For his bruising Prénom Carmen, Jean-Luc Godard’s most romantic film post-Karina, Bizet’s late nineteenth-century opera, based on Merimee’s novel, is both a springboard and an ultimate point of return, like the sea. This version is contemporary, with the best performance—obscene, hilarious—coming from Godard himself, as Jean Godard, a once successful filmmaker currently deposited in a mental hospital where doctors and nurses want him out and he schemes to remain. Chaplin’s Limelight (1952) hovers over, although it’s a book about Buster Keaton that’s tucked under Jean’s arm, and his Jewish, disheveled appearance makes him a ringer for Groucho Marx. Jean emerges from the asylum, though, to participate in the making of a film.
It is his niece, Carmen (Maruschka Detmers), who has engaged his interest in the project, whose “set” is Uncle Jean’s borrowed seaside apartment in Normandy. In reality (hm), the projected film—I mean, the one that hasn’t been made—is cover for the terrorist activities of Carmen and the gang she is part of. It is during a bank robbery that Carmen meets her José, rechristened Joseph (“Don’t call me Jo!” he insists), a bank guard, and it is instant love except that poor Carmen, with so much on her plate, cannot commit. Her moments with Joseph can be tender (they share a glorious shot in which each lover’s shock of unruly hair erotically touches the other’s), and they can instantly erupt into nastiness, with Carmen’s cold dismissal of the boy who so wants to love and be loved shutting him out. Indeed, clinging Joseph has himself a secret love, one that he is too shy to declare: Claire, one of a string quartet rehearsing Beethoven for the film-within-the-film’s score. (At least twice, though, a passer-by hums a bit of the most famous aria from Bizet’s opera.)
Nothing seems to come to fruition. Joseph can’t have his Carmen or his Claire, and when he enters Carmen’s hotel room shower to join her, trying hard to conjure an erection to impress her, his manhood just peters out. When he slaps her face to impose some degree of dominance, she slaps him right back.
Talk about failure and disappointment! Carmen’s gang can’t decide even whom to kidnap for ransom: the industrialist or his daughter!
Two recurrent images stress a kind of ontological and eternal certainty in contradistinction to all this failure: Carmen’s forest-dense bush (there is a lot of Carmen on display in this film); the rolling sea. There are so many shots of its shore-headed and withdrawing waves, in fact, that one toys with the idea that they aren’t inserts at all; rather, the Carmenial plot provides the “inserts.” Squawking invisible seagulls periodically “bring indoors” the power of the sea.
The film’s most striking image also involves the sea. Late, in Carmen’s darkened hotel room, Joseph from behind the still-on television set places a hand in front of the screen. The screen is sufficiently small that the hand seems enormous; the TV is transmitting only static, its light making the hand appear very dark, nearly blacked-out. Here again is an attempt by Joseph to appear strong, dominant, as though his hand were the hand of fate, as though his own fate was indeed in his own hand(s). However, once again the show of Joseph’s strength resolves into impotence. He cannot touch the static; regardless of its proximity, the hand finds the visual content of the screen-within-the-screen beyond its grasp. Moreover, the persistent static eventually reminds us of the sea that we have repeatedly watched throughout the film—a force so powerful, despite the hand’s exaggerated appearance, that it exposes the hand, and the humanity it represents, as essentially puny by comparison. There is, also, a Langian aura of determinism to the image. Joseph’s—anyone’s—fate is not in his or her hands.
Numerous commentators have noted that the shots of the sea in this film are a visual pun for the nouvelle vague.
Anne-Marie Miéville, Godard’s partner at the time, wrote this extraordinary film which won for Godard the top prize, the Golden Lion of St. Mark, at Venice, in addition to technical prizes for Raoul Coutard’s cinematography and François Musy’s sound.
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