by: Luke Pennington
Directors: Jean-Luc Godard & Jean-Pierre Gorin
Screenwriters: Jean-Luc Godard & Jean-Pierre Gorin
Cinematography: Armand Marco
Editing: Claudine Merlin & Kenout Peltier
Production Design: Jacques Dugied
Production Co.: Gaumont
“It’s sunny in France…Nothing else matters,” – lyrics to the joyous tune accompanying, at variance, the final tracking shot of a demoralized 1972 French cityscape under grey sky near the end of Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin’s (politi)co-production, Tout va bien. The veteran filmmaker and his student-activist (protege?) took their relative particularities as filmmakers and applied them in force to what would become one of the most radicalized and caustic cinematic portraits to have been made on the state of France post-1968.
Concerning the picture’s subject matter a little bit of backstory is in order. May 1968 saw the first ever nationwide wildcat general strike and would result in massive civil unrest, have a near crippling effect on French society as a whole and come dangerously close to bringing the entire advanced capitalist French economy to a full-stop. Having begun at the university level with an onslaught of protests where students occupied administrative buildings for an airing of various grievances, some 11,000,000 workers then carried out a series of spontaneous decentralized strikes throughout France for two continuous weeks which threatened the collapse of President Charles de Gaulle’s government. These wildcat protests, as they were known, caused rifts between established trade unions and worker’s parties.
Centering action on one such protest at a sausage factory, the story follows the events as seen through the eyes of an American reporter (Jane Fonda) and her husband (Yves Montand) – having been taken hostage by members of the worker’s party. The picture, the final product of Godard’s political cinema, opens in force with – in what has become the director’s penchant for reflexive filmmaking – an off-screen voice pronouncing, ‘If you use stars, people will give you money;’ enter Jane Fonda, the newly radicalized star, as the American reporter billed simply as She. The disembodied voices of a man and woman continue: [M] ‘I want to make a film.’ [W] ‘You need money for that.‘ – followed quickly by the signing of an endless series of ‘Banque Transatlantique’ checks for outrageous sums to various production expense payees (cinematography, editing, secondary roles, etc) – coming finally to the systematic attempt to construct a plausible story which would not only allow for the fulfillment of Tout va bien‘s announced purpose to ‘consider the class struggle in France four years on from 1968,’ but also to be used as lure for Fonda and Montand in the consideration of the project; utilizing the New Wave director’s ambivalent feelings for the cinematic storytelling techniques which he has alternately derided and exploited throughout his career. Godard & Gorin’s conceit: in film, story is secondary to personality [which can be purchased] – or so it would seem. A [love] story – auto-criticism continued – and its requisite characters are sketched out and the attempt to ‘not make a political film, but to make [a film] politically,’ is underway as the [generic] American reporter and her languishing [former] New Wave filmmaker turned commercials director husband [a questionable caricature perhaps] enter a [metaphorical?] sausage factory to report on workers’ conditions. Upon entrance, the husband and wife find themselves unwitting, if not disinclined, participant-hostages in the wildcat strike already underway.
Tout va bien as a film is an exercise that, if not wholly successful, is at the very least a valiant attempt at the further development of cinema’s political anti-formalism-formalism which has its roots in the Soviet pioneering filmmaker Dziga Vertov. Vertov’s ‘kinoki’ (the filmic eye) movement was best encapsulated in his tour de force Man with a Movie Camera (1929) where the exulted image of the filmmaker as machine – as great cultural arbiter is fully expressed. It was Vertov’s contention that men are shamed by the efficiencies of machinery and it was his hope that through his movement’s development of a purer cinema – one that relies on that which can be captured by the objective eye of the camera lens – contemporary man would evolve, ‘from a bumbling citizen through the poetry of the machine to the perfect electric man.’ It was Vertov’s subsequent theoretical practice in the creation of a unique cinematic language free from theatrical influence and staging which must have intrigued Godard and Gorin in their development of their Dziga Vertov Group of which Tout va bien is product. However, where Vertov pointed his ‘kino-giaz’ away from the artificial studio staging of Hollywood (read: mainstream attempts at synesthetic cinema through various practices of invisible editing, ‘realist’ acting, justified lighting schemes, scripts, etc.), Godard and Gorin take a more examined approach at the artifice of filmmaking. Through the film’s willingness to pull back the curtain to reveal the Great and Powerful Oz a Brechtian alienation is created – furthering the directors’ attempt to create ‘a film politically.’
As the story progresses, its diagrammatic stylization furthers the effect of estrangement with its audience in the practice of various cinematic faux pas so strongly made that intentionality cannot but be accepted. This, however, can probably be accredited to Godard – whose hand is most strongly felt here – and to his previous cinematic forays as critic-filmmaker which allow for a sense of ease (despite whether or not he would have it by choice) felt by bin’s audience. There is the tacit recognition that someone to be trusted is behind the wheel despite apparent recklessness which may have harmed the project-makers’ intent which seems to have been the fusion of the variant Brechtian and Vertovian models of estrangement and documentary ‘realism’.
Tout va bien‘s use of tableaux staging of the wildcat strike which illustrates both the division of the labor (both literal and metaphorical) and its ultimate unification in common struggle as existential man and sausage-factory-social is made all the more effective through the assured stage design of Jacques Dugied and its subsequent cinematography of Armand Marco. In one of the more efficacious uses of Duguid’s design of the factory, Marco’s camera tracks right from a scene in which the factory manager has just verbally assaulted Fonda and Montand with a harangue of insults pointed at the striking factory workers (delivered almost entirely to camera-audience) through a false wall where the hostage takers stand tempered guard over coffees and snacks before passing another and a third – finally the screen is filled with the divisions of the factory in cut-out showing the plant and its wildcat participants in full view and in various states of militant action and frozen tableaux. Scenes such as this supplement Godard & Gorin’s collective attempt at Brechtian audience de-familiarization which is used to provoke a sense of emotional distance and, conversely, rational self-reflection and critical analysis of the action which has been so perspicuously staged.
Godard & Gorin’s film ends much like it begins. The story is essentially over with the culmination of the strike and, therefore, the loosely drawn characters constructed before the audience at open are sent on their way in the end – and separately – for they have no real reason to have been together in the first place beyond certain cinematic tropes deemed necessary, however cynically presented. Montand’s film director wraps up his intentions while on set of yet another commercial which he tells us is at least honest in that if he is going to be selling something with images he might as well be actually selling something. Fonda’s American reporter stumbles through a news story which she gives up on as trite and useless before delivering a chorus from both Bien’s She and Fonda’s point-of-view as to the particular travails of a post-new-radical who has become an ‘…American correspondent with no correspondence.’ The couple parts, as their relationship was mere narrative construction and the disembodied voices return to decide in what best way to part them; Fonda is seen once more (in an epic tracking shot) during a student economic-guerrilla action which takes place in a garish and strikingly familiar superstore where she continues to report as before, but in a seemingly less participatory fashion. In the end, as the camera tracks by dilapidated French backroad housing it is evident that it is decidedly not sunny in France, 1972 and everything matters – despite the words of the accompanying song and the fact that, at least in the filmic narrative construct of Tout va bien – nothing really matters too much at all.
CC RATING: ***/5