French New Wave legend Jean-Luc Godard has been well served by the DVD format in recent years, with superb, supplement-laden Criterion editions issued of most of his 1960s masterpieces (a trend that continues with the recent release of Pierrot le Fou). Yet many of his post-New Wave efforts — even relatively renowned films such as the award-winning First Name: Carmen — have been neglected by distributors and, by extension, contemporary audiences, many of whom seem to think Godard’s career begins with Breathless and ends with 1972’s Tout va Bien. Thankfully, Lionsgate has followed its economically priced Hitchcock, Buñuel and Renoir box sets with a new collection of Godard’s best later work: four essential films that are presented in fine transfers and allow viewers to fully appreciate the visual and aural nuances of the director’s style.
The first disc in the set contains Godard’s 1982 release Passion, which follows a Polish director named Jerzy as he carries on two affairs, one with a local factory worker and the other with the wealthy wife of the factory owner. Jerzy’s film-within-a-film consists of a series of reproductions of classic paintings, a premise that allows cinematographer Raoul Coutard to craft exquisite images. It also makes light and its qualities a key subject of Passion itself, as Jerzy struggles with the artificial lighting of the soundstage to find cinematic truth. Coutard mixes numerous types of light — warm and cold, artificial and available — as a way of expressing the dichotomies that are at the core of Passion, a movie that splits all of its subjects in two: rich vs. poor, studio-bound filmmaking vs. naturalistic shooting, etc.
The autobiographical impulses implicit in Passion become more obvious in its follow-up, First Name: Carmen (1983), a movie about filmmaking and crime in which Godard plays himself as an ineffectual, aging director. Coutard continues the visual opposition that characterized Passion; stylized, almost slapstick action sequences coexist with naturalistic dialogue exchanges in a movie that is technically controlled but thematically chaotic. The story follows an odd scheme (using a film production as a front for criminal activity), and the plot serves as a pretext for Godard to riff on ideas about love and death, men and women, and his own ambivalence about tradition and modernity.
Detective (1985) finds Godard in a lighter mood reminiscent of his early genre deconstructions Breathless and Band of Outsiders. Detective is mostly set in a Parisian hotel, where an ensemble of eccentric characters interacts: There’s a murder investigation, a boxer training for a big fight and a number of romantic complications and theoretical discussions that run on both parallel and intersecting tracks.
Cinematographer Bruno Nuytten employs a vibrant palette that’s often more reminiscent of Jerry Lewis comedies than noir films, but as always with Godard, there’s a dark subtext to the proceedings. The energy generated by the movie’s juggling of characters and storylines is undercut by a sense that certain characters are lonely and hopeless in their quest to connect with one another, a notion that’s emphasized in some lovely long-lens compositions.
The fourth and final film in the set, Woe Is Me (1993), is the least playful and most philosophically challenging: a filmmaker (played by Gérard Depardieu) is inhabited by God, though the multiple perspectives through which the story is told make it difficult to determine exactly what constitutes “the truth.” For this complex inquiry into spirituality, Godard and cinematographer Caroline Champetier subtly manipulate light and focus to convey the characters’ emotional states rather than any kind of physical truth; however, the film contains some of Godard’s most concrete statements about contemporary political realities. Like Passion, it also uses light both as a subject and a form of expression, with multiple references to illumination in the dialogue, and a visual style in which light’s capacity to both reveal and obscure is fully examined.
The transfers of all four movies are uniformly solid, capturing the bold colors to which Godard is often drawn and the delicate lighting effects that work on both literal and symbolic levels. The soundtracks are nicely mastered as well, with a clarity that perfectly reproduces Godard’s layered sound design, with mixes that are as experimental and thought-provoking as the images.
Godard’s ’80s and ’90s work can be daunting to the uninitiated viewer, but this set provides an excellent primer on the films in the form of “Jean-Luc Godard: A Riddle Wrapped in an Enigma.” This half-hour documentary intersperses film clips with comments by film scholars David Sterritt, Kent Jones and Wheeler Winston Dixon, who offer articulate, accessible summaries of the director’s thematic preoccupations and techniques. The interviewees provide particularly insightful commentary on the cinematography in the films, from specific instances (such as a scene in Detective lit entirely by a cigarette lighter) to general observations about how Godard uses light.