Music in Post-’68 French Cinema
We’ve just celebrated the 40th anniversary of the events of May ‘68, and the multiple bifurcations that cinema has taken in the post-68 world have been commented on extensively. But there are many more stories to be told about the cinematic course of events since that momentous year. For example, take one that begins in the 1980s. Raymond Bellour has made a very interesting comparison between the genesis of Deleuze’s cineosophy (the first volume of which appeared in 1983) and Godard’s project for a ‘histoire du cinéma’ that would also be a history of the world (the first episode of which appeared in 1988 but was announced much earlier). And if we attempt to situate both in a wider 80’s context, the problem that concerns many creators at that time is the question of origins. For example, during the 80’s the songs and music of a particular group of English-language songwriters and musicians began to serve a specific function in French auteur filmmaking, most notably in films by Godard, Garrel and Carax. This trend continued through the nineties where its development can be glimpsed in films by Olivier Assayas, as well as in metamorphosed form in later works by Carax and Garrel.
By way of these films a disparate band of vaguely counter-cultural musicians, for example Bowie, Cohen, Dylan, Scott Walker and Patti Smith are lent a kind of unity (perhaps the only conceivable one) by the problematic they are used to explicate.
We can try to enumerate in a chronological way the appearances of these artists in the said films. As ever, Godard is one step ahead, in his use in Prenom Carmen (1983) of Tom Waits singing Ruby’s Arms as betrayed Joseph (Jacques Bonnaffé) embraces the TV set, the body (of Carmen played by Maruschka Detmers) and its image are now lost to him. Desperately trying to hold onto the ‘Now’, the ‘Today’, he foresees the birth of a new life, one without Carmen, and, as always in Godard, this future is predicated on the demand for the birth of a new image. ‘Will someone put me on a train?’ Significantly, Ruby’s Arms will reappear in episode 2B of Histoire(s) du Cinéma.
Next up is Boy meets Girl by Carax which premieres at the 1984 Cannes Film Festival. Whatever one thinks about Carax now one shouldn’t forget the major stir caused by this film’s appearance, how it provoked the most reactionary forces desperate to stave off a new wave of auteurism and in turn mobilised the champions of modernism into a whole series of debates and re-conceptualisations centred on problems of mannerism and the neo-Baroque, truth and the powers of the false. In Cahiers du Cinema in particular this enabled the whole issue of postmodernism to be sidestepped and saved the journal from falling into a new orthodoxy just when it had dragged itself out of the Lacano-Maoist mire.
There is a scene in Boy meets Girl where Alex played by Denis Lavant strides along the quays desolate having just learned about an affair between his best friend and his girlfriend. As Bowie’s song When I live My Dream strikes up on the soundtrack, he stops to watch a couple’s highly mannered dance. It is an ambiguous moment. A cynical one exemplified by the woman’s distracted gazing at Alex and by the money he throws at the performing couple. But it is also an image of the birth of love expressed in the song and in the superimposed and crosscut visions of the new woman in his life (Mireille Perrier).
If one compares to this the reappearance of the voice of Nico in the work of Philippe Garrel in 1985 after an absence of 7 years, the outline of a pattern begins to emerge. In Elle a passé tant d’heures sous les Sunlights, which is one of several films in which Garrel works through his split with her, there is a scene in which the Nico character played by Mireille Perrier (again) is driving away with another man. As the Garrel stand-in played (as in Prenom Carmen) by Jacques Bonnaffé tries to stop the car the complete silence of the sequence (even Bonnaffé’s scream is unheard) is broken by the strains of Nico singing All Tomorrow’s Parties. As Jean-Marie Samocki says “at this moment All Tomorrow’s Parties says it all, about love, death, loss and about amour fou”.
1986 is truly the year when it becomes clear what is at stake in the use of these songwriters by these auteurs. Carax’s use of Bowie’s song Modern Love is exemplary in this respect. Alex (Lavant again) is the acrobat who experiences life as if he walks on two tightropes simultaneously, one soaring to giddy levels whilst the other drags close to the ground. As Carax explained in a Sight and Sound interview, life and love are for him concerned with the irredeemable and the inesperé (what you daren’t hope for). Fate creates irredeemable lives and heavy bodies but a simple throw of the dice can always bring the unhoped for or the passage to a lighter more ecstatic level of existence. The Modern Love sequence in Mauvais Sang is in this respect the quintessential moment in early Carax (each of the first 3 features contains a related sequence). Inside and outside the characters everything suddenly begins to weigh heavily. Falling into a depressive exhaustion Anna (Juliet Binoche) mutters “nothing’s moving”. In response Alex arbitrarily turns the radio dial, 1,2, 3 and soon Bowie’s song provides the spark that will electrify his body and provide him with the force to kick-start the pulse of the world. Inevitably it is Godard who will make the question audio-visible in its clearest form. In that year, in Grandeur et Décadence d’un Petit Commerce de Cinéma, he uses for the first time the voices of Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan to supplement his already enormous arsenal of sample sounds from the human and non-human worlds. He will continue to use Cohen for 3 more works, Dylan for one. Jean-Marie Samocki, in a fine piece entitled Inning in issue 17 of the journal Cinématheque, catalogues and analyses in great detail Godard’s use of Cohen during these years, and suggests we can speak of a Cohen-cycle just as we can a Karina-cycle or a Mao-cycle. Whereas for Samocki, attempting to account for Godard’s choice of the Canadian singer over others, Cohen will serve as a voice to carry the filmmaker through the particular ghostly spaces that haunted him at that time, it seems to me that if you consider the precise moments when the singing voice of Cohen appears it is always over images of birth or destruction. Grandeur et Decadence opens with the song The Guests placed over images of a queue of potential extras for a film to be directed by Jean-Pierre Leaud’s character Gaspard Bazin. We are witnessing the birth of a film, we hear the guests arrive one by one. Later, as the project begins to fall apart, and Bazin desperately tries to put the pieces back together, we hear Cohen’s Came So Far For Beauty…I left so much behind… This segues into Dylan’s When He Returns from Slow Train Coming, the two voices woven together by Godard to express, in an uncharacteristically non-ironic manner, the desolation felt by the artist’s thwarted search for beauty. Two years later in Histoire(s) du Cinéma episode 1B Cohen’s song Ballad of the Absent Mare will play over the words “instead of ambiguity engendering ideas and feelings, the two great stories now were sex and death” and a caption that reads The Image Will Come. This is the period in which Godard begins to move towards metaphysical and cosmic concerns. And Cohen and Dylan together will accompany torrential images of the natural world in Puissance de la Parole. This 25-minute promo made for France Telecom works like a demo for the history of cinema he is simultaneously embarking on. To quote Raymond Bellour, “this history of cinema that also becomes the history of the origin and creation of the world, of cinema as re-creation and restarting of the world”. And in Puissance de la Parole, as Thierry Jousse points out, “electronically amplified voices are sounds sent into space, propelled into the cosmos, mixed with noises of all sorts and with the songs of Dylan and Cohen”. But it isn’t cosmogony alone (and humanity’s limits so searingly envisioned in the last episodes of Histoire(s) du Cinema) that is at stake here-it is birth and death on every level of existence.
The influence of Garrel seems fundamental here, the subterranean influence of his work that Deleuze predicted (and as he makes clear had already taken place in relation to Godard who takes up Garrel’s problem of the Holy Family, Mary, Joseph and the Child in Je Vous Salue Marie), and which perhaps explains why Garrel is featured relatively heavily in the final episodes of the Histoire(s) du Cinéma. Garrel somehow helped or allowed Godard to work his way through to more cosmic concerns and away from his earlier preoccupations with the social, with semiotics, self-referentiality, discursivity and so on, and enabled him to unleash his always restrained or ironicised Romanticism. For Garrel, as Nicole Brenez has shown, has only ever had one subject: “origins, the origin of phenomena, of affects, of cinema”, often allied to elemental or cosmic preoccupations. If you consider the way in which Garrel uses the songs of Nico in late 60s/early 70’s works like Le Lit de La Vierge or La Cicatrice Intérieure, it is generally to accompany images of limit-situations; the actress flailing wildly in the Californian desert to the strains of Janitor of Lunacy or the stunning long tracking shot that unites time periods as we listen to her sing The Falconer in Le Lit de La Vierge. The destruction of sanity and temporal alchemy, death and birth, it is between these two poles that French auteur filmmakers of the 80’s will veer in their use of the aforementioned singer-songwriters. As Jacques Aumont writes “the tale of origins in La Cicatrice Intérieure where in the Californian desert or in the Icelandic wastelands the character played by Garrel himself seeks to leave memory behind so that on the foundation of this loss an alchemy of the image can be born”. Godard too will work on memory, now given a cosmic inflection (as with Deleuze), in order to reconceive history and seek a rebirth of the image.
Now this preoccupation with placing rock songs and scores over images of birth or destruction, where does it come from? Why did it reach such a stage of intensity in the mid to late 80’s? And why this select band of musicians? Firstly, it seems to me that it is very much linked to the 80’s litany concerning the death of cinema. You couldn’t pick up a book or article on the cinema at that time that didn’t bury it or somehow take its imminent disappearance as a given. Secondly, in a wider framework, the context would seem to be the end of the post-68 era and the political, aesthetic and subjective experimentation it had given rise to, as well as the disappointment of the left’s stint in power in France after ‘81. Godard’s return to narrative filmmaking in 1980 with Slow Motion (followed soon after by Garrel’s with L’Enfant Secret) is a cinematic watershed in this context, but even more important is the series of lectures he gave in 79 which became the book Introduction a une véritable histoire du Cinéma and which prepared the ground for the practical reconsideration of time, history and memory that would be the 8-part finished opus. In all these works sound will take on a new role, an inheritance of the years of experimentation but now placed at the service of resisting the conjunctural mood of despondency and defeat. Even Carax himself has been quoted as saying “Rock music was already finished at the start of the 70’s, so was the cinema. You had the feeling that you were arriving when things were already over.” Hence the Mannerist debate in Cahiers du Cinema that begins in 1983 and the generally felt need to resist images that feed off other images. This affected sound-images just as much as visual images.
Royal S. Brown describes the general aesthetic shift in the use of film music noticeable in the 80’s as a move from the 60’s paradigm within which music “functioned as a backing for key emotional situations to one where there exists a kind of parallel emotional/aesthetic universe…it is a separate artistic fragment expressing in a different medium what the film expresses in visual and narrative terms [and is no longer chiefly] a generator of narrative affect. The affect remains within the music itself which sheds its traditional invisibility rather than being transferred onto a given diegetic situation to which it is subordinated. The music stands as an image in its own right helping the audience read the film’s other images rather than as a replacement for or imitation of objective reality.”
Godard and Garrel in particular often use a song or song fragment to evoke the affect it contains or contained in the past or in another context. Hence it will often seem as if in terms of meaning the use of a particular song over a set of images is purely arbitrary. In fact it is a doubling up of or deliberate head to head clash of affects, cinematic or otherwise.
Contemporaneous to this is the problematisation in French film writing (in particular at Cahiers du Cinéma) of a generalised standardization of emotions (in Pascal Bonitzer’s phrase) or, in Deleuze’s terms, a new schematization of affect, a new regime of cliché formation. This in turn inspired a very fruitful consideration of cinematic mannerism which pointed to the general perception of a need to reconstruct the image, reconsider its nature and its very matter (and there you have the context for Deleuze’s Cinema books the first of which appears in 1983). This in turn can be said to have been a response to the shift in truth paradigms associated with the end of cinematic modernism (dated at 1980 by Alain Bergala) and the generalised culture of falsity celebrated elsewhere as postmodernism. Concurrently you have Jacques Donzelot’s diagnosis of a major shift taking place in the governmental construction of temporality and symptomatic of a configural transformation of the inscription of time in intellectual life as well as a profound change in our attitudes and relations to time on the broader socio-political level.
In short, it was felt at that time that culture and for our purposes film culture was undergoing a standardization of desires, affects, modes of existence grounded in a new relation to time, one of apprehension understood in both senses as a grasping hold of and a fear of what lies ahead. Perhaps it was Jean-Francois Lyotard who best summarized the state of things (and the concerns of the aforementioned filmmakers and critics) in his 1987 essay Time Today: “The electronic and informational network spread over the earth gives rise to a global capacity for memorising which must be estimated on a cosmic scale…narratives are like temporal filters whose function is to transform the emotive charge linked to the event into sequences of units of information capable of giving rise to something like meaning”. For Lyotard, as for Godard, aesthetic creativity and thought alone can resist these procedures for controlling time by remaining open to the event. Since the 80’s each sound in a Godard film (and Samocki’s article is very good on the use of Cohen’s voice as pure sound) is experienced as an event, a haecceity (a ‘thisness’) as Thierry Jousse says with Deleuze in mind, an irreducible singularity tied to the moment of its genesis. In Cahiers in the mid-80’s that was the battle that was being waged: the denunciation of the standardization of emotion and the promotion of an art of singularities, seeking to capture what is given birth to in each filmic event, a resistance to Le Programme (“the dominant state of representation as it becomes more and more unified and powerful” in the words of Jean-Michel Frodon) incorporating a reconfiguration of memory to halt the progress of cultural amnesia. Hence Garrel’s constant search for an “originary (inner) space that one can never leave” (Samocki). As Garrel said at the time “for Art to forget the origin is a catastrophe”. And each singer-songwriter used in these works represents the ‘68 or post-68 spirit, that counter-cultural maverick attitude that was alternately wildly cynical and tenderly poetic. These are seen as the true artists of the age, the ones who never sold out, who continued to fight the good fight. And this is why Cohen singing If it Be Your Will can close episode 1B of Histoire(s) du Cinéma as Maria Casares voice recites Heidegger’s apology for poets. Furthermore, in a sense these artists serve a similar function to that of the American auteur filmmakers at the time of the New Wave, symbols of the French obsession with American pop culture, diagnosed and promoted by Deleuze in terms of a craving for deterritorialisation in the face of the stifling air surrounding French cultural life.
Into the 90’s and the cultural climate will have changed again, both Carax and Garrel move towards more naturalistic filmmaking, Godard ceases using American songs in his films. But not before the most intriguing episode in this entire narrative-the use of Patti Smith’s song Distant Fingers in Nouvelle Vague (90). How Godard encountered Smith’s music is a fascinating mystery, but in functional terms there is certainly a continuity with the use of Cohen and Dylan in the earlier works. Here the song is heard as the camera lingers over a tree-trunk and dense foliage. There is an obvious extra-terrestrial thematic link between song and film. But there is an almost Tarkovskian aspect to this as to some of Godard’s other 90’s films, and the use of Domiziana Giordano (from Nostalgia) as leading actress seems more than coincidence. For Tarkovsky, images of trees and in particular tree-trunks were often ambivalent, signifying now death (Ivan’s Childhood), now rebirth (The Sacrifice). JLG/JLG in particular is like a French equivalent of Tarkovsky’s Mirror. “Mystical” was how Gerard Pagnon described Godard’s use of nature in Nouvelle Vague, ”long tracking shots along the surface of earth and water…the camera rising in great crane movements towards the treetops as if trying to pass beyond the foliage going ever higher”.
In Les Amants du Pont-Neuf, Bowie will be used again for a moment of rebirth, to reclaim the city for vagrants “while the whole town sleeps”. This film is a study in the ethics of vagrancy, an examination of vagrancy as mode of existence, as nomadic ethos. Carax shows that the Outside is always at the heart of society, its limit. Alex embraces perdition in search of the impossible only to find salvation in an elemental beyond. The cosmic dread of Pola X’s chaoceanics isn’t far off. Whilst on the PR trail for Pola X Carax cloaked himself in a new persona, the monomaniacal prophet of doom, on the screen his signature theme of amour fou is given an incestuous inflection which only quickens the descent into abjection. Pierre cannot respond to society’s demands because he dwells in a different universe, in the Originary world familiar to Naturalist literature and cinema. The ‘Time is out of joint’ and in Carax’s view the artist must seek out a new element in which to dwell, break through to the depths in a de-personalised fusion or combat with the powers of the false or “the lies underneath everything”. When Scott Walker sings “that ribbon cracks like this one” over stock footage of a bombarded and ravaged earth it works like a distilled version of the thematic line we’ve been tracing here. But is it only the voice (a particular type of English-language ‘rock’ voice) that is considered adequate to carry these auteurs’ images?
Garrel’s 90s work is a case apart, the exception that proves the rule. Sound and in particular the human voice has always been a problem for Garrel, which is why so many of his films are completely silent or contain minimal dialogue. Perhaps the slightly inhuman timbre of Nico’s voice alone provided him with the requisite sound component for his work. By the late 90s his decade long collaboration with writer Marc Cholodenko had progressed hand in hand with the use of composers like John Cale and Faton Cahen. These “sweetly melancholic” scores expressed the move away from the alternately hieratic and hysterical rhythms of the Nico films, towards an ostensibly less intense but devastatingly melancholic series of portrayals of middle age. And when the “mock Velvet Underground rave-up” (Kent Jones) strikes up in J’entends Plus la Guitare or Cale’s piano sounds over the suicide that closes Le Vent de la Nuit, one feels that the time is indeed out of joint. From desperation to melancholia, Carax to Garrel, those auteurs once so marked by May 68 seemed now destined to create only abject cinema.
An interesting perspective on the phenomenon under discussion is to be found in Olivier Assayas’ 1994 film L’Eau Froid. Assayas to me is a deeply mannerist filmmaker, a former critic at Cahiers who was to the fore in the mid-80’s conceptualisation of cinematic mannerism, his images always seem to come from other films rather than from life. The use of music in L’Eau Froid is exemplary in this respect. Dylan, Cohen and Nico (Janitor of Lunacy) are all featured in what comes across as an audio-visual commentary on his favourite filmmakers and musicians, a display of fandom somewhat in the manner of Wenders use of music in his 90s films, in particular his disturbingly deferential use of awful U2’s songs. When Fandom and Mannerism go hand in hand like this it’s the reputation of the latter which suffers greatly.
Finally, the thinker who provides us with the concepts with which to grasp all of the above is undoubtedly Deleuze. In The Time-Image where it is said that “time has become a thing of sound”, film music is posited as moving between two non-symmetrical poles-the ritornello and the gallop (the bird and the horse). Deleuze demonstrates how each pole functions differently according to the auteur. For some auteurs life is on the side of the gallop and death is the round which never finishes. But sometimes the galloping flight takes us not towards life but to the tomb, and in that case it’s the little refrain which gives us a glimpse of the true life. For example, from this viewpoint, the Modern Love sequence in Mauvais Sang would involve less a line of flight than a dance of death. When Serge Reggiani sings of death it is like the little refrain. But when Anna says “nothings moving” it opens up Alex’s passage inside her and he is carried along by the sidewalk at ferocious speed, speed being the rush, the vertigo of amour fou. This climaxes only when Anna’s humming voice summons him back but now he will return to a new world and a new arrangement. His passage in and out of her world is what makes it possible for Anna at the film’s end to attain what Alex calls the “smile of speed” even though by then he will have burned himself out, an acceleration that began with Modern Love. Inversely, in Garrel’s Birth of Love, Lou Castel’s flight from the family home to the screams of his son “Papa, Papa…” seems motivated solely by the refrain of Cale’s piano as he walks with his new girlfriend in the previous scene. Yet ultimately it is a flight into a more open and life affirming state of being.