Jon Davies

Le Cinéma!

Jean-Luc Godard, “Trailer for Le Mepris” (1963)

Jean-Luc Godard is one of the few directors I can think of who has used the humble format of the movie trailer as an open field for formal and dramatic experimentation. He fruitfully innovated what is possible to communicate with these negligible cinematic bits — usually regarded as mere publicity devices — as exuberantly as he did feature filmmaking, particularly in his heyday of the 1960s.

Godard’s trailers — highlights available on YouTube include “Pierrot le fou” (1965), “Une Femme est une femme” (1961) and “La Chinoise” (1967) – boast many of the trademarks of his groundbreaking feature films, but condensed into a single jewel-like, soul-stirring minute (or two if you are lucky). (I should note that I’m assuming he directed these trailers — there is very little information about them out there — because they match his signature style.)

We have the pervasive sense of irony about narrative cinema with an attendant playful disregard for the stultifying conventions of his craft; a dark, mournful wit about the seemingly endless capacity for human folly; a delirious montage of competing fragments with images, voices, music and text dynamically juxtaposed, producing unexpected feelings and meanings like sparks from banging together rocks. In addition to piquing your excitement about the forthcoming Godard picture “bientôt sur cet écran,” they thoroughly satirize not only the clichés of the format, but the lavish silver screen dreams of glorious Technicolor tragedy and comedy that we have come to expect from le cinéma as well.

1963’s “Le Mépris” (“Contempt”), which Godard refers to in this dazzling trailer as a “traditional” film — big budget, exotic locale, stars, sex, etc., produced by Carlo Ponti — is one of my favourites. The trailer is anchored by the instantly recognizable, haunting motif of the film’s score, which I would happily take as the soundtrack to my own life were such a thing possible. The trailer’s co-ed narration is abbreviated, the man and woman’s voices over-melodramatically enthusiastic, hyping a list of the film’s winning ingredients in promotional blasts. Taking turns twice each and then speaking in unison, they maintain their mannered rhythm throughout.

“La femme”
“le cinéma!”
“Avec Brigitte Bardot et Michel Piccoli!”

Savouring every syllable, the couple’s sensual litany of nouns is illustrated with brief fragments of the film, while the title’s flashing in different hues recalls the film’s notoriously saturated colour palette.

What is so affecting is that no matter how earnestly and bombastically the couple’s words oversell the film, their passion is justified, true. I have nearly succumbed to tears just by hearing the man’s zesty delivery of “le cinema!” or the sight of legendary director Fritz Lang as “le vieil homme.”

Jean-Luc Godard, “Trailer for Mouchette” (1967)

Godard’s trailer for Robert Bresson’s shattering “Mouchette” (1967) is even more radical. It begins with Mouchette’s various tormentors calling out the poor young lass’s name, and then segues into her singing a heartbreaking song. Her lament cuts out to silence whenever Godard’s clever, poetic intertitles punctuate scenes from the film: They beautifully describe “Mouchette” as, “A mass in colour…black and white colours – and sung by [novelist] Georges Bernanos and [director] Robert Bresson about the rape of a young girl, in short a film Christian and sadistic.”

Godard concisely captures the glorious quality of the sacred in the cinema of one of his idols. (And remember that Bresson’s 1966 long-suffering donkey picture/ Christ allegory “Au Hasard Balthazar” brought Godard together with the young Anne Wiazemsky, whom he would soon marry.)

Godard does give Bresson’s much-maligned heroine a chance to speak at trailer’s end, concluding with a moment of hope: “You can count on me. I hate them. I’ll stand up to them,” she threatens, speaking of no one and everyone, before we close with the chorus of name-calling with which we began.

– Jon Davies

Ryeberg Curator Bio

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Jon's writing has appeared in C Magazine, Canadian Art, GLQ, Cinema Scope, and numerous exhibition catalogues and critical anthologies. In 2009, Arsenal Pulp Press published his book on Paul Morrissey's 1970 film "Trash." He has curated many film/video screenings and exhibitions including Shary Boyle & Emily Vey Duke: The Illuminations Project and the traveling retrospective People Like Us: The Gossip of Colin Campbell, both for the Oakville Galleries, as well as Ryan Trecartin: Any Ever for The Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery (with Helena Reckitt). He is in the PhD Art History program at Stanford. More Jon Davies, click here.