Monday, July 23, 2012

Short Take: First Name: Carmen

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

In his 1983 film First Name: Carmen, director Jean-Luc Godard provides impulsive young protagonists, cinematic in-jokes, and a crime story he can’t quite commit to. In short, he seems to be revisiting the hallmarks of his great nouvelle vague films of the 1960s. But Godard’s interests obviously lay elsewhere, and he clearly resented covering this territory again. The film often seems out to spite viewers who were expecting the spirit of his older work. The protagonist (Jacques Bonnaffé) is a security guard who gets mixed up in a bank robbery and other efforts by a gang to finance a documentary. Like many nouvelle vague heroes, he is frustrated by his unrequited passion for the heroine (Maruschka Detmers). But the way this film presents it, it’s not charming; it’s pathetic, creepy, and ultimately horrifying. And the heroine is a far cry from her ‘60s antecedents. The girls Anna Karina and others played were happy-go-lucky charmers. The Detmers character is a blandly vicious temptress whose goal is to “show the world what a woman can do to a man.” She regularly taunts the hero with her nude body, and with little kisses and caresses, but she tells him, “If I love you, that’s the end of you.” The older films had a winsomely sexy manner; this picture rubs the viewer’s nose in an ugly-minded, quasi-pornographic smuttiness. Godard’s one-time delight in his heroines has curdled into misogyny. He also appears as the heroine’s loopy uncle, and his attitude is clear from the lines he gives himself: “Kids today are scum,” and so on. The film frequently cuts to shots of the seashore and a string quartet performing Beethoven. One gets the distinct feeling Godard would rather pay attention to these than the main story. Most viewers will likely prefer the surf and music, too. Among the film’s few admirable features is Raoul Coutard’s stunningly beautiful cinematography. Anne-Marie Miéville is credited with the script, a (very loose) modern adaptation of Prosper Mérimée’s 1845 novella Carmen. (Georges Bizet used it for the libretto of his 1875 opera.)

Reviews of other films by Jean-Luc Godard:

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