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Essays on Values and Practical Rationality

Ethical and Aesthetical Dimensions


Edited By António Marques and João Sàágua

The essays presented here are the outcome of research carried out by members of IFILNOVA (Institute for Philosophy of New University of Lisbon) in 2016.

The IFILNOVA Permanent Seminar seeks to show how values are relevant to humans (both socially and individually). This seminar is the ‘place’ where different research will converge towards a unified viewpoint. This includes the discussion of the following questions: What is the philosophical contribution to current affairs and decisions that depend crucially on values? Can philosophy make a difference, namely by bringing practical reason to bear on these affairs and decision? And how to do it? Which are our scientific ‘allies’ in this enterprise; psychology, communication sciences, even sociology and history?

This volume shows the connection between practical rationality and values and covers the dimensions ethics, aesthetics and politics.

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Vivre sa Vie: the décalage between language and life (Susana Nascimento Duarte)

← 350 | 351 →

Vivre sa Vie: the décalage between language and life


From early on (even in his debut works where the editing and the mise-en-scène still convey a certain preoccupation with narrative), Jean-Luc Godard’s films not only show a taste for mixing categories, genres, discourses, media and stories, but in them also emerges the problem of the relationship between the seeing and the saying as one of its main dispositions. The array of words, quotations, cuts, images and references from various sources that had been with him since the beginning gradually loses its subordination to narrative concerns, insinuating itself on its own in its fragmentary autonomy. This results in two inseparable lines of events that, following the framework of analysis proposed by Jacques Rancière1, are justly captured by the idea of the ‘sentence-image’: those that belong to the sphere of the iconic evidence of images, where all sorts of fragments give themselves as spectacle, irradiating the glow of their atomic and a-significant condition; and those that belong to the sphere of the articulation of these fragments into a sentence-like or discursive plane, combining in a significant way the various fragments detached from their initial contexts, stories and narratives. This is why we can venture to claim that the Histoire(s) du cinéma are the culmination of a process in which Godard tried to translate into cinematic terms an obsessive inquiry into language.2 Guided by the idea of cinema’s ← 351 | 352 → lost childhood (the medium having, in the meantime, become shackled by a subordination to discourse, i.e. stories and narratives), Godard uses the ‘sentence-image’ to give film back to what resists language, meaning the enigma of life and bodies, thus returning the discourse back to them. Only now it is a discourse produced after undoing the predictable ties between the seeing and the saying demanded by the regime of representation, which means the possibility, as Deleuze said, of ‘reaching bodies before words, so that they can produce their own words’ (Deleuze 1985: 172, 173).

Regarding the desire to exorcise the model of representation and its limiting narratives and stories, found in this Godardian phase of reflexive cinema and understood as a retrospective and prospective meditation on what film and image are, Rancière draws attention to the survival of a discursive dimension whereby several heterogeneous elements are articulated into sentences, that is, by disfiguring the elements of the previous regime of representation, another drama arises.3

Vivre sa vie (1962) is one of the films that comprise the first phase of Godard’s work. Here we start seeing the first signs of this disfigurement of the dominant order of representation through the dialectical use of editing as a way to link together heterogeneous material, meaning that the various fragments summoned by Godard link through shock.4 This type of editing is influenced by the Brechtian paradigm, which intends to free representation from identification and the resulting fascination and absorption it creates in the viewers. This is achieved through ← 352 | 353 → pedagogical procedures that break with the continuities and progressions of the narrative model.

A major contribution here is the ‘sentence-image’ mentioned above – the deviant use of words themselves being an example of it – in the way in which it meets/departs from the image to formally move alongside the film’s theme: the heroine’s difficulty in apprehending the world through language. The film culminates in a kind of tête à tête between the protagonist and the philosopher Brice Parain – that is also a tête à tête between cinema and philosophy – concerning the relationship between cinema and discourse in their connection to life and the world, in their different ability to externalize thought and express the possibilities of thought and life. Therefore, the film represents an inquiry into language that is also an inquiry into cinema through the means of cinema.

In fact, one can already find in Vivre sa vie a certain ‘anxiety about the power of speech,’ ‘about the possibility of expressing those existential experiences’ – on the one hand, love, on the other, the experience of oppression (in this case embodied by a prostitute) – that will mark Godard’s later works (for instance, in Godard’s politicized phase it will manifest itself in the question of how to represent in film the experience of class struggle) (cf. Badiou 2013/2010: 172).

In the case of Vivre sa vie it is important to look at the film right from the beginning from the perspective of its structure, as in Godard what one wants to show is inseparable from how it is shown, that is, from an explicit problematization of the narrative form and its cinematic conventions. Godard refers to the twelve episodes that compose the film as the stylistic option that most adequately gives visibility to the problem at hand, or the film’s investigation – the apprehension of the movement of thought.

This deliberate structure echoes multiple references: St. Francis of Assisi’s eleven fioretti from Roberto Rosselini’s film (which brings to life in a completely novel way the narrative form of sketch-based films and to which Godard clearly refers in the script when mentioning the use of intertitles), the twelve stations of the cross and Bertolt Brecht. In interviews from the time, Godard explicitly ties this division in twelve episodes to his desire to emphasize what he calls the theatrical side of ← 353 | 354 → the film and of cinema in general: ‘This accentuates the theatrical, or Brechtian side.’5

As a playwright and also a theorist of what he practised, Brecht embraced the project of an epic, revolutionary theatre in which the author took a critical approach, regarding both the forms and the content, towards the illusions of a psychologically and narratively oriented theatrical drama. To put it briefly, Brecht wanted the audience to critically distance themselves from what they were watching instead of emotionally identifying with the flow of the story and the characters’ psychology. By making people conscious of the theatre medium, Brecht sought to make them politically conscious. Consciousness about the medium would not only allow but also demand that the audience participate in a continuous process whereby the images, sounds and other phenomena that they were confronted with were examined. This enabled the spectator to produce constructive political and social critique. According to Brecht, the epic form should combine an old tradition with the current techniques of film, radio and theatre editing: it was a question of ‘treating the elements of the real in the sense of an experimental composition through which epic theater, instead of reproducing the state of things, discovers it. Its discovery is achieved through the interruption of continuities.’ This interruption consists in creating discontinuities, ‘in undoing the articulations,’ so that the situations can ‘critique themselves dialectically,’ that is, ‘shock against one another’. ‘Its main goal is to interrupt action – ← 354 | 355 → instead of illustrating it or making it go forward. It is the retarding quality of these interruptions and the episodic quality of this framing of action that give epic theater its power’ (Benjamin 2003: 24–26, 22, 27 and 21). Cut/division, interruption, suspense – terms markedly used in cinema – are procedures that create an effect of distantiation in the way theatre is apprehended and experienced (Didi-Huberman 2009: 61).

In Vivre sa vie, Godard makes use of similar techniques, directly inspired by Brecht, to question the cinematic act and the classic categories of representation, thus experimenting with the narrative form at the same time as he creates a self-reflexive cinema. Like in epic theatre, it is the showing itself that is shown, which allows the spectator to become conscious of the cinematic form as an element that one has to think and feel, as a form that informs reality.

Through the division into episodes and the use of intertitles, attention is drawn from the dramatic unfolding of Nana’s story to focus instead on her reaction to each of the events as they happen. This distantiation from her story also serves as a way to constantly remind us that we are watching a filmed reality that despite some similarities with current life is a made-up reality nonetheless.6

For Godard, the twelve episodes, in their distance and exteriority to Nana’s adventures, are paradoxically what makes it possible to reach and touch the opposite of this, meaning the maximum interiority identified with thought in action: ‘I wanted to show the ‘Adventures of Nana So-and-So’ side of it. This division into tableaux corresponds to the external view of things that would best allow me to convey the feeling of what was going on inside… How can one render the inside? Precisely by staying prudently outside’ (Narboni & Milne 1986: 187).

This underscores an important point to understanding both this film and Godard’s cinema in general: by recording only the signs and external manifestations of beings, cinema becomes especially adept at revealing these as well as the existential reality in which they are immersed. That is to say that the fact that the camera superficially captures images and sounds, instead of making it inadequate for the apprehension ← 355 | 356 → of the interior ‘selves’, is exactly what guarantees its ability to show them in a new light. Nevertheless, the access to this interiority of a non-psychological nature cannot be confused, in Godard’s case, with Antonioni’s project, which proposed non-communication as cinema’s fundamental theme.

In any case, something is revealed. This is why Antonioni’s cinema of non-communication isn’t mine. Rosselini told me that I almost fell into the Antonioni error, but just escaped. I believe that sincerity is sufficient when one has this kind of problem. I think it is wrong to say that the more you look at someone the less you understand. Obviously, though, if you look too much you inevitably end up by wondering what the point is. If you look at the wall for ten hours on end, you begin to ask questions about the wall, and yet it’s just a wall. You create useless problems. This, too, is why the film is a series of sketches: one must let people live their lives, not look too long at them, otherwise one ends by no longer understanding anything (Narboni & Milne 1986: 187).

This exteriority to which cinema, like other visual arts, is to a certain extent condemned can be highly suggestive if one believes that interiority is inscribed and manifests itself in actions, gestures and external situations that implicate us in our relations to the world and others: ‘A painter that tries to render a face only renders the outside of people; and yet something is revealed,’ says Godard, in an indirect allusion to the oval portrait episode. Or: ‘It’s very mysterious. It’s an adventure.’ Vivre sa vie was, then, ‘an intellectual adventure. I wanted to try to film a thought in action – but how do you do it? We still don’t know’ (Narboni & Milne 1986: 187).

By wanting to cut out a thought in action, Godard identifies the thought with the body, overcoming the separation of spirit and body of classical philosophy (that is, it is mainly the behaviourist activity, which can be apprehended, more than its psychological content that he has in mind). In this respect, Godard reminds us of Merleau-Ponty who in 1945, in a conference called ‘Le cinéma et la nouvelle psychologie’, defended, against classical psychology, that a person’s character is not a mysterious essence that reveals itself in time, but is immediately present in a person’s acts. The philosopher challenged the notion that emotions can only be understood through the way in which they are individually experienced. He posited instead that they can be studied through behaviour since the only place where they exist in reality is in an individual’s ← 356 | 357 → expressions, gestures and acts. Merleau-Ponty added that cinema is particularly capable of illustrating this new psychology where thought becomes gesture and expression. To bring his point home, he finished the presentation with the following words by Goethe: ‘The inside is the outside/what is inside is also outside’ (Merleau-Ponty 1996).

Therefore, for Godard, psychology (in the classical sense) prevents the probing into the depths of the human being. The opening scene enunciates just that. In the sequence showing a conversation between Nana and her ex-husband Paul, the two play pinball while they exchange the scene’s last words in a more relaxed tone than what was used previously. He mentions the school essays written by his father’s students and how surprising some of them were. As we hear him quoting from them, the camera reframes Nana, isolating her in the shot in a pensive posture: ‘A chicken is an animal with an inside and an outside. Remove the outside, there’s the inside. Remove the inside, you see the soul.’

Godard’s philosophical and cinematic program becomes apparent in this sentence (Cf. Sterritt 1999: 60–88): if films are nothing but audiovisual material suited for the recording of exteriority and if, despite that, some films risk going beyond these exterior representations and attempt to indirectly suggest man’s interiority and psychology, Godard, on the other hand, without resorting to psychology and remaining at the surface of things, wants to go beyond to expose ‘something else,’ something more profound and enigmatic. This is what he tries to achieve in his process of film composition with the meeting of theatre and life (spectacle and research) mentioned above. He refers to this when he says, about Vivre sa vie, ‘The film was made by a kind of second presence’ (Narboni & Milne 1986: 187).

What I am trying to do is to express thoughts rather than tell stories.

It will not be a question of spying on the girl (François Reichenbach), trapping her (Bresson), or taking her by surprise (Rouch), but simply of following her; thus nothing else but being good and true (Rosselini)… Nana, who is gracious, which is to say, full of grace knows how to retain her soul all the while giving her body… I would like to try to make palpable what modern philosophy calls existence as opposed to essence: but at the same time, thanks to cinema, I want to give the impression that there isn’t a true opposition between the two, that existence supposes essence and vice versa, and that it is beautiful that it should be so (Young 1963: 22). ← 357 | 358 →

In order to reach this something more – the soul – Godard disarranges the usual relations between word and image, that is, the way in which they mirror the articulation between interior and exterior, thus freeing them from the rules that have traditionally codified its manifestation within the regime of representation. The word is no longer a means to access what is hidden inside the soul, or what tells us about and describes what is far from the eyes. The dialogues in Vivre sa vie often seem like intrusions or interruptions in the storyline, having emancipated themselves from any intention to clarify motives and moods. And the visible, the image, is no longer subordinated to the restitution of a dramatic order, of an assemblage of actions and their causal logic of progression, devoting itself instead to the restitution of the being’s unconscious gestures, of the silent words written on the bodies, to borrow Rancièrian terms.

Let us go back to the first episode, this time to its beginning.

Nana and Paul are filmed from the back. We can make out Nana in the mirror, but had we not seen her in the opening credits, we would have to wait until the end of the scene to actually see her. We will only see Paul properly at the end of the scene. By not making the characters visible to us, this apparatus of capture makes us focus on what is being said instead – what we have here is an extension of the procedures of distantiation, now applied to camera work. We find out that they are breaking off a marital relationship, that they have a son and, more importantly, that Nana does not know how to express herself. The lines revolve around the denunciation of incomprehension, meaning the difficulty in making oneself understood through language. Later in that scene, and afterwards, in the last scene, when talking to the philosopher Brice Parain, she says, ‘the more one talks, the less the words mean.’ Dissatisfied with words, Nana says she prefers to keep silent. Once again the plane of fiction, of Nana’s story, uses the character’s words to echo a problem that is not just her own but will also be the film’s. Just as this character aspires to silence, the film aspires to be a silent film.

From this first scene then we are in the presence of not only a character and a fiction but also of a style – Godard’s – which announces itself in the image and enunciates itself in the dialogues. ← 358 | 359 →

If we cannot see Nana, let us hear what she says instead. If she does not trust what she says, we will get used to the silence. The film prepares us for what will be its work, foreshadowed by the opening credits with the three shots of Nana’s face seen in profile, from the front and in profile again: a physiognomic study that registers the human body’s sculptural surface and gestures while sacrificing psychological depth and character development. The film tells us that we should not expect in-depth explanations of moods or ambitions, i.e. dramatic motivations in the basic causal sense. After this first scene, where we realize that Nana’s breaking up with Paul represents a new start for her, we will find out what she does with her freedom and what the obstacles to that freedom are. The film will then circumscribe the obstacles that hinder the blossoming of this newfound freedom, which could also be called happiness. Nana’s interiority is shown to us by a gaze that rests upon moments chosen at random from an itinerary.

NANA: So things are not very happy then?

YVETTE: No, it’s sad, but I’m not responsible.

NANA: I think we’re always responsible for what we do. And free. I raise my hand, I’m responsible. I turn my head to the right, I’m responsible. I’m unhappy, I’m responsible. I smoke a cigarette, I’m responsible. I shut my eyes, I’m responsible. I forget that I’m responsible, but I am. No – it is how I say. To want to avoid it is foolish. After all, everything is beautiful. You only have to interest yourself in things to find them beautiful. After all, things are as they are – nothing else… A face is a face, plates are plates. Men are men. And life, is life.’

She outlines here a kind of ethics, which is also the film’s: ‘I’m responsible,’ ‘A face is a face.’ An ethics that speaks for the film’s aesthetics and allows it to be read as an ethics. It is a praise of surface, of a before or beyond language, that also reveals the film’s metaphysical dimension. The difficulties of being, the contradictions and worries that come with trying to strike a difficult balance between oneself and the world, will be solved by her and the film by eschewing drama and accepting life as it is. This means not looking for a meaning behind things. We are faced here with a meditation on existence: ‘Nana knows herself to be free, but that freedom has no psychological interior. Freedom is not an inner, psychological something – but more like physical grace. It is being what, who one is. Being free means being responsible’ (Sontag 1994:205). ← 359 | 360 →

The je suis responsable implies the negation of the notion of fatum, or fate. That does not mean, however, that fate is not omnipresent in every shot and every scene throughout the film as some kind of threat (and, when seen retrospectively, it is clear that the film had been gathering and collecting evidence that Nana was destined to die in the end). Godard wanted Nana to be responsible in the existential sense, i.e. by creating her own destiny – and the tragic dimension is not any less powerful because of that. Her friend makes destiny responsible for her luck; Nana says that we are always responsible.

In the next scene, when Nana accepts to work for Raoul, she is responsible.

A ‘normal’ film would try to explore her motives, making us, at this point, dramatically conscious of her circumstances (lack of money, the separation from Paul) so that we could feel the pressure she was under (which is what happens in the case of Yvette, who, in this sense, represents that cinema). But Godard, in this scene, suspends the melodrama’s usual expectations, the alibis of failure and compromise; in a word, the excuses. Godard wants us to feel the film’s epigraph: se prêter aux autres et se donner à soi-même. It is through the body, through its postures, that Nana and the film reach the soul, reach thought.

The face, and the gaze, emerges as a privileged place for the camera to do its probing since it is traditionally thought to serve as a window to the soul. Maria Falconetti’s face in the film La passion de Jeanne d’Arc (1928) by Carl Theodor Dreyer is a perfect example of just that: a face that in its maximum exteriority, in its passivity, shows the interiority; a face that is the place of ultimate revelation, with the soul or God passing through it. Anna Karina’s face is, therefore, invested with spiritualism through its approximation to Maria Falconetti’s. The approximation achieved through the editing of the two faces in the cinema gives rise to the approximation and the creation of correspondences between two far-apart worlds – Nana’s itinerary and Jeanne d’Arc’s passion. Jeanne d’Arc’s face is not only the face that, in its absolute nudity, opens itself up to transcendence and attests to the passage of God as an invisible trace revealed in man. It is also a face that bares itself before threat. It refers back to a primordial ground that exists before individuation, to a space where all the faces of suffering and martyrdom converge to meet once more, (to the presence of the Other and of all humanity, as Levinas ← 360 | 361 → would put it). On the other hand, La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc is a film that portrays the possibility of the language of the face becoming words, as stated by Dreyer himself: ‘Joan of Arc is also words! Whether the text predominates, or the image, it is all the same. Each subject implies a certain voice. And that must be paid attention. One must find a way to express as many voices as possible’ (Delahaye 1965: 15–34). In Vivre sa vie, Nana’s true voice is her face and her body.

The face draws the limit between exterior and interior, but at the same time it erases that limit in the act of exposing it. Hence the preference for close-ups, especially after the scene in the cinema which introduces Nana’s suffering. Nana’s interior transformation, the metamorphosis of her soul, is something that exceeds and escapes her and that the camera tries to apprehend in its imperceptible manifestations, in the way that a face and a body might reflect it (the face and the body as places both of exposure and protection of interiority, producing an effect of ambiguity that oscillates between intimacy and distance or detachment: ‘in your gestures there are words… but as silence… and it is that silence that I love…’ ( ‘tu vois dans tes gestes, il y a la parole… mais sous forme de silence… et ce silence, je l’aime bien…’).

Therefore, drama is destroyed and replaced by the arbitrary observation of Nana’s body’s attitudes, movements and postures which, more than a political and social gestus, evoke a metaphysical, vital and also pictorial gestus. In that sense, we do not see Nana as a prostitute in the beginning, and in the end we do not either although we know that she was one. What interests Godard in prostitution is not the figure of Nana ‘as already having become a typified character, but the moment when a woman like all the others, is driven, under certain circumstances, to prostitute herself; the moment of passage, when she is still the one that she was before, while at the same time being already different’ (Bergala 2006: 102).

In Godard’s words, Vivre sa vie ‘is the portrait of a woman during a few months and it just so happens that in those months she prostitutes herself.’ Godard refuses to turn this circumstantial activity into the female character’s essence.

He asks the following question: what changes in a woman’s consciousness and life when that frontier is crossed? (Bergala 2006: 102) We are not invited to observe a character thrown into a classical tragedy, ← 361 | 362 → but to witness a woman in a contemporary situation living her life. Thus, prostitution is not an element that particularly defines her as a character in this fiction. Like other prostitutes of Godard’s, she resists or seems aloof and detached in the sex scenes where she participates, looking out the window as she lends her body to men.

In Vivre sa vie, ‘when a door opens into a room where the woman is supposed to be prostituting herself, it is always a living, sculptural and immobile tableau that is shown to viewers (as if these prostitutes’ clients came to these places to satisfy primarily their mise-en-scène’s ghosts, more than their crude sexual needs)’ (Bergala 2006: 103).

Godard rejects the presence of sexual images in Vivre sa vie, which allows the reality of Nana’s prostitution to go beyond eroticism and its visible actions to reach her being more profoundly – prostitution is a stage of learning in life. Prostitution’s meaning in the film can be found, as pointed out by Tom Conley, in the term’s etymological roots themselves – prostatuere: expose to the eyes, the loss of anonymity. There is a theological dimension here: this revelation results in the character’s fall and transforms her into a kind of cinematic Christ.

The self-reflexive relationship that is established between Nana’s movements as she lives her life, the thought of the body and the cinematic form is inspired, as we have noted earlier, by (Merleau-Ponty’s) existentialist phenomenology. As a consequence, in the film all the meanings pass through the body.

Nana’s presence, which is indistinguishable from the actress Anna Karina’s, Godard’s wife at the time, (especially in the last scene where Godard himself reads Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘Oval Portrait’),7 is the subject of ethological inquiry – Can we go beyond appearances? Can we touch ← 362 | 363 → a soul (essence)? It is also the object of plastic celebration – through the confrontation with cinema and painting (appearance), and by revisiting the division between appearance and essence (cf. Brenez 1998), action and thought. At the same time, the film strives to bring these together by embodying the character’s journey and destiny, by turning the body and its postures into categories of the spirit, as Deleuze would say.

All her interiority pulsates on this exteriority – her face, mainly, but also her gestures and her body – that the film explores, showing the ambiguity present in the title – ‘what I call mine, what is most personal to me, is also ultimately unknown, and, therefore, detached and impersonal at an ontological level’ (Mathews 2006: 45). The film happens there, in that paradoxical mix of intimacy and detachment. In fact, the creation of a feeling of intimacy is ambivalent as we are constantly confronted with the inability to penetrate beyond the opaque surface of the words that are exchanged, of the expressions and actions that are manifested.

It is worth mentioning here the expression donnez-moi un corps, which is for Deleuze the formula of philosophical reversal: ‘the body is no longer an obstacle that separates thought from itself, that which it has to overcome to reach thinking. It is, on the contrary, that which he plunges into or must plunge into to reach the unthought, that is, life.’ It is not the case that, for the philosopher, ‘the body thinks, but obstinate and stubborn, it forces us to think, and forces us to think what is concealed from thought, life.’

In this sense, for Deleuze, it is not a question anymore of ‘making life appear before the categories of thought, but throwing thought into the categories of life.’ The categories of life are, therefore, the body’s attitudes and postures. ‘We do not even know what a body can do, in its efforts and resistances,’ writes Deleuze, quoting Spinoza. ‘To think is to learn what a non-thinking body is capable of, its attitudes, its postures. It is through the body that cinema forms its alliance with the spirit, with thought. Donnez-moi donc un corps is first to mount the camera on an everyday body’ (Deleuze 1985).

Brice Parain agrees that it is necessary to introduce the body. The philosopher observes that since the introduction of contingency by Leibniz – contingent truth alongside necessary truth, that is, everyday truth – we have to think with the limitations, the errors of life. ← 363 | 364 →

It is through the contingencies of her life as a prostitute, marked by the experience of silence and of the objectified body, that thought can emerge, not in terms of its contents but in terms of its own visibility – that allows us to read Montaigne’s opening quote (his art of living) as a sentence about the urgency of experience, that is, the obligation and absolute need to pull life out of death.

On the other hand, in Vivre sa vie the narrative’s usual causal sequence is, as we have seen, broken by the arbitrary decomposition of the story into twelve episodes – these episodes relate to one another serially and not through causality. In each series the film shows us that it thinks itself through both its characters and objects, and a collection of texts and references that serve as reflexive categories.8 These compose a web of quotations and allusions that define Godard’s morals and aesthetics of appropriation: Montaigne’s epigraph; the essay about the chicken; the excerpt from a gossip magazine, read by a co-worker in the record store; the passage from Dreyer’s La passion de Jeanne d’Arc; the shadow of Louise Brooks; Nana’s name, which evokes Émile Zola’s novel and Jean Renoir’s film; the song; the dance music record; Brice Parain’s reflection; Poe’s text. There is no unified point of view, but a series of documents and descriptions that make up an unquantifiable body consisting of words, sounds and images. The traditional, unified interior discourse is replaced by free indirect discourse. These elements are quoted in the film in a way that preserves their difference. They might be used with analogical goals but they still keep their specificity, which means, for example, that the sentence about the chicken may clarify many planes in the film, not only Nana’s story – poule in French also means prostitute – but also the film’s program itself as we have mentioned. The film allows for relations between various terms to be established since these are not made to depend on identity relations. What ← 364 | 365 → we have here is the pinnacle of Rancière’s ‘sentence-image’ within the ‘aesthetic paradigm’.9 Through the interaction of the various elements and a sensitivity to the gap between words and images, the wealth of connections that defines the ‘sentence-image’ in its acme of expressive saturation can materialize. Here the singularity of fragments, and its rupturing power, is interwoven with a discursive and reflexive density, which arises from the connections that those fragments establish between themselves at multiple levels through editing.

Deleuze hints at a similarity between Godard and Aristotle since he finds affinities with the philosopher’s table of categories in the filmmaker’s table of montage. The fact that Godard resorts to categories in editing does not make them final answers, but problems that introduce reflection into the image itself. They are problematic or propositional functions. The question for each film is: what performs the function of categories or reflexive genres? For instance, Deleuze mentions that Parain fits into a reflexive category (that of language) towards which Nana moves (Deleuze 1985: 186).

In the conversation scene between Nana and Brice Parain, Parain reflects on the nature of language. Nana asks him why human beings must always talk and cannot live without words. He answers that there can be no life without thought and that in order to think one must talk, since speaking is the same as thinking, and thinking is the same as speaking. The question is not one of speaking compared to not speaking – even if sometimes one has to go through silence to speak well – but one of how to speak or think well. Parain anchors his position in the story of Porthos, one of the three musketeers, who has never thought in his life and who dies when he begins to think about how it is possible to put one foot before the other. Because he had to stop, to subtract himself from the course of life, the first time he ← 365 | 366 → thought it killed him. Parain then concludes that the discovery of truth can be painful and that truth can never be reached without erring.

Naturally, this scene illustrates how important the reflection about language is for Godard, in general, and in this film, in particular. Brice Parain is a philosopher of language, occupying a space between pre- analytical philosophy and continental philosophy. For him, sentences, or propositions, are not separate from life. ‘According to Sartre,’ his work leaves us with the ‘vertiginous feeling of the inexactness of language’ and is the product of a man who ‘words hurt and wants to heal,’ ‘who suffers for feeling that he is in décalage with language’ (Fieschi 1962: 23; cf. Salanskis n.d.). His attempt is that of an unreconciled man who is looking for reconciliation. The same is true of Godard, who uses cinema to better understand life.

Central to Brice Parain’s philosophy is the identity between thought and language, that is, the way in which the latter moulds and gives shape to the former. In fact, for the author, language almost becomes a religious experience since the truth of life is indistinguishable from the use of language. According to Parain, an instant of thought can only be grasped through words, and that is why to talk always implies the risk of lying. In this sense, lies too are part of our quest – we must pass through error to arrive at the truth, for instance when searching for the right word that one cannot find. Therefore, one cannot ‘live in truth’ without having recognised that truth is in everything, even in error (which means that errors and lies, in the above sense, are very similar). This emphasis on the importance of language, taken to the extreme, is at the heart of his critique of Blaise Pascal. For Parain, Pascal fails in trying to understand thought as a dialectical process when he identifies it with ‘living in truth.’ Parain does not believe that one could live directly in the truth unless one would adopt the silence of the medieval mystics, which is not possible in practice: the process of thought is inseparable from research, from a dialectical to and fro between truths and lies, changing one into the other – truths become lies (untruths) as soon as they constitute the premises for new truths. From his point of view, language is not something exterior to our being, a meta-level from which truth as a correspondence between meanings and the real world could be expressed. We cannot escape being inside language, it is our house, ‘the house of being’. For ← 366 | 367 → Parain truth in language is closely related to truth in life because not only does thought occur in life, with the servitudes and errors of life (cf. Parain 1953, 1972), but also it is inseparable from the elaboration of assumptions about life. These assumptions are not founded in logic, nor do they stem from factual observation, but come from a moral point of view towards life, from taking a stance towards it, which requires commitment. Assumptions are not factual states or states of life; they are promises: ‘When I speak, I propose something to life’ (Deleuze, 1984–1985: Cours du 22 janvier 1985). At the same time, speaking is not living and in order to talk, i.e. to think, one must have ‘broken up with life,’ that is, been through death, or through a kind of death. Nana mentions her difficulty in expressing herself as a result of her need to think, to use words to escape the states of life that she finds herself in and often oppress her. To this Parain answers, precisely, that renouncing life for a bit is the price to pay for speaking and thinking. He says: ‘to live in speech, one must pass through the death of life without speech.’ In this sense, to speak is almost like resurrecting to life, which means that speaking is a kind of ascetic exercise that makes us look at everyday life, or at too elementary a life, with detachment. To speak is to demand something from life, to interrupt it and escape from what is terrible about it. This means oscillating between silence, i.e. the moments when one has to ‘live life,’ and the moments when one ‘gives orders to life’ and demands something from it (while at the same time becoming involved in this demanding from life) (Deleuze, 1984–1985: Cours du 22 janvier 1985).

Conversely, in Godard, there is not an absolute identification between (spoken) language and thought. Like Nana, Godard distrusts words since words can betray you. Like her, the film has to pass through silence, through the silent observation of Nana’s life in order to touch her truth and essence. Therefore, one has to question the meaning of words instead of passively accepting them. If Godard uses the dialogue between Nana and Brice Parain to question himself about how adequate words (thought) are to describe perceptions (of the real) and sensations, it is because he is looking for an answer to this problem in life, that is, inscribed in a situation, in a project. To find the right words, one has to work at it, that is, to suspend the legitimacy of dictionary definitions and language conventions. This is true ← 367 | 368 → for cinema as well as for the learning of cinema. If in all of this one cannot stop hearing the words spoken by Parain in his dialogue with Nana, Godard, however, distances himself from the philosopher. In fact, he seems to believe in a manifestation of thought and truth that dispenses with language and involves reading through the faces and bodies in silence (like Nana thrown into the world and responsible for her actions – here we find phenomenology again). And cinema would be the place of that manifestation. Also from Godard are the words uttered by Nana: ‘But why does one have to always talk? I think that sometimes we should just shut up and live in silence. It would be so much nicer to live without talking.’

How can we reconcile thought and action, i.e. life, without one cancelling the other? The character’s concerns are also the film’s and Godard’s. Therefore, the last two episodes retroact on the film’s different levels which we have briefly referred to. In the Brice Parain episode it is cinema that thinks itself through language and its ability to resurrect life, which would otherwise be condemned to silence and death, without a form on which to reflect itself. At the same time, in Nana’s story, the conversation with Parain (in agreement with the idea of a thought that manifests itself directly in life and that cinema makes visible) determines that the character having acted and lived, by reflecting and talking about life, by separating life from thought, would have to die afterwards like in Porthos’s story (from Alexandre Dumas’s Vingt ans après). Read from this perspective, the episode no longer clarifies what brings cinema and language together but shows what separates them, what makes them different. It in turn ties in nicely with the oval portrait episode, which explicitly introduces, through the analogy between cinema and other arts, a reflection on the relationship between cinema and its ability to portray life,10 to literally pull it out of death – the character’s, but also the actress Anna Karina’s. ← 368 | 369 →

It is possible to recognize here the issue of cinematic ontology, inherited from André Bazin, as a critical realism that feeds on the (also Bazian) idea of an impure cinema. Bazin’s influence, expressed as follows, can be felt in all the Nouvelle Vague filmmakers and crystallizes its modernity: cinema is modern when it refuses the old art of storytelling and asserts itself through what constitutes its specificity, meaning its ability to apprehend the spectacle of life without needing to resort to Aristotelian drama. Nonetheless, to directly apprehend life means, following Rancière’s arguments, to apprehend it before language but after undoing the ties between world and language, the visible and the sayable, inherited from other arts and their narrative-representative conventions, and to find new ways to tie them together, rescuing those disjointed elements into a new non-unified configuration. In Godard, the direct capture of life goes hand in hand with the problematization of cinema itself in its relation to life. Due to its automatism of reproduction of the movement of the world, cinema – as a chaos of signs of variable signification (namely the ones produced by other arts and by cinema itself) – is the art that can best take in reality. These signs are simultaneously characterized by the image’s autonomy and disruptive singularity, and by the potential for connection and arrangement found in the discursive logic. Hence Godard’s confrontation with painting and literature, not in the sense of adapting them or interpreting their works but of using them as raw matter that cinema then re-works and re-links in a process that shows the possibility of new relationships with them and between them, life and history. In this way, cinema proposes itself as a new instrument of thought, before and beyond language.

In Éric Rohmer’s words, ‘Ontologically, film says something that the other arts don’t say’ (Rohmer 2004: 25). However, this idea, which distances cinema from older models taken, for instance, from literature and theatre (refusing the imitation of other arts and the narrative power of classic Hollywood films to favour a direct acceptance of the world instead), is inseparable in Godard from an inquiry into what it means to say something else. What follows is an investigation into ← 369 | 370 → the way in which cinema says something else, that is, a profound reflection on language and on what makes cinema a non-discursive art different from others. This is achieved without falling into an essentialism incompatible with the practice of contamination of cinema by other arts.


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1 Mainly with his Histoire(s) du cinéma, Jean-Luc Godard is the filmmaker that allows Rancière to illustrate the notion of the ‘sentence-image’ within the aesthetic paradigm. Cf. Jacques Rancière, ‘La phrase, l’image, l’histoire’, in Rancière (2003: 43–78).

2 This identification/confusion between language and words, though not very rigorous, is consistent with the way Godard uses several terms to name the same thing, i.e. everything that he opposes to the image and with which he is at war: words, text, language, literature, etc. It is, after all, a question of going back to a belief in the bodies, which demands, among other things, a work of ‘deconstruction’ of language and certainly also includes the matter of words.

3 Conversely, we could point out in this association of images and words, this sliding between them, a similarity with the work of dreams as it is described by Freud, more precisely the way in which it serves as a model for the figural and the study of art images. In it is emphasized the irruption of the sensory inside discourse and words, that is to say, the rupture with any idea of linkage that has the representative logic of the Aristotelian poem for a model.

4 Rancière identifies two types of editing in Godard: the dialectical editing that characterizes the first phase of his work, and the symbolic one, which alongside the former, Rancière uses to describe the Histoire(s) du cinéma. For the former, the main concern when bringing contradictory images together is the shock of opposites. For the latter, what matters, besides this shock, is the community of images, their conciliation through the ‘sentence-image’ (Rancière 2003: 43–78).

5 Jean Collet, ‘Entretien avec Jean-Luc Godard’, Cahiers du Cinéma 138 (déc. 1962), revisited in Narboni & Milne (1986: 171–196). Here are some other excerpts of what was said by Godard in the interview from when the film came out: ‘I start by the documentary in order to give it the truth of fiction,’ ‘I was trying to discover the concrete. The closer I get to the concrete, the closer I get to the theater. Vivre sa Vie is very concrete, and at the same time very theatrical,’ ‘By being realistic one discovers theater. Behind theater there is life, and behind life, the theater. I started from the imaginary and discovered reality [a reference to his previous films, described by Godard as films for cinephiles, whose starting-point is cinema itself and not life]; but behind reality, there is again imagination,’ ‘Cinema is spectacle (Méliès) and research (Lumière). What I have always wanted, basically, was to do research in the form of a spectacle,’ ‘The documentary side is: a man in a specific situation. The spectacle comes when one makes this man a gangster or a secret agent. In Une femme est une femme the spectacle comes from the fact that the woman is an actress; in Vivre sa Vie, a prostitute.’

6 What we have here is a critical realism that supposes a critique of realism. Cinema does not give us access to a reflection of reality but to a snippet of reality, one that is simultaneously partial and inseparable from it.

7 What we see is also that: the study of a face by Godard’s camera. A study that looks for the truth in the actress Anna Karina’s face. In the end, the film makes it clear that it was also about intersecting with fiction – sometimes emancipating from it – a portrait of a painter/filmmaker’s wife, made by him. In that sense, three planes meet in the film. Firstly, the fiction one, which deals with Nana’s character. Secondly, the documentary/study about the actress Anna Karina’s face as she plays Nana, which distances itself from fiction and Nana’s story. Finally, encompassing the other two, is the film about the film, where cinema thinks itself and the very idea of cinema is taken apart. These three planes infiltrate into each other and the borders between them are diffuse.

8 In Deleuzian terms, which could apply to any film by Godard: ‘Each series refers to a way of seeing or speaking, which may be that of current opinion, operating through slogans, but equally that of a class, a sort, a typical character operating through thesis, hypothesis, paradox. Each series will be the way in which the author expresses himself indirectly in a sequence of images attributable to another or, conversely, the way in which something or someone is expressed indirectly in the vision of the author considered as other’ (Deleuze 1989: 183).

9 Rancière dates the ‘sentence-image’ back to Flaubert: ‘if Flaubert ‘doesn’t see’ in his sentences, it’s because he writes in the age of clairvoyance (voyance) and the age of clairvoyance is precisely that in which a certain ‘view/vision (vue)’ has been lost, and saying and seeing have entered a space of community without distance, or correspondence’ (Rancière 2003: 58). Thus, Flaubert uses the gueuloir (‘one has to listen’) and editing. The ‘sentence-image’ is not a sentence that allows meaning to be seen; it is not an image that carries meaning. It is something close to, though not totally interchangeable with, film editing – words, sounds and images arranged in such a way that they create a certain impact and/or meaning.

10 Nana’s itinerary allows Godard to live as if he were putting into his creation his own obstacles, his own difficulty, albeit transfigured. The difficulty of being is solved by Godard through the very being of cinema. By learning about cinema, he learnt about life. In an interview about Vivre sa vie, he says, ‘It was cinema that made me want to make films, I didn’t know anything about life, except through films, and my first efforts were films for cinephiles, the work of a cinema enthusiast. What I mean is that I didn’t see things in relation to the world, life, History, but in relation to cinema. Now I’m walking away from all of that’ Cf. Fieschi (1962).