Left Behind: The Uses and Abuses of Jane Fonda in High-Maoist-Period Godard


During the largely sanctimonious, self-congratulatory, and toothless speechifying that emerged from countless celebrity maws at awards shows over these past few months, I often thought of what one A-lister and scion of moviedom royalty — a woman whom J. Hoberman called “the most politically outspoken star in Hollywood history” in a reappraisal that ran in the Voice in May 2001 — said after she was announced as Best Actress at the 44th Academy Awards, held on April 10, 1972. Dressed in a grave ensemble of black Nehru jacket, trousers, and boots, Jane Fonda, collecting the Oscar for her portrayal of a boho-chic prostitute in Klute, strode onstage, smiled, and bowed. Seconds before her name was called, she was seen whispering something to seatmate Donald Sutherland, her Klute co-star and co-organizer of the FTA Tour — as in “Fuck the Army” — an anti–Vietnam War road show assembled the year before. But Fonda made no mention, in her simple address, of the war or the Black Panthers or the feminist movement or any of the other causes she was committed to, and she concluded, after a dramatic pause and another smile, with this: “There’s a great deal to say and I’m not going to say it tonight. I would just like to really thank you very much.”

At the time she made these remarks at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Fonda was roughly two years in to her most radicalized period, which would last another two. Less than three weeks after that acceptance speech — made all the more potent by what she didn’t say — the actress could be heard expelling these scorching words to her co-star Yves Montand in an early scene in Tout Va Bien, which opened in France on April 28: “You cocksucker! Let me shut this door. You fucking male chauvinist!”

Directing Fonda were two far-leftists even more doctrinaire than the militant performer: Jean-Luc Godard, then at the height of his Maoist phase, and his younger collaborator and co-founder of the Dziga Vertov Group, Jean-Pierre Gorin. Tout Va Bien (“Everything’s All Right”) — which screens at BAMcinématek on Friday as part of the double retro “Oshima x Godard,” running through March 16 — fascinatingly reveals Godard and Gorin’s suspicions about their headlining star’s activism, a crucial aspect of her persona that the filmmakers nevertheless fully exploit for their own purposes.

Tout Va Bien announces its contempt from the start. “I want to make a film,” a man declares in voiceover. A woman, also offscreen, responds, “You need money for that,” this statement of the obvious illustrated by an absurd number of checks being signed for the assorted aspects of Tout Va Bien‘s production. The sarcastic gag is followed by another truism: “If you use stars, people will give you money.” Enter Fonda and Montand (a beloved figure in France for decades with his own leftist bona fides), who play Suzanne and Jacques. The personal and professional troubles of this squabbling couple — she’s a U.S. radio journalist who protests, “I’m an American correspondent in France who no longer corresponds to anything”; he’s a onetime figure in the Nouvelle Vague now directing frug-heavy commercials — are tangential to the ongoing fracturing of the French left post–May ’68. As Richard Brody notes in Everything Is Cinema (2008), his lucid, detail-dense JLG biography, Tout Va Bien “was intended to be an imitation of a Hollywood film” — the movie’s original title was Love Story — “but with a heavy infusion of ideology.”

The class struggle — and the clashing ideas regarding how best to advance it — is laid bare in a factory, an edifice that is itself quite literally exposed, with the structure built as a cutaway. Here striking workers, some in blood-smeared butcher’s smocks, hold captive for two days their boss and Suzanne and Jacques, who had arrived just minutes before this insurrection to interview the manager. The situation appears to have stirred something in Suzanne; she later voices, with icy, controlled fury, her frustration with her partner’s selfishness. This scene, occurring in Tout Va Bien‘s final third, features the most conventional film grammar of this cine-manifesto, a moment of movie glamour with a Brechtian twist: an extended close-up of Fonda’s face, devoid of makeup and framed by her shag, as Suzanne expands on Jacques’s obtuseness. Her grievance is punctuated when the actress looks directly at the camera and holds up a black-and-white photo of a woman’s hand around an erect cock.

Fonda’s canny performance makes clear that she must have been fully aware of Godard and Gorin’s contradictory feelings — usually cynical, sometimes begrudgingly admiring — about her status as a politically outspoken, and highly bankable, star. (The collaboration almost didn’t happen: As Gorin recalls in Brody’s book, shortly before shooting commenced on Tout Va Bien, the actress called the director to say, “I have decided not to work with men any more.” He was able to convince her otherwise.) Fonda is a co-conspirator with the filmmakers, slyly tweaking her own offscreen activities. That’s not the case with the bitter addendum to Tout Va Bien, a 52-minute 16mm essay by Godard and Gorin called Letter to Jane (not in the BAM series), which screened with TVB at the New York Film Festival in the fall of 1972. Speaking in heavily accented English, the directors scrutinize a photo of a somber-faced Fonda in Hanoi — a semiotic screed that arrives at this conclusion: “One must realize that stars aren’t allowed to think.”

Tout Va Bien
Directed by Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin

March 10, BAMcinématek