Monday, September 15, 2014

Adieu au langage: "Now what's all this?"


ABOVE: Rachel Zucker's tremendous The Pedestrians [2014], divided into two parts: "Fables" and "The Pedestrians," — the first strongly complements Godard's film.

My translation of Mas and Pisani's first dialogue on Adieu au langage can be read here.


"Now what's all this?"*
(Imaginary Autobiography, Déjà-Vu, Dream Narrative)

by Arthur Mas and Martial Pisani
July 10, 2014

The following was posted in its original French at Independencia here, where images and video have been embedded. My translation, which appears below, should appear at the same site soon. A translation of the third installment in the series, Un entretien presque infini (à propos Adieu au langage), by Aleksander Jousselin from August 8th, will be posted here shortly.

*The French title is
"Qu’est-ce que c’est que cette histoire?", which Laszlo Szabo utters throughout Godard's Passion.


“The premise is simple”: the summary written in Godard’s hand and put forward on the first page of the press-kit insists upon the rudimentary character of Adieu au langage’s story: a woman, a man, and a dog as the principal characters, a kitchen and a living room as the central place of action. Described in this way, the synopsis resembles stage directions.

— One easy hypothesis would be to find in this constriction of the setting and the direction of the proceedings some personal reasons, as though Godard were pursuing here his fictionalized autobiography, initiated in 1995 with JLG/JLG, and continued in 2002 with Liberté et patrie.

— Further to the synopsis and the press-kit, the presentation of Adieu au langage was accompanied by another film, this one truly in the first-person: Khan Khanne. If it indeed originates as an actual letter, let’s note that Godard held on to it to read it aloud at the same time as illustrating it, and that his voice, all but absent in Adieu au langage, lends to the letter an intimate accent that the feature doesn’t adopt.

— Yet it’s not his first filmed letter: there was Caméra-oeil in 1967; Letter to Jane in 1972; the Lettre à la bien-aimée [i.e., Changer d’image] in 1981; the Lettre à Freddy Buache in the following year, etc.

— This one is addressed to Gilles Jacob and Thierry Frémaux who, in choosing to post it online on the official site for the Festival de Cannes, made it accessible to everyone.

— Letter writers never write for a single recipient.

— We might also find that the correspondence loses nothing in its courteous exchange. Godard thanks Jacob and Frémaux for their invitation but presents no excuses for his absence. Yet his reasons aren’t difficult to comprehend, despite what certain journalists might have said: he’s “no longer involved in distribution.” The image chosen at this instant shows a herd of cattle boxed-in by some cowboys. The metaphor is obvious, to say the least.

— Godard is a “maverick,” as they say in westerns, a variety without a ranch or a herd. He “follows other scents,” as might also be said of a hunting dog. A phrase often rolls off his tongue whenever he’s asked to define himself: “Je suis un chien, et ce chien suit Godard, du verbe ‘suivre’.” [“(I am / I follow) a dog, and this dog follows Godard — (suis / suit) as in from ‘suivre,’ the verb ‘to follow’.”]

— A khan is a caravansary, a place where caravans stop to rest: it refers to only a pause in the journey accomplished through metaphor. Read another way, the title might be understood as one “cancan’ing” [i.e., gossiping] about whether or not he would show up. From Cannes to canidé [canine], there are also similar sonorities which might not be off-track: dogs barking...

— And even there, the idea remains of gossip circulating in his absence.

— The name “Khan” could also go back to Coleridge’s poem, Kubla Khan, since the English Romantics are present in Adieu au langage. Published on the advice of Byron in 1816, a few months before he, Byron, goes off to the banks of Lac Léman [Lake Geneva] with Percy and Mary Shelley, the text caused the name of Xanadu to enter the collective imagination. Behind the emperor’s capital may hide the property where Charles Foster Kane is walled up, to bear witness and die alone, while the world chatters on about his reclusion, at the beginning of Welles’ film. So Godard might also be playing ironically with the image of the hermit that’s been willingly attributed to him. Once again, the mirror effect, polysemy, and the multiplicity of references forge an unknowable identity.

— Twenty years earlier JLG/JLG organized a game of perpetual masks around the figure of the filmmaker. In Khan Khanne, Fantômas makes a brief appearance, but Godard is equally present beneath the traits we know him by. From one excerpt to the next time pursues its task: 1981, in Lettre à la bien-aimée; 1997, in Anne-Marie Miéville’s Nous sommes tous encore ici; 2014, reciting Verlaine’s verses at his desk.

— One sentence mentions a trip to Cuba in 1968 to stock up on Partagas cigars...

— The reasons behind the sojourn are probably less trivial than that: in February 1968, Godard assisted the Cultural Congress of Havana to bring together “intellectuals from all around the world over the problems in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.”

— Nevertheless, it seems the scene dredged up like a memory in Khan Khanne after the title “Cuba sì” has nothing to do with politics. Some images from a strange film noir, Arthur Ripley’s The Chase, reveal a couple going into a nightclub, “La Habana,” where they agree to dance before the woman collapses in the arms of her partner, a dagger planted in her back. The actress is none other than Michèle Morgan and as such the sequence might evoke the end of Le quai des brumes, except reversed, since it isn’t the wife but the lover who dies in Carné’s film.

— Resemblances abound between the two films, whose action takes place in a port: Le Havre in Le quai des brumes, Havana in The Chase. By default the choice of setting invokes a misty atmosphere and the sirens of the boats shipping off. In Carné’s film, in 1938, Gabin goes to war in Tonkin and is warned of his “mind getting foggy”; in Arthur Ripley’s film, which dates from 1946, the hero is a former G.I. subject to post-traumatic stress. Both times Michèle Morgan plays a young woman being hunted by gangsters. We might say that The Chase is a remake of Le quai des brumes directed after the war, in Hollywood.

— A passage from Chapter 3A of the Histoire(s) du cinéma associates two excerpts from Le quai des brumes with two verses of “Elsa je t’aime” (from Louis Aragon’s Le Crève-coeur, 1941) in such a way that an exchange develops between Prévert’s dialogue and Aragon’s verses. Gabin: “You have pretty eyes — you know that?” Morgan: “Kiss me.” Aragon: “Au biseau des baisers, les ans passent trop vite.” [“At the tapering off of kisses, years pass too quickly.”] Jean and Nelly kiss. When Gabin dies, his last words are meant for her: “Embrasse moi. Embrasse moi. Vite, on est pressé!” [“Kiss me. Kiss me. Quick, we’re running out of time!”] and Aragon adds: “Évite, évite, évite les souvenirs brisés.” [“Avoid, avoid, avoid broken memories.”]

— The montage also becomes clear if one remembers that Godard recited these verses in À bout de souffle, which sort of tells the same story as Le quai des brumes. By the way, Sadoul had titled his critique of À bout de souffle in Les lettres françaises: Quai des brumes 1960.”

— In Adieu au langage, neither À bout de souffle nor Le quai des brumes nor The Chase are brought in to play a role on-screen, but Marcus’ [Richard Chevallier’s character’s] last words before dying are indeed those from Aragon’s poem. In Godard’s first feature, the verses announce a violent death; in his latest feature, they bring this death to a close. So would Adieu au langage be a “Quai des brumes 2014”?

— That might be going a little far, but several points in common invite the comparison. In both of the films, a man falls in love with a woman linked to a crook who will wind up killing his rival. A dog — Roxy in Adieu au langage, Kiki in Le quai des brumes — is at the center of the couple. The last shot of Le quai des brumes, in which the animal takes off running on a road, could be mistaken for the final images of Adieu au langage, even if this time the dog comes back.

— And although Nyon and its “Belle Époque” boats have replaced Le Havre and its liners, the mists that glide over the setting, from the shores of Lake Geneva to the brooks in the forest, aren’t dispersed. Taking a passage from Jean Santeuil, a voice describes the landscape in these terms: “When, the sun already breaking through, the river is still asleep in dreams of the fog, we do not see it any more than it sees itself. Even with the river here, the view is interrupted; we no longer see anything but the void, a mist which prevents us from seeing any farther.”

— The recitation ends on one of those paradoxes Godard is so fond of: “In this place out of a painting, to paint neither that which we see because we no longer see anything, nor that which we don’t see since we’re supposed to paint only what we see — rather, to paint what we don’t see.” In the film, the phrase is attributed not to Proust, but to Claude Monet. In fact, the excerpt from Jean Santeuil is of course adapting one of Monet’s paintings — and we know what Elstir, the painter from À la recherche du temps perdu, will owe to his canvasses — but the transferral of Proust to Monet might not be involuntary. Monet is first off a painter of Normandy and his Impression, soleil levant presents a view from the port of Le Havre, sixty-four years before Le quai des brumes.


— The scenario for The Chase is one of unusual complexity for a B-movie. A former soldier turned chauffeur in the employ of a gangster falls in love with his boss’s wife and plans their getaway from Miami to Cuba. When the young woman dies after getting stabbed in a club in Havana, suspicion and planted evidence build up on the lover who slips away from the police and holes up in a hotel room. When he wakes up, the man discovers that the incidents that he thought he’d lived through since his departure from Miami were all dreams in the course of a feverish night. At the same time he understands that a second chance is being offered to him to rescue the woman from the claws of her husband and take off with her for Havana. Divided into two sections of unequal length, the film revolves around the sequence in “Havana,” which at once makes up the center and the dénouement of the intrigue. In Adieu au langage, it’s the man’s death which intervenes in the middle and at the end of the film.

The Chase also maintains some affinities with the cinema of Hitchcock, which undoubtedly did not escape Godard. The hero is played by Robert Cummings, who acted four years earlier in Saboteur. The action begins in Miami, as in Notorious, released the same year — moreover, we find in both films a scene in a wine cellar where knocked-over bottles take on a dramatic value.

— To this is added Cummings’ last name in The Chase — Scottie — which will be James Stewart’s in Vertigo. In both films, the love story repeats itself, and ends anew in the same location, in the place of a traumatic event. There’s a deep structural kinship there with that story in two parts, with two couples and two deaths, that is Adieu au langage.

— The knife murderer in a public place, who will show up again in The Man Who Knew Too Much and then North by Northwest, has its importance too. Godard’s films show a particular attention to this detail. A famous sequence in the Histoire(s) du cinéma proposes an “Introduction to the method of Alfred Hitchcock” under the form of a collection of objects and figures embedded in the films of the “Master of Suspense.” Gathered together, pell-mell: the pair of glasses from Strangers on a Train; the bottle of Pommard filled with uranium in Notorious; the glass of phosphorescent milk from Suspicion; the windmill-sails from Foreign Correspondent, etc. The main thing here isn’t so much the fetishistic penchant implied by the entire collection as it is the circulation of motifs from one excerpt to the next and the rhymes revealed by their confrontation: the shower-drain in Psycho reproduces the spiral bun in Kim Novak’s hair in Vertigo; the yellow key from Marnie falls down a manhole, like the lighter from Strangers on a Train; while another key is hidden beneath a rug in Notorious, and the action of Vera Miles brandishing a hairbrush in The Wrong Man announces Norman Bates’ gesture delivering the first slash of the knife, in Psycho again.

— Hitchcockian signs make their return in Adieu au langage: a bathtub spattered with blood; a knife, this time inside a sink; windshield wipers in motion beneath the rain like on the windshield of Janet Leigh’s car on the way to the Bates Motel... A reply given by the man to the woman mentioning a stabbing four years prior suggests a possible link between these elements. On the film’s soundtrack, shrill violins from Giya Kancheli’s Abii ne viderem curiously recall Bernard Herrmann’s famous score for Psycho.

— In The Chase, the character of Scottie is said not to have gone to Havana for three or four years, even if he just dreamt being trapped there, accused of having stabbed the one he loves before waking up.


— The chaotic grammar of the text read aloud in Khan Khanne speaks to Godard having just gone back to Havana last year [l’année dernière à la Havane / last year in Havana] — in 1968: this couldn’t be just a dream...

— He was in the process of finishing the editing of Adieu au langage last year, which he designated earlier as being like a “simple waltz,” thus once again granting a central place to the dance scene in The Chase.

— Could the entire film be a dream?

Kubla Khan has a subtitle: “A Vision in a Dream. A Fragment.”

— When would the dream start, then?

— Within the first few minutes of the film, a voice mentions an adaptation for the theater of the Song of Songs. The Old Testament book has been interpreted as a dream narrative, with special focus on one phrase from the first poem: “I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem, / By the gazelles or the does of the field, / That you not stir up or awaken your beloved / Until she pleases.”

— At the end of Adieu... we hear the voice of Maria Casarès respond to the hero of Le testament d’Orphée who thinks he’s awoken from a long dream: “You’re in bed, professor, you’re asleep. Only, you’re not dreaming of us.”

“You occupy one of those folds in time you’ve done so much research on,” she adds in Cocteau’s film. The issue of knowing who is doing the dreaming, and who is inside another’s dream, even puts time into question, like in Borges’ story.

— It’s a phrase from “The Other,” too, that inspired the conclusion of the Histoire(s): “I suddenly recalled a work by Coleridge. Someone dreams that he passes through heaven and is given a flower as proof of his passage.”

— There are also lots of flowers in Adieu..., but not a single rose. Neither the bouquet withering in the kitchen nor the poppy field that Roxy contemplates seem to signify an awakening. On the contrary, the voiceover incites revery: “Imagine you’re a little boy...”

— If the narrative of the film is shattered, it’s only from this point of view, new in Godard: If we can’t be sure we’re not still dreaming, we wouldn’t know whether to say the film is over, either. The different stories bumping up against one another in Adieu... are no longer unfinished, or have only just begun, like a suite of possible deviations, as was the case up until Film Socialisme. They find themselves taken up again in another narrative, are placed, straightaway, between parentheses. Roxy dreaming of the Marquesas Islands, in the final minutes of the film, doesn’t open a new chapter but belongs, in the span of a dream, to another story of which we’ll only know finitude.

— Paradoxically, on the inside of each parenthesis, time passes so much more slowly that we know it’s limited. “And as for myself, I have to hold on till the end — and this is difficult,” proclaims Élisabeth in Les enfants terribles, at the beginning of Adieu au langage.

— We might say about the story of the man and the woman, and of their four years living together, that they pass as in a dream. We leap quickly from the beginning to the foreseeable end, from the present to the past.

— Maybe the love story is lived through entirely in the past. The first excerpt playing on the television in the couple's house lets us hear, and catch a glimpse of, Gregory Peck seducing Ava Gardner. In Henry King’s film, The Snows of Kilimanjaro (1952), that entire sequence is a memory of the writer’s.

“‘It was the best time we ever had!’ said Deslauriers.” The last sentence of L’éducation sentimentale, which sends the discovery of the female body back into a distant past, is showcased in Adieu au langage and places the entire film under the aegis of memory and revery. The order of the opening titles, in an effect of one being swiftly replaced by the next, invites us to follow the slope of memory, and then of imagination to set into motion the movement of thought.

— So why interrupt this revery, and the love story, with gunshots?

— Godard said of Hitchcock that he “filmed actresses like plants. Except that he wrote a screenplay for a thriller involving a rose and a tulip.” “A film is a girl and a gun”: nothing prohibits us from thinking that the adage indicates a succession rather than a reunion, nor that this linkage is able to repeat itself in a continuous loop.


(The entirety of Arthur Ripley's The Chase, which presently exists only in a public domain version, can be viewed on YouTube here.)


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