There is so much to write about regarding Godard’s work: his craft, his politics, and his persona all warrant discussion. I could have written about his use of the jump cut, his die-hard leftist politics, or his career-long descent into the abstract (or, depending on who you talk to, the pretentious). However, there is one aspect of Godard’s work that my mind continues to jump cut back to, and that is his use of the subjective shot: a shot where the subject’s eyes engage the camera and the audience is no longer free to be a passive observer or a “fly on the wall”.
Godard’s use of this kind of shot can be traced back to his belief that documentary and fiction films are the same at some level. In an interview, Godard was once quoted saying:
…there are two kinds of cinema, there is Flaherty and there is Eisenstein. That is to say that there is documentary realism and there is theatre, but ultimately, at the highest level they are one and the same. What I mean is that through documentary realism one arrives at the structure of theatre, and through theatrical imagination and fiction one arrives at the reality of life. (4)
Godard mentions the silent filmmakers Sergei Eisenstein and Robert Flaherty. Eisenstein is famous for films such as Battleship Potemkin, in which he combined carefully crafted shots and montages for dramatic effect, while Flaherty is famous for having made what is frequently considered to be the first documentary: Nanook of the North.
Godard’s early work can be characterized by a desire to prove this point, experimenting with techniques which attempt to bring these two styles of filmmaking together. The beginnings of these experiments trace all the back to Breathless, his first film. The film opens with Michel, the main character, talking directly to the camera. At the time, this was groundbreaking. In fact, it was revolutionary when these kinds of shots first appeared in documentaries. The Cinema Varité movement was just starting to experiment with documentary films where subjects acknowledge the existence of the camera. In hindsight it is hard to imagine how radical it must have been to see this sort of thing in a fictional narrative film. Apparently, at one point Godard wanted to collaborate with D.A. Pennebaker, the director of the documentary films Primary, and Don’t Look Back. However, at the time, Pennebaker could not see how his work was related to what Godard was doing.
While I find Godard’s early work to be compelling, I would still be reluctant to say that his use of documentary techniques, such as the subjective shot, make his films any more “True”. While the interrogations in Masculin Feminin may be entertaining and even emotional at times, I don’t get the sense that Godard has really unearthed any deep truths. Instead, I see superficial answers to superficial questions. Men want to appear sophisticated, while women try to be hip and fashionable. The argument could be made that almost everyone in Masculin Feminin is concerned with their appearance: Paul with Madeleine, Robert with Catherine, Catherine with Paul, and Godard with his audience. Do documentaries present the Truth, or merely a fallacy disguised as the Truth? After all, the first documentary, Nanook of the North was staged. While Godard may have played an indispensable role in the changing form of film, it is arguable whether his changes made cinema any more True. It is certain however, that Godard comes from a lineage of filmmakers who have authored the lexicon of contemporary cinema. He, along with Classical Hollywood, the Russian Formalists, the Italian Neo-Realists, Direct Cinema, Cinema Varité, and the rest of the French New Wave have created an archive of feeling which continues to leave audiences asking the question “what is real”?