Numero Deux (with subtitles) directed by Jean-Luc Godard presented by Center Screen at the Carpenter Center tonight through Sunday at 7:30 and 9:30
I HAVE SEEN the future," French director Jean-Luc Godard seems to say in his latest film, Numero Deux (Number Two), "and it stifles." Like so many firebrand prophets of imminent revolution in the '60s, Godard is now wrestling with this decade's disillusionment. Ten years ago, with films like Weekend and Pierrot Le Fou. Godard became renowned and revered as the most blatantly political, and radical, of the French "new wave directors." His movies shocked and stirred with bitter anti-capitalist and anti-bourgeois visual polemics. But just as Godard was then trying to translate radical ideology onto the screen, with Numero Deux he seems to have set out to create a visual reflection of his recent frustration. The result thus deliberately lack focus. Yet in its confusion this movie is more human, more personal and more troubling, than Godard's earlier ruthless assaults.
The film, first of all, is composed entirely of video images--brief episodes rendered first on television consoles and then pieced together on the larger film screen. One explanation for this new technique is simple; Godard has recently converted almost entirely to video, and reportedly is now working on projects for French television. But this hodgepodge of video images may also be intended to symbolize the various forms of fragmentation that have dashed Godard's hopes for revolution--demoralizing factionalism within the French Far Left, the retreat of '60s youth into isolated, workaday middle-class existences, the proliferation of complexly interwoven international issues that no longer allow for neat divisions into "right" and "wrong," into "liberators" and "oppressors." Godard is no longer even sure that his films do, or can, serve a political function.
While a series of scattered images flash onto the screen in the opening minutes of the film--including old T.V. news footage of the Vietnam War and the French strikes and riots in May, 1968--the narrator debates this question in the background:
What does a film mean in this context...This film...shows what? Where's it at?...This is not a film of right and left, but of behind and in front: in front are the children and behind is the government...It is shown on a wall--separating what and what?...It's not politics, it's pornography...It's not pornography, it's politics. Why must you always ask 'either/or'?
The film begins with a discursive monologue from Godard himself. He stands in a room filled with his own movie equipment, and leans over a video console that beams forth his face, like a T.V. newscaster's. Making movies has become like factory work for Godard, he admits, saying, "Now there are only machines. I am the boss, but I am also the worker...There are other factories: in Los Angeles, called Fox and Metro, in Moscow, in Algeria..." He then fills the screen with the flashbacks to May '68 and Vietnam. But the news footage, like Godard's revolutionary zeal and assurance, is dwarfed by the monitors, knobs and gadgetry that make news broadcasting possible. Like an electric scoreboard, one video monitor flashes the word "montage," then scrambles and transforms it into "usine," the French word for factory. Godard casts himself as a sad, alienated figure amidst the tools of his once inspiring labor.
The rest of the film is made of cinema verite sequences from the lives of a couple close to Godard's age, now trapped in the hell of a stultifying middle-class existence. The wife protests that her husband's work has come between them. He putters about the house listless and bored; she can no longer arouse him sexually. The wife complains about her constipation to the kids. When the husband discovers that she has been unfaithful, he punishes her by sodomizing her. During the punishment, they realize that their daughter has been watching. They talk about it complacently. They talk about everything complacently, too bored to even acknowledge their anguish. They try to relieve the tedium with new positions in bed. But the husband remains inert. "If we were rich. I'd pay to get it," his wife tell him without expression. "But we're not," he replies. She mutters dully: "We're sure not.
Yet if Godard means what he says about this being a film "of in front and behind; in front are the children and behind is the government," he never makes clear what he wants us to think about the effects of this couple's alienation on their children. Still, all the inferences are depressing. In one sequence, the mother and daughter frolic around in the family's living room at noon-time--the elder wearing nothing but an untied robe and the younger in underwear--while the son plays with his lunch in the kitchen and holds his head in boredom. In other scenes, the mother off-handedly discusses menstruation with her young daughter and the couple invites the children into their bedroom and mechanically explain the function of their sexual organs. The couple might be thought of as liberated parents; but as individuals they are socially and psychologically imprisoned. And without offering any solutions. Godard implies that this numbness and alienation, along with the rigidity of the French school system they attend all day, will leave deep scars on the next generation.
THE THIRTYISH middle-classes are not the only ones who can no longer make sense of their lives. Godard does a brief series of sequences on women's loneliness, and their victimization by inherently violent male sexuality. He follows with several monologues from an older man, presumably the father of either the husband or the wife. A former Communist Party member who once transported party tracts to distribute in Buenos Aires, he, too, has lost faith in historical inevitabilities. After recounting his tales of party adventures, he shrugs: "it was crazy, but that's history." Later, sitting behind a table with his bathrobe open, he mutters: "There are times when it all seems to come out of the cock."
Godard ends by showing that not even he is convinced that all of this means anything. In the last few minutes of the film, he is hunched over in front of two video consoles. On one, the wife, rehashes her complaints and frustrations about life. Godard is only half paying attention. He even seems slightly annoyed, although weary, at his own work--work that ten years ago he would have expected would fire us with his own indignation. The factory theme is echoes in one of the last narrative lines of the film: "Is Papa a landscape or a factory?" And the movie's last word, as Godard on screen buries his face in his hands, is Oppression. It is not an oppression that will inevitably or easily be cast off. Godard is saying, but an oppression from which it is not clear that there is any liberation.
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