Le Gai Savoir
Godard and Eisenstein—
notions of intellectual cinema

by Ruth Perlmutter

from Jump Cut, no. 7, 1975, pp. 17-19
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1975, 2004

It is inevitable in the development of a genre that radical departures from tradition enter popular culture and are incorporated into a voguish convention. This has occurred with some of the radicalizations of Jean-Luc Godard. One of his major breakthrough strategies of extreme self-reflexivity—that is, the disruption of fictional representation by the presence of the filmmaker and the exposure of the filmmaking process—has become a fashionable mode in European commercial cinema. At least three films in the past year, Truffaut’s DAY FOR NIGHT, Lelouch’s AND NOW MY LOVE, and Michel Orach’s LES VIOLONS DU BAL (and in some respects, a fourth, LAST TANGO IN PARIS), can be characterized as part of a new genre—the Romantic Reflexive film. In each, a filmmaker wrestles with a reconstruction of his personal past as it collides with certain sociopolitical realities.

Godard’s iconoclasm in his challenge to the classical narrative film with movie parody and anti-narrative disjunctions has been stylized in these films into a rigid narrative schema. The process of creating an autobiographical film furnishes the storytelling grid for the self-remembering director.

Critical interpretations of Godard’s contributions and works of more creative sensibilities have been forcefully influenced by his innovations—such as the third world films of Glauber Rocha; the feminist tract by Michele Rosier, GEORGES QUI; the German filmmaker Von Syderberg’s LUDWIG series; the Italian film by Roberto Gianmarelli, I HAVE NO TIME (NON HO TEMPO); and the recent spate of structuralist documentaries, including Jon Jost’s SPEAKING DIRECTLY and Laura Mulvey and Peter Wollen’s PENTHESILEA. However, critical interpretations of Godard’s contributions have scarcely reached paper, and now we witness Godard’s institutionalization into slick formulaic films.

All the more reason why it is important to elaborate his sources and to see where he is coming from, as in his affinities with Sergei Eisenstein, and especially with reference to Eisenstein’s notions of intellectual cinema. At first blush, it might seem unlikely to seek a kinship between Godard and Sergei Eisenstein. (More probable, especially in terms of the reflexive mode, is Godard’s alignment with Eisenstein’s pyrotechnical contemporary, Dziga Vertov.)

Eisenstein’s method was based on a belief that the juxtaposition of opposing forces would create a metaphor for political action. For example, in his equation of Kerensky with a peacock, Napoleon and toy soldiers in OCTOBER, he created a context for the conflict between the inertia of unjust authoritarian power and the dynamic struggle of the proletariat.

Godard, on the other hand, relies on the agitational properties of radical disjunctions that have little or no correlation. His Brechtian interruptions (brief inserts of pop culture mythologies), his exaggerations of the filmmaking process, and his working-out of methodology within his films strike a different tension from Eisenstein. More arbitrary in his choices,(1) Godard calls all relations into question because of his earnest desire to shake up what is going on in the head.

Godard, however, like Eisenstein, is concerned with similar notions about film form—the relation of the cinematic image to the structure of language and the process of human thought, its connections to the physical reality of people and things, and the wished for transformation of ideology as a result of the isolation and recombination of structural forms. Aware of the disjunctions caused by the mental process in its collision with the objective world, they share the romantic desire to fuse the two.

Like Eisenstein, too, Godard has the same aim—to teach. No matter how arbitrary and apparently irrelevant his method seems, he wants to bring people to what they have always known and to start them over again with a very particular formulation of ideological beliefs that are tied to a rigorous structure and process.

This may explain why his concept of Zero, which appears in a number of his films, is integral to his pedagogic technique. It is at Zero, at first principles, at the spatial location where sounds and images can be isolated and freed of each other, that we can change what goes on in the head. Godard’s motto is neologism—of words, of sounds, of images, and of film form.

Eisenstein envisions the ultimate of the intellectual cinema as the inner monologue (specifically Joycean) and described it as the “slipping from the objective into the subjective.” This inner monologue, he stated, finds it fullest expression in the cinema. He specifies the montage lists that would reconstruct the course of thought:

“Like thought, they would sometimes proceed with visual images. With sound. Synchronized or non-synchronized. Then as sounds. Formless. Or with sound-images: with objectively representational sounds ...”

“Then suddenly, definite intellectually formulated words—as ‘intellectual’ and dispassionate as pronounced words. With a black screen, a rushing imageless visuality.”

“Then in passionate disconnected speech. Nothing but nouns. Or nothing but verbs. Then interjections. With zigzags of aimless shapes, whirling along with those in synchronization.”

“Then racing visual images over complete silence.”

“Then linked with polyphonic sounds. Then polyphonic images. Then both at once.”(2)

Similarly, Godard deals with the “inner movement” of subjective and objective description when describing the search for structures” in his film, TWO OR THREE THINGS I KNOW ABOUT HER:

“The sum of the objective description and the subjective description should lead to the discovery of ... a certain complex feeling ...[and]... corresponds to the inner movement of the film, which is the attempt to describe a complex (people and things), since no distinction is made between them and, in order to simplify, people are spoken of as things, and things as people ...”(3)

Godard achieves this in practice as well. In the garage sequence of TWO OR THREE THINGS, the various levels of discourse work towards a dissolution of subject into object. The image track contains the objective description of things, people, signs, the society’s collective mythologies. The narrating, whispering consciousness conducts an anxiety-ridden semiotic discourse on the relation between sign and referent, between image and world. On one hand, the camera movements create an interplay of language, signs, color patterns, planes and people which function together as formal structural elements of objective description. On the other hand, there is a subjective imposition in an attempt to fuse the phenomenal world with what is thought about it, as in the poetic zoom from the reflection of the leaves on the hood of the car to the leaves of the tree. The support or contradiction of the images by the narration corresponds with the problems posed by the text—that despite the flexibility of language, words are inadequate to describe what is seen. The only possibility for totalization is by a sensual correlation between what the heroine, Juliette, calls the “physical clarity of things” and their connection with thoughts.

Typical of every Romantic notion since Schopenhauer, the world is viewed as an interpreted situation determined by our will, interests, and desire to reach the object outside ourselves. The phenomenologist Merleau-Ponty summed up this Romantic double bind and its appropriateness as the subject of film. He echoes the sentiments of Godard and Eisenstein:

“Phenomenological or existential philosophy is largely an expression of surprise at the inherence of the self in the world and in others, a description of this paradox and permeation, and an attempt to make us see the bond between subject and others ... the movies are peculiarly suited to make manifest the union of mind and body, mind and world, and the expression of one in the other.”(4)

The desire to force the film and the mental processes into a more physical connection with reality (in this case, political action) is central in Godard’s film, LE GAI SAVOIR (l969). The film personifies “the search for structures.” This search involves Godard in a separation of the formal elements and a breakdown of their component parts, so that in isolating them we can observe the tension they create in their montage battle. The film is Godard’s own Film Form and Film Sense, pedagogically and cinematically. The image and sound track is a compendium of Eisensteinian montages, within shots, between shots, and between images and sounds. The text of the film is a theoretical discussion of method. Like Eisenstein, there are three steps, A+B=C, the collection of images and sounds, the analysis and breakdown of images and sounds, and the new models based on the discovery.

LE GAI SAVOIR (or The Joy of Learning)(5) was originally commissioned by French Television to be a modern version of Rousseau’s treatise on education, Émile (1762). It is a non-narrative film, perhaps the most abstract and formally elegant film by Godard. It is strikingly beautiful visually, with two attractive young characters, Patricia Lumumba (Juliette Bertho) and Émile Rousseau (Jean-Pierre Leaud). These two exist throughout the film in a black, limbo-like void, assumedly the space of a TV studio. It is, however, a highly ambiguous space since the two characters appear to be both performers in and spectators of a TV program. They discourse animatedly and philosophically on the nature of language, its outworn ineffectiveness for radicalization, and the need to create new associations. At the same time, the camera cuts to fragments of the cultural mythology—Paris streets, cartoons, pop posters, literary texts. The sound track, important to the film, is extremely varied—there are radio/ TV noises, rally chantings, revolutionary songs, a Mozart piano piece, and a host of discordant unclear sounds.

Godard uses a number of strategies, accompanying each with a discourse on method:
a. Word and image montage: detachment of words from their meanings and associations with images.
b. Sound montage: analysis of sound as a separate entity and as it functions in relation to the image, to silence, to the speaking voice and to the spatiotemporal location in which it is heard,
c. Spatial montage: the function of the black space, especially with relation to the viewer, to the idea of zero and as a tabula rasa of the transformation of the mental processes effected by cinema/TV means.
d. Role montage: various reflective consciousnesses of the characters.


One of the methods by which Godard indicates his mistrust of words and his desire to subvert our preconceptions based on the connotations of words is what he calls the “cinetract”:

“Take a photo and statement by Lenin or Che, divide the sentence into ten parts, one word per image, then add the photo that corresponds to the meaning either with or against it.”(6)

According to Godard, the cinetract’s function is to agitate and to start group discussions. He uses this device of montage within the shot and between shots throughout LE GAI SAVOIR. Graffiti-like words subvert the text against which they are placed or serve as directional signs to us to rethink our associations with them. The words are detached from their meanings and function plastically. They also serve as signals reinforcing political action or the reformulation of ideas. In fact, suspended as they are against a pop cartoon, revolutionary poster or philosophical text, the words serve an affective function: they almost scream out for enactment of their meanings. Although in ironic conflict with the images, in an effort to demythologize, the words have a continuity of significance. They usually refer to cognitive-perceptual processes, to political ideology or to the language of logic or philosophy.

For example, the two characters, in their interest to dissolve images and sound, begin to break down the words CINEMA-TELEVISION into their component letters. Simultaneously a cinetract appears, increasing the process of dissolution already initiated by the dialogue. Words like savoir (to know), voir (to see), les elements de (elements of), le gai savoir (the joy of learning), juxtaposed against a book jacket cover, or a Tom and Jerry cartoon, emphasize and punctuate the need for rethinking.

The discussion which follows this sequence is a dialogue à la Eisensteinian theory. Patricia claims that any image can radicalize since chance and the unconscious are structured similarly. Émile says, in an image, that we must find the method. Patricia answers that we must find the discourse of its method and ours at the same time. The implication is not only that diverse and arbitrary elements are the same as thinking, both conscious and unconscious, but that by an analysis and breakdown of the elements, we will discover our own methods of thinking. For Eisenstein, as for Godard, the discovery of common properties in a series of different facts will constitute a new unity and a new way of thinking more representative of human consciousness.

To divorce language from conventional meanings is basic to the wish to transform conventional ideas about love, art and politics. It is a particular preoccupation of Godard’s, as in LA CHINOISE, when Veronique and Guillaume want to renew the energies of words by separating out their sounds and matter.


In the sound montage of LE GAI SAVOIR there is a simultaneous exchange of methodological discussions and practical models for the rethinking and the recombination of sound. Besides the many voices and noises, there is a detachment of sound from meaning and from the people who speak. There is a forcing of a resemblance of sound with its physical connections, not just for onomatopoeic effects but as if to establish the sound as an object occupying space. Along with sound detachment from image, there is image without sound—for example, in the documentary flashes of Paris streets when ordinarily there would be traffic and other urban noises or during moments of extreme anguish over political violence for which words are inadequate.

The deconstruction of sound and the examination of all texts and discourses by the whispered consciousness bear a strong resemblance to Eisenstein’s description of the sound-image montages of the Joycean inner monologue. In fact, LE GAI SAVOIR fits the description better than Eisenstein’s own inner monologue attempts in his film script for Dreiser’s An American Tragedy.(7) Although admittedly only in preliminary form and dealing with more stodgy material, Eisenstein’s script for An American Tragedy is a combination of literary impressionism within a naturalistic narrative. In Clyde’s thoughts in the “kill-don't kill” sequences, it is more a question of will disputing with its own conscience than of an artistic consciousness yearning for a dissolution of self into the objective world. In no way does it approximate Eisenstein’s own notion of the Joycean monologue, which he described as the “whole course of thought through a disturbed mind.”(8)

Godard’s blizzard of sound montage can be understood by the question he posed during an interview with Robert Bresson about Bresson’s film AU HASARD BALTHASAR:

“Bresson: ... every time that I can replace an image by a sound, I do so. And I do so more and more.”

“Godard: And if you could replace all the images by sounds ... an inversion of the functions of the image and of the sound. One could have the image, of course, but it would be the sound that would be the significant element.”(9)

So too a “significant element” in LE GAI SAVOIR is sound, and it is integral to every context in the film. One such context is Rousseau’s Émile, not only because of the film’s relationship to Rousseau’s tract on re-education and the reformulation of ideas, but because of Rousseau’s belief in the myth of original innocence and of first things, which includes first sounds. In fact, the search for a method by an analysis of thought and sensual processes relates to a number of notions of Zero and first things in both Rousseau’s philosophy and in LE GAI SAVOIR. Rousseau condemned writing, said he hated books (except for Robinson Crusoe, that is) and favored the oral language or voice over écriture. For him, the self is separated from the written word, but the authentic self is present in the speaking voice.

In LE GAI SAVOIR there is a constant tension between the dissolution of cultural mythologies like language and texts and a return to beginnings, where the idea of sound or silence in relation to some authentic self and the notion of the integrity of oral language are to be re-established. There is a direct reference to this when Patricia says Rousseau understood that the voice is the best expression of liberty and free sounds. At this point the camera zooms in on a young girl’s eye with an accompanying statement that the eye must hear before looking. In other words, because of its intimate connection with sound, the image has usurped the principal role. Therefore, we must rethink sounds, not reproduce them.


An intricate space and role montage contributes to a redefinition of the cinema/ TV process as a methodological device for the reformulation of ideas.(10) It is a classical space in which the unities of time, place, action and character are rigorously enforced. It is a space that functions as a TV studio, as a stage, as a circular arena for mental and physical gymnastics and as an infinite space symbolic of néant (nothingness) or the beginning of time. Because it lacks architectural and graphic guidelines, the black space in which the characters perform has an unlimited definition. The sense of continuity between the frame of the screen and off-screen space endows the characters with a three-dimensional immediacy of presence. It is a space that permits the characters a complicated interchange between each other, reflections of themselves, their roles on screen, in real life, and as spectators as well as actors. In a sense, they and we are suspended in off-screen space into which we as spectators and they as spectators/actors move in an exchange with images and sounds that appear in that same space, all working either with or against each other:

“The movie is not on screen. The movie stems from moving. The move from the reality to the screen and back to reality. And the screens are nothing, just shades ... When you arrive it’s the moviemaker; and when you start, it’s the spectator.”(11)

Spectator/ actor, teacher/ student, we and the characters coexist in a space that is the ultimate in Eisenstein’s strategy of inferential exchange between the viewer and the didactic message on the screen.

All the transfers in the film—between image, sound and silence; between words, meanings and objective political realities; between ambiguous space, the surface of the screen and the varied roles enacted on it—represent Godard’s notes towards a supreme fiction. Everything refers back to the final paradoxical illusion. This is a film “en train de se faire” (in the process of creation) which begins with a breakdown of filmic elements and ends with a wishful projection of what a film should be. The problem to solve—the one that has been called into question throughout by a series of formal involvements with genre distortions, movements in and out of contexts and systems of thoughts, satirizations of discourses, and different levels of reflecting consciousnesses—is the pushing of the film as tool into political action and the pulling of it back into the realm of art.

In contrast with Eisenstein’s logical argument pattern, by which logically deduced relations between shots create new associations, Godard tends to emphasize the paradoxical irresolution of the artistic consciousness and human action. He effects it in at least three ways:

1. His reflexivity, both in his inclusion of a discourse on method for the creation of new paradigms for thought, and in his intense dedication to the analysis and breakdown of the filmic process.

2. Abstraction and reduction of narrative elements. (See Eisenstein’s. retraction of the Joycean method in Film Sense, p. 11 and p. 185. Eisenstein felt the tendency to abstraction in the Joycean monologue would concentrate more on means than content and would become self-destructive.)

3. Incorporation of all kinds of discourses, traditions and modes (which Eisenstein felt a dangerous stretching of the limitations of the art form).

Godard’s motives, however, are precisely those of Eisenstein’s. The range of semiotic significances involved in the inherence and confrontation of the subjective self with its objective reality and its formal constructs of language and culture must be recombined to produce a change of thought.

As Émile says, balancing on a tightrope as if poised on a Hegelian dialectic:

“A constant between man’s [sic] biological nature and the construction of his [sic] intelligence must be established.”


1. “What I am doing is making the spectator share the arbitrary nature of my choices, and the quest for general rules which might justify a particular course.” Godard on Godard (New York: Viking, 1972), p. 239.

2. Eisenstein, Film Form, p. 105.

3. Godard on Godard, p. 242.

4. Merleau-Ponty, “The Film and the New Psychology,” Sense and Nonsense, (Northwestern University, 1964), p. 58.

5. Coined by Nietzsche in 1882, from his treatise called Die Fröhliche Wissenschaft, which deals also with the re-education of a 19th century sensibility.

6. Godard interview, Kino-Praxis (Berkeley, California, 1968).

7. Eisenstein, Film Form, pp. 97-104, and Film Sense, pp. 236-242.

8. Film Form, p. 104.

9.Interview with Robert Bresson,” Cahiers du cinéma in English, No. 8, Feb. 1967, p. 8.

10. Godard’s definition of a militant film. The screen is a “blackboard or the wall of a classroom that presents the concrete analysis of a concrete situation.” Kino-Praxis.

11. Ibid.