QU’EST-CE QUE LE CINEMA? Posed in the title of André Bazin’s multivolume collection of essays, this question guided Jean-Luc Godard through more than sixty years of filmmaking, yielding the most beautiful, provocative, tender, irritating, glamourous, exhilarating, and emotionally and intellectually complicated works in the history of motion pictures, supreme among them the wildly personal, decade-in-the-making Histoire(s) du cinéma (1988–98).
To ask “What is cinema?” is to focus attention—perceptual, kinetic, associative—on the object in question rather than on peripheral considerations such as its purpose or whether it is good or bad aesthetically, morally, politically, etc. While Godard’s films are the place to begin and end, I also apply his aphorisms to pretty much anything I make or watch.
Cinema is a projection of the world at a given time.
Cinema is mise-en-scène plus montage.
Cinema is a form that thinks.
No other moviemaker has defined that form with so many and such varied works. There is the opening salvo of twelve genre-exploding features, from the 1960 gangster B picture Breathless to the 1966 cartoony spy thriller Made in USA. In between, there are notably 1961’s A Woman Is a Woman (the musical), 1962’s Vivre sa vie (the fallen-woman melodrama), 1963’s Les carabiniers (the war film) and Contempt (the movie-set romance), and 1965’s Alphaville (the dystopian sci-fi romance) and Pierrot le fou (the story of suicidal passion). These are the Godard films that are still best-known and best-loved. Vito Acconci once told me he had seen Pierrot le fou in theaters more than twenty times.
2 ou 3 choses que je sais d’elle (2 or 3 Things I Know About Her, 1967) is the crisis film, where the pull toward the essay form, which dominates Godard’s work going forward, overwhelms his attraction to genre fiction. When I learned of his death, I watched 2 ou 3 choses. And then I watched it again. The “her” of the title refers to a fictional character, Juliette Janson (Marina Vlady), and to the city of Paris, both under attack by Gaullist capitalism. Married with a young son, Juliette works part-time as a prostitute to afford a “normal life.” She is intelligent enough to see through the adult men in her world and to answer, when her six-year-old asks, “What is language?,” that “language is the house man lives in.” Throughout the film, Godard searches for how the language of cinema—mise-en-scène plus montage—can express an experience that puzzles Juliette. She says that it happened out of nowhere as she was on the way to see a client. Each time Juliette mentions this feeling—what psychologists term a “peak experience”—we hear the opening bars of Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 16 in F major, Op. 135. The last time she tries to explain, we see her on the street, and in voice-over she says that she doesn’t know when the feeling came over her, but that she has been trying to recapture it all day. We hear the Beethoven, and this time it continues as the camera performs a series of circular pans capturing Juliette at a distance, moving freely amid pedestrians and cars, past trees and storefronts. Just before she reaches a doorway, we hear her voice say, “I felt that I was the world and the world was me.” There is an abrupt cut away to a construction site. The shot is just long enough for Juliette to say, “A face is like a landscape,” and then another abrupt cut puts us in a hotel room with Juliette and the pimply-faced young man who has bought her services.
Do these two impatient edits signify the failure of the language of cinema to express Juliette’s experience? Yes. But perhaps it is the narrative form of the film that is the cause of the failure. At the end of 2 ou 3 choses, Godard invokes what will become a signature strategy of forgetting everything and returning to zero. As the light fades on a small mock-up of a housing complex composed of colorful household cleaning products, we hear the final three triumphant chords of the F major quartet, Beethoven’s last major work. The third chord is synced to the image of the word FIN in large capital letters that appear suddenly at the center of the screen. But this FIN is not the final word, because if we are paying attention, we can hear a whispered fourth note. It is as if the string players are readying themselves to begin again, just as Godard will begin anew his search for the cinematic sublime in the films that follow until in Histoire(s) du cinéma, he takes possession of images, words, sounds by hundreds of makers who, together, formed the language in which the twentieth century was written.
Amy Taubin is a contributing editor of Artforum.