Le Gai Savoir
Picture and act—Godard’s plexus

by James Monaco

from Jump Cut, no. 7, 1975, pp. 15-17
copyright, James Monaco, 1975.

[from The New Wave by James F. Monaco, Oxford University Press, to be published later this year, 1975.]

WEEKEND had been intended as a global portrait, and as a political instrument. As a portrait it succeeds, but as a psychological weapon which might shift the level of consciousness of those who watched it, it was not particularly successful. No film, no work of art ever is, in large part because of the extraordinary capacity of bourgeois liberalism for co-opting and subsuming opposing ideas. The shock effects of WEEKEND have become the commonplaces of bourgeois cinema in the seventies. Clearly, something more was needed. It was not going to be possible to make the new cinema by using the language of the old. Having returned to zero, Godard had to start over again. LE GAI SAVOIR is the first step. It is Godard’s ultimate effort at “semioclasm,”(1) the name critic Roland Barthes gave to the necessary job of breaking down the signs of the languages we take for granted in order to rebuild them on stronger foundations.

French state television, O.R.T.F., had offered Godard an opportunity to make a television film, and late in 1967 he turned to the task. He shot LE GAI SAVOIR in December of 1967 and January of 1968, in the dead of winter, after the intense experiences of LA CHINOISE, “Caméra-Oeil,” and WEEKEND. It was just before the Langlois affair when Godard led the fight against the political firing of the director of the Cinémathèque—and the civil uprising in the spring of 1968—at the last possible moment before contemplation would be overtaken by events and surpassed by action. It is one of his finest films, and also one of his most difficult.

The offer from O.R.T.F. was salutary. The new medium would allow him new liberties and force him to redefine his cinema. The small screen would force him to focus on the essential—to stop down the images and sound. A straight essay on the order of LE GAI SAVOIR would never have been commercially viable in theatrical cinemas, but the intimate personal nature of television suited the form well. In fact, Godard chose the most common and effective form of television—the interview—as a model for LE GAI SAVOIR.

The film is one of the very rare examples of the muse of the medium of cinema for what we have to admit is almost pure intellectual discourse. If Godard has filmed a “summa,” then this is it. The title of the film expresses the essential spirit of Godard’s work as well as any phrase I can think of: Le Gai Savoir, The Joy of Learning.

Émile Rousseau (Jean-Pierre Leaud), the great-great-grandson of Jean-Jacques, and Patricia Lumumba (Juliet Berto), daughter of the Third World, stumble over each other one night in an unused television studio. They embark on a series of seven latenight dialogues during which they try to develop a rigorous analysis of the relation between politics and film. They meet for seven evenings (that is the structure of the film). More often than not, one of them is late (that is its plot). Needless to say, in an hour and a half of film time Godard, Émile and Patricia cannot give us the kind of detailed, closely reasoned exposition that we (and they) would like to have. What we can expect, however, and what we do get is a filmic summary of the areas that should be investigated.

LE GAI SAVOIR, as always with Godard, is a poetic essay: it is qualitative, not quantitative. It is therefore at the same time simple and complex, structured and anarchic, clear and ironic, revealing and confounding. It is, after all, using film language to discuss that language. The meaning will be as much in our response to the film’s totality as in its syllogistic narrative.

Because we can't use the convenient shorthand of “character,” “plot,” and “significance” to describe the film, it is unusually difficult to discuss it in still another medium. Here, for example, is a précis of the “First Night”:

Radio sounds ... narration: ‘8,247 frames, 22,243, 72,000, 125,000 ... about 7,500 feet. 127,000 feet.’ Patrice comes in (the background is a black void), dressed in red and blue, carrying a clear umbrella with yellow stripes. It is her ‘anti-nuclear umbrella,’ she explains. She trips over Émile. He tells us about her, she about him. She is Patricia Lumumba, the Third World delegate to the Citroen auto plant. He is Émile Rousseau, great-great-grandson of Jean-Jacques.

She announces: ‘I want to learn, to teach myself, to teach everyone that we must turn back against the enemy that weapon with which he attacks us: Language.’ ‘We are on TV,’ he says. ‘Then let’s go into people’s homes and ask them what we want to know,’ she replies. Frame: SAVOIR (to know). Pan to black. A montage of street scenes and pictures ending with the cartoon (p. 000) which ‘identifies’ Godard mathematically with zero. Muddled radio voices. The story of Les Afraniches (‘Les Français,’ after the ‘computer mutations.’)

'Let’s start from zero,’ he says. ‘No,’ she replies, ‘it is necessary to return to zero first.’ It is necessary to dissolve sounds and images in order to analyze them. ‘Images: we meet them by chance, we don't choose them. Knowledge will lead us to the rules for the production of images.’ ‘In ‘isolate’ you have ‘island.’ We are on an island.’ Things and phenomena. Video pictures and sounds. ‘The first year we collect images and sounds and experiment. The second year we criticize all that: decompose, recompose. The third year we attempt some small models of reborn film.’ ‘It’s almost dawn.’ They walk away, out of the frame. Pictures, streets. Che. Mao.”

If the static is confused and confusing, that is because Godard wants to convey his sense of the then contemporary existential revolt as ideologically confusing, a mixture of bourgeois romanticism (Émile Rousseau) and third-world realism (Patricia Lumumba). How to get out of this forest of confusing sounds and images? How to avoid the trap? Godard experiments with two theories in this respect in LE GAI SAVOIR. First, he “stops down” the materials—sounds, images, characters, ideas—of the film, limiting himself so that he can know what he is producing. Second, he forcibly distanciates the film: “We are on TV,” Émile and Patricia continually remind us. Totally black sections of leader punctuate the film, further forcing the point.

If the film is both materialist and distanciated, then maybe it will be possible for viewers of LE GAI SAVOIR to use it rather than consume it. (Certainly, it is a nearly impossible film to consume: it sticks in the craw, refuses to be digested.) The method is “decompose—recompose,” to break down the elements of the film medium in order to build them up, to analyze in order to re-synthesize. If LE GAI SAVOIR (or my short summary of this first section of it) seems hermetic and purposefully dense, that is because audiences tend to judge this film like most others—as a product to be consumed—and it most definitely is not. It is a film to be used—difficult? Yes. But not so intractable if we actively work it through.

The metaphor for the film is radio static (which this condensed summary of the “first night” can't convey). What we will be able to seize from this essay will come in bits and pieces, even as it does to Jean-Luc, Émile and Patricia. They are awash in a bubbling, roiling sea of images and sounds, radio static and video ghosts, incessantly bombarded with bits of information, almost all of it designed by the “enemy” to serve its purposes. Patricia and Émile find some precious respite in the dark studio in the quiet of the night. They, for awhile, exist alone in this shimmering black void. There is no horizon, there is no ground level. (There are only three other speaking characters in the film—an old man, a young boy, and a young girl, who are interviewed.) But there is always the voice of the narrator (Godard), incessantly commenting on and expanding the logic of the film: his urgent whisper accompanied by the electronic noise that pervades a media-ridden society.

LE GAI SAVOIR is a quest for the purity and comfort of “zero.” There are no reasoned maxims in the film, no directives or conclusions that one could take home and pin on the wall as incentives to action. That kind of work comes later. As the narrator says, “Half the shots of this film are missing.” They are left to “Bertolucci, Straub, and Glauber-Rocha.” “Zero” is the key to the constellation of concepts which is LE GAI SAVOIR. The structure of the film is mathematical—a dialectic of asymptotes, those conceptual lines on an algebraic graph which curves approach but never touch. It is not the location which is significant, but the approach to it, not the object, but the sign. Émile says,

“It’s necessary to be very careful not to fall into the ideology of being true-to-life, a trap not always avoided by filmmakers as important as Dreyer, Bresson, Antonioni, Bergman.”

Again, we remember: “Realism does not consist in reproducing reality, but in showing how things really are.” So we have no easily comprehended narrative in LE GAI SAVOIR. Neither do we have a linear, logical exegesis. What we do have is a cluster of qualities and tentative ideas. The film is about process, so the essence of it must be process.

The dialectic out of which will grow our understanding of “how things really are” has three dimensions. First, Patricia-Émile (the dramatic dialectic we have understood since childhood). Second, between the characters and the narrator-filmmaker. They are his creations, of course, but as soon as they say what he has written for them, it is necessary to qualify, react. (This tension is heightened by the history of the film’s production. O.R.T.F. rejected the film and later sold it back to Godard. It appears that he edited it sometime after the spring of 1968 when his own ideas, we may assume, had changed appreciably. LE GAI SAVOIR wasn't shown publicly until June 1969.) Third, between the film and the audience, the most difficult but in the end the most important. If we become too involved in the subject of the argument between Émile and Patricia, then the narrator raises us to another level. If we become fixed in the relation between the narrator and his invented characters, then the film itself, by its very density and conflation of images and sounds, will hoist us up to a level of distanciation.

In order that we do not take the specifics of the film at face value, Godard sets them in a mosaic of fantasy. What do Patricia and Emile do between sessions? One day, “Michel and I are going to steal the dreams of two pop stars and sell them and send the money to North Vietnam.” Another day, Patricia is going to bomb an Italian theatre because they wont “let films be shown in the original language.” (Italian films are almost always post-dubbed.) Still another day, Patricia is off to show movies to strikers—LOLA MONTES and THE GREAT DICTATOR. Near the end, Émile, speaking with Patricia’s voice, explains “how I killed Kennedy on orders from Lautreamont’s ghost.” At dawn he goes to visit Litvinov and Bukovski.

It is necessary, above all, for Godard that the film not deal with tangible actuality. That would make it just another false mirror of reality. The film must be presentational and avoid the fallacy of the representational. It cannot—no film can—reproduce reality honestly. It can only produce itself. In order for it to do that honestly, it will have to reinvent itself after discovering what it is exactly about the way film is used today that makes it false (“fauxtographie,” as the title in WEEKEND has it). Godard’s aim, as always (but here more explicit), is not to divorce film from life, but by distanciating his art to make it possible for us to integrate it into our lives. When we see no qualitative difference between film and life, we then have no sense of film, as itself, and it is therefore useless—insidious. We are back in the world of the multiple sentences of “subject” and “object” which formed the impetus for 2 OR 3 THINGS. Like that film, this one reminds us once again that for Godard process is more important than achievement, the questions are more valuable than the answers, and attempts are more admirable than successes. What was the point of all those advisory subtitles—a film in the process of making itself, a film lost in the cosmos, fragments of a film ...—if not to insist that we recognize that the films were not completed, “perfect,” but only the premises of syllogisms to which we must provide the conclusions.

Godard tells us at the end of LE GAI SAVOIR that he and his film have...

“not wished to, cannot wish to, explain the cinema, nor even to become the goal it seeks, but more modestly to offer a few effective methods for reaching it. This is not the film which must be made, but shows how, if one is making a film, that film must follow some of the paths indicated here.”

This apologia is basic to LE GAI SAVOIR and to the experimental Dziga-Vertov films that follow. It also represents one of the main reasons people find these films tedious. In order to appreciate what Godard is up to after 1968, I think it’s necessary to understand and accept the logical and psychological premises that lead Godard to give us this warning. It will be repeated in each of the Dziga-Vertov films and will reach a self-parodic climax in the introduction to LETTER TO JANE, in which Godard spends nearly half the time of the film cautioning us to approach its substance with care and reservation. Is this just evidence of Godard’s own anxiety and sense of inadequacy in the face of the task he has set for himself (a task, we should remind ourselves, that many people regard as abstract and futile)? In a way, I suppose it is, but we think of it as such only when we don't share Godard’s passion for the semioclasmic work of rebuilding cinema. We might as well charge Pirandello, Brecht, or Beckett with small-mindedness: they did the same kind of work in the theatre.

As intellectually distant as it may seem, LE GAI SAVOIR is also an impassioned cry of the heart. This is dangerous ground, returning to zero. That way madness lies, as well as knowledge. As Richard Rood points out,

“It takes great effort to look at everything afresh, to call everything, even words, into question.”

Our wonder is not that Godard made this film (and the ones which follow it), but that he survived the experience. Roud, who has a healthy ambivalence about the film, also wonders whether the austerity of it is entirely due to its ideological premises and function. He suggests that it might also be “a kind of psychological despoiling, a masochistic denuding.” It is; that is part of the strategy of the film. The primal question Godard raises is maddeningly elusive: How is it possible to make films (or any other art) that are honest and life-affirmative?   We prefer not to think about all that. We would rather just go ahead making films. Aren't questions like that, after all, the province of wizened professionals and deadly critics? Too technical and abstract for audiences of general intelligence?

Maybe so. Yet for Godard, the very existence of the medium of film is one of the three or four major political phenomena of this century. A filmmaker, a craftsman, who has not set his/her own house in order—who has not ideologically and technically seized the means of productions—can hardly hope for any ulterior political success. One of the great sadnesses of LE GAI SAVOIR (the title is at once ironic and joyous) is that we now know about these problems and therefore can't avoid confronting them.

So the apologia (and the involuted form of the film) is necessary for psychological reasons. It makes us personally involved in Godard’s knotty struggle, as do the hand-written signs and words that punctuate the film. To read print is to be conscious only of the meaning, the “significance.” To read handwriting is to recognize the importance of the words and the intelligence behind them, the “signifiers” (and “the signifier!”). When Godard puts himself and his words in his films, he is “signifyin’” the way Black people mean the word.

There is a strict logical provenance for this method, as well. The involutions, the parallel articulations, the spiral patterns, the self-references, the metaphorical contradictions, the sometimes purposive and purposeful inscrutability of the discourse, the dependence on dependent clauses (both strictly, in prose, and metaphorically, in cinematic equivalents)—these are all characteristics of modern dialectical thought. (Please note that in this sentence I an, talking about the style of dialectical criticism, while in the succeeding sentences we shift to a concept of it. Typical!) Louis Althusser, for example, produces some beautiful variations on the Marxian concept of Causality, which is “structural, complex” rather than “linear” or even “expressive.” In “Structural Causality” the effects are caused by the global whole of the structure of causes—ideological, economic, epistemological, political. The metaphor of cause-and-effect is then not a linear “chain” but rather a “critical mass” which, when reached, gives forth an explosion of “effects.” This is why Godard has to “put everything” into his films. Only then can the critical mass be achieved.

And while we are making this foray into the wilderness of dialectical metaphysics, let me add an apology of my own. This is not the study of Godard’s work that should be written, but shows how, if one is making such a study, that study must follow some of the paths indicated here. I realize that I have given you nothing clear and concrete that you can carry away, nothing that “pins down” LE GAI SAVOIR. But as Frederic Jameson says in his preface to Marxism and Form:

“In the language of Adorno ... density is itself a conduct of intransigence: the bristling mass of abstractions and cross-references is precisely intended to be read in situation, against the cheap facility of what surrounds it, as a warning to the reader of the price he has to pay for genuine thinking.”

And likewise to the viewers of the price they have to pay. This method of thought-as-art is probably more familiar and more comfortable for French observers of Godard, accustomed as they are to the theoretical fireworks of the likes of Althusser, Metz and Lacan, than it is for English-speaking people. This method has validity, then, even if there is also a strong criticism to be made of it.

All this, I realize, is coldly (if elegantly) abstract and doesn't very well convey the experience of the film. LE GAI SAVOIR is a film of ideas, a film of Method. But it is also a film, like any other, composed of images and sounds, and they are striking in themselves. The orange-ribbed umbrella, the liquescent blackness of the studio, the side-lighting and back-lighting that make icons of Leaud’s and Berto’s faces (there is a sexual underpinning to their discussions), the face of the old man who is interviewed—straight out of Cezanne’s “The Card-Players—the Cuban revolutionary hymn that punctuates the film, the dialectic pans which move from Émile to Patricia and then, still moving in the same direction, through the black void back to Émile; the simple cartoon which is so poignantly self-effacing, yet complex and sarcastic, the muddled radio static juxtaposed with Godard’s tense, sad whisper, Patricia riding a bicycle around Émile like Brialy around Karina in A WOMAN IS A WOMAN (again, Berto’s resemblance to Karina should not be ignored), the usual stark, strong reds and blues, here isolated against the black and therefore even more balanced and assured, Patricia in yellow and purple against cartoons of comic book heroes; above all, the vast, noisy, jumbled, careful collation of sounds and images which “dissolve themselves in order to analyze themselves.”

The film’s “Seventh Night” gives us the struggle’s planned “third year,” which will be devoted to building “a few models of sounds and images” for the future. It is a catalogue of types of discourse in film: the historical film (Patricia in costume); the imperialist film (we see the back of Patricia’s head; she sings scales, he sings a single note, finally overpowering her and forcing her to do the same), the International film (the image is missing; the narrator makes suggestions), the Experimental film (Mozart and a magnetic line drawing), the Psychological film (he is readings; she reads, “The Sweet being two.”), the Guerrilla film (he describes her face as a Molotov cocktail), the film tract (a collage of slogans: “Read, Criticize, Listen, Watch.”), and finally the “Film d'Role,” as good a title for this film as can be found—Émile (and Jean-Pierre) is off to Bratislava to shoot a film with Skolimowski. “Half the shots of this film are missing.” Emile and Patricia talk about them. Finally, the word, “MISOTODIMAN” is invented, “the word I finally found for sounds and images,” Godard tells us, a mixture of Method and Sentiment.

The Method of LE GAI SAVOIR is clear (well, at least it is clearly a film of method). What about the “Sentiment”? LE GAI SAVOIR is propadeutic, elemental, almost paranoid at times because of the fear of language on which it rests. But it is also, like 2 OR 3 THINGS I KNOW ABOUT HER, a painful personal essay. Its aim is nothing less than the beginning of a rigorous examination of the systems of signs through which and by means of which politics, love, beauty, and existence are expressed and understood. It speaks of love and eroticism, workers and bosses, of language and meaning with the sad but incisive humor that informs Godard’s best work. As it destroys the language it would analyze, it creates sounds and images of intuitive sense.

“What is really at stake,” Patricia discovers, “is one’s image of oneself.” Film and politics are as much a part of the self as one’s eyes and ears. (“The eye should listen before it looks.”) Or, as the song Émile sings puts it, there is a constant current between man’s biological nature and his intellectual construction.

This is the ultimate Godardian struggle—to fuse Method with Sentiment, to overcome the fact of the self, to reconstruct the expression of self, finally to give rebirth to the self and so to sanity. LE GAI SAVOIR, one realizes, is a film about a man and a woman: a love story of sorts (the allusion to A WOMAN IS A WOMAN is not accidental). Both the film and the idea of LE GAI SAVOIR rest on an encounter between the great-great-grandson of the father of humanist romanticism and the daughter of Third World realism. This is the dialectic which has been the engine of Godard’s work as a filmmaker. And Godard is strung out between the two poles, like Matthew Arnold (another essayist as artist), struck between two worlds, the one dead, the other powerless to be born.

At the end, Émile, Patricia, Godard and we are left with the neoseme: MISOTODIMAN. What better way to describe Godard’s own moral coordinates: Method the vertical axis, Sentiment the horizontal. He is himself a true descendant of Rousseau, courting the daughter of the Third World. If the marriage is ever effected, it will doubtless be through the proper combination of head and heart, method and sentiment. We have abrogated the social contract which Emile’s progenitor spoke of two centuries ago, and LE GAI SAVOIR is a film about form, not content, which explains, subliminally, how we have done so. The job of the succeeding films will be to rewrite that contract.

On the third night, at 3 a.m., in the exact middle of the edifice of the film, Godard quotes Che Guevara:

“A revolutionary—an authentic one—is guided by great feelings of love.”

This is the deepest meaning of LE GAI SAVOIR. But Godard does not give us the introductory clause of that sentence. Che had originally said, “At the risk of seeming ridiculous, let me say that a revolutionary—an authentic one—is guided by great feelings of love.” Godard, at the risk of seeming ridiculous, has given us a deeply felt essay which reflects with all of its confusions and self-induced paralysis his own frightening sense of the media universe in which we live.

“Patricia: It’s more or less nothing that we have discovered, no?

Émile: Not at all. Listen: what better ideal to propose to the men of today, one which would be above and beyond themselves, if not the reconquest, through knowledge, of the nothingness they themselves have discovered? “

How? Through a proper mixture of Method and Sentiment. LE GAI SAVOIR is the first film d'role.