Lucidno         RETROSPECTIVES

LE VRAI COUPABLE:
Two Kinds of Criticism in Godard's Work
 

wrongman

This was originally a lecture given at a conference on Godard held in Cerisy, France on August 20, 1998. It subsequently appeared in a printed form somewhat closer to that found below, in Screen magazine (vol 40, no. 3). in Autumn 1999, as part of a Godard dossier assembled by the estimable Michael Witt. But, if memory serves, it took about a year of correspondence and wrangling before anyone on the magazine's staff agreed to send me any copy of the issue. (Note: for a more general essay and interview with Godard about Histoire(s) du cinéma, go here.) —J.R.

Since the outset of his career, Godard has been interested in two kinds of criticism — film criticism and social criticism — and these two interests are apparent in practically everything he does and says as an artist. The first two critical texts that he published–in the second and third issues of Gazette du cinéma in 1950 — are entitled "Joseph Mankiewicz" and "Pour un cinéma politique", and his first two features, A bout de souffle and Le petit soldat, made about a decade later, reflect the same dichotomy. (1)

What I'd like to do here is trace these two interests in relation to Godard's commentaries on Alfred Hitchcock. These commentaries span almost half a century, from the publication of two articles in 1952 to the completion of Histoire(s) du cinéma in 1998, and I'd like to make particular reference to what I regard as Godard's best single film review — his analysis of The Wrong Man, "Le Cinéma et son double," published in Cahiers du cinéma in June 1957 (2) — and to a particular passage in the seventh and penultimate episode of Histoire(s) du cinéma, "Le Contrôle de l'univers". My concern is with both the continuity and discontinuity between these two texts. Godard himself emphasizes the continuity by according special attention in "Le Contrôle de l'univers" to The Wrong Man (Le faux coupable), which also happens to be the film that he analyzed in the greatest detail as a writer forty years earlier. Moreover, in both of these texts, Godard gives particular emphasis to two pivotal and highly charged scenes in Hitchcock's film: the first night spent by Emmanuel Balestrero (Henry Fonda) in his prison cell, and the slow lap dissolve from Balestrero silently praying in close-up while looking at a picture of Christ and the appearance on the street of the man whose crime he was falsely accused of, who slowly approaches the camera until the features of both men merge — an event described by Godard in both texts as a miracle. Both of these scenes, I should add, are moments when the intervention and presence of Hitchcock as a director are most apparent; both involve close shots of Henry Fonda, although the first is mainly concerned with Balestrero's experience and consciousness and the second is mainly concerned with his destiny.

These are the principal forms of continuity I find between these two texts, although I'm sure one could find others. What are the principal forms of discontinuity? Some of these belong to the history of reception — such as the change in Hitchcock's reputation from that of an entertainer to that of a serious artist, a change mainly brought about through the collective efforts of Truffaut, Godard, Chabrol, Rohmer, Rivette, Bitsch, Douchet, Demonsablon, and Domarchi, among others. But other forms of discontinuity can be found between the separate descriptions of Hitchcock's art offered by Godard in the two texts. In "Le Cinéma et son double," Godard's analysis of Hitchcock is concerned mainly with stylistic articulations of states of consciousness, metaphysical states of being, and thematic and dramatic significations. In "Le Contrôle de l'univers," he is primarily concerned with Hitchcock as the only "poète maudit" who succeeded commercially, coupled with the argument that his films are mainly remembered not for their states of consciousness, metaphysical states of being, or their thematic and dramatic significations but for certain physical objects. To paraphrase Godard's own discourse in "Le Contrôle de l'univers," one forgets the circumstances of why Janet Leigh is going to the Bates Hotel, why Montgomery Clift keeps his vow of silence, why Teresa Wright is still in love with Uncle Charlie, how Henry Fonda becomes "le faux coupable," and why Ingrid Bergman is hired by the American government. 

But one remembers a rosary, a glass of milk, a windmill, a hairbrush, a lost pair of spectacles, a lost key, and the visible notes in a musical score. 

Both these analyses of Hitchcock, I would argue, are anti-Bazinian in certain respects — not only because Bazin was not a Hitchcockian, but also because the first text defends Hitchcock as a expressionist and privileges montage and transitional passages over scenes, 

 

and the second text privileges nonnarrative elements over narrative elements, and perhaps what could be described as poetry over prose.

Before I get around to discussing the implications of the discontinuity between these two texts, I'd like to pinpoint some of the differences between the analysis of The Wrong Man offered in "Le cinéma et son double" and some of the positions of both Truffaut and Hitchcock regarding the film. I'd also like to note some of the discrepancies between the true story of Christopher Emmanuel Balestrero and the story of Hitchcock's film.

Although Godard's article was indebted to Truffaut's seminal 1954 text, "Un trousseau de fausse clés" ("Skeleton Keys") (3), in describing the doubling structures of The Wrong Man, his defense of the camera's "gyratory movement" (4) around Fonda in his jail cell is the opposite of Truffaut's subsequent response in conversation with Hitchcock, which is to call this camera movement an "antirealistic effect" (5). Here is Godard's defense of the same camera movement:

"Through this camera movement, he [Hitchcock] manages to express a purely physical trait: the contraction of the eyelids as Fonda closes them, the force with which they press on the eyeballs for a fraction of a second, creating in the sensory imagination a vertiginous kaleidoscope of avstractions which only an equally extravagant camera movement could evoke successfully." (6)

What seems striking about this description is that it defends Hitchcock simultaneously as an expressionist and as a documentary filmmaker. The same duality informs Godard's review of Strangers on a Train five years earlier — which links Hitchcock with the German expressionism of Lang and Murnau while praising his sense of the real in the filming of certain scenes and locations — and it is at least implied in other critical remarks he made about Hitchcock during the 50s. (7) In a 1952 article called "Qu'est-ce que le cinéma?", he remarked, "Flaherty's genius, after all, is not so far removed from that of Hitchcock — Nanook hunting his prey is like a killer stalking his victims..." (8) And in his 1956 review of The Man Who Knew Too Much, he wrote, "This is perhaps thwe most improbable of Hitchcock's films, but also the most realistic." (9)

In "Le Contrôle de l'univers," Godard calls Hitchcock "the only one, together with Dreyer, who succeeded in filming a miracle," and in "Le Cinéma et son double" he discusses not one but three miracles in the film. The first miracle, according to Godard, occurs during the hero's second imprisonment, when "the camera retreats before Manny after having pushed him into the cell." We hear his name being called offscreen, and we then discover that he's being released on bail. (10) The second miracle, which is the only one shown in "Le Contrôle de l'univers," is the one already described in which images of the "faux coupable" (wrong man) and le vrai coupable (the right man) are superimposed. And the third, though unshown in the film, is prepared for in the final scene and then alluded to in the final title. When Manny Balestrero visits his wife in the sanitarium and discovers that she's still mad, despite the fact that his innocence has been established, he says to a nurse, "I guess I was hoping for a miracle," and the nurse replies, "They happen. But it takes time." Shortly afterwards, a title appears on the screen: "Two years later, Rose Balestrero walked out of the sanitarium — completely cured. Today she lives happily in Florida with Manny and the two boys...and what happened seems like a nightmare to them — but it did happen...." Then, before the end title, there's a final dissolve to the family seen in extreme long shot on a sunny street in Florida. As Godard says at the conclusion of "Le Cinéma et son double," "Draw your own conclusion." (11)

But it's worth pointing out that Hitchcock describes none of these three events as miracles in his conversation with Truffaut. He makes no allusion to the first event, describes the second not as a miracle but as an "ironic coincidence" (12), and when it comes to the third, he significantly misremembers the conclusion of his own film and, after noting that "[Balestrero's] wife lost her mind and was put in an insane asylum," he adds, "She's probably still there." (13) In defense of Hitchcock, it could be said that emotionally and dramaturgically, this is the way we all tend to remember the film, because the sense of hopelessness that pervades the narrative is so unrelenting that the film's postscript about the story's aftermath makes a relatively small impression on us. (In conversation, James Naremore once described The Wrong Man to me as the most depressing commercial film in American cinema, and I think he may be right.) Let me turn now briefly to the true story of Balestrero as recounted in an article by Marshall Deutelbaum, "Finding the Right Man in The Wrong Man". (14)

 

  

Previous-Page-Icon    09   Next-Page-Icon