Cannes 2017 review: Le redoutable (Michel Hazanavicius)

In the consideration of an icon, how to summarize their life and their output is difficult to calibrate, particularly in the transposition of a beloved titan of the cinema for the screen: should a project try to emphasize the legacy of his body of work or study the essence of how his identity informs it? Instead of addressing the entirety of Godard’s life, legacy and filmography, Michel Hazanavicius’s Le redoutable narrows its focus to the years of Jean-Luc’s second marriage to actress Anne Wiazemsky, attempting to delineate the evolution of his political beliefs and how they transformed his personal identity and the stability of his marriage so much that he “killed Godard” and “became himself.”

Le redoutable begins with the shooting of Godard’s fourteenth feature film La chinoise, a demonstration of how a group of French students attempt to use terrorism to hasten a global Maoist utopia, with Anne starring as its female lead shortly after their marriage. At this point, Godard is already seen as an icon not only to France but to the world’s cinephiles at large, and the pressure of maintaining and indulging the public’s projection of who “Jean-Luc Godard” is frustrates him and becomes something he is eager to reject (eventually denouncing all of his cinema as “shit”) in lieu of wanting to truly discover his own beliefs and expose himself as an actor (poorly) playing “Jean-Luc Godard,” a construct that does not even exist. Despite his most sincere intentions, La chinoise failed to connect with both critics and the general public, and the Chinese government eviscerated him for his perceived misunderstanding of the tenets of Maoism.

In the aftermath of La chinoise‘s failure, Anne tries to communicate the pride she feels for Jean-Luc, and encourage him not to feel defeated by the rejection of his work. Despite her best efforts, feelings of inadequacy weigh on Jean-Luc, and his reaction is to become even more politically charged. He becomes even more determined to apply the ideologies he feels he should have mastered, and literally structures his filmmaking process as a communistic form of collaboration between himself and his crew. However resolved he may be to become more self-aware, the focus of his energy shifts. As his political efforts grow more rigorous, Godard becomes increasingly insecure, consistently questioning Anne’s commitment and attraction to him, failing to realize that his fear of abandonment is what strains the durability of their relationship.

While it would be outrageous to compare the two as artists, there is a lateral similarity in how Hazanavicius’s imagination of Godard may be coloured by his own history as a filmmaker. His stubborn obsession with La chinoise evokes memories of when his own politically muddled The Search was critically savaged at Cannes in 2014, soon after the rapturous response to his Academy Award-winning Best Picture The Artist, similar to how La chinoise humbled Godard after being at the top of his craft. Like Godard, Hazanavicius has been forced to reflect on what went awry, and drawing from what he appears to have gleaned from Godard, uses Godardian techniques to fortify Le redoutable. In The Artist, Hazanavicius already proved his flair for comedy, and in Le redoutable, he flexes these dormant muscles. Using meta, self-referential winks in aural descriptions of the active, visual mise-en-scène, Hazanavicius’s comedy becomes more sophisticated than it was before.

Godard’s impact on cinema and how it is perceived is indisputable, regardless of how one feels about his works themselves. Converts of Godard’s filmmaking do not need to be proselytised, and his naysayers will likely never be convinced of his output’s merits. Largely avoiding analysis of Godard’s films (mentioned primarily for the sake of context, La chinoise is the only one explicitly cited), Hazanavicius’s refusal to use Le redoutable as an opening to school his audience is wise: Godard’s list of artistic contributions is so dense it could fill a parallel Histoires du cinema dedicated solely to his own catalogue of films. Hazanivicius’s own position on Godard’s work is ambiguous (though the homage to Godardian devices informs Hazanavicius’s directorial choices for the better), and the decision not to waste time or distract the audience with a barrage of embedded examinations of his œuvre maintains the precision of Le redoutable as a character study, and one that could be of a man who only incidentally happens to be Godard. Using the famous French submarine as a titular metaphor, Le redoutable marks the ascents and descents in Godard’s personal voyage. Le redoutable may not definitively put its finger on why, when, or exactly how Jean-Luc “killed Godard” and “became himself,” but for someone so constantly evolving and difficult to pigeonhole, there may never even be a conclusive answer.