Godard's 'Le Gai Savoir'

Separate and Minimal Truths About Film

IN THE MIDDLE of Le Gai Savoir (1968) the word "exploration" is offered up for definition. Jean-Pierre Leaud, like Godard's earlier heroes, calls it "the act of exploring a country." But Juilette Berto, rather like the heroine of Two or Three Things I Know About Her, says it means "the act of examining attentively the symptoms of an illness." In Le Gai Savoir Godard also turns from explorations of society to the analysis of ailing images and language.

For many this change has made Godard's films less political and more self-indulgent. On the contrary: an increasingly Maoist line is disciplining his own intellectual obsessions more and more strictly.

Godard has always needed to know how people think about the real things and events of their experience. Masculin-Feminin (1965) included a crude attempt to find this out directly: one sequence had Jean-Pierre Leaud go around Paris asking housewives sociological questions. Significant though the confusion of their resources seemed, it only invited the question, What do these women actually mean? or, How are they using language? That's the question Leaud and Berto now realize they must answer before they can know anything else. First they decide:

Let's go into people's houses and ask them what we want to know. But after they listen to some samples they find:

It's not so simple.

Of course- their speech is disordered.

This disorder aggravates me.

No, listen- we're studying relationships, connections, differences.

The disorder of people's speech is not just personally aggravating; it is politically significant. The modes of speech which capitalist societies generate serve, like bourgeois philosophy and education and ideology, to mask capitalism's gross injustices. In order to make clear the relationships on which this exploitative social order is built, a Communist needs more than a scientific theory of history. He needs a language more exact than the one capitalism gave him.

(Whether the language and images of Communist societies are more scientific is not a question one can ask of this film. Le Gai Savoir devotes itself to the only language Godard knows- that of his experience under capitalism. Indeed, he is so preoccupied with the existing conditions of capitalist societies that it is impossible to imagine him working in a post-revolutionary situation: what would his films be about?)

Thus Godard, far from playing self-indulgent word-games, is working at a necessary revolutionary task: to show people living under capitalism how their speech imprisons them. If that idea seems far-fetched, note that O. R. T. F. (French National TV, a creature of the bourgeois state if ever there was one) censored language it thought shouldn't be used:

How I undressed the official TV newscasters (under orders from the ghost of Artaud) and had them take it up the ass from the Minister of Information, since that's what they like.

A heroic subtitle saved this speech for English audiences. O. R. T. F., for which Godard made Le Gai Savor, bleeped out every word except "under orders from the ghost of Artaud"

One might object that such obscene language was rightly censored, and that in any case it was gratuitous in a political film. But for many European intellectuals "obscenity" is an essential part of an "intellectual guerrilla warfare" against the bourgeoisie. One of Le Gai Savoir's last images is a book cover reading Bertolt Brecht- from Rimbaud to Lenin, that is, from scatological to revolutionary. Attacks on bourgeois thought cannot limit themselves to "politics" narrowly defined; epater la bourgeoisie is a political slogan. The censorship of "obscenity" is thus a bourgeois device to restrict free thought. Everything could be discussed under a language that is really free.

Perhaps this line of argument seems trivial. Languages does roughly what we want; words and sentence constructions describe what we mean with passable precision. Why should a revolution require a new language of its own?