Initially creating leisurely rural scenes, both contemporary and “period,” and playing these off a dense, repetitive aural collage of politically-minded voiceovers, Le vent d’est is Jean-Luc Godard’s heartfelt response to the disarray and demoralization of the French Left in the wake of May ’68. Shot in Italy and made by the filmmaking collective to which Godard at the time belonged, Groupe Dziga Vertov, it is a “what-to-do-now?” rumination—all passionate energy in search of a decisive course of action. It takes the form of a film about the making of a film, which could be the film that we are watching, or at least the one the filmmakers may be dreaming. Godard’s compatriot, Jean-Pierre Gorin, principally edited, with Godard assisting and (Godard has humbly asserted) learning. The segment titles—“The Strike,” “The Delegate,” “The Mobilizing Minority,” “The General Assembly,” “Repression,” “The Active Strike,” “The Police State,” “Theory,” “Self-Management,” “Armed Struggle,” “Civil Violence”—also came from Gorin, who, according to Godard biographer Richard Brody, devised them as a “practical” navigational tool. For me, they are irrelevant, especially as the titles are often slipped in quickly and, sometimes, almost invisibly. They are an attempt to “contain” a far-ranging, fluid dream, and it is the dream that wins out.
The film opens with a boy and a girl—we later discover, both actors in the film-within-the-film—lying together, asleep in the grass, our view of them partially obstructed by their arrangement, sheltering foliage, and the off-kilter camera angle; the purple of the boy’s pants strikes our eye and prepares us for his variously painted face in the internal film: both primitive spectacle and, past and present, terrorist—well, what is it? Self-proclamation? Camouflage? The girl also is in the internal film, but before we learn that the two actors are also playing actors we have before us the intermediate scene of their waking up and making love, during which the foliage shelters them precisely from our invasive view. I take all this as metaphor for Godard’s own desire to be “left alone” as he works through his ambivalence and confusion to reach some point of political decisiveness, for instance, regarding the role of violence that is best in order to advance the progressive cause against the oppression of workers. At different points the film seems to be rejecting or embracing violence, but viewers who assume that the final position taken—including a how-to for the homemaking of bombs—is decisive in the matter are perhaps applying a linear narrative convention to a non-linear, atomic (because, largely, fluidly associative) film. While his search for a resolution to his ambivalence sets up in certain viewers an expectation that Godard will indeed resolve the issue, adding heft to wherever the film “ends up,” this fails to take into account two things: the spirited, unpredictable nature of this film; the possibly intransigent nature of dear Jean-Luc’s ambivalence!
Besides, it is always possible with Godard that he is “being playful,” testing us as well as himself, or deliberately mixing up dream and reality, filmic and non-filmic life. To be specific, Godard may be weighing in his mind the “terrorist” bombing of the café in Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers (1965), which Le vent d’est directly notes in passing. (It is the poignant style of Le vent d’est that whatever it notes or shows it does so “in passing”—a quality that disputes the charge of “ideological rigidity” routinely lodged against it.) As such, the film circles in Godard’s memory of the Algerian War—and oppressive French colonialism in general: a point of national disgrace, and an instance of Godard and Gorin’s attempt to see the single river of the struggle for justice, whether economic or political, to which each separate struggle, wherever, whenever, contributes. Training terrorists to make bombs? Instead, Godard may be “wearing” this film of his as a kind of makeup or mask. A visual key to this “playfulness” is the Weekend-“blood” of unmistakable red paint that he splashes over period-guerrillas in the film-within-the-film: more makeup; another “mask.”
Rather than the poker-faced instructions on bomb-making, something else in the film might give one pause: despite their criticism of the “Socialist Realism” that Stalin expected Soviet filmmakers to aim at achieving, Godard and Gorin’s surprising ambivalence regarding Comrade Stalin—this, sixteen years after the tyrant’s death, and even less time after the launch of deStalinization, by Nikita Khrushchev, in 1956. Yet this is explained, at least in part, by the film’s optimism and historical sense. One of the fleeting voiceovers lights on the pertinent theme: History advances “masked,” in disguise. Despite Stalin’s mass murder of his people as part of his collectivization policy, the show-trials and CPSU’s purges, his vicious and virulent police state, Stalin may yet have contributed to the advancement of world communism, if only by the corrective reaction that his criminality and “cult of personality” invited. Godard and Gorin are taking, then, “the long view.” But they leave unmentioned the grim, implicit converse to their positive perspective—at least, hope; for if history sometimes benefits humankind when it least appears to do so, it may be equally true that seeming positive advancements could be masking regression. Repression can be the real-world outcome of what sometimes appears to be the advancement of social, economic and political justice. It is nothing short of dazzlingly brilliant how this film plays with the motif of makeup, masks and disguise—sometimes, even when it seems not to.
Seeing Le vent d’est for the first time more than forty years after it first appeared (and was largely dismissed) has been, for me, a heady experience. My grasp of Godard remains wonderfully deficient, whetting my appetite for successive viewings, new insights and delights. This film, even at this late date, is fresh, vibrant, witty, poetic. To get underneath its masks, start by taking off your own.
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