Saturday, May 9, 2009

Jean-Luc Godard and a Different Kind of Feminism

Below is my final research paper for the film studies class I took this year. Its goal was to discuss a trend in the oeuvre of a specific director, and I chose Jean-Luc Godard. Its pretty long, so I won't blame you if you don't read the whole thing. But you really should. Whether or not my arguments make sense, it may help you think more about his movies.

Jean-Luc Godard is regarded as one of the greatest filmmakers of all time. He is also often thought of as a misogynist. Many of his films, such as Le Mépris (Contempt, 1963) feature attractive actresses and focus on their bodies. Godard’s male characters seem to focus on the body parts of the females. In Tout Va Bien (1972), Jacques (Yves Montand) states every body part of Suzanne (Jane Fonda) that he loves. This is extremely reminiscent of a scene from Le Mépris where Camille (Brigitte Bardot) asks Paul (Michel Piccoli) if he likes certain parts of her body, listing them one by one (“Do you like my ass? Do you like my breasts?”). This theme is also repeated in Masculin Féminin: 15 Faits Précis (1966). Paul (Jean-Pierre Léaud) lists the parts of Madeleine (Chantal Goya) he likes. While at first glance, it may seem that Godard and his characters are objectifying women, upon closer reading of the films, it becomes clear that the women call the objectification upon themselves. In each case, they ask the men to list the body parts they like the most. This is not to blame women for their objectification, but in the world of Godard, they must use their sexuality as the only means of domination over men. This may appear to be a misogynistic perspective, but it is really a criticism of the society in which women are only valued for one feature. In order to have any power, women must exploit their sexuality. Instead of presenting strong, multifaceted female characters who are able to succeed in the world, Godard portrays women as only having power because of their sexuality in order to criticize the society that encourages and enforces such ideals.

Camille’s objectification in Le Mépris is her own doing. “Examination of this scene demonstrates that Camille's materiality belongs to her, and not to the male gaze or touch” (Vegari, 2005). She controls her own objectification and uses it to her advantage. When she invites Paul to objectify her, she breaks herself down into separate body parts: “You like all of me? My mouth? My eyes? My nose? And my ears?” Paul replies affirmatively, to which Camille says, “Then you love me totally?” Camille does not acknowledge that she is more than her individual body parts. Since she lives in a society that does not value her for more than her separate body parts, Camille is not able to acknowledge any other aspect of her being.

Le Mépris is Godard’s most expensive film, mostly due to the contract of Brigitte Bardot (Morrey, 2005). He was under much pressure from his producers to exploit Bardot’s sexuality. In response to such pressure, Godard mirrors the situation in the production of Fritz Lang’s film within the film, The Odyssey. Paul attempts to use Camille to get more money from the American producer, Jeremy Prokosch (Jack Palance). However, this is the very deed that facilitates the end of their relationship. This narrative device, however, can be lost on the viewer. In order to combat this, Godard employs a number of cinematic techniques to remind the viewer that they are watching a film and to thoroughly analyze the images they are seeing. The opening sequence, in which the viewer ends up looking straight into the lens of a camera, the abrupt changes in color and the discontinuity of the score serve to jolt the viewer from the film and back into real life. Godard never stops reminding the viewer that they are watching a film. Contrary to classical Hollywood cinema, Le Mépris lacks the cinematic continuity necessary to be completely enthralled with it. Instead, the viewer is forced to think about the film analytically and thus can more easily recognize the satirical way in which female characters, especially Camille, are presented. If it weren’t for Godard’s unique style in Le Mépris, it would be very hard to read the film as a feminist work.

There are other clues that suggest feminism in Le Mépris. In the film, Paul says, “‘Show women cinema and they show their behinds,’ exactly as Bardot has done for Godard and his backers” (Coates, 1998). Just as Godard’s producers wanted him to exploit the body of Brigitte Bardot, Prokosch wants Fritz Lang to exploit the woman in his film. Both directors submit, but the exploitation is limited. Apart from the opening scene, Bardot’s sexuality is rarely exploited. She appears nude in a few scenes in the film, however, her body is often obscured. Just as the body of the mermaid in Lang’s adaptation of The Odyssey is obscured by the ocean waters, Bardot is at the end of Le Mépris. In one scene, Camille is sunbathing nude except for a book resting on her rear-end. The scene is shot with a wide angle; while Bardot’s body is the center of attention, it does not take up much space in the frame. Even thought he is under pressure from his producers, Godard is avoiding the complete exploitation of the actress and his female character. Later in the scene, she goes swimming and is obfuscated in the same way as the mermaid in Lang’s film. Godard’s refusal to exploit his female characters (and actors) displays a certain degree of feminism; at the very least it does not implicate Godard as a misogynist. The female characters in his films are not under the control of the dominant male. They are independent, and use their femininity in specific ways. Often, they reverse typical societal roles and have dominance over the men in their lives.

Masculin Féminin presents a strong, dominant female character in Madeline. She is strong, domineering, and aware of her effect on men, especially Paul. During their encounter in the bathroom, Madeline asks Paul what he likes about her. He replies, “Sure. Everything.” She asks him to elaborate, and he does by saying that he likes her “hair, eyes, nose, mouth, hands.” As seen in Le Mépris, the female character explicitly invites her objectification and uses her femininity to her advantage. Later on in the film, she acknowledges her dominance over Paul in saying, “I’m glad Paul’s in love with me. I might even let him screw me. But he better not become a pest.” She does not state whether or not she is in love with him, but it is most likely that he is more attached to her than she is to him. Madeline is very aware of this imbalance in their relationship, and is able to use it to her benefit. Unfortunately, it is only her sexual prowess and beauty that allows her to assert such dominance over Paul.

When they are at a bar, Madeline aloofly rejects Paul’s offer to talk yet makes him pay for her drinks. This not only demonstrates her dominance over Paul, but how she knowingly uses it to her advantage. The other women in the film, including minor characters, are also powerful. For example, in the first scene, a woman shoots her husband after a dispute. Just before killing him she shouts, “Find yourself another maid!” To the viewer, their relationship is not clear. Madeline later assumes that the couple was married, but the maid comment seems out of place. It is likely that the woman is referring to the fact that she is the only parent expected to take care of the child. In any case, it is clear that the woman is not in a dominant role in the relationship. She acts as a maid, who is presumably dominated by her husband, and is a woman. As she is in what is usually considered a societally subordinate position, it is unexpected for her to control the man. Later in the film, however, Madeline sees her with a man and notes, “She’s playing the hooker.” This is another example of a woman being defined only in terms of her sexuality.

In Masculin Féminin, Madeline is a rising pop star. She is one of few Godardian women who have successful careers. Her status however, is not necessarily linked to her talent. One of her friends is a cover girl for the magazine for which Madeline used to work, Miss 19. Presumably, the model would not have been selected as “Miss 19” if she were not attractive. In the same way, Madeline might not sell as many records or be offered as many contracts if she did not embody the society’s ideal of beauty. As unfortunate as it may seem, this is often the case with any industry; women are more likely to have successful careers if they are more physically attractive (Senior, Thompson, Badger, and Butler, 2007). This is simply a harsh truth that Godard criticizes, rather than endorses, in his films.

Godard is not asserting that women should only be valued for their sexuality, rather, society dictates this fact, and Godard wants to raise the viewers attention to it. This is most obviously demonstrated in Le Mépris when Camille is sunbathing. As stated above, she is lying nude with a book on her buttocks when Paul comes and gazes at her. He says, “I’ve been watching you as if seeing you for the first time” and proceeds to remove the book, exposing Camille completely. This exemplifies how the patriarchal society requires that women be objectified and use their sexuality as their only measure of worth.

Throughout his oeuvre, Godard comments on the dynamics of the relationship between men and women by exploring the differences between the two genders. He makes this obvious in Masculin Féminin from the start of the title sequence. “The opening credits present the title of the film in two parts: first, the French ‘Masculin’ is fragmented into ‘ma/scu/lin’; second, ‘Féminin’ appears in its own frame as one uninterrupted word” (Vegari, 2005). Later in the film, Paul discusses how the French words for “mask” and “ass” can be found within the word “masculine.” However, they cannot find any phrases hidden within “feminine.” This is a symbolic fragmentation of the male gender; Godard is presenting men as simple, easy to understand individuals while women are harder to comprehend. While Godard’s films often star women who are products of a society that values them only as sexual objects, he acknowledges that this is wrong and that it is not possible to assess a female merely by her body parts. Godard shows this in the tragic conclusion to Mascuiln Féminin. Paul dies in an accident and Madeline is left alone with her and Paul’s unborn child. At the very end of the film, the word “Féminin” appear onscreen only to have letters drop away leaving “Fin” (the end). The only word that can be found within “feminine” is only accessible when important segments of the word are done away with. In this way, Godard demonstrates that the way in which society ignores all but one aspect of a female, her sexuality, ultimately has disastrous consequences.

The split between the two genders is also represented by the characters seen in Masculin Féminin. “The masculine-feminine divide signaled in the title is laid out relentlessly: boys talk politics and paint slogans, while girls play with their hair and shop” (Martin, 2005). While Martin’s essay suggests that this is perhaps an effect of Godard’s misogyny, it is more likely that once again, Godard is simply stating, or rather lamenting, the fact that the gender roles of society do not allow for women to “talk politics and paint slogans.”

Many of Godard’s female characters are prostitutes, or at least sell their bodies. To Godard, the prostitute, represents a strong female character. The prostitute sets her own price and maintains complete control of the relationship with her customer as seen in Masculin Féminin. In his films, he does not condemn the prostitute, but rather blames the customer for participating in the larger societal issue. Godard does not see prostitution as purely literal; he demonstrates the selling of creativity and the selling of the body, respectively. Godard shows movie directors, metaphorical prostitutes, that sell their talents to tasteless producers, or metaphorical customers. This is shown not only in the production of Le Mépris, but in the film within it as well. Just as Fritz Lang sells his talent to an American producer to make The Odyssey, Godard sold his in filming Le Mépris.

The difference between the prostitution of the body and the prostitution of the mind is another way in which the split between male and female is seen. Female characters are often presented as committing prostitution of the body, but only male characters are able to sell their creativity due to the patriarchal society in which they live. In this way, Godard demonstrates that women are only valued for their sexuality, not for intellect, creativity, or other talents.

The relationship between Jacques and Suzanne in Tout Va Bien, is a satiric representation of the relationship between men and women in mainstream cinema. The satire is demonstrated in the title sequence as Godard exposes the filmmaking process to the viewer: “Actors want to see a story...a love story.” This desire is also seen in the audience and in society in general. People want to see a happy, heterosexual couple on the screen. Similar to Le Mépris, in which Godard only exploits Brigitte Bardot in the first scene, Godard betrays Hollywood cinema by only showing Jacques and Suzanne as a happy, loving couple in the first scene. In doing this, he is showing how reality differs from mainstream cinema. He does not give in to the expectations of the viewer and the producer so he does not portray an unrealistically stable society or relationship. Godard’s films expose reality in order to criticize it. This is also seen in the piece accompanying Tout Va Bien, Letter to Jane: An Investigation About a Still (1972). In Letter to Jane, Godard and his co-director, Jean-Pierre Gorin, criticize a photo of Jane Fonda that had been exploited and misinterpreted by the media. With both Letter to Jane and Tout Va Bien, Godard (and Gorin) attempt to display a more accurate version of reality than is usually seen in mainstream cinema. Godard also shows this in his other works as he exposes the societal issues of the construction of gender roles. Instead of allowing the viewer to escape into the world of the film, Godard forces him to confront the issues in society, namely how women are viewed.

If the films of Jean-Luc Godard are viewed in the same way that a Hollywood film is watched, his stance toward his female characters may be interpreted as misogynistic.
However, he does not allow for this. In films such as Le Mépris and Tout Va Bien, Godard exposes the filmmaking process in the films, and in doing so he forces the viewer to think critically and closely analyze the images being seen. Upon close analysis of his films, it is evident that Godard’s representation of women emphasizes the fact that society only values them for one aspect of their person: their sexuality. Godard is not presenting this as his point of view, rather, he is simply demonstrating the true state of society. His type of filmmaking is the antithesis to Hollywood cinema; he uses film to expose reality not to conceal it. If he were to present strong, average-looking, successful females in his films, it would be a complete departure from reality. A patriarchal society does not allow for women to be valued for their skills or other talents and he heavily criticizes this.

Coates, Paul. "Le mepris: women, statues, gods." Film Criticism 22 (1998): 38-50.

Le Mépris. Dir. Jean-Luc Godard. Perf. Brigitte Bardot and Michele Piccoli. DVD. Criterion Collection, The, 1963.

Martin, Adrian. "Masculin féminin: The Young Man for All Times." The Criterion Collection. 20 September 2005.

Masculin Féminin: 15 Faits Précis (1966). Dir. Jean-Luc Godard. Perf. Jean-Pierre Léaud and Chantal Goya. DVD. Criterion Collection, The, 1966.

Morrey, Douglas. Jean-Luc Godard (French Film Directors). New York: Manchester UP, 2005.

Rowe, Kathleen K. "ROMANTICISM, SEXUALITY, AND THE CANON." Journal of Film & Video 42 (1990): 49-65.

Senior, Carl, Karly Thomson, Julia Badger, and Michael JR Butler. "Interviewing strategies in the face of beauty: a psychophysiological investigation into the job negotiation process." Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 1118 (2007): 142-62.

Tout Va Bien. Dir. Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin. Perf. Yves Montand and Jane Fonda. DVD. Criterion Collection, The, 1972.

Vegari, Amy. "Calling the Shots: Women as Deleuzian Material in the Cinema of Godard." Michigan Feminist Studies 19 (2005): 91-105.

Willoquet-Maricondi, Paula. "God, Art, and the Gospel: The Construction of the Heterosexual Couple According to Godard." Literature Film Quarterly 27 (1999): 301-10.


steven said...

I look forward to coming back and reading this. I thoroughly enjoy Godard's films. Contempt warranted several viewings for its beautiful widescreen-color format. Pierrot Le Fou is still my favorite though.

Mitch said...

Godard is so fantastic. I am actually going to watch Le Mepris right now. It is simply gorgeous!

I can't decide which is my favorite. Its probably between La Chinoise and and Masculin-Feminin.

steven said...

I have yet to see either of those! Heard nothing but good things about La Chinoise though.

I am stealing internet from BryanLGH across the street right now because we haven't called Time Warner for the house yet. I keep telling myself I will read this though. Just not the one time I can get a slight connection at home after days of no interwebs. Nebraska Union here I come.

Mitch said...

Haha awesome!

Let me know what you think when you finish it!

Anonymous said...

there is no context at all here. This was the late 50's France, not the turn of the century. this is a summary of your essay - you take various scenes where we all agree Godard is being mysoginist, and you say - yes, women are being brought down as objects-whores (his fetish)-virgins-mothers- 'but Godard is really critisizing this' without further comment.
No - Godard was presenting women as prostitutes (which was never a taboo in France- he scandalised it for the US market) when many women were finally gaining ground in education, the workplace and in the home. Karina refused to strip in the film don't make out like Godard was somehow all fatherly and protecting her. Godard never provides role models for women, he never communicated to them -because they never existed intellectually to him.

You seem to imply the power of suggestion was not used maliciously which is equally bizarre.

Godard was above all a businessman, which is why he had Anna Karina and Bardot and Fonda..however he was limited by censorship, and the audience's objections - Godard and Truffaut both stated they were not feminists, so why an essay to state the contrary?

After they had divorced, and after his tour of the US which he openly used US brothels, Godard punched Anna Karina in the face publically during a cinemagraphic gathering (ie in front of her potential employers) for having accepted a dance from someone else. Not sure if that drops his cloak for you.

Another line I have seen is where Godard supposedly uses 12 tableaux in Vivre sa vie to represent the 12 stations of Christ before crucifiction - but in his own book, Godard on Godard ,when asked why 12 he said he did not know.
He was not considered revolutionary at the time - that is going a bit far, cinema was evolving, but current audiences are detached from what came prior.
I always think we should call a spade a spade as they say.

yichella said...

I don't buy it. HOW is Godard using these portraits of sexualized and objectified women to criticize society? How is he showing these women victimized by patriarchy? No, I believe that in the Godard universe men have human thoughts and human motivations while women are some alluring, incomprehensible Other.