Jean-Luc Godard’s last completed film to date, from 2014, is called Goodbye to Language. But he began issuing his farewell forty-plus years earlier.
The rarely screened Le Gai Savoir (1969), translated as “Joy of Knowing” in the 2K restoration that makes its world premiere at the Quad on Friday, exemplifies a typical Godardian paradox: Profuse and dizzying with discourse, abstruse analysis, and word association, Le Gai Savoir posits that all communication is suspect, that the spoken word is “the enemy.” Though the film was shot in December 1967 and January 1968, as detailed by Richard Brody in his thorough 2008 JLG biography, Everything Is Cinema, Godard didn’t complete Le Gai Savoir until after the uprisings in France of May ’68 — events that moved the already militant auteur to the more extreme edges of the left. The project is one of the last that Godard began before he and Jean-Pierre Gorin (among others) formed, in ’68, the Dziga Vertov Group, a collective devoted to ultra-doctrinaire, hardest-left filmmaking. “End of cinema,” famously reads the closing title card of Godard’s riotous ’67 movie Weekend — a tease borne out in the despairing Le Gai Savoir.
The film, very loosely inspired by Rousseau’s Émile, that high-Enlightenment treatise on education from 1762, was, per Brody, originally commissioned to be shown on television. A TV soundstage, in fact, illuminated by a sole floodlight, provides the main setting for Le Gai Savoir: This dark studio is where Émile Rousseau (Jean-Pierre Léaud) and Patricia Lumumba (Juliet Berto) — her appellation a gender- and race-reassigned name-check of Patrice Lumumba, the Congolese independence leader and prime minister assassinated in 1961 — meet in the wee hours over the course of several nights to map out an insurrection and to deconstruct signs and signifiers. Léaud and Berto had appeared in ’67 as two members of the Maoist-student household in Godard’s La Chinoise (which my cine-comrade Bilge Ebiri eloquently elucidated in last week’s Voice); the director’s original plan for Le Gai Savoir was to cast Léaud and Anne Wiazemsky, the twenty-year-old actress who played Léaud’s girlfriend in La Chinoise and who would soon marry Godard. (Wiazemsky turned down the part to shoot stills for another film instead.)
These chicly attired dialecticians — Émile sports a smart trench coat; Patricia, Crayola-red pants and ribbed azure pullover with matching socks — plot a three-year course of action and reeducation, a political program contingent on discovering “images and sounds that are free.” The third principal of this ninety-minute tract remains offscreen: Godard, in whispery, conspiratorial voiceover (a device he also deployed in, among other films, 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her, from ’67), exhorts, proclaims, and aphorizes. “You no longer recognize the world of your ‘language,’ ” he avers, the implied antecedent of you not just the debating duo on that inky soundstage but also Godard himself.
Or maybe everyone, regardless of their political affiliation, living in France (and beyond) during this seismic era. Among the densest of Godard’s fact-and-fiction collages, Le Gai Savoir frequently cuts away from the set-bound “action” of Émile and Patricia to documentary footage (of Paris streets, whether empty or clogged with protesters) and still images, from topless pinups and naughty cartoons to photos of Che, Fidel — and Wiazemsky. While the eyes struggle to take in this barrage of stimuli, the ears are working hard, too, both to parse Godard’s — and his actors’ — theory-thick summae (“So what is being questioned is the image of oneself”) and the snippets of audio sourced from speeches by soixante-huitards.
Seemingly infinite, this glut of sight and sound is laid out to advocate for starting anew, from nothing, for a revolution still waiting to happen. “We’ll go back to zero,” Patricia pledges in the opening minutes of Le Gai Savoir; later, she speaks of “zero degree of image, zero degree of love.” (The null integer is key to other Godard works: A film he made about Deutschland after the fall of the Berlin Wall is titled Germany Year 90 Nine Zero.) I’ll admit defeat in fully making sense of JLG’s revolutionary wishes. After two viewings a few days apart and hand-cramping note-taking, the politics espoused in Le Gai Savoir border on the incoherent.
Sometimes obscured, too, are the faces of Léaud and Berto, hidden in shadows by the film’s stark, spartan lighting. Their auras, though, remain consistently lucid, palpable, electric. A few years later, Léaud and Berto would appear in the sprawling ensemble cast of Jacques Rivette’s Out 1 (1971), one of the greatest artifacts of post-’68, post-utopian paranoia. Léaud, still making movies today and recently the subject of a retrospective at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, remains the most paradigmatic performer of the French New Wave. But what about Berto, who may be best known to American audiences for another collaboration with Rivette, 1974’s Céline and Julie Go Boating, a sublime movie about two mystery-solving women? During the 21 years I’ve lived in New York, I can think of no tributes mounted to Berto, who not only continued to act but also directed a handful of features before dying, at age 42, in 1990. Mighty repertory programmers, can you come to the aid of the Berto-curious, for our own joy of knowing?
Le Gai Savoir
Directed by Jean-Luc Godard
Kino Lorber Repertory
Opens July 28, Quad Cinema