PASSION by Jean-Luc Godard
Magill's Cinema Annual, 1984


I honestly believe that pleasing people is important, but I also believe that every film contains some degree of "planned violence" upon its audience. In a good film, people must be made to see something that they don't want to see: they must be made to approve of someone of whom they had disapproved, they must be forced to look where they had refused to look. -Francois Truffaut

Jean-Luc Godard has been violently attacking film viewers for twenty-five years. Beginning with Breathless (1959) through such films as Weekend (1968) and Every Man for Himsel (1981), Godard has mounted a frontal assault on audience expectations and desires. He has refused to tell simple stories for escape and entertainment, and he has bombarded film's predominantly middle-class audiences with fierce Marxist political rhetoric in a passionate effort to make viewers, in Truffaut's words, "see something that they don't want to see ... look where they had refused to look."

As Socrates learned, making people see what they do not want to see usually elicits a hostile response. Godard, that Socratic gadfly who uses his camera to provoke viewers with painful questions and unpleasant answers, has indeed alienated audiences and film critics, and while he has not yet met Socrates' fate, he has suffered ridicule and the loss of box-office appeal.

Passion is Godard's latest masterpiece to be rejected and consigned to the obscurity of film histories. Released in the United States in 1983, it met with such a bad reception in the East that the first-run cinema houses on the West Coast refused to show it. In late May, 1984, a small revival theater in Los Angeles dared to show Passion to audiences of hundreds. Such obscurity is the price Godard has paid again for his desire to make films that force viewers "to look where they had refused to look." But Passion is well worth the look. Often a bewildering chaos of sight and sound, it is a visually dazzling, aurally overwhelming, thought-provoking film by a major artist in absolute command of his medium.

The central frustration in watching Passion is figuring out what is going on. Scenes from a factory alternate rapidly with those of a film set; people come and go in cars with blaring horns; panning shots of costumed actors on a stage are juxtaposed to off-camera voices discussing a variety of topics, from Rembrandt to the problems of lighting. What is the story? Passion fits squarely in the modern tradition of narrative art. Godard, like Joseph Conrad, James Joyce, and Marcel Proust in fiction, and Alain Resnais and Ingmar Bergman in film, knows that there are no simple stories to tell. The modern world is complex and very chaotic, and storytelling must reflect the partial, limited nature of man's knowledge about himself and the world. There are stories, but they must be tentative, incomplete explorations of realities that always remain elusive.

Passion tells two partial, fragmented stories that are interrelated in complex ways: the story of Jerzy (Jerzy Radziwilowicz), an 6migr6 Polish director who is making a film called "Passion," and the story of Isabelle (Isabelle Huppert), a factory worker who goes on strike. In Jerzy's story, Godard uses the filmwithin-a-film device that goes back to Fellini's 8'12 (1961) and his own Le Mepris (1963) Contempt(1964). Godard creates an alter ego who expresses his own creative artistic dilemma: Jerzy's problems in making his "Passion" are Godard's problems in making his Passion. Like Guido in 81/2, Jerzy is hounded by a producer who wants a box-office smash, by overbudget expenses and production schedules, by a cast who want to know their parts. They all want to know what is going on; they want the story. Jerzy's film consists of a series of tableaux vivants inspired by great paintings, including Rembrandt's Night Watch, Francisco Jose de Goya's The Third of May, Eu&ne Delaeroix's Taking of Constantinople by the Crusaders, and El Greco's Immaculate Conception. What does it all mean? Why film these tableaux? What are the connections? In the producer's words: "What's the story?" Jerzy has no answer, and that is the point. His artistic suffering (his "passion") is that he has no ready-made, simple story but is himself searching for the connections that will link these tableaux and give the film artistic coherence and meaning. Jerzy fails. He is defeated, at least for the time being, by the problems of making the film. He cannot get the lighting right for shooting the tableaux. Unable to satisfy the producer's need for a simple story, in frustration Jerzy chases him away. He finally leaves the film unfinished and goes home to Poland. In Jerzy's incomplete story, Godard makes the point that filmmaking partakes of the confusion of living. The filmmaker is everybody, struggling with false starts, frustrations, external and internal pressures in an effort to create meaning. Like everybody, he is in between, searching for connections between love and work, art and life.

Juxtaposed to Jerzy's efforts to invent his film is Isabelle's struggle against the factory boss, Michel (Michel Piccoli). Her story dramatizes one of Godard's central themes--the capitalist exploitation of the proletariat. Isabelle, the virgin worker, articulates the ideal of the unity of love and work: "One should love to work and work to love." In her wonderful innocence, she protests a bonus plan to increase production at the expense of quality. She does not understand the separation of the worlds of love and work, nor does she understand why bosses exploit workers. Isabelle is the moral center of the film, The purity and simplicity of her responses to situations and characters are a powerful commentary on the moral compromises of those around her. She asks Sophie, Jerzy's assistant: "Why do movies never show people at work?" Her naive question expresses Godard's major criticism of the film industry, which offers escapist entertainment that completely ignores the economic realities that so powerfully determine the quality of all human life.

Nevertheless, Godard treats Isabelle's story in essentially a comic manner. Isabelle, the worker whose stutter symbolizes the inarticulateness of the working masses, is pitted against Michel, a caricature of the romantic hero with an absurd rose in his mouth, whose hacking cough symbolizes his essential sickness. Michel is a perfect villain who farcically bullies the factory workersand even his wife, Hanna (Hanna Schygulla)-with his car, the industrial capitalist's great symbol of power and prestige. Isabelle's struggle with Michel culminates in a fine comic confrontation in the factory. Isabelle strikes because she loves her work, which is why the boss cannot tolerate her in his factory. In a slapstick routine, Michel and the police chase her around the machines in order to stop her from working. Isabelle, the powerless worker, is defeated by the boss, who fires her, destroying her passionate wedding of love and work.

Godard weaves his two stories of filmmaking and the factory together in complex ways. He connects the two worlds through the romantic triangle of a man caught between two women. Jerzy is involved with Isabelle and with Hanna, the wife of Michel. Jerzy is attracted to Isabelle because of her innocent openness and her passion to unite love and work-his own preoccupation in making his film. His affair with Hanna is complicated by his using her as a possible character in his film. In a visually complex and stunning scene, Jerzy and Hanna hold and caress each other as they watch themselves acting out a passionate relationship on a videotape. Jerzy is fascinated by Hanna's emotionally expressive face and, in a vivid later scene, watches her intently on another video which he plays, rewinds, and freeze-frames, as if to imprint her image indelibly on his memory. Jerzy is in between, attracted to both types of women-the innocent virgin and the mature woman of experience.

Godard's most complex connecting of the two worlds is by means of the tableaux vivants, stunning filmic recreations of paintings by Rembrandt, Goya, Delacroix, and El Greco. His camera puts the viewer inside the paintings, as it lovingly caresses the details of costume and the dignity of human faces and gestures captured by those great visual artists. Godard does not, however, film these masterpieces as an exercise in art appreciation. Rather, they comment on the action in the film that precedes and follows them: classic works of art illuminating contemporary life. Three of the tableaux in particular comment powerfully on the meaning of Isabelle's story as the passionate worker.

Early in the film, a sequence alternates three shots of Isabelle working at her machine with three shots of the filming of Rembrandt's Night Watch, which is a masterpiece of portraiture that captures the dignity and uniqueness of each individual in the group. As the camera pans the faces of the characters in Night Watch, a voice comments: "Don't scrutinize the structure of the shots, do like Rembrandt, look closely at the human beings for a long time, at the lips and into the eyes." Godard, with his camera-brush, looks closely at Isabelle and paints a portrait that, like Rembrandt, illuminates her individuality. Why does Isabelle deserve such attention? She herself asks why films never show people at work. Godard corrects this serious omission by painting his portrait of Isabelle the worker, whose image is as worthy of being painted as that of the bourgeois in Night Watch.

Godard also vividly re-creates Goya's The Third of May, a deeply moving depiction of the execution of helpless Spanish peasants by the French Army. The camera slowly pans this dramatic confrontation of the powerless with the powerful, focusing on the agony of the men waiting to die. Immediately preceding this scene is a long sequence of Isabelle and other factory workers gathered at her house to discuss forming a workers' union. The camera cuts back and forth to the faces of different women but focuses primarily on Isabelle's as various off-camera voices discuss what they should do. They decide to "declare war" and to give a statement to the boss: "One should work to love, love to work." With this culminating statement, the camera cuts to The Third of May. These naive young women, who think that a statement about the dignity of work will make a difference in the struggle between workers and owners, will be crushed by the overwhelming power of the boss. They are like Goya's peasants in their complete powerlessness.

Godard uses El Greco's Immaculate Conception to make his final comment about Isabelle. In the most visually and aurally rich sequence in the film, he intercuts the filming of the Immaculate Conception with the final meeting between Isabelle and Jerzy, juxtaposing images of Isabelle the virgin worker to images of the Virgin Mary. In one striking shot of her in silhouette, Isabelle recites the Agnus Dei. Her innocent suffering for the dignity of work is given a religious dimension by this association with El Greco's sublime painting of the Virgin.

Passion opens with a series of low angle shots of a distant jet painting a white line of exhaust against a brilliant blue sky. The camera follows the flight of the plane as the music creates a sense of the mystery of this human movement in between, from an unknown origin to an unknown destination. Passion is this movement in betweenpeople searching to make connections and to reach unknown destinations. The film ends as it begins, with images of travel and movement. Jerzy's and Isabelle's stories are left incomplete, inconclusive-stories on the way. Godard brings his two stories to a comic conclusion by sending everybody off to Poland. Jerzy leaves his film unfinished. The triangle continues as Hanna picks up Isabelle on her way to Poland. In a delightful closing sequence of shots, a free-spirited young hotel cook dances down the snow-covered highway, twice refusing Hanna's offer of a ride because she dislikes cars. When Jerzy stops in the boss's car, the girl again refuses a ride, so Jerzy tells her that the car is a flying carpet. She gets in, and the last shot of the film shows them driving off to Poland-perhaps to "live stories before inventing them."

From his very first film, Godard has constantly, and often radically, experimented with his medium in search of a form adequate to his vision. Passion brilliantly continues his exploration with some dazzling manipulations of the medium. The film is difficult to understand, not only because the stories are fragmented but also because of Godard's use of jump-cutting. He made this technique famous in Breathless but extends it in an even more radical direction in Passion. In a film which is eighty-seven minutes long, there are almost one hundred cuts. Such constant shifting of images creates radical discontinuity in the presentation of the stories. The opening sequence of the film illustrates the problem. The film begins with a series of rapid-fire cuts. The opening shot of the jet plane streaking across the sky, which lasts about thirty seconds, is followed by a sudden cut to a five-second shot of Isabelle in the factory; then the plane; a ten-second shot of Jerzy in his car and Isabelle on her bike; back to the plane; then a five-second shot of Michel and Hanna; then the plane; and then a long shot of shouting men standing around a film truck. This extreme intercutting of the two story lines, which bombards the audience with constantly shifting scenes and action, is perfectly appropriate to the content of the stories. Through this radical cutting technique, Godard make the audience share the confusion of the characters and enter into their search for connections.

Godard also masterfully shapes the medium to serve his purposes by his daring manipulation of the relationship between the sound track and the visual images, In conventional narrative film, the dialogue is synchronized with the images of the characters speaking. In Passion, Godard frequently creates sequences in which the visual image and the dialogue do not correlate. For example, in the sequence of the workers' meeting, the camera never shows the group sitting together discussing the issues. Instead, it presents a series of alternating shots of three of the women, with Isabelle the central focus of attention. By means of facial close-ups, Godard creates an intense relationship between each woman and the audience. While the camera holds the viewer's gaze on the individual woman, the dialogue takes place off-camera. The viewer is not sure who is speaking, because there is no correlation between the visual experience of Isabelle, for example, and what is being said while her image is projected on-screen. Godard uses nonsynchronization throughout the film as another means of intensifying the audience's perplexity about the meaning of what they are seeing and hearing. In addition, this "planned violence" upon audience expectation also serves two other purposes. The disparity between sound and image has a Brechtian "alienation effect": It breaks cinema's magical spell and forces the audience to be aware that they are watching a film and not experiencing "real life."

Nonsynchronization also serves Godard's belief in the primacy of the visual image in film. He so resists the traditional practice of writing a script and then shooting the film from it that he made Scenario of A film 'Passion', a video of the process of making his film. He developed the film through images, through seeing ideas rather than saying them. For Godard, looking carefully is more important than listening. Nonsynchronization of dialogue concentrates attention on the image rather than on what is said. One remembers from Passion the striking visual images: the opening shot of the jet streaking across the sky; the camera slowly panning the details of Goya's Third of May; Isabelle's silhouette as she recites the Agnus Dei. What is said is important, but more important is what is seen. Jerzy is a filmmaker who re-creates famous paintings with his camera. In Passion, Godard is a painterly filmmaker, a visual artist who uses his camera-brush to paint powerful images of human beings. The off-camera voice, which speaks about Rembrandt as the camera pans Night Watch, could be speaking as well of Godard: "Don't scrutinize the structure of the shots ... look closely at the human beings for a long time, at the lips, and into the eyes."

Finally, Godard creates a sound track that, in addition to the manipulation of speech in.relation to the image, subtly blends sounds that dramatically enhance the meaning of the film. The two most memorable sounds in the film are blaring car horns and extraordinarily beautiful passages of Beethoven, Mozart, Ravel, and other classical composers. The natural sounds of car horns, the clatter of horsehoofs on the film set, and the general backround noise reinforce the audience's sense of confusion and chaos. In one masterful sequence, the track carries the sound of the factory world, the car horns, the sound of machines and garbled talk over to the subsequent image of Jerzy's film set. This nonsynchronized sound sequence reinforces the point that the two worlds of factory and film are not separate but intimately related to each other. The most extraordinary aspect of the sound track, however, is Godard's selection and use of the music, which dramatically intensifies the dignity and grandeur of the visual images. Just as he uses masterpieces of painting to comment on and ennoble his story of Isabelle the passionate worker, so Godard brilliantly uses masterworks of classical music to enhance his images of Isabelle and the tableaux vivants, raising them to the level of the lyrical and the profound.

Passion is a difficult film that places extraordinary demands upon its audience. For some, the demands may seem too great, the rewards not worth the effort; but others will greatly admire Godard's passionate attempt to tell the truth--to relate love and work, art and life, politics and cinema. Like Jerzy, Godard has often failed, but he has never stopped using his camera to make people see what they do not want to see and to took where they refuse to look.

Reviews
Los Angeles Times. May 24, 1984, V, p. 3.
The New Republic. CLXXXIX, November 7, 1983, p. 30.
New Statesman. CV, May 20, 1983, p. 30.
People. XX, December 12, 1983, p. 12.
Sight and Sound. CIL Summer, 1983, p. 210.