japan, monsieur Godard!" Whether or not he's the most mythic ("all the way to Japan") resident of the Vaud, monsieur Godard doesn't live in Rolle for the same reason as his neighboring celebs.
A resident of France, that's where he pays his taxes. He lives in Switzerland because he was born here; because he can't do without "certain landscapes", he'll tell us in an interview which, as always with this man, is greatly panoramic. For four hours, in his slightly messy, very functional office, right next to his work area with its half-dozen flat-screens and its shelves filled with countless VHS tapes and DVDs from which he pulls his citations, we spoke about history, politics, Greece, intellectual property, and, of course, cinema — but also about more intimate things: such as his health, and his relationship to death.
LALANNE: Why the title Film Socialisme?
GODARD: I've always had the titles in advance — they give me some indication of the films that I might make.
A title coming before every idea for a film is a little bit like 'setting the tone' in music. I have a whole list of them. Like titles in the sense of nobility, or titles in the sense of a bank. More like titles in the sense of a bank. I started out with Socialisme, but as the film started taking shape, it seemed less and less satisfactory. The film could just as well have been called Communisme or Capitalisme. But there was a funny coincidence: Jean-Paul Curnier [a philosopher. —JML], while reading a little presentational brochure I'd sent around, where the name of the production company Vega Film came before the title, read it as "Film Socialisme" and thought that was the title. He wrote me a twelve-page letter telling me how happy this made him. I said to myself that he must be right, and I decided to keep Film in front of Socialisme. It lends the word a little dignity.
LALANNE: Where does the idea of the cruise through the Mediterranean come from? Homer?
GODARD: At first I was thinking of a story that would take place in Serbia, but it didn't work. So I had the idea of a family in a garage, the Martin family. But it didn't work for a feature-length film, because then the people would turn into characters, and whatever took place would turn into a narrative. The story of a mother and her children, a film that might be made in France, with lines of dialogue, and 'moods'.
LALANNE: Indeed, the members of this family almost resemble characters of an ordinary fiction. It's been a very long time since this has taken place in your cinema...
GODARD: Yes, maybe... Not quite, though. The scenes get interrupted before anyone turns into characters. Instead, they're statues. Statues that speak. If one speaks of statues, it's said that "it comes from another time." And if one says "another time," then one takes off on a voyage; one sets off upon the Mediterranean. Where the cruise comes in. I'd read a book by Léon Daudet, the polemicist from the beginning of the century, called Le Voyage de Shakespeare . The course of a boat was followed over the Mediterranean that carried the young Shakespeare, who still hadn't written anything. So all of it started coming together, little by little.
LALANNE: How did you go about arranging all this?
GODARD: There aren't any rules. The same applies to poetry, or to painting, or to mathematics. Especially to ancient geometry. The urge to compose figures, to put a circle around a square, to plot a tangent. It's elementary geometry. If it's elementary, there are elements. So I show the sea... Voilà, it can't really be described — it's associations. And if we're saying "association," we might be saying "socialism." If we're saying "socialism," we might be speaking about politics.
LALANNE: The HADOPI law, for example, or the matter of prosecuting downloads, or the property of images...
GODARD: I'm against HADOPI, of course. There's no intellectual property. I'm against estates, for example. That the children of an artist might enjoy the rights of their parents' body of work, why not, until they come of age. But afterward — I see no evidence that Ravel's children are getting their hands on the rights for the Boléro...
LALANNE: You don't claim any rights over the images that any artists might be lifting from your films?
GODARD: Of course not. Besides, people are doing it, putting them up on the Internet, and for the most part they don't look very good... But I don't have the feeling that they're taking something away from me. I don't have the Internet. Anne-Marie [Miéville, his partner, and a filmmaker —JML] uses it. But in my film, there are images that come from the Internet, like those images of the two cats together.
LALANNE: For you, there's no difference in status between those anonymous images of cats that circulate on the Internet, and the shot from John Ford's Cheyenne Autumn that you're also making use of in Film Socialisme?
GODARD: Statutorily, I don't see why I'd be differentiating between the two. If I had to plead in a court of law against charges of filching images for my films, I'd hire two lawyers, with two different systems. The one would defend the right of quotation, which barely exists for the cinema. In literature, you can quote extensively. In the Miller [Genius and Lust: A Journey Through the Major Writings of Henry Miller, 1976 —JML] by Norman Mailer, there's 80% Henry Miller, and 20% Norman Mailer. In the sciences, no scientist pays a fee to use a formula established by a conference. That's quotation, and cinema doesn't allow it. I read Marie Darrieussecq's book, Rapport de police [Rapport de police, accusations de plagiat et autres modes de surveillance de la fiction / Police Report: Accusations of Plagiarism and Other Modes of Surveillance in Fiction, 2010], and I thought it was very good, because she went into a historical inquiry of this issue. The right of the author — it's really not possible. An author has no right. I have no right. I have only duties. And then in my film, there's another type of "loan" — not quotations, but just excerpts. Like a shot, when a blood-sample gets taken for analysis. That would be the defense of my second lawyer. He'd defend, for example, my use of the shots of the trapeze artists that come from Les Plages d'Agnès. This shot isn't a quotation — I'm not quoting Agnès Varda's film: I'm benefiting from her work. I'm taking an excerpt, which I'm incorporating somewhere else, where it takes on another meaning: in this case, symbolizing peace between Israel and Palestine. I didn't pay for that shot. But if Agnès asked me for money, I figure it would be for a reasonable price. Which is to say, a price in proportion with the economy of the film, the number of spectators that it reaches...
LALANNE: In order to metaphorically express peace in the Middle East, why do you prefer to sample one of Agnès Varda's images instead of shooting one on your own?
GODARD: I thought the metaphor in Agnès' film was excellent.
LALANNE: But it has nothing to do with that, in her film...
GODARD: No, of course not. I'm the one who builds it, by moving the image. I'm not thinking of harming the image. I thought it was perfect for what I wanted to say. If the Palestinians and the Israelis put on a circus and brought together a bunch of trapeze artists, things would be different in the Middle East. For me this image shows a perfect agreement — exactly what I wanted to express. So I'm taking the image, since it exists. The socialism of the film is the undermining of the idea of property, beginning with that of artworks... There shouldn't be any property over artworks. Beaumarchais only wanted to enjoy a portion of the receipts from Le Mariage du Figaro. He might say, "I'm the one who wrote Figaro." But I don't think he would have said, "Figaro is mine." This feeling of property over artworks came later on. These days, a guy attaches lighting to the Eiffel Tower — he gets paid for it; but if you film the Eiffel Tower, you have to pay this guy something on top of it.
LALANNE: Your film's going up online via FilmoTV at the same time as we'll be able to go see it in a theater...
GODARD: That wasn't my idea. When the film-trailers were made, which is to say the whole film speeded-up, I proposed putting them up on YouTube because it's a good way of getting things out there. Putting the film up online was the distributor's idea. They put money up for the film, so I'm doing what they request. If it was up to me, I wouldn't have released it this way. It took four years to make this film. In production terms, it was very atypical. It was shot in quarters, divided equally with Battaggia, Arragno, and Grivas. Each one set off and brought back images. Grivas went off alone to Egypt, and brought back hours of footage... A lot of time went into it. I think the film would have benefited from a similar relationship, duration-wise, to its distribution.
LALANNE: What does that mean, in concrete terms?
GODARD: I really would have liked to have a boy and a girl be involved, a couple who had the urge to show things, who were kind of involved with the cinema, the sort of young people you might meet at small festivals. They'd be given a copy of the film on DVD, then be asked to train as skydivers. After that, places would be randomly chosen on a map of France, and they'd parachute down into those locations. They'd have to show the film wherever they landed. In a café, at a hotel... they'd manage. People would pay 3 or 4 euros to get in — no more than that. They might film this adventure, and sell it later on. Thanks to them, you get a sense of what it means to distribute a film. Afterwards, only you can make the decision, to find out whether or not it's able to be projected in regular theaters. But not before having investigated everything for a year or two. Because beforehand, you're just like me: you don't know what the film is, you don't know what might be interesting about it. You've gone a little outside the whole media space.
LALANNE: In the 1980s, we saw you in the press, on TV, more often...
GODARD: Yes, it bothers me now. I'm no longer looking to subvert a certain process of television. At the time, I believed in that, a little. I didn't think that it would change anything, but that it might get people interested in doing things differently. It interests them for three minutes. There are still things I'm interested in about television: programs about animals, history channels. I really like House, too. Somebody's injured, everybody gathers around him, the characters express themselves in hypertechnical jargon — I really like it. But I couldn't watch ten episodes in a row.
LALANNE: Why did you invite Alain Badiou and Patti Smith to be in your latest film, but ended up filming them so little?
GODARD: Patti Smith was there, so I filmed her. I don't see why I should have filmed her for any length of time greater than I would, say, a waitress.
LALANNE: Why did you ask her to be involved?
GODARD: So that there would be one good American. Someone who embodies something other than imperialism.
LALANNE: And Alain Badiou?
GODARD: I wanted to quote a text about geometry by Hussserl, and I wanted someone to develop something of his own from that. It interested him.
LALANNE: Why film him in front of an empty auditorium?
GODARD: Because none of the tourists on the cruise had any interest in his lecture. It was announced that there would be a lecture about Husserl, and no-one showed up. When Badiou was brought into this empty auditorium, he was really happy. He said: "Finally, I get to speak in front of nobody." [laughs] I could have framed it closer, not for the sake of filming the empty auditorium, but to show that it was words in a desert, that we're in the desert. It made me think of Jean Genet's phrase: "You have to go looking for images because they're in the desert." In my cinema, there are never any intentions. It's not me inventing this empty auditorium. I don't want to say anything, I try to show, or to get feeling across, or to allow something else to be said after the fact. When you hear: "Today the assholes are sincere — they believe in Europe," what else is there to say? That one can't believe in Europe without being an asshole? It's a phrase that came to me while reading some passages from La Nausée. In those times, the asshole wasn't sincere. A torturer knew he wasn't being honest. These days, the asshole is sincere. As for Europe, it's existed a long time; there's no need to make it into something other than it is. I find it hard to understand, say, how anyone could be a parliamentarian for it — like Dany [Daniel Cohn-Bendit —JML]. Isn't it odd?
LALANNE: A political party shouldn't consist of ecology?
GODARD: You know parties... Parties are always committed [to one thing]. Even their names, sometimes. De Gaulle was against parties. During the Liberation, though, he brought the parties to the Conseil de la Résistance in order to swing some weight around in front of the Americans. The National Front was even there. Except it wasn't the same thing as it is today. At the time, it was one of the Communist Party's endeavors. I don't really know why the other ones held onto that name afterward. A committed party...
LALANNE: The second-to-last quotation in the film is: "If the law is unjust, justice proceeds past the law..."
GODARD: It ties back in with the right of the author. Every DVD starts off with a title from the FBI criminalizing copies. I went for Pascal. But you might take something else away from that phrase. You might think about Roman Polanski's arrest, for example.
LALANNE: Were you spurred on by the fact that Polanski's arrest took place in your country, Switzerland?
GODARD: I'm Franco-Swiss. I pass for Swiss, but I declare residence in France; I pay my taxes in France. In Switzerland, there are certain landscapes I like that I couldn't do without. And further to that, I have my roots here. But politically speaking, I'm shocked by lots of things. Same as with Polanski, Switzerland refused to submit to the United States. They should discuss — not accept. I hope that every filmmaker that goes to Cannes rallies around Polanski, and affirms that Swiss justice is not just. Just as they've done to support the imprisoned filmmaker Jafar Panahi. Just as one might say "the Iranian regime is an evil regime," they should say "the Swiss regime isn't good."
LALANNE: The ban on minarets?
GODARD: That's nothing... As far as Switzerland's concerned, I think of Qaddafi: Romandy Switzerland belongs to France; German Switzerland belongs to Germany; Italian Switzerland belongs to Italy; and voilà, no more Switzerland!
LALANNE: The Greek crisis resonates strongly with your film...
GODARD: We should give thanks to Greece. It's the West that has a debt in relation to Greece. Philosophy, democracy, tragedy... We always forget the links between tragedy and democracy. Without Sophocles, no Pericles. Without Pericles, no Sophocles. The technological world in which we live owes everything to Greece. Who invented logic? Aristotle. If this and if that, then this. Logic. It's what the dominant powers use every day — ensuring that there's no contradiction whatsoever, that we stay inside of the same logic. Hannah Arendt put it well when she said that logic leads to totalitarianism. So today the whole world owes Greece money. Greece could ask the contemporary world for one trillion copyrights, and it would only be logical to turn them over to it. Post-haste.
LALANNE: The Greeks are also accused of being liars...
GODARD: It reminds me of an old syllogism I learned in school. Epaminondas is a liar — and yet, every Greek is a liar — thus, Epaminondas is Greek. We haven't advanced much farther than that.
LALANNE: Did Barack Obama's election alter your perception of American international politics?
GODARD: It's funny, Edwy Plenel [in the Mediapart video-interview. —CK] asked me the same question. Obama's election left me neither warm nor cold. I've been hoping for his sake that no-one would jump in to assassinate him. That he represents the United States — it's not exactly the same thing as when it was George Bush. But sometimes things are clearer when they're at their worst. When Chirac found himself facing Le Pen on the second leg of the presidential campaign, I was thinking that the left should abstain and not vote for Chirac. It's better to let the worst happen.
LALANNE: Why? That's dangerous...
GODARD: Because in a single instant, everyone pauses to think. Just like with tsunamis...
LALANNE: What are we supposed to pause and think about, with tsunamis?
GODARD: About what gets called nature, in which we take part. There are moments when it has to take its revenge. Meteorologists only speak a scientific language; they don't speak philosophically. No-one listens to the way in which a tree philosophizes.
LALANNE: Are you still interested in sports?
GODARD: Yes, but I regret that today football puts nothing more forward than a completely defensive game. Aside from Barcelona. But Barcelona can't play two matches in a row at the same level.
LALANNE: It depends. They won out over Arsenal.
GODARD: Yes, but not against Milan. Why can't they rally? When nothing comes off, you've got fewer matches.
LALANNE: This past winter, you made a very short film in homage to Eric Rohmer...
GODARD: Les Films du Losange asked me to. I wanted to use the titles of his articles, to evoke things that I'd seen or done with him when we were young at the Cahiers in the 1950s. I could hardly say anything about him. You can't talk about people with whom you've shared very little. Of course, this isn't the method of Antoine de Baecque...
LALANNE: Have you read the biography by Antoine de Baecque devoted to you?
GODARD: I've flipped through it.
LALANNE: Could you care less that it exists, or are you bothered by it?
GODARD: It bothers me for Anne-Marie's sake. Because there are false things in it. It also bothers me that people in my family turned documents over to him. It's bad form. But I haven't done anything to prevent its release.
LALANNE: Did you keep in touch with Eric Rohmer?
GODARD: A tiny bit, because he was living in the same building in Paris. So we spoke to one another from time to time.
LALANNE: Have you seen his final films?
GODARD: Yes, on DVD. Triple Agent is a very strange film. I'm really into espionage, but I wouldn't have imagined that such a subject might interest him.
LALANNE: Is the idea of accomplishing a body of work, one which life granted you the time to complete, a matter that weighs upon you?
GODARD: No. I don't believe in the body of work. There are works, they might be produced in individual installments, but the body of work as a collection, the great oeuvre, I have no interest in it. I prefer to speak in terms of pathways. Along my course, there are highs and there are lows, there are attempts... I've towed the line a lot. You know, the most difficult thing is to tell a friend that what he's done isn't very good. I can't do it. Rohmer was brave enough to tell me at the time of the Cahiers that my critique of Strangers on a Train was bad. Rivette could say it too. And we paid a lot of attention to what Rivette thought. As for François Truffaut, he didn't forgive me for thinking his films were worthless. He also suffered from not ending up finding my films as worthless as I thought his own were.
LALANNE: Do you really think that Truffaut's films are worthless?
GODARD: No, not worthless... Not any more than anything else... Not any more than Chabrol's... But that wasn't the cinema we were dreaming of.
LALANNE: Posterity, leaving a trace behind — does this concern you?
GODARD: No, not at all.
LALANNE: But has it weighed upon you even for an instant?
LALANNE: I have a hard time believing that. You can't make Pierrot le fou without having the urge to create a masterpiece, to be the champion of the world, to take your place in history forever...
GODARD: Maybe you're right. I had to stake that claim in my early works. I came back down to earth pretty quickly.
LALANNE: Do you think about your death?
GODARD: Yes, inevitably. With health problems... You end up being a lot more introspective than you used to be. Life changes. In any case, I've made a break with the social life for a long time now. I'd really like to take tennis back up again, which I had to stop due to knee-problems. When you get old, childhood starts coming back. It's good. And no, I don't get particularly distressed about dying.
LALANNE: You seem pretty detached...
GODARD: Mais au contraire! I'm very attached! [laughs] And further on this topic: Anne-Marie told me the other day that if she ever ends up outliving me, she'd write on my tombstone: "Au contraire..."