The Empty Knot: Godard's Fame, Death and Orientation
by E.W. Wilder
In Fame, Death, and Orientation, a triptych of films by Jean-Luc Godard, lost since the 1970s, we see an artist at work uncreating. In these three films, recently rediscovered by myself and Montague Ponti at the Film Institute of Geneva, the director of A Bout de Souffle and Une Femme es une Femme, cuts all his Godardian knots, unleashing a tirade of morality and Godlike judgement on his hapless, wayward characters.
These films exist on the same artistic plane as the ejaculatory guitar work of Neil Young, whose music permeates the soundtrack of Fame, flaming each frame with its bitter salt. But at once it is love, as Florence, the female lead of each, goes through a series of lovers--Juan, John, and Joanna--making and remaking herself from a certain and carefree lover in the first film to a mature, lesbian nun in Orientation.
The loves of Florence reflect upon Godard himself, of course, wending his way through a career beginning with the freewheeling and amoral Michel of A Bout de Souffle, and ending with the useless pap of his late films. This decline is presaged in the stagy but dark and violent Death. This middle film is a purgatory of sorts, broodingly following Florence through a perhaps real perhaps imagined afterlife; she is paddled in one scene across the Styx by a Charon closely resembling Godard himself. Is he punishing Florence/Godard for her/his sins? Is this the judgement brought about by a career based on a tyrannical eroticism--no, an absolute obsession with subject/character/film? The Lacanian paradigm will not allow it, since reference is suffocation. The law will not allow it, since it is vice. Religion will not allow it, since it is idolatry. Godard in Death comes to terms with the fact that Godard must be punished.
Typically, of course, he never outright answers to our questions of judgement but instead forces the viewer to accept the diegesis as an unraveling of sorts--one very much like life itself: disconnected, dreamy, naked, unreal in a phenomenological sense. Godard--especially in Death and Orientation--is doing basic epistemology. But it is also a kind of Marxism. This is not Marxism in the sense that Oudart might present it: we have here no Marxo-Feminino-Lacanian anti-suture, rather the unraveling that is shared by all arts worth their salt, that of the nature of the real. The gritty realism of Godard's first film, after all, presented a critique as well. The eye is not stable; the attention is no North Star.
Rejecting society at the conclusion of Fame, Florence leaves Paris for rural Switzerland intent on disappearing from the beautiful but tyrannical revolutionary, Juan. On the train, as it enters a tunnel, Florence's journey through the underworld begins. Has the train been in a collision? A derailment? A terrorist bombing? Again, Godard cannot answer. But in the afterworld sequences, Florence/Godard goes through a series of visitations. First is Mozart, then Truffaut, then our old friend the novelist Parvulesco again answering all of the old questions. But his answers are puzzling, different: when Florence asks him "What is the role of the modern woman?" he answers "Whatever her God commands," while still giving her that impossible look over his sunglasses that seems to say "And your God, my dear, is in my pants."
Here we get the spasmodic sequence of jump cuts that bring us back to the Godard of an earlier age. Satan, played amazingly by a young Bob Hoskins, is seen dancing with Florence, Juan, then the Pope, while Mozart, Truffaut, and Parvulesco stand at the ballroom's side and clap, keeping time to an imaginary waltz. Yes, it is a Marxism of sorts: a radical leveling of all filmic class, order and hierarchy, forcing the viewer into a disjointed catatonia.
A catatonia completed by Orientation, itself the dreamiest of the three, taking place only in the Swiss countryside, playing itself out over three languid days. The shots are of extraordinary length, not quite equaling Weekend but suggesting, as if prophetic, a toned-down future for Godard. It also follows that prophetic line through its filmic Marxism: after the downfall of global Marxism, we are left with a stultifying objectification of self. Florence succumbs to the brain-dead commodification of religion, but not without first selling herself out in typical Capitalist duplicity to the popularized notion of what a good feminist should be. And so, both nun and lesbian, she fades with the last frame, fingering her rosary for her own sins. And so we see Godard, both traditionalist and revolutionary, fade into a critical wasteland with these three films.