With A bout de souffle (1959) Jean-Luc Godard gave the nouvelle vague its most formative practical definition and, as time has shown, made the single most influential film of all time. In the 1960s Godard came up with one brilliant work after another, including the fierce, stunning Weekend (1967). Expanding on the experimental nature of Le gai savoir (1968) and Wind from the East (1969), his finest achievement in the ’70s is Numéro Deux/Essai Titres, co-written by Anne-Marie Miéville. (Some sources list Miéville as co-director; some do not.)
Numéro Deux proceeds in sections, mostly domestic vignettes, with rolling letters giving each a title—an alternate title, it turns out, for the whole piece. The film essays three generations of a family (un)settled under one roof. At the outset, two children, siblings, appear by a window, staring out. “There was a landscape,” Nicolas says, “but they put a factory in it.” The image cuts to Grandpa who, steeped in nostalgic socialism, touches on the horrors of The Factory’s workaday reality; in a chemical factory, he notes, women’s fingers are being eaten by acid. His remark sets two themes into motion: industry’s disregard of workers as anything other than replaceable tools—a part of the machinery, as it were; the exploitation of women.
Both themes find a domestic application. Pierre, the children’s father, home from work at The Factory, belittles Sandrine, his wife, who keeps house, raises the kids, copes with fragments of inherited radicalism, envies Pierre that he gets out of the house, and wonders aloud to her spouse why he always gets to decide when (and how) they have sex. A small domestic triumph comes when Sandrine proves capable of repairing the washing machine despite Pierre’s contrary interruptions; but, overall, her sense of stasis/incompletion is summed up by the fact that she hasn’t had a bowel movement in weeks. (Trust Godard to find a metaphor that gets to the nitty gritty.) Through all this runs oppositions: landscape and factory; Nature and capitalism. Everyone is damaged. Even Grandpa, whose heart is rooted in the politics of equality, marginalizes Grandma, whose own stopped-up feelings she can share only with us (and the filmmakers). From Grandpa, the image returns to the grandchildren at the window. To her older brother’s statement, “There was a landscape, but they put a factory in it,” Vanessa, perhaps trying to emulate Nicolas, says, “There was a factory, and we put a landscape around it.” Out of the mouths of babes; we do adjust ourselves to the unnatural, the inhuman, so that even capitalism can come to seem natural—and inevitable. Vanessa’s innocent remark connects later with something Grandpa recalls: the camouflaging garden planted around a wartime weapons factory. We also hide The Factory, where we toil for others, even from ourselves. This is the only way we can make peace with the unnaturalness we are buying into.
Godard shows capitalism—ideologically, its tenets; temperamentally, its coldness and coarseness—penetrating our lives, shaping our behavior. (The Factory is the God in whose image we’ve been remade.) For instance, in one of their domestic vignettes Nicolas is watching a sports event on TV while his grandfather very much wants to see the Soviet film that another station is broadcasting. The boy, rude and defiant in his selfishness, very much like his father vis-à-vis Nicolas’s mother, tells Grandpa, “I don’t care if you’re happy.” Thus the way Papa gets treated at work has made its way down to how a child addresses his grandfather. Nor is that all; off-screen, Pierre further lights into Grandpa, defending his son’s selfishness as he would his own: “Get your own set,” he says. Grandpa, defeated, responds: “Selling price. Buying price. I have no savings.” (This is probably the reason he is permitted to stay in Pierre’s house.) The family has thus been reduced to the tone and dimensions—the power coordinates—of commerce. The home’s new “hearth” is The Factory.
Another set of images finds, superimposed one on the other, Pierre and Sandrine having anal intercourse and Vanessa’s watching it; the dominance of the two simultaneous images shifts between them back and forth. Why not use the more conventional method of crosscutting? That way would not have so fully conveyed the child’s absorption in the parental spectacle. In turn, Godard’s presentation more fully conveys the spectacle’s impact on Vanessa. Finally, the degree of abstraction that the superimposed images affords suggests that the spectacle Vanessa’s eyes take in belongs to a whole series of such events she has glimpsed. She indeed tells her brother, “Sometimes I think what Mama and Papa do is pretty,” sufficiently piquing his curiosity (and annoyance that baby sister has seen more than he has) for Nicolas to ask their mother if he too can watch her and Papa in bed. (He isn’t the independent explorer his sister is!) Sandrine replies, “Perhaps,” after admitting that it sometimes hurts when Papa touches her breasts. Later, in a section ironically titled “Brotherhood,” Sandrine in fact invites both children into the bedroom—not to watch their parents make love but to discuss with them parental lovemaking. She and Pierre are both naked. On one level the scene couldn’t be more charming—and, for the children, instructive; and Pierre’s one contribution, the remark “When it’s over, Death lays a finger on our lips,” touches.
But the context that the film provides unearths in Sandrine a glint of unexpected motivation. Earlier, before questioning why Pierre always gets to decide about sex, she asked him, “Should we make love tonight?” “We’ll see.” Sandrine’s return: “Thanks, boss.” Coupled with the preference of Pierre’s with which their lovemaking is stamped, this suggests a (maybe unconscious) reason why Sandrine lets the children into the parental inner sanctum. For doesn’t doing so give her in effect some sense of being in control of her own sexual existence, as compensation for Pierre’s otherwise unyielding dominance? Moreover, her calling him “boss” is pointed; it connects their bedroom to The Factory. In turn, this interprets Pierre’s “bossiness” at home as compensatory for work where he is a wage slave constantly at the beck and call of others. Thus, marvelously, the film shows how The Factory has intruded upon two very private, presumably sacrosanct areas of the couple’s life: their sexual intimacy; the raising of their children. And another ominous dimension also insinuates itself; Pierre’s added remark about death, intended to draw a precious line linking life and sex, finds an echo later in Grandpa’s most solemn utterance: “Every night Death enters The Factory.” The sum of these linkages finds The Factory emerging as institutionalized despair.
All this is typical of the film’s brilliant method. Things connect; echoes accumulate; meanings emerge.
Often, the result deepens what at first may seem a chance line or image. In one vignette, Sandrine bathes Vanessa. Looking down at herself, the child asks her mother whether memory comes out of her “hole.” In response to the affirmative she receives, Vanessa then asks, “Where does [memory] go?” Sandrine’s answer deepens to sadness her son’s opening statement, “There was a landscape, but they put a factory in it”: “[Memory] vanishes into the landscape—only, there’s a factory there now.” Just what do we lose when memory has nowhere to go, nowhere to abide and exist? Our connection to the rest of humanity? A significant connection to ourselves? Godard—recall Alphaville (1965)—finds memory at the very core of our humanity; and in the shadow of The Factory, he suggests, the future capacity of children to remember their own untutored experience, in addition to what we’ve attempted to pass on to them as important, already is being dulled and diminished. (Numéro Deux seems to some a dry experience in the viewing; but when you think about the film, it moves you.) For Godard, capitalism opposes the very idea of humanity, the foundation of what it means to be fully human: memory—and the sense of continuity and interconnectedness this provides. Capitalism blots all this out, creating instead a self-referential system that boxes workers and their families into a repetitive present (see Godard’s See You at Mao, a.k.a. British Sounds, and Pravda, both 1969), and thus cuts them off from past and future.
This echoful film, then, is on the side of memory. It isn’t driven at all by ideology. It plainly announces, in fact, “This isn’t a rightest or a leftist film. . . .” Like all of Godard, it’s humane and humanistic. Godard succeeds in keeping the film both away from the abstractness of political dogma and connected to accessible human experience.
This is also a film about film and video, about the technology through which film artists are obliged to express themselves. This technology, in effect another part of The Factory, also places humanity—humanity’s humanity—at risk. Seducing the artist towards impersonality and the dehumanization of others (the artist’s human subjects; the artist’s audience) as well as of oneself, this technology both assists the artist’s creativity and constantly tests the artist’s connectedness to others. This technology—filmmaking as process—distracts and abstracts the artist, then, facilitating his or her doing as much to fellow humans. Those familiar with Thomas Carlyle’s concerns in nineteenth-century Britain regarding possible consequences from the intrusion into people’s lives of technology brought about by the Industrial Revolution—his disciples, Charles Dickens and John Ruskin, registered similar prophetic warnings—will best appreciate the thoughtful and passionate tradition to which Numéro Deux’s anxiety belongs.
The film’s masterful mise-en-scène manifests in order to convey this danger; technologically overloaded, it reminds us of the challenge we all face, artists and audiences alike, to keep a grip on our humanity in a world of increasing utility and gadgetry. Many of the images include a TV screen, that is, a screen-within-the-movie-screen. Moreover, numerous times one or two monitors become the medium through which information is conveyed. (If one views the film on television, therefore, it becomes a little like cut-open Chinese boxes.) Sometimes the monitors are of equal size; at other times, one is prominent, the other recessive. Sometimes the monitors are all we are given; other times there is aural accompaniment—a voiceover, or a natural soundtrack (bird chirps and the like). Sometimes both monitors display the same image; more often, they display different images—two perspectives of the same scene, perhaps, or two different scenes purposefully juxtaposed. (Eisenstein’s dialectical montage, updated.) Slow wipes in any possible direction may be used to transition from one image to the next. Et cetera, et cetera. This highly technical mise-en-scène continually implies those pieces of the ‘film’ itself that we see Godard, appearing as himself, carefully reviewing, not only to settle on a final form for Numéro Deux/Essai Titres, but also to grapple responsibly with these materials and their themes, and to keep them (and himself) connected to human experience. (The material, actually, wasn’t filmed at all but videotaped and later transferred to 35mm film—still more of the wizardry which the artist may tap into and with which he or she must contend.)
Godard once said that the best way to criticize a film is to make a film of one’s own in response. Toiling in The Factory of the commercial movie industry, François Truffaut two years earlier made La nuit américaine (Day for Night, 1973). It also showed at work a filmmaker played by the film’s maker, and it drew fulsome bourgeois praise. Compare the two works, and no wonder the gulf between the two former Cahiers du Cinema critics and nouvelle vague compatriots. Whereas Godard shows the filmmaker dealing thoughtfully, searchingly with his visual material and, also, sensually with sound levels (Godard’s hand on the sliding controls becomes a breathtaking erotic refrain), Truffaut instead shows the filmmaker as a director of actors, a massager of on-set egos, a reviewer of mood music—in short, a hack. The film each man made corresponds to the image of the filmmaker his film presents; and while Godard’s video-within-the-film is fresh, riveting, Truffaut’s film-within-the-film is even sillier and more conventional than La nuit américaine.
It is Sandrine who characterizes Godard’s film, explaining: “This isn’t a rightest or a leftist film—but a before and behind film. Before, there are children. Behind, there is the government.” This identification of The Factory with government, and vice versa, implies what has come to be termed corporate fascism, that is, the consolidation of power in moneyed big business at the expense of citizenry and democratic processes—the capacity of ordinary people to direct the course of their lives and their nation’s moral spirit. In this regard Godard finds in his France a parallel with Hitler’s Germany, and it chills him to the bone. Sandrine’s voice adds: “[Godard’s is] a film you can look at. Quietly.” The adverb quietly stakes out the humanism of the film’s venture; it shows our importance as audience, the respect the filmmakers here gladly give us. Quietly. We the film’s viewers aren’t to be pushed, pushed around or exploited; rather, the film quietly, thoughtfully, shares things with us—quite unlike the disposition of Truffaut’s film, which assaults us with its aim to please and win us over, to make up for Truffaut’s unhappy childhood, or the even nastier disposition of (released the same year as Numéro Deux) Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, which coldly manipulates us so that the filmmaker—absent a soul, as time (and Schindler’s List) has proven—can feel omnipotent at our expense. (Truffaut dropped to the bottom of his moral standing by appearing two years hence in a Spielberg hoax, Close Encounters of the Third Kind.) Godard has never made films so that he can be liked, feel powerful, use people or let himself be used by others; for him, filmmaking is neither exploitation nor self-exploitation or therapy but, rather, using sound and image to make discoveries about the human condition and about the contribution that art can make to this. Nor will he practice sleight of art on us, his partners-in-film. We are told up front, “Images are manufactured”—a confession implying that no one’s hands, certainly not his, are perfectly clean of The Factory’s influence. As always, Godard’s honesty is a bracing tonic. But this film of his isn’t just proffering an antidote to a grubby kind of cinema he (hopefully with our support) despises. It’s registering a different way of interacting with others than The Factory and corporate fascism embody. It is a humane, respectful, sharing way.
In sum, The Factory represents everything that institutionally attempts to subordinate humanity, separate or segregate humanity, or turn humanity against itself. Since this extends beyond manufacturing it should come as no surprise that Pierre doesn’t literally work in any facet of industry. He isn’t even a manual laborer. Indeed, the work he does isn’t even particularly taxing. Apparently his voice possesses certain natural qualities that make it ideal for testing a new kind of microphone! The work, then, isn’t hard; what’s hard, what’s debilitating, is the character of the work, and the marketplace and the power structure enforcing it. For the job Pierre is being paid to do is atomizing, dehumanizing and self-objectifying; a mere part of him, his voice, is continually called upon to function apart from the totality of his being. What had Pierre done before? Before teaching jobs dried up, he taught children. Not only is he now, in order to survive, forced to do something wide of what he wants to do, what indeed he has been trained to do, but this current employment of his, foolish and empty, falls gallingly short of his calling. Whereas once his job found him interacting with fellow humans and helping them, now he primarily relates to equipment; whereas his former job confirmed and enhanced his humanity, his current one divorces and alienates him from it. The “explanatory” material about the new microphone that Pierre brings home exposes his present job as ridiculous; he is the one being ridiculed by it, slowly crushed by it, when in fact he is capable of nourishing, nurturing, satisfying work.
The fact that Pierre feels diminished—is diminished—by his employment doesn’t dissuade Sandrine from desiring work of her own outside the house. And she finds it. But she quits one job because it gives her no contact with people; and she plans to quit another—as a pharmacy clerk—because the contact it permits is fleeting and superficial. The Factory may be vast, but it lacks depth; and it’s spreading. Says Grandpa: “We came from the Internationale that represented the world’s proletariat . . . Now it seems Europe has opened lots of factories [elsewhere] because of the cheap labor.” What does this mean for us? Those who toil in The Factory—and, in one way or another, most of us must—accrue no value from either our effort or our sacrifice; we’re all as replaceable as machine parts. And when we are replaced, the web of exploitation only widens simply to reduce The Factory’s expenses and thereby enlarge, cancerously, its profits. It’s all impersonal, mechanical, inhuman.
Sandrine—wonderfully played by Sandrine Battistella (the nonprofessional cast lend their first names to their characters)—at the last speaks of Godard. Is it scripted? I don’t know. But what Sandrine says corresponds to Godard’s own need to keep at himself (like the rest of us) to retain his humanity in the face of The Factory that would divest him of it. However, her remarks also ironically reflect on the yet lower status of theirs that finds women yearning to attain, in The Factory, even the low, debased level that their male counterparts, however tenuously, have already attained. Here are some of her words: “Suddenly [the film’s] over. Something happens. My role ends. What are we playing at? [Godard] interprets me, but he shouldn’t . . . Always men like him say: ‘Wash the dishes . . . Go on strike . . . Come fuck . . . Go on vacation . . .’ And him in my place, working . . . Letting others tell you things about yourself is a crime. . . .”
Powerful. Perhaps Sandrine would like to make her own film; if so, she should be able to. She should be able to respond, in film, to Numéro Deux just as Godard was able to respond to La nuit américaine. But will The Factory allow it? Collaborators on this film, though, Sandrine and Jean-Luc are on the same side, the side of memory; but The Factory wants to get them both, to turn one against the other, person against person, group against group. This isn’t paranoia; it’s Western history since the Industrial Revolution. Until she does make her own film, if she wants to, however, Sandrine is here for us to see and listen to. And this moves Godard, one of the world’s greatest artists, his soul perpetually humbled by the burden of being human, by his sense of responsibility to stay human. The film’s final image shines—and pierces: Godard seated, his head, in his hands, bowed.
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