The mise en scène of thought in Godard



The effort to redefine the foundations of cinematic representation of the world.

Watching or reviewing the set of Godard's films, the coherence and organicity of his aesthetic project jump out and become evident. His trajectory reveals the most tenacious, consistent and influential effort of all modern cinema to redefine the foundations of the cinematographic representation of the world, whose horizon he never leaves. A world in accelerated transformation, which his work both witnesses and comments on.

Aesthetic research and the incessant renewal of forms in his cinema always sought to represent this world more and better than the range of forms available in the cinema that preceded him did. And they tried to represent it not as a mimetic mirror, but as a warehouse or a «world museum», whose pieces he collects from film to film, in the face of the contemporary city, in the imagery produced by mass communication, in the most dramatic historical phenomena of the century, in ordinary life increasingly subjected to the empire of merchandise, in relationships and work situations that are closely observed.

Collecting pieces of the world in this way presupposes a strategic choice of the aspects to be privileged in its visible (and audible) landscape, but also a constant improvement of the expressive means capable of apprehending and capturing them satisfactorily. Such improvement includes a constant gesture of self-reflection (thematization of the cinematographic apparatus, mise-en-scène of the filmmaker's work, an exercise in self-criticism in the very making of the films) and sometimes mobilizes the creation of a person of the filmmaker, whose evolution in his films seems to constitute, in itself, a privileged access route to his way of conceiving his own social function.

In addition to the morally dubious characters that he assumes in parts of his first films and the figures of the melancholy idiot that he represents in films of the 1980s, the filmmaker appears embodying the conscience or memory of cinema on editing tables, in studios full of screens, in your library, etc. And the thought of cinema appears in several films as an equal conversation between male and female voices, or as a disorderly conversation, without stable protocols (A film with the others, 1968), or even as a melancholy monologue, which sets the tone for much of his later filmography.

To outline a lot, I would say that this Godardian effort to reinvent the representation of the world in his films combined over the years, in variable dosages, two moments, or movements, or dimensions: a destructive dimension and a constructive one. He establishes a dialectic sui generis between the deconstruction of the representation of the world promoted by the classic narrative cinema (with its system of genres, its conventions and its horizons of expectation) and the construction of a new modality of representation, in which the narration is increasingly crossed by thought. Its deconstruction takes place by disrespecting the conventions of cinematographic genres, by the violence done to decorum, by the frustration of the horizon of expectations foreseen by the genres that the films borrow, mix or parasitize.

The corollary of this destruction is the adoption of a true deceptive strategy, which deepens from the experiences of the Dziga Vertov Group, and marks a good part of Godard's later filmography, resulting in conflicts, equivocals and refusals by the filmmakers whose orders he subverted. - the most recent cases were King Lear (1987) Le rapport Darty (1989) and the old place (1998). His reinvention of the representation of the world integrates thought with narration. Since the mid-60s, the logic that governs the flow of images and sounds in his films has been more akin to argumentation than to narration, more to rehearsal and thought than to narration. Let's see in the notes that follow how this constitution of thought in Godard's cinema took place, how it took the form of an argument and therefore an essay along its path[I].


Everyone remembers narrative films from the 1960s in which thought was insinuated in philosophical parentheses that suspended the action to show female protagonists talking to well-known intellectuals, in duos of interlocutors to whom the filmmaker delegated the argumentative exercise. Such parentheses appeared in mundane situations of common or ordinary life, in any spaces of sociability – cafes, dining rooms, train cabins –, not necessarily associated with intellectual work. And the figuration of thought consisted in filming the enunciation, by socially recognized thinkers and their interlocutors, of some intellectual reasoning. It consisted of showing someone expressing a thought in front of the camera. In a word, what we were seeing there was thought in the film, not yet the thought of the film, or the film itself as an act of thought.

No 11o tables of live your life (1962), Brice Parain was philosophizing by chance with Nana (Anna Karina), who had approached him at a coffee table, about language, its relationship with thought, existence, lying, error and love. In this conversation of a few minutes, answering Nana's questions, the thinker successively invokes Plato, the French philosophy of the 1th century (Perhaps Descartes?), Kant, Hegel and Leibniz, to sustain that thinking and speaking are indistinguishable, that thinking requires a certain asceticism, a certain renunciation of common life to return to it more deeply, that error and lies belong to the search for truth, etc. [Fig. XNUMX]. Parain's reference to this series of canonical philosophers is preceded by his opening invocation of a passage from the novel Vingt ans après (1845) by Alexandre Dumas[ii], anticipating a gesture that will reappear in other moments of Godard's cinema: his refusal to place philosophy on a higher plane than literature, as if literary thought had less dignity than philosophical thought.

FIGURES: 1; two; 2

In a dinner scene with friends in Une femme mariee (1964, 36'20” - 38'40”), announced by the poster «L'Intelligence», the intellectual and film critic Roger Leenhardt evokes an old quote from a philosopher friend[iii] to define his conception of intelligence [Fig. two]. Before referring to a verse by Apollinaire that his interlocutor Charlotte made him think of, Leenhardt discusses intelligence in a strictly intellectual field, typical of the theory of knowledge: «L'intelligence, c'est comprendre avant d'affirmer. C'est, dans une idée, de chercher à aller plus loin… de chercher lalimit, de chercher son contraire … Par consequent, c'est de comprendre les autres, et, entre soi et autrui, entre le 'pour' et le 'contre', from trouver petit à petit un petit chemin»[iv].

In a long scene near the end of The Chinese (1967), the anti-colonialist intellectual and militant Francis Jeanson converses on a train with Véronique (Anne Wiazemsky) and, between references to theater and the cultural action he intended to develop, mobilizes questions that are dear to political philosophy (such as the problem of the legitimacy of representation in actions policies) when objecting to the voluntarist and terrorist position of the young friend, who intended to explode bombs in the university to force its closure. The two interlocutors appear on the same plane when discussing politics [Fig. 3].

If in the examples seen so far, thought seemed delegated to some characters and limited to some parentheses of narrative films[v], he begins to invade the narration in the voice of the filmmaker himself in several moments of Deux ou trois choses que je sais d'elle (1967) to gain primacy in several of his films from then on, in an essayistic inflection that would increasingly mark his work. Among other sequences of Deux ou trois choses notables in this regard, I remember only one, set once again in a cafe (26'10” – 30'44”), which allows a revealing parallel with the already mentioned of Live his life.

Just like Nana in the 1962 film, the protagonist Juliette (Marina Vlady) goes to a cafe at some point, where the new scene unfolds, this time with more numerous characters and more complex decoupage, evidencing a change in the staging Godardian of thought. Instead of delegated to the characters that appear there, this is triggered by the filmmaker himself, whose whispered monologue erupts in 6 moments of the scene, alternating with the ambient sounds of the café (voices, clinking glasses, draft beer machine, noises from the arcade in the café or of cars on the street etc) for a very inventive mix job.

In his monologue, Godard asks himself about the truth, the nature of the object (which allows communication between subjects and therefore social life), the social relations between individuals, the present world with its advances and impasses, the relations between language , consciousness and world. In this succession of questions, his reasoning resorts again, without hierarchizing them, to literary and philosophical formulations, invoking among others the Baudelaire of the poem «Au lecteur» (in the formula «mon semblable, mon frère», repeated 3 times), the Sartre de L'être et le néant (whose lexicon he mobilizes when he speaks of culpability, being and nothingness) and the Wittgenstein of Tractatus Logico-philosophicus (in the proposition that «leslimites de mon langage sont celles de mon monde»)[vi].

The articulation between the words uttered by the filmmaker and the other visual and sound elements of the scene thickens the construction of thought, which is no longer limited to its verbal discursive substrate, and integrates a properly audiovisual dimension, as will occur in a good part of later film essays by Godard. During the monologue, the passage from one argument to another is entirely mediated by the shots of the coffee cup, an object that allows the passage from one subject to another in the decoupage of the scene [Fig. 4 to 6], and which then seems to refer to the subject's relationship with the world being discussed [Fig. 7], gaining the cosmic appearance of a galaxy towards the end of the scene, when the air bubbles group together and form drawings in its interior [Fig. 8 and 9].


Assumed by the filmmaker, and disseminated in various moments of Deux ou trois choses, his first markedly essayistic film, from then on thought takes precedence over narration in several others, in which it tends to migrate, so to speak, from the sphere of the represented world to another space, proper to the filmmaker who approaches it, a symbolic and circumscribed space in which he exercises his work of questioning and apprehending the world. This begins to appear already in the segment Camera-Oeil, his contribution to the collective film Far from Vietnam (1967), in which he reflects behind a camera posted on the terrace of his Parisian apartment on his relationship with Vietnam, in the light of the refusal of the vietcong in accepting your solidarity visit. The space proper to his activity as a filmmaker, represented here by handling the camera, appears right away, right at the beginning of the segment [Fig. 10-12].

FIGURES: 10; two; 11

Then, Godard constructs in his political monologue a thought that this time is not limited to coexisting with a pre-existing scene, as happened in Deux ou trois choses. Now, it is his very reasoning that triggers the flow of images and sounds in the film, with which he ends up getting confused. After describing the filming he would do if he were a TV cameraman, Godard tells of not having been authorized by Hanoi to film in the country, and seeks to extract the consequences of this veto: talking about Vietnam in his films, reflecting on how to translate his solidarity with the North Vietnamese.

Searching for such a translation, he realizes that instead of invading Vietnam again with an alleged generosity, the best thing is to let himself be invaded by it, and find elsewhere the correlate of the struggle for Vietnam, in order to «create two, three, many Vietnams », as Che Guevara said, or «create a Vietnam within us», according to his own formulation. In Guinea, this would be done against the Portuguese occupier. In Chicago, for black people. In South America, for Latin America and against the neocolonialisms that attack it. In France, by the Rhodiaceta workers, to strengthen relations between the struggles of filmmakers and workers in general, which tend to be very disconnected from one another, to the detriment of both.

If there is no revolutionary situation in France, the task would be to echo the cry of those who are truly experiencing it, among which Vietnam is the greatest symbol of resistance. This extremely lucid argument triggers images and sounds of Vietnam [Fig. 13 and 16], from other peoples [Fig. 14], of French workers [Fig. 15], of American military operations, etc., in a flow that is no longer distinguishable from the thought enunciated by the filmmaker. We passed like this from a thought No. film for a true thought do film.

FIGURE: 13; 14; 15; 16

This particular sphere of thought in the film reappears in Le Gai Savoir, in which the characters of Jean-Pierre Léaud and Juliet Berto occupy the very emblematic space of the empty ORTF studios (the heart of French television) during night shifts. There, they examine and discuss images and sounds of current French reality that they set out to collect, the whispered voice of the filmmaker interacting with them in order to form a trio of analysts in action. At the end of this veritable exercise in media epistemology, Godard concludes by whispering that «ce film n'a pas voulu, ne peut pas vouloir explicar le cinéma ni même constituer son objet, mais, plus modestement, donner quelques moyens eficaces d'y parvenir. Ce film n'est pas le film qu'il faut faire, mais si l'on a un film à faire, il passe nécessairement par quelques-uns des chemins parcourus ici».

This gesture of self-criticism becomes one of the most salient argumentative operations of certain films by Godard in the 1968-78 decade, in which the proper sphere of thought is installed, if not visually in the image, at least in the construction. After Gai Savoir, self-criticism becomes a principle of composition of several of them, Pravda (1969) to France Tour Détour: deux enfants (1978), going through Vent d'Est (1969) Fights in Italy (1970) All is well (1972) and deux number (1975). With variants that do not fit to detail here, some of these films are organized not by the advance of an intrigue, but by rounds of arguments, a block fulfilling the task of criticizing another that preceded it.

It's what you do Pravda in its approach, divided into 4 parts, of the social reality of Prague in 1969. Each of the last three parts is responsible for criticizing and rectifying what the previous part managed to build, perfecting the methods of construction of images and sounds. At the end of the first part (8'-10'), for example, the announcers say that the film had limited itself to showing travel impressions, memories of concrete Czech reality, at an insufficient level of information. It would be necessary to go beyond sensitive knowledge to access rational knowledge of that reality, to move from feeling to knowing. In the second part, then, it would be necessary to start editing the film and dismantling the contradictions of revisionism: organizing the images and sounds in a different way, in order to obtain a concrete analysis of the concrete situation in Czechoslovakia.

It's what you do too Vent d'Est, with a bipartite structure, a female voice severely criticizing in the second part (49′-59′) the insufficiencies of the false method of approaching social struggles used in the first (disconnected from the masses, based on a slogan and poster style, alien to the real struggles , lacking in research, tributary of bourgeois sociology and true cinema, akin to bourgeois television and its revisionist allies) and formulating the task of materialist cinema as a fight against the bourgeois concept of representation, after staging an unsuccessful attempt at dialogue with the revolutionary cinema of the Third World, of which Glauber Rocha appeared as an emblem[vii].

It is what still does, at the other end of this group of works, each episode of the series France Tour Détour, divided into a main block in which the filmmakers talk to the couple of child protagonists, and an epilogue in which another couple, in the role of journalists, criticizes the first block, envisions improvements, proposes other methods of approaching the themes in question.

These and some other essayistic films (Letter to Jane, 1972, Here and elsewhere, 1974, Les infants jouent à la Russie, 1993 etc) take far, in their specific agency of images and sounds, a vigorous exercise of audio-visual thinking by Godard and his partners. They can take the form of quite different discursive genres, such as the letter, the sketch, the self-portrait, the evocation, the elegy, but they all tend to minimize or abandon once and for all the plot and the characters to organize themselves as a full flow of thought, an argumentation or, perhaps more accurately, a rumination through images and sounds[viii].

Several of them also bring a sensitive representation, a kind of scenography of these audiovisual thought operations. The examples are many, and show the filmmaker's thinking in action, in editing rooms, moviolas, video monitors, mixing devices, etc. This occurs, among others, in deux number [Fig. 17-18], Image Changer (1982) [Fig. 19], Lyrics to Freddy Buache (1982) [Fig. 20-21], Scenery from the film Passion (1982) [Fig. 22-24], Petites notes à propos du film 'Je vous salue, Marie' (1985) [Fig. 25].


FIGURES: 17; two; 18
FIGURES: 20; two; 21


FIGURES: 23; two; 24

The essayistic vein of Godard's cinema, in which the exercise and representation of thought gain primacy over narration, continues to appear in his late films, as in the remarkable JLG/JLG – Autoportrait of December (1994) and in a set of brief and very dense essays that followed the History (s) of Cinema (1988-98), as The Old Place (1998) From l'origine du XXIe siècle (2000) Dans le noir du temps (2002) and Liberté et patrie (2002). Of the latter, some even thematize thought head on, anticipating its disappearance, referring to the polysemy of the verb to think, resuming one of its most emblematic philosophical figures, etc.

The Old Place presents itself at first as an essay, in the card «An Anne Marie Miéville Jean Luc Godard Essay», and defines itself a little later in the two cards «vingt-trois exercices / de pensée artistique», before reflecting, much later, on the action of «thinker avec les mains» (30′). Dans le noir du temps links ten blocks on the last ten minutes of a series of things, the third of which focuses on «Les dix dernières minutes de la pensée» (2'47”- 4'03”) and resumes in over, about images of people throwing books in the trash, a commentary on cogito Cartesian: «Dans le 'je think, donc je suis', le 'Je' du 'Je suis' n'est plus le même que le 'Je' du 'Je pense». Liberté et patrie he recalls, as early as 20″, that «du mot pensée il n'y a pas à attendre qu'il soit employé de manière homogène, plutôt le contraire».

A bit before, JLG/JLG consecrated the cinematographic scenography of thought, in the wake of several of the previous films already mentioned here, in scenes of the filmmaker dealing with screens, cameras or manual editing operations [Fig. 26-27]. But this scenography coexisted with another, closer to a literary model of thought. In fact, the staging clearer and more emphatic in the film of Godard's work of thought, in a passage where we see him elaborate an argument with comings and goings, hesitations and corrections (6'45”–10'45”), shows him in the position of a writer, sitting at a desk with pencil and paper in hand [Fig. 28], resorting to a book by Aragon to conclude with a poem by The heartbreaker his serious and melancholy reasoning about culture and art, the rule and the exception.

FIGURES: 26; two; 27

According to such reasoning, there is culture, which belongs to the rule, and there is art, which belongs to the exception. Everyone says the rule: cigarettes, computers, T-shirts, television, tourism, war. And no one says the exception. This is not said, it is written (Puchkin, Flaubert, Dostoyevsky), it is composed (Gershwin, Mozart), it is painted (Cézanne, Vermeer), it is filmed (Antonioni, Vigo), it is lived, and then becomes the art of live (Srebrenica, Mostar, Sarajevo). It is the rule to want the death of the exception, and it is therefore the rule in Europe of culture to organize the death of the art of living that still flourished under our feet. In a slightly different formula, this argument had already appeared a year earlier in a brilliant two-minute film, Je vous salue, Sarajevo (1993), stated in over, resolutely, by his raspy, cavernous voice, over footage of a photo of Ron Haviv from the Balkan War showing three soldiers standing beside three civilian casualties lying on the ground, presumably shot down by them.

By now returning to a variant of the same text, Godard has literally promoted a staging of the elaboration of his thought, which had already been constituted elsewhere – but he decided to do it as a writer. No cinematographic equipment, none of the technical images that set the tone for most of his previous films, and even other scenes in this self-portrait. A staging of the thinker as a filmmaker thus coexists with that of the thinker as a writer, which seems privileged in the clearest moment of presentation of his work of thought.

In a curious paradox, such conviviality and such privilege are even clearer in Godard's work, in which the cinematographic exercise of thought reaches its highest degree of elaboration and complexity: the monumental series of History (s) of Cinema (1988-98), the culmination of his filmic essayism. There, a plan inscribes the word 'thought' on the image of Godard with video equipment in the background [Fig. 29], the card «Cogito ergo video» [Fig. 30] proposes a variant of the cogito cartesian associated with the operation of seeing (which several of his films defended to the detriment of the operations of reading or writing, more directly associated with writing) and some shots spread throughout the series continue to bring images of moviolas and films [Fig. 31-32].

FIGURES: 29; 30; 31; 32

However, at the very moment when the entire film is constituted as a flow of thought, and of maximum density, the staging of its elaboration leans clearly towards the characterization of Godard as a man of letters, insisting on showing him in the space of his library, consulting and leafing through books or hitting the typewriter. Throughout virtually all eight episodes, with rare exceptions, the space that predominates when the filmmaker appears in person is not the editing or editing room, but the library [Fig. 33 to 36]. Sometimes, the image of the library even superimposes itself like a ghost on the face of the filmmaker or on films of him and others [Fig. 35-36]. And reinforcing this trend, the last episode manages to incorporate, to the sound of an expletive monologue by Artaud, that previously mentioned shot of JLG / JLG in which Godard enacts his work of thought not on camera, on the editing table or on the moviola, but sitting at desk with paper and pencil [Fig. 28]. Resuming this plan seems like a way of duplicating the privilege granted in the 1994 film to the self-portrait of the artist as a man of letters.

FIGURES: 33; 34; 35; 36

The scenographic privilege of the library over the editing or editing room finds reinforcement and confirmation in the assimilation of Godard to Borges, sealed at the end of the series, in the final minute of its episode 4-b. Closing the invocation of a group of writers (Arthur Rimbaud, Georges Bataille, Maurice Blanchot, Emily Dickinson), Godard says in this 35-second ending (36'06'-36'40') the passage by Coleridge quoted by Borges in his essay «The Flower of Coleridge» included in Otras Inquisitiones (1952). The block begins with the image of a yellow flower, on which the expression “Usine de rêves” is inscribed [Fig. 37], who used to define cinema, in such a way as to superimpose the universes of literature and cinema in the same image. Soon after, the «Jorge Luis Borges» card appears [Fig. 38], making explicit the reference to his text, and shortly afterwards a portrait of Godard with dark glasses, who blinks in alternation with the flower [Fig. 39] and ends up succeeding it [Fig. 40], in an obvious parallelism with what happened seconds before with the name of the Argentine writer.

FIGURES: 37; 38; 39; 40

The flower/Borges/flor/Godard scheme thus seals the assimilation of the two artists, just as the overlapping flower/«Usine de rêves» had already assimilated the two arts. Between the first image of the flower and the final image superimposing the filmmaker's portrait on a painting that showed a painter walking alone in a landscape (paradise?), Godard says in over in his own language the text that Borges attributes to Coleridge: «si un homme, si un homme, si un homme traversait le paradis en songe, qu'il reçut une fleur comme preuve de son passage et qu'à son réveil il trouvât cette fleur dans ses mains, que dire alors?»[ix]. Completing, however, as a conclusion, Borges' formulation, he closes the episode and the entire series with the words "J'étais cet homme", as if attributing ultimately yours person the function of guardian of the memory of the Edenic dream (or of the factory of dreams) of cinema, just as Borges seems to have attributed to his the function of guardian of the memory of all literature.


If we take the series of History(s) as the culmination of this path that I have described here very succinctly, even though it does not constitute the last work to date and has been followed by several other films of great artistic density, it is significant that it ends with the assimilation of Godard's cinematographic thought to the de Borges, representative of a literary thought that, in her, coexists with that of philosophers, historians etc, thus confirming a trait that I already pointed out back there, in the example of live your life (1962). In Godard's itinerary, cinema would thus have become more and more clearly a device of thought, assimilable, however, to others in the common struggle with the deciphering of the world in which we were given to live.

*Matthew Araújo Professor of Theory and History of Cinema at ECA-USP. Among others, he organized (with Eugenio Puppo) the collective volume Whole Godard or the world in pieces (São Paulo: CCBB / Heco Produções, 2015).

Published in a special dossier on Godard by the international electronic magazine The Human Fury (n.33, 2018), with texts by Raymond Bellour, Jacques Aumont, Michael Witt, Murray Pomerance and David Oubiña, among many others. Cf. the link


[I] We will take thought here in a strong sense, of apprehension and knowledge of the world, not in a trivial sense, of what simply goes through someone's head as mental content.

[ii] Chosen not by the philosopher, but by Godard himself, according to Alain Bergala, Godard at work – les années 60 (Cahiers du Cinéma, Paris 2006, p.113-5).

[iii] Which we infer to be Emmanuel Mounier (1902-50), founder of the left-wing Catholic magazine Mind, and important intellectual influence for both Leenhardt and André Bazin

[iv] Cf. the transcription of the passage in the decoupage of Une Femme Mariee em L'Avant Scene, n.46, March 1965, p.17.

[v] With differences of degree, Chinese seeming to me a little less narrative than the previous two.

[vi] See, respectively, Charles Baudelaire, Les Fleurs du malin complete works, Robert Laffond, Paris 1980, p.3-4; Jean-Paul Sartre, L'être et le néant, Gallimard, Paris 1943; Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus logical-philosophicus, prop. 5.6, trans. Pierre Klossowski, Gallimard, Paris 1961, p.141.

[vii]For a detailed discussion of the scene with Glauber Rocha as such an attempt, see my essays “Godard, Glauber and the east wind: allegory of a (mis)encounter” (becomings, UFMG, Vol. 4, no. 1, jan/jun 2007, p.36-63) and “Jean-Luc Godard and Glauber Rocha: a halfway dialogue”, in Eugênio Puppo and Mateus Araújo (Org.), Whole Godard or the world in pieces. São Paulo, CCBB / Heco Produções, 2015, p. 29-44.

[viii] In different angles and periodization, concerned above all with the place and status of video in Godard's itinerary, Philippe Dubois addressed this dimension of the filmmaker's work in a fruitful text, "Les esseis vidéo de Jean-Luc Godard: la vidéo pense ce que le cree cinema" (in La question video, entre cinéma et art contemporain, Yellow Now 2011, p.243-260).

[ix] Borges' text said: «If a man crosses Paradise in a dream, and he dies a flower as proof that he had been there, and if he wakes up he will find that flower in his hand... then what?» (Complete works II, Emecé, Barcelona 1989, p.19), Coleridge's original text read «If a man could pass through Paradise in a dream, and have a flower presented to him as a pledge that his soul had really been there, and if he found that flower in this hand when he awoke – Aye! and what then? (Anima Poetae from the Unpublished Note-Books of Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

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