Godard and Sound: Acoustic Innovation in the Late Films of Jean-Luc Godard, Excerpt from Chapter Five (Exclusive) — Albertine Fox

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albertine fox 1Godard and Sound: Acoustic Innovation in the Late Films of Jean-Luc Godard
By Albertine Fox
Publication: 30 November 2017 by I.B.Tauris

Exclusive Excerpt from Chapter Five

During the evening meal at the hotel restaurant in Nyon, where Cordelia (Molly Ringwald), Learo (Burgess Meredith) and Shakespeare Jr. are dining together, in addition to the citations from Forrester’s essay we hear loud background rustling and clattering sounds, along with the sound of wind whistling, waves crashing and the disorienting chorus of froggy voices (produced by decelerated speech). Our attention is resolutely drawn to the soundtrack, whose chaotic activity calls to mind the crackling noise of a fuzzy television screen. In Woolf’s autobiographical essay A Sketch of the Past (1939), she describes her most important childhood memory as hearing the waves breaking outside the window behind a yellow blind, of hearing a splash, seeing light and experiencing the sensations intensely. It was ‘the feeling, as I describe it sometimes to myself, of lying in a grape and seeing through a film of semi-transparent yellow’. She continues:

    If I were a painter I should paint these first impressions in pale yellow, silver, and green … I should make curved shapes, showing the light through, but not giving a clear outline. Everything would be large and dim; and what was seen would at the same time be heard; sounds would come through this petal or leaf – sounds indistinguishable from sights.

Some of the images during the restaurant scenes in King Lear resonate with scenes in The Waves. For example, in Bernard’s final soliloquy, he refers to ‘the riot and babble of voices’ and the ‘radiant yet gummy atmosphere’. A sense of memory and loss is poignantly expressed by the strange surplus of dancing wine glasses in this dimly lit, yellow-tinged room, filled with gurgling acousmatic voices and solemn puddles of funereal music, echoing the communal restaurant scenes in Woolf’s novel that make space for provisional moments of harmony, contact and wholeness.

The metaphor of absence that haunts the evening restaurant episode conjures up the sense of loss generated by the premature death of the archetypal hero figure, embodied by Percival in The Waves (Percival dies after falling from a horse). His absent seventh voice destabilises the voices of the six remaining figures who then float around like ‘hollow phantoms’ with no solidity or background (or no projection ‘screen’). For Godard, the communal experience of watching a film projected onto a large screen has suffered the chronic invasion of the small screen of television, a medium that tends to privilege prosaic speech and prohibit the sound of silence. In his ceaseless drive to refigure the remnants of the collective dwelling-place of cinema, Godard pulls our attention back to these scenes of ‘uninterrupted community’, so striking in Woolf’s novel, that are savoured by the speakers as they grieve the silent blank left by Percival, the character who personifies the pierced veil of semblances.

Although King Lear is immersed in Godard’s ‘death of cinema’ discourse, the spectator is forever encouraged to listen out for a new language beneath the mass of voices, the murky colours and distorted slowed-down music. Along with the skewed perspective and strange ambient sounds, Godard brings to life a form of expression that creatively transcends what, for Woolf, was ‘the inflexibility of language’. The extracts of recorded music are unhinged and unbalanced, having undergone, like Schaeffer’s sound object, a process of mutation through extreme deceleration. And yet along with the excessive primal music of gull cries, slurping sounds, grunts, squealing reptiles and chanting that can be heard on the soundtrack, the image-track becomes swamped in what could be construed as an acoustical aura of revolt, reflecting Cordelia’s transgressive silence through that other sonic extremity: noise. This choric babble of artifice is entwined with the bubbling up of a fresh syntax, poised to emerge with new visions and sounds as we shift incessantly from Woolf’s experimental ‘playpoem’ to Godard’s ‘twisted fairy-tale’.

Virginia Woolf, Moments of Being, ed. Jeanne Schulkind, 2nd edn (London: The Hogarth Press, 1985), p. 65.
Ibid., p. 66.
Virginia Woolf, The Waves (Ware: Wordsworth Editions, 2000), pp. 140–2.
Deborah Parsons, ‘Introduction’, in Woolf, The Waves, pp. v–xvii (p. vi).


Albertine Fox is a Lecturer in French Film at the University of Bristol. Her work has appeared in Studies in French Cinema, SEQUENCE and in Sight & Sound online. She is currently working on a project that explores the role of interviews in films and documentaries, with a particular focus on works by French and Francophone women filmmakers.

Godard and Sound: Acoustic Innovation in the Late Films of Jean-Luc Godard by Albertine Fox will be published on 30 November 2017 by I.B.Tauris: eBook edition available on publication but hardback copy pre-order is available from Amazon.

Read Albertine Fox’s exclusive commentary on the researching and writing of her book on THE FEMALE GAZE.

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