[Part of VARIABLES, a series of essays on the art and politics of Jean-Luc Godard]
The films of Jean-Luc Godard abound with literary quotations. From a government document on prostitution to Les Fleurs du mal, nothing is off limits to Godard, from high culture or low. While his many literary reference points help expand and trouble his thematic palate, the work and career of one author makes a compelling analogue to the drastic formal innovations of late-period Godard: James Joyce.
The trajectory of Joyce’s formal project serves as a template for Godard’s own artistic work in a few ways. From Joyce’s early poetry to his notorious final novel Finnegans Wake, we see a stark move from the aesthetization of the English language towards its own destruction. Throughout Ulysses, but most potently in Finnegans Wake, Joyce exploded language from the inside, using the basic material of his medium—narratives, themes, words, and even single phonemes and guttural sounds—to achieve a new, universal language beyond the laws of English.
Similarly, Godard has developed his own cinematic language throughout his career, from the jump cuts of Breathless, to the Brechtian influences of Tout va bien, to the dense collage of Histoire(s) du cinema. For Godard as for Joyce (who, by the way, loved cinema), the interrogation of an artist’s own medium is his most basic and essential task. Samuel Beckett’s explanation of Joyce’s formal experiments could easily be extended to Godard: “Here form is content, content is form. You complain that this stuff is not written in English. It is not written at all… His writing is not about something; it is that something itself.”
But how did each artist arrive there? To explode the language of an art from the inside, one must first demonstrate a full understanding of how that language functions, and we must therefore not forget Joyce’s and Godard’s early perfection of traditional, less experimental form. Throughout his films of the early 60s, Godard can clearly be seen growing in his mastery of classical form. Take, for example, the pivotal apartment scene of Contempt, the visual beauty of the party in Pierrot le fou, or the graceful camerawork in that film’s musical scene. We remember Godard for his deviations from classical style, but he has also demonstrated a sophisticated understanding of its use in cinematic form.
For Joyce’s part, the development of his radical formal aesthetic is evident in a comparison of the structure of Dubliners to that of the Wandering Rocks chapter in Ulysses. In each instance, Joyce, among other things, juxtaposes the stories of multiple characters to express a grander narrative of Dublin as a dense network of connections. While the concept of this juxtaposition of stories is similar, Joyce achieves it in a remarkably more nuanced and complete way in Ulysses. Told from the perspective of 18 different characters, Wondering Rocks throws all of Dublin together in a stunning display of coordination, instead of separating each narrative as Dubliners divides the discrete short stories that comprise its collection. While each “short story” in Wandering Rocks is divided by a section break, a series of recurring characters, visual cues and thematic motifs further link all of its components. Pay attention, for example, to the blade of hay Corny Kelleher chews, the poster of the “charming soubrette” Marie Kendall, and the temporal indications that help weave each story into the larger fabric of the city around 3pm. It’s said that Sergei Eisenstein wished to adapt Ulysses for the screen. If that’s the case, he could have surely started here, using montage to connect and fragment the pieces of one of Joyce’s most cinematic passages.
Despite the cinematic nature of the Wandering Rocks chapter, it’s Finnegans Wake which serves as the most obvious connection between Joyce and Godard, particularly his later films. The critic Jonathan Rosenbaum invokes Finnegans Wake to discuss Histoire(s) du cinema, comparing Joyce’s panlingustic portmanteau to Godard’s layering of images and sounds. Both works also uses a radical form to examine history and memory, joining together disparate elements to create new connections. Just as Joyce’s verbal stew borrows across global linguistics to pack new words with puns in several different languages at once, Godard collides war-time newsreels with Hollywood films with his own footage.
Perhaps Histoire(s) du cinema most closely mirrors Joyce’s formal experiments, but Godard’s Film socialisme brings the thematic relevance of Joyce to the forefront. The film is a daring cacophony of images and sound, in which fractured bits of various languages attest to the dis-integration of European identity: historical, linguistic and cultural. Its characters speak in a Joycian blend of languages making true communication impossible. To heighten the effect, Godard has voices overlap, laying languages atop one another in much the same way as Joyce slams words together in Finnegans Wake. With his controversial “Navajo English” subtitles, Godard commits to his tower of Babel by only translating the few key words of each speaker which a foreign listener might discern (“people ignore others … ourselves mirror”).
With its forceful new form, Finnegans Wake multiplies language in order to break through it. While a full understanding of its language might be impossible, its effects are always powerfully felt. The same can be said of Godard’s work—his newest masterpiece, after all, is titled Goodbye to Language. Film socialisme’s vast palate of video and audio textures are as varied as the film’s linguistic building blocks, making it the perfect Joycean film. Godard may consider modern Europe an isolating tower of Babel, but his film is for everyone, no matter what language you speak. Just as Joyce did with literature, Godard has made the subject of his work the unifying language of cinema itself. “Film socialism” indeed.
Beckett, Samuel. “Dante… Bruno. Vico… Joyce.” Our Exagmination Round His Factification for Incamination of Work in Progress. Shakespeare and Company: 1929.