Godard and Sound: Acoustic Innovation in the Late Films of Jean-Luc Godard — Book Review by Kathleen Sachs (Exclusive)

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le petit soldat posterIn his film LE PETIT SOLDAT, Jean-Luc Godard’s beleaguered protagonist declares that “[c]inema is truth 24 frames per second.” Now something of a cinephilic proverb, the adage has become a catch-all for that which is contained within the frame, sometimes even to the exclusion of all that outside it. This utterance in LE PETIT SOLDAT, Godard’s second film, has proved something of a mission and an obstacle within his expansive career, one that’s been preoccupied with examining truth in cinema as well as manipulating it, thus questioning our very perception of these truths. He does this through images themselves and through sound—the sound, unseen to our eye and often taken for granted by our ear, which lives in harmony and at war with the image.

The dissection of Godard’s deviceful use of sound is the subject of Dr. Albertine Fox’s monograph Godard and Sound: Acoustic Innovation in the Late Films of Jean-Luc Godard, (2017, I.B. Tauris imprint). A lecturer in French film at the University of Bristol, Fox finds new areas to explore in Godard’s body of work, an impressive feat considering the notoriously cryptic filmmaker’s exceedingly fixated critical admirers. With this expansive text, she seems to say, yes, cinema may be truth at 24 frames per second, but what truth exists around its edges?

Looking at the Carpet from the Wrong Side

Fox quotes Virginia Woolf’s biography of Roger Fry, artist and noted critic who coined the term post-impressionism: “He looked at the carpet from the wrong side…but he made it for that very reason display unexpected patterns.” This statement could be applied to Godard’s work, inscrutable though the carpet may be from any angle, as well as Fox’s dissection of its sonic qualities, specifically in his so-called “late films,” defined by Fox as being those made after 1979. In her book, a surprisingly quick read considering the density of its content, she provides thorough examinations of the sound in SAUVE QUI PEUT (LA VIE) (1979), PASSION (1982), PRÉNOM CARMEN (1983), SOIGNE TA DROITE: UNE PLACE SUR LA TERRE (1987), KING LEAR (1987), JLG/JLG : AUTOPORTRAIT DE DÉCEMBRE (1995), FILM SOCIALISME (2010) and ADIEU AU LANGAGE (2014), as well as shorter works SCÉNARIO DE SAUVE QUI PEUT (LA VIE) (1979), SCÉNARIO DU FILM PASSION (1982), LETTRE À FREDDY BUACHE (1981), PUISSANCE DE LA PAROLE (1988) and ON S’EST TOUS DÉFILÉ (1987), and the NOUVELLE VAGUE soundtrack (1990).

“My aim is not to provide one overarching narrative to account for Godard’s use of sound from his New Wave cinema through to the present, because this sweeping linear approach would oversimplify such a vast and multilayered volume of audio-visual material,” Fox writes of her selection. “I have chosen not to confine my study to Godard’s canonical films but to engage with a selection assortment of ‘major’ and ‘minor’ works, complemented by an eclectic mix of critical discourses that allow for a more attuned understanding of individual films.”

Overview of Intentions

Albertine Fox

Albertine Fox

In the introduction, Fox provides a generous overview of her intentions with the text, specifically with regards to the concept of acoustic spectatorship. An acoustic spectator, she writes, “is a responsive and involved subject who shapes and is shaped by the film’s sounds, rhythms, images, textures, spaces and colours.” She sets the clear expectation that her readers will think less with their eyes and more with their ears, both as close to the brain as needed to comprehend Godard’s whirligig style. She then lays out the organizational structure of the ensuing chapters, a helpful tool when addressing the work in aggregate. It also reflects the thoughtfulness of her research—each film is approached anew, with earlier analysis layered in with the fresh perspectives. Her criticism considers each work as a singular text—sonic and otherwise—as well as part of the whole of Godard’s ouvre; furthermore, she incorporates an array of influences, from novels to operas, in such a way that contextualizes Godard’s output within a greater cultural assemblage. Just as Chaucer and Plutarch inspired Shakespeare, all of whom are now considered in the same empyreal realm of genius, Godard’s influences are at once exemplars and compeers.

Fox does a fantastic job summarizing the book’s theoretical mission in the first chapter, ‘The Evolution of a New Sound Cinema.’ “Godard and Sound is largely underpinned by Pierre Schaeffer’s phenomenological theory of the acousmatic condition,” she writes, dedicating the next segment to summarizing Schaeffer’s revolutionary ideas. Fox’s book is not only a good resource for the topic at hand; it also provides ‘mini-lessons’ on subjects with which readers may be unfamiliar. Again, this reflects the author’s thoughtfulness—she doesn’t assume that everyone reading is familiar with every reference, and she elaborates in such a way that even those who are familiar will glean something new from how she connects the ideas to her own. She also provides background on ‘Godard’s early sonic experiments,’ as well as ‘[t]he Sonimage years,’ referring to the production company that Godard co-founded with his longtime partner, Swiss filmmaker Anne-Marie Miéville. (Fox wrote a fantastic piece about Miéville’s career for Sight & Sound in 2017. Her dedication to the féminin of their MASCULIN FÉMININ dynamic is certainly admirable.)

Assessing Godards Works

Each chapter thereafter assesses two to three works, divided further into concise examinations of particular points of view. The second chapter, ‘Constructing Voices,’ focuses on SAUVE QUI PEUT (LA VIE) and SCÉNARIO DE SAUVE QUI PEUT (LA VIE), both from 1979. Like the subsequent chapters, it starts with a summary/context-establishing introduction, then unpacks the films from several prescribed angles before arriving at a neat conclusion. Fox examines the influence of Dziga Vertov on SCÉNARIO DE SAUVE QUI PEUT (LA VIE), as well as a theoretical connection between Vertov and Schaeffer; the use of Amilcare Ponchielli’s “La Gioconda” in SAUVE QUI PEUT (LA VIE); and the relationship of the former to Arthur Rimbaud’s “Nocturne Vulgaire” and ‘[t]he aural presence of Marguerite Duras,’ among other topics. One goes into each chapter expecting to read an analysis of sound in its respective late Godard films and emerges all the more knowledgeable about several additional textual references. Much like Godard, Fox infuses her work with an appreciation for art in its various forms.

My especial appreciation for the book’s fifth chapter, ‘Listening Through Curves,’ is impacted by my appreciation for Virginia Woolf, whose experimental 1931 novel The Waves she connects with Godard’s 1987 film KING LEAR. Godard references the novel in his film, but Fox’s analysis goes deeper than perfunctory association. “Throughout the writing process Woolf was listening regularly to Beethoven’s late quartets and sonatas,” Fox writes. “Elicia Clements [professor and author of Virginia Woolf: Music, Sound, Language] argues that [Woolf] was listening quite specifically for ‘alternative formal models for her new, radical novel.’” All this contextualization not only starts the circle that will come around full with Godard’s reference to her work in KING LEAR, but is also a shining example of the criticism Fox is putting forward. Where I always thought that many of Godard’s references to his favorite books, movies and music was borderline fan-boyish, without concomitant meaning, Fox’s analysis of KING LEAR in relationship to “The Waves” ensures that I won’t assume as such in the future. She writes that “[a]long with the skewed perspective and strange ambient sounds [in KING LEAR], Godard brings to life a form of expression that creatively transcends what, for Woolf, was ‘the inflexibility of language.’” In this way, Godard, and thus Fox, challenge the concept of a text and how it can surpass the page and even the screen, specifically via sound-related modes.

Concise Illumination

Irrespective of her subject, Fox’s work stands on its own—related, of course, to Godard’s work but still independent in its excellence. Its other chapters not discussed here (Chapter 3: ‘Sound, Body and Audible Space’; Chapter 4: ‘Fragments of Time and Memory’; Chapter 6: ‘A Land Out of Focus: Between Eye and Ear’; and Chapter 7: ‘Acoustic Dystopias and Rhythms of Change’) are similarly illuminating—but still so, so concise. I admire her ability to not only think about Godard’s work so broadly, but also to convey it so succinctly, all while placing emphasis on the formal aspects—infinitely more difficult to do—over the substantive.

It was difficult to pick a passage from the book that I felt best summarizes its overall message, as so many parts of it are microcosms in and of themselves, but I think this one does a fine job: “Snippets of music, sound and speech are incorporated into Godard’s post-1979 films, videos and soundtracks with more buoyancy, acuity and fluidity than in his New Wave cinema, presenting a more elastic temporality. Perceived as merely arbitrary, or intricately constructed, the arrangement of sounds and images boast a unique compositional style that showcases the infinite permutations of the organisation of cinematic material.” An impressive work of scholarship, Godard and Sound is also a guiding light to other permutations of cinema, be it those you see or hear.

kathleen sachs head

Kathleen Sachs is a contributing writer and social media manager for Cine-File and marketing and publicity manager for Music Box Films

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