“Hail Mary,” directed by Jean-Luc Godard

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She’s the One

By Ray Sawhill

In the sixties, when Jean-Luc Godard was in peak form, he worked as a kind of essayist-collagist. He had a real fondness for junk culture; he assembled his own movies from scraps, skits, readymades, found objects, parodies and reminders of other movies, his own commentary, pages from his journal. He drew from the contemporary world and returned his work to it.

There are similarities in the ways Godard’s early movies and his recent ones are put together — in the fragmentation, the vivid “natural” sound. But in the sixties films, Godard’s state of mind wasn’t his only subject. Nowadays it is. Despite their contemporary settings, Godard’s new movies have focused entirely on his own psyche. In his work, he used to be aroused, jangled; now he’s distracted and self-absorbed. He no longer speaks to us directly, in a film language we all share, and he isn’t making much of an effort to make us see things through his eyes. These films have no force; they’re fascinating only if you find Godard fascinating. (Probably many of us still do.) You have the sense that if you want to figure out what he’s saying you’ll have to go more than halfway.

The new pictures are a series with a development that moves from the rejection of the audience in “Every Man for Himself'” through “Passion,” “First Name: Carmen” and “Detective” to the passivity of “Hail Mary,” in which he brings together everything he has been doing in movies since he returned to feature filmmaking. In these films, Godard has been developing a code, consisting of very few signs. One is classical art — the recreated paintings in “Passion,” the plots of “First Name: Carmen” and “Hail Mary,” the music he has used in all of his recent films. Another is the day-to-day world of sexual and financial commerce — which he presents as a place of lies and corruption, populated entirely by sell-outs. A third is woman as Woman, the repository of Mystery and Creation. And there is the moon, there is water, there is nighttime traffic. Godard seems to be developing this code for his private use, yet he’s also doing something we usually associate with self-dramatizers: he’s been exposing himself, putting his insides up on the screen.

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From “Every Man for Himself”

“Every Man” left me with the impression of a beast rousing, pulling himself reluctantly out of sleep. Godard seemed irritated, and his put-upon air suggested that he felt forced by us into action against his will. The film is set in a Swiss town. A character named Paul Godard (Jacques Dutronc) who works in video is being left by his girlfriend (Nathalie Baye), a pretty woman who has been a colleague of his and who now wants to move to the countryside. She bicycles into the hills along winding roads, escaping town, escaping him, renewing herself. The Swiss countryside is rolling, healing. She seems to grow stronger; Paul Godard sinks inside himself, vanishing behind his glasses and lank hair. He visits his ex-wife and young daughter and talks dirty to the girl, but there’s no sadism or meanness in his words — there’s nothing in them. He’s not really abusive; filth just seems to be all that remains in him — his soul is like a public beach after the crowds have left.

The film’s colors seem to have been painted on a ground of battleship grey, and the forms are contoured, shaded. Here and there, Godard uses slow motion and stop motion. We’re meant to be “analyzing” what we’re seeing, but what comes to mind is an image of Jean-Luc Godard at his editing table, running these frames by over and over, dissecting them, trying to find out what makes them tick — trying not just to get his bearings but to figure out how to get his own motor going.

The film has a running joke: the characters keep wondering aloud where the classical music on the soundtrack is coming from. It also has a little poker-faced whore (Isabelle Huppert), who looks for an apartment, works her trade and agrees to introduce her new-to-the-city sister to the business in exchange for a fifty percent cut. Godard uses the whore partly to establish a context — to show that even the most intimate of exchanges are commercial, that men are brutal and corruption is inescapable. The whore’s clients — including Paul Godard — treat her callously and her pimp beats her, forcing her to repeat “No one is independent.”

Godard also uses her as an an icon of primal Woman. She’s presented as practical, as someone who despite being a victim of capitalism and men survives and keeps something for herself. And like Paul Godard’s girlfriend, she gets out of the city — she visits a dairy farm. Women can flee — the film’s French title “Sauve Qui Peut” can also be translated as “Run for Your Life” — and endure. But the Godard stand-in is stranded in town, and his soul is infected; men are vulnerable to corruption in ways women aren’t.

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One night the hooker visits a businessman in his dimly-lit office; through his windows we see the city twinkling invitingly. He orders her and another man and woman to form a kind of sex machine, assigning them roles, positions and sounds. Godard draws a jokey parallel to moviemaking — as the businessman gives his subordinates their orders, he says, OK, now that we’ve got the image, let’s work on the sound. We’re supposed to accept this as a joke about how capitalism deadens and routinizes everything, even sex, but the scene has a strange feel. For one thing, Godard is saying that capitalism routinizes his work, too — he’s blaming the lack of life in his movie on The System. And as we watch the grinding of the sex/movie machine, we remain aware of what’s outside of camera range — the placid, beckoning nighttime city. The scene registers as an X-ray of Godard’s mind at work.

When the Paul Godard character is hit by a car at the end of the film, his ex-wife and daughter hurry by without helping him. (The camera emphasizes their callousness by panning with the two women and revealing seated musicians — our first view of the source of the mysterious music.) The film is like a demonstration of the old superstition that women are not only hardier than men, they don’t really die. They can give birth; men exist simply to plant the seed. (In “Hail Mary,” the hero is denied even that.) The film is Godard canceling himself out.

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From “Passion”

Godard introduces new elements into the code in “Passion,” which is a sophisticated version of the movie film students are forever making, the one that results when someone says, “I’ve got an idea! Let’s make a movie about a bunch of people trying to make a movie!” “Passion” is also set in Switzerland, largely in a film studio, a hotel and a factory. A director (Jerzy Radiwilowicz) is trying to make a film that consists entirely of paintings — Ingres, Delacroix — that have been recreated on a soundstage as life-size dioramas, with live people, live horses.

But he can’t bring himself to film; before writing he has to live, he says, and the light isn’t right. He has an affair with the wife (Hanna Schygulla) of the boss (Michel Piccoli) of a local factory, and with a young woman worker (Huppert again) who gets fired by the boss. On the soundtrack is some classical music and a lot of talk about how one should love one’s work and work to love. At one point the director proposes giving it to the working girl from behind, and we’re meant to see this as a metaphor for what men do to women and what management does to labor.

With its talk of work, love, factories and film, “Passion” is reminiscent of some of Godard’s film and video work from the seventies, in which he seemed to see capitalism as an expression of testosterone, the penis as a weapon of political oppression and his own sexuality as a threat to humankind. It’s especially reminiscent of the 1975 “Numéro Deux,” in which the hero was impotent and the heroine was constipated; he finally raped her anally as their daughter watched. In “Passion,” Godard is showing us what he’d like to do — which is to make “high” art — and he’s also showing that his medium won’t allow that. The moviemaking process is too distracting, and, besides, the light isn’t right.

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From “First Name: Carman”

What he does in “First Name: Carmen” is something many men have done on off days, which is to try to conjure up some feelings, or to bring what feelings they have into focus, by throwing themselves into sex. The film is a contemporary takeoff of the Prosper Mérimée story, with Carmen (Maruschka Detmers) a dark-haired modern girl who’s involved with a group of terrorists. She visits her Uncle Jean (played by Godard himself), a former film director who has been institutionalized and who may still be crazy but who gives her what she wants — an apartment by the seaside and the promise that he’ll try to make another movie. (The terrorists want to use the filmmaking activity to disguise a kidnapping.)

During a robbery, a bank guard (Jacques Bonaffé) falls for Carmen, abandons his post and escapes with her; it isn’t long before she has him tied in knots, and he becomes impotent. (Two new elements of the code: the image of a girl wearing nothing but a T-shirt and, by her side, the guy, mesmerized and demoralized; and the way Godard splits himself in two, between the young hero and the aging film director Uncle Jean.) Directing “Carmen,” Godard goes through the motions of setting up Carmen as a vortex of passion, and he amuses himself with some jokes and technical trickery, and with his own role, but his heart isn’t in it. (Carmen herself comes off as just another sulky kid.) He can’t focus on his story any better than his sap hero focuses on the girl. Godard keeps cutting away — to images of nighttime traffic, to ocean waves, to a string quartet playing Beethoven.

Godard is again musing about (and parodying) his own position vis à vis the movies. He sees movies as kids’ stuff. When Carmen drags Uncle Jean out of the mental home (where he seems relatively content), he goes along uncomplainingly but without any relish, as if saying, Sure, kids, anything you want — an only slightly stylized image of Jean-Luc Godard saying, “‘Carmen’ is what you want? OK, I’ll give you a Godard ‘Carmen.'” The central story seems less an erotic hallucination than a whimsy. Godard is saying that even if he were offered a pretty young girl as a plaything, he’d prefer to sit by the side of a lake, watching the waves and listening to classical music on a Walkman.

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From “Detective”

“Detective,” Godard’s next movie, has a different tone; I found it the easiest to take of his recent movies. Godard fills a Paris hotel with corruption, sexual misery and crime, and sets Jean-Pierre Léaud off on an investigation into the hotel’s goings-on. (This may be Godard kidding himself about how in “Passion” and “Carmen” he seemed to be searching for his excitement and his sense of connectedness as if they were things a detective could turn up.) The hotel and its contents are like a model of Godard’s depressed head; Léaud leads us at a brisk jog-trot through it. (The effect is like a ride through a not-so-funhouse.)

Godard’s work doesn’t come to life in this movie, but he seems to have been amused — in a low-grade, very black way — by his own situation. The film wasn’t a personal project, it was commissioned, and Godard functions as an old pro whore/entertainer. He’s cracking jokes at his own expense; he’s turning his grumpiness and misery and despondency and reluctance into a show, putting them on display for us to chuckle at. He uses bits of classical music and snatches of emotional old movies on television to mock the pettiness of the squabbles and double-dealings in his own film, and includes some wistfully poetic shots of red and white balls moving across a pool table. He gets a lot of his very rueful humor by suggesting the vastness and grandeur of what could be, what perhaps once was — the movies, music, maybe his own work — and contrasting it to what’s here now. He’s like a weary roué amusing friends with a story about a fiasco the night before: “She was beautiful, we were hot for each other, and — don’t ask me why — for the life of me I couldn’t go through with it.”

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From “Hail Mary”

“Hail Mary,” is a sweet, heartfelt, rather piteous movie. What’s most distinctive about it is that Godard has stopped trying to rouse or goad himself. He has given up trying to bring a film to life. In the earlier films, he was looking for the spirit — his essence and energy source; he was like the director in “Passion,” who ran around saying he couldn’t film. In “Mary” he’s saying that he can’t find his essence, and that he accepts that. He accepts impotence; he’s not kicking anymore. (In “Detective” and “Mary” his mood hasn’t improved, but he’s quit taking it out on us.) Some people may find “Hail Mary” the most banal of these movies; it’s certainly the purest. It has an otherworldly shimmer — that’s what you get in place of excitement — and it feels as though it had been made by an alien who had been deposited on earth and had taken on human form. He has learned our language (with no great enthusiasm), but all he can talk about is how unnatural he feels on this planet, in this form, how much he misses home, how — given our language — he can’t even begin to describe what it’s like where he comes from; about how he’s really genetically unsuited for life on earth.

The film is composed of two stories, both of them set in the same dull, clean and (apparently) Swiss town. In one, a Czech emigré philosopher spins theories to some students — in a classroom, on a walk by a lake. Life on earth isn’t an accident, he tells them. It’s not the product of anything as hit-or-miss as evolution; it was desired, willed. If you want to see what an extraterrestrial being looks like, he says, look into a mirror. A pert blonde girl in his class is named Eva — he persists in calling her Eve. They’re taken with each other, and soon they go to what seems to be her parents’ place, a large house called the Paradise Villa on the shore of a lake. They chat about Wittgenstein, Eva/Eve takes a few bites from an apple — the sound of her teeth bursting the apple’s flesh is magnified — and they begin an affair. Not long after, he leaves her to rejoin his wife, who (he says) has been let out of prison.

In the other story, Joseph is a cabdriver who reads pulp, keeps his big dog with him in his cab, and is caught between two girlfriends, both of whom play on the same women’s basketball team. One doesn’t have a name, the other is Mary (Myriem Roussel), the daughter of a gas-station owner. Joseph is confused because, though he has sex with the Nameless One, he’s drawn to Mary, who won’t let him touch her. She won’t even let him kiss her. Gabriel and a little assistant angel arrive in town by jet; Joseph drives them to the gas station in his cab, and Gabriel tells Mary she’s pregnant. The movie’s backbone is a long passage during which Mary, with the occasional help of Gabriel and his chum, tries to get Joseph to accept that she’s become pregnant without having been touched by a man, that he should agree to marry her and take care of her while continuing never to touch her, and that he should above all never abandon her. As soon as he shows any erotic interest in her, she slaps him down.

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The movie has a glazed, absent surface, like the face of someone daydreaming. Godard breaks the narrative up, and there are bursts of classical music on the soundtrack and innumerable cutaways — to the moon, to the sun, to landscapes, to bodies of water. An intertitle — “en ce temps là” — is shown repeatedly, and helps give the movie a feeling of having been lifted out of linear time. It sets the picture at a remove and makes the contemporary setting something close to a joke — the action takes place in the modern world yet has no buzz of contemporaneity. Despite the buildings and cars and a cutting style that we tend to think of as cubist, the movie’s look has zero immediacy; the sensibility it expresses seems to have never emerged from or to have retreated to the pre-modern era.

The picture feels curious and faraway, like medieval plainchants and illuminated manuscripts. Watching “Hail Mary” is like looking at something through the membrane of an egg. The colors are tempered, pale — pale gold, pale blue, apricot — and the light is soft, slantwise, pewtery. Gently sloshing water, grass and flowers stirred by the wind, the motion of nighttime traffic — the film’s look is lulling and restful, like the decor in a shrink’s office.

As in “Carmen,” Godard is putting two sides of himself on screen — this time he’s contrasting them and opting for one. He wants us to see that while the exile-philosopher has brains and can be a charming, suave guy, he’s also a callous rotter — a man who uses his line to get laid and then runs out. Godard underlines this when he has the prof promise Eva that he’ll return some money he’s borrowed in a way that makes it clear to us he won’t. The Joseph figure may be Godard’s idea of himself as a total mediocrity. He’s not bright or clever; his only characteristic is dullness. Yet, Godard is saying, I back this guy, not the other one; Joseph may be boring, but he’s willing to try to be virtuous, and he will be true. The training Mary and Gabriel give him may never completely succeed — Joseph remains irritable even after becoming the stepfather of Jesus (who is called Junior) — but he does learn to accept the miracle of the virgin birth, and to accept his very subordinate role in it.

“Hail Mary” is based on the idea that the world we live in and photograph, this world of physical beings and limited time, of sex and commerce and individuality and noise, is a botched reflection of a more essential world, the world of ideal form, of essence. Godard shows an image of blackness with, in one corner, a sliver of moon, and, in another, a sliver of red light; it takes a second to realize that the red is a traffic light. Mary talks about how men are but the shadow of God, and Godard shows ripples passing through water — his point is that this world is but the loused-up reflection of the Other World.

He records the clangorous sounds of this world as beautifully as ever, but the effect is different than it was in his sixties films. He’s no longer saying that these grindings and whirrings are the music of this world. He sees them now as intrusions; they break the spell. This horrid, annoying noise is what music turns into when it takes on earthly form. As the professor leaves her, Eva says, “The world is too sad.” Mr. Sensitivity responds, “It’s not sad, it’s big”; distraught, she leans on her car’s horn as he walks off.

There are no bursts of classical music in this scene — just that horn. I think Godard now believes that the squawking, grating sounds of the modern world are howls of grief, of protest at the conditions of being human — that if you listen closely enough and follow these sounds to their sources, what you’ll find are creatures in pain. Noise is music ruined, electric lights and globes are poor reminders of moons and suns, sex is a bad substitute for real oneness, men are lousy imitations of God.

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Godard’s coded style is meant to make us conscious that something is missing. He’s making the film but he’s absenting himself. He wants us to register a lack of presence and strength, and his cutaways and break-ins suggest where that vitality has gone — into some mystical elsewhere.

How is he to represent or suggest the other world, the unseeable world, especially in feature films — maybe the most this-worldly of all the arts? Godard is too much the skeptic or perhaps just too reticent to do what Welles and Peckinpah did, which was to treat the worlds they filmed as settings for their inner dramas; the landscapes of “Chimes at Midnight” and “Major Dundee” are as deep, eerie and peculiar as any Tanguy — the frame is used as an opening into a man’s mind.

There’s nothing theatrical about Godard. He doesn’t find vastness and possibilities within. He’s struck by how commonplace and rigid his insides are, how inappropriate they seem as an arena for drama, movement. And he doesn’t do what those romanticizers of the vasty deep Boorman and Herzog do, which is to fish out and display what they imagine to be essence — treasures and sea-monsters from the Jungian or Germanic depths.

Godard’s images — the landscapes, the moon, the water, Mary’s belly — and the always-interrupted classical music aren’t actual depths, they’re indications that depths and essences exist. They’re signs, reminders. Godard isn’t showing us what he’s daydreaming about; he’s showing us what sets him off. (I imagine a boy burying his head in his mother’s lap and listening, and remembering.) His mind is on the unseeable, and he’s convinced there’s no way to show it.

In the ’60s, Godard was a slangy poet whose materials were ephemera, throwaways — ads, gangster movies, street noise. The abruptness, speed, brash sounds, pop-out colors and bold graphics of modern life excited him, and so did popular forms. The impulsiveness of young people, the shallowness of the characters played by Anna Karina, Jean Seberg, Chantal Goya and Anne Wiazemsky, the lies of popular culture — these things used to get him going. (They may finally have torn him apart.) And he brought out something in them, especially in Anna Karina.

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Godard and Karina

As an actress and a presence, she had a glow. And her characters glowed too — with amorality, consciencelessness, with the simple joy of participating unquestioningly in life and a determination to take the world as if it had been made expressly to please and entertain them. A Karina character often seemed as indigenous to popular culture as a lion is to an African plain, a pine tree to the side of a mountain. She was a pop primitive, unshackled by the confusions of modern consciousness. (Godard marveled at that in her: Look at how strange this world is, and look at how perfectly suited to it this creature is.) She lacked all sense of history and anything more than a provisional sense of loyalty; she was pure superficiality yet she was alive onscreen, and she could be penetrated, even if that never seemed to mean much to her.

Today, Godard’s mind is on the eternal. Surfaces no longer arouse him. They’re obstacles, impediments — they’re what get between you and what you really love. As Mary, Myriem Roussel is slim and tall; she has great beautiful breasts and a dancer’s litheness. But her clear face with its just-hatched eyes isn’t an actress’s face. This is a deliberate choice by Godard: we’re meant to find something significant in the fact that nothing is going on there. Actually, he directs her to go beyond inexpressiveness — he wants her to rebuff all advances. He’s trying to get us to focus on Myriem Roussel’s depths, or supposed depths. He certainly has her focused on them.

Godard is rejecting the claims made by his brains and by his genitals. There is absolutely no satire of Mary; he presents her as heroic. Yet if you think of her in terms of life outside this movie, she’s a dumb girl determined to keep herself intact, unconsciously hogtying Joseph with guilt. She wants him to believe in her; the training she subjects him to is meant to get him over not only his lust and rage but his skepticism. Godard cuts to the sun among clouds as she talks about “the power gathered in Him … that power you can’t describe or explain, but only feel.” At another moment, she says, “I no longer wish to understand,” seeing that as representing spiritual progress.

She views her feelings with staggering solemnity and wants other people to be as awed by them — by what she views as her magnificent mystery — as she is. She demands to be accepted as sacred and inviolable; she’s intent on being treated with “respect,” yet she will permit Joseph no self-respect — she won’t let him have anything his way. (Traditionally, a girl like her settles for letting some guy have a go at her and then spends the rest of their lives reminding him of how momentous her sacrifice was and continues to be.) “It’s not your body that’s the problem. It’s your lack of trust,” she says to Joseph. (The emigré prof would know enough to avoid this girl.)

Mary is literally impenetrable. By any down-to-earth standards, she’s unhappy, egotistic, thumbsucking — you see her type on the subway reading Shirley MacLaine’s latest. But Godard takes her at her word. She is special: he lets her have the kid. He’s showing that she was justified in her obstinacy. He poses her in a polo shirt by a window, ironing, like a 20th century Vermeer, and you’re meant to see her as an expression of the divine. And in case we’re thinking subversive thoughts about this imperious simpleton, he ennobles her. He shows her writhing on her bed, fighting back her carnality — she appears to be trying to keep herself from masturbating. He cuts from an image of her fingers in her long, thick pubic hair to the wind moving through grass and flowers and trees. Nature participates in her struggle, lending it beauty and grandeur. (Nature participates in her vindication too; when she has the baby, Godard cuts to a pair of horses, and to a momma cow licking clean her newborn. He wants us to think of Mary as guileless.)

Godard wants us to understand that this isn’t easy for Mary. He shows her looking longingly through a department store window at tubes of lipstick; he ends the movie with her furtively smoking a cigarette and applying some lipstick (the final image is an enormous closeup of her open, painted mouth). She still longs for a normal, sexual life; even she hasn’t truly overcome herself.

Godard has retreated inside himself to some dull, serene hideaway, just as he has physically retreated to Switzerland — a country that looks calm and stable, even if it is repressed, the least with-it culture imaginable. In its apparent lack of the capacity for excitement and expression, Switzerland is an objectification of that place of refuge in himself where the Godard who speaks to us in these films now lives. And his soul, in withdrawing inside, seems to have come detached from his flesh; this Creature Within — what Godard now feels to be the real Godard — probably looks a lot like the bespectacled, featureless Godard stand-ins in these recent movies. (His frame of reference has changed too: he has turned from the modern world and movies to a love for Great Art, and to daydreams about unity.) Nowadays, his body, his physical envelope, feels foreign to him.

It’s as if what he’s been trying to do in these movies is reassemble some image of himself. “Hail Mary” is a bringing together of his present vocabulary, and it represents his current sense of himself. But while the pieces have fallen into place they don’t really come together; they don’t spark each other into life. You get an image of a man in shock after an accident or operation touching his limbs and body to make sure he’s all there, because he doesn’t really know — there’s no feeling there.

Godard still has his moviemaking skills, and he shows a little of what he’s capable of. But moviemaking no longer turns him on. He can’t give over and bring a film to life — this is the central problem of his recent movies. He simply doesn’t want to be bothered; he is content to stand back from his mind and watch his wheels spin. He’s not interested in penetrating surfaces, to make them yield something substantial. He has lost interest in bringing anything out of his actors. And even his cockiness and gamesmanship are gone. He can’t dramatize his feelings of impotence — he’s illustrating them, or rather providing analogues of them. “Hail Mary” tells us — in a factual voice, with no bitterness — that he feels that moviemaking and life in the form of a physical being don’t give him the opportunities he needs. He knows that he’s not connecting with something essential, and he feels that that source is in women. (Mary huddles over, protecting the infinite, the root of creation.) Men are exiled from it. They destroy and degrade it when they try to touch or excite it.

If “Hail Mary” is a confession, it’s a reticent one — it has nothing of the exhibitionism of a Catholic confession, nothing of that flirtation with the forbidden. You have the impression that you’re eavesdropping on a private conversation between Godard and God. It’s not an avowal of any particular sin; it’s more a statement that “I am a miserable creature; even my sins are small, petty, depressing — evidence of how truly mediocre I am.”

This is a very Protestant confession, and a very lonely movie. Godard hasn’t welcomed our presence; he’s resigned himself to it. He’s tired and abashed. He can’t bring himself to make a real show of his confession, or to inflate it. He’s struck by its smallness. He stays at a distance from himself even as he looks inside, yet he can’t bring himself to do anything but confess. Moviemaking for Godard now isn’t a way of taking part in life, of tossing in his two cents; it’s a way of isolating himself. He seems to be hoping that his acceptance of feeling lost and alone will confer a peaceful, beatific glow on the film. But he knows that he hasn’t been completely transfigured. Joseph remains crabby, and Godard keeps cracking jokes and being grouchy. What he may not realize is that the occasional spasms of irritability in these recent films are their only real signs of life. If he did, he might eradicate them.

“Hail Mary” catches a certain alienated, dreamy state of resignation to misery. Maybe it doesn’t catch that state, exactly, maybe it’s more an embodiment of that state, a symptom of it — of a kind of distractedness, of an inability to detach yourself from your thoughts of what could be, an inability to bring yourself to bear down on anything. This film shows Godard dealing with the world around him without really engaging it, without really taking it on. He’s functioning, and sometimes he can be really amusing or do something very beautiful, but you never know where he’s coming from. It must be that he feels dismay and hopelessness when he looks at the world, and when he looks at the structure and contents of his own consciousness.

Joseph’s final lesson is to learn what love is, and the right way of saying “I love you.” He is reading the books on theology Mary has given him, he is wearing untinted glasses. Mary seems to trust him; we gather that she has got him thoroughly trained. He asks Mary if he can see her nude body. He won’t touch her, he promises, but just once he wants to see her naked. She agrees. But when we see him in his cab getting ready to visit her, he’s talking to his dog about how this time he’ll finally get a piece of that girl. When he enters her bedroom — she wears only a T-shirt, and her pubic hair is the focus of most of the compositions in the scene — he nuzzles her. She pushes him away, then stands before him and makes him say that he loves her. He says, “I love you” and touches her belly. “No,” she screams, and falls to the floor, imploring God. Gabriel climbs out from under the bed and shakes Joseph up some.

Joseph tries again: “I love you,” he says, this time removing his hand from Mary’s belly. He does it a few more times. He’s got it. He understands. “You’ll never abandon me, will you?” she says. “Never,” he says, and we know that now he really means it. Godard cuts to huge closeups of the flowers on Mary’s dresser. Light glows through them, the petals and stamens are thick, curving expanses of luminous red and yellow — something essential, something true has occurred. These closeups of flowers are like photographic correspondences of the glory of God’s Word.

Is the naiveté of the technique — the pathetic-fallacy stuff here, and in the scenes with the wind and cows — intentional? It must be. Godard must be quite deliberately being artless — dealing with his self-consciousness by regressing and retreating. Joseph has accepted that his role is to be handmaiden, to be impotent; he should do his best not to respond erotically to anything. Joseph won’t make the mistake the hero of “Carmen” made, thinking dirty, hopeless thoughts as the girl displayed herself half-naked, and then trying to rape her in the shower and failing to get an erection. By repressing his eroticism as completely as possible and never acting upon it, Joseph won’t have to endure that kind of humiliation — that will be his reward.

In an interview Godard said that “Hail Mary” isn’t about virginity or religion, it’s about being virtuous. It’s clear that the movie is less about the Joseph-Mary-Jesus story than it is an opportunity for Godard to state his feeling that women don’t really need men. He is subjecting himself to feature filmmaking in the same way that Joseph submits to Mary and Gabriel. Insofar as Mary stands for the movies, Godard feels that the movies don’t need him anymore, although he’s free to tag along provided he try no funny stuff. He’s saying that he accepts the terms of feature filmmaking even though they no longer do much for him. The woman is the boss.

In “Every Man” and “Passion” and “Carmen” you could still get the impression that Godard was trying to get a handle on his misery, trying to get the better of it. The sweetness of “Hail Mary” is that he’s no longer trying to end-run, barrel through or outwit it. He’s being perfectly upfront about how he feels. He’s forlorn and knows it, but he’s also at relative peace; he has stopped trying to get over his reflex to pull back. His sincerity and resignation are what make the movie so pure and give it its air of grace. He is saying in a small voice that he feels shut off from the sources of creation, that he’s alienated from contemporary culture, feature films and his own sexuality, and that there seems to be nothing he can do about all this. All that remains is to try to be virtuous, and to daydream. “Hail Mary” is a graceful admission of defeat — Godard’s acceptance of his new role as a mere toiler.

©1985 by Ray Sawhill

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Paleo Retiree

Onetime media flunky and movie buff and very glad to have left that mess behind. Formerly Michael Blowhard of the cultureblog 2Blowhards.com. Now a rootless parasite and bon vivant on a quest to find the perfectly-crafted artisanal cocktail.

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