DETECTIVE (Jean-Luc Godard, 1985)

Détective, Jean-Luc Godard’s most commercial venture since Tout va bien (1972), zigzags amongst guests, residents and employees at a Parisian hotel. (It was filmed at the Hotel Concorde Saint-Lazare.) Except at the finish, where the action moves right outside the hotel, the film is so much confined to this place that the setting suggests imaginative space, a place of the mind—or of the crisscrossing minds of the characters. Godard’s filmmaking rarely resembles anyone else’s; but in the case of this film, it does. Perhaps it is the script by Alain Sarde and Philippe Setbon, which Godard and then-partner Anne-Marie Miéville adapted, that accounts for the Resnaisian style afoot, the lightly lit upon mosaic comprising two concentric circles of plot. However, a particular fusion of surrealism and the absurd argues for the influence of someone else to whom Godard may be paying homage: Luis Buñuel, who had passed on in 1983. You may recall this extraordinary episode in Buñuel’s The Phantom of Liberty (1974): A couple, beseeching the police to find their missing child, bring her in to ensure an accurate description, hence, speedy recovery. How is this possible? Don’t the parents notice that their child is right there with them? Well, no, because the reality of the child chafes against the property rights to which the parents feel entitled. The police official also doesn’t notice because it is his job to bend his behavior to the will of the wealthy and the bourgeoisie, not the reality of children. In Détective, house detective Prospero hopes to reverse the professional shame of the still unsolved murder two years earlier of a guest known as The Prince; but we may be in a time-warp, because an aging Mafia don (played by Alain Cuny, no less), who is also known as The Prince, is (at least for the moment) alive and staying at the hotel! Prospero and his nephew try solving the crime, which of course they fail to do. Time is not on their side.
     Giving a brilliant and hilarious performance as Prospero’s sleuthing nephew, Isidore, Jean-Pierre Léaud steals the show. His appearance as a “detective” cannot help but remind us of his Antoine Doinel in François Truffaut’s Stolen Kisses (1968). As a result of their soured friendship, Godard has always insisted he was unfazed by Truffaut’s 1984 death. Watching Détective, I’m not so sure.



One thought on “DETECTIVE (Jean-Luc Godard, 1985)

  1. analyzes the changed role of humanistic (public) intellectuals in the Western societies (a trend that started around the last quarter of 20th century and, as we can see today, it intensifies in the new century), and how this change has influenced everybody’s behavior and world view. From around the 18th century Western intellectuals had a leading role in European historical/cultural development. They were people who tried to root spirituality in socio-political realities. They were carriers of democratic sensibility and tried to create a unity between culture and the masses of people, they risked their comforts and sometimes life for the sake of existential truth. According to “Detective”, it is not true anymore – intellectuals today are transformed into technical specialists hired by the social powers.
    Godard represents such intellectuals in the film. One of them – a private investigator with an air of a philosopher and a poet (Laurent Terzieff with his charm of other-worldliness), but his thinking about life is reduced and flattened. His nephew Isidore (Jean-Pierre Leaud in his top performance as a comic actor) is the personification of today’s liberal sensibility (gentle and conformist) and the main focus of Godard’s tragic vision of today’s advanced societies where intellectuals betray their traditional historic-moral mission.
    In “Detective” Godard offers his classification of human groups/clans today’s post-industrial societies consist of. One group filled by those who live by investing money – they are personified by an intelligent and educated married couple (Natalie Baye and Claude Brasseur – both are masters of gentle characterization, through the art of acting, of the states of the human soul). The other group is those who multiply money invested into their entrepreneurial adventures – they are personified by sports events businessman (Johnny Halliday who proved to be a very sophisticated actor).But the main clan Godard metaphorically names “mafia” – it is people who live and make their fortunes on extorting money (Godard’s Mafiosi take from people money with a matter-of-factness of tax collectors and righteousness of users of taxpayers’ funds for their personal self-enrichment through government contracts).
    The film is dedicated to the analysis of relationships between these clans and to the depiction of private love life of people belonging to them). The emotional and intellectual condition of the young people is characterized by Godard through several personages including “the wise young girl” (Julie Delpy‘s first irresistible performance) – this point of the film is especially important for American viewers today to contemplate on to be able to understand better the future of US and Europe.
    Please visit: to read the essays about “Detective” (with analysis of forty shots from the film) and other Godard’s films, and also essays dedicated to films by Bergman, Resnais, Bunuel, Bresson, Kurosawa, Pasolini, Antonioni, Cavani, Fassbinder, Bertolucci, Alain Tanner and Moshe Mizrahi.

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