Michel Hazanavicius, the Oscar-winning director of 2012’s smash hit silent film The Artist, is back on the scene with a new period piece. Redoubtable charts the exploits of iconic French New Wave film director Jean-Luc Godard during the summer of 1968, and is based on the autobiography of Godard’s ex-wife, Anne Wiazemsky. Hazanavicius attended a roundtable to discuss Redoubtable.
Q: How closely connected are the book and the film?
MH: Well, the book is really funny. Y’know, sometimes [Wiazemsky] says in the book, “Jean-Luc was really funny, the way he did things”. Even though the book itself is not funny, you can feel that these years were happy for him. So I thought a light movie, sometimes funny, sometimes not, could be more genuine. But the other thing is that she really wrote a good book. She respected the way she was watching how Jean-Luc did things at that time. She wrote it maybe 40 years later, after their love affair, and she respected the girl she was at that time.
Q: Would you say you’ve put a little bit of yourself into this film?
MH: Yeah sure… my wife Berenice thinks it’s a self portrait. Not in the intimate relationship because we’re much less toxic than that. [laughs] But in the way a director can doubt his work and wonder what he should do. I think I was touched by the story of Jean-Luc Godard doing La Chinoise: thinking he was doing something great, then realising that people didn’t really care, and that’s exactly what happened to me with The Search [laughs], so I thought I could take that room and put a lot of myself in.
Q: What drew you to make a film about Jean-Luc Godard?
MH: The book, really. I had no will to make a movie about him. In fact, I have a very relaxed relationship with him. I don’t adore him. I don’t hate him. I respect him. But I have a very classical relation to his cinema. I think his movies from the 60’s were very, very good, very charming and seductive. There was no reason for me to make a movie about him but when I read the book, I discovered that very sad but original love story. It doesn’t have a love story ending or sexual origin or lack of love. It’s about political reasons, and I found that to be very original. I felt that I could tell that story in a fun way, and I think that’s the perfect balance. That’s what the Italian comedies did so well. A balance between drama and tragedy.
Q: Do you know what Godard himself thinks of the film?
MH: No. I think he said once that it was a stupid idea, but that was before I met him. But I think that’s normal. I think if you said to any normal person, “I’m going to make a movie about your life”, they’d respond the same. I mean, that could be a very honest answer he gave, more maybe he was just being mean! [laughs] I don’t know exactly. The fact that he didn’t say anything I think is good, really. When we went to Cannes, some critics were upset with me; it was almost like being in the Sistine Chapel. So it was really a blessing apart from that. I guess some of them called him trying to get a quote or something, and he didn’t say anything, so that’s good.
Q: Was recreating Godard’s filmmaking style an important thing to get right?
MH: Yeah, yeah. It’s within the continuity of what I did with The OSS 117 and also The Artist. The French New Wave, and especially Godard’s movies, are very free and very ambitious, and he unloaded so much of himself in them. Sometimes it was just to do the opposite of everyone else, but it’s very fresh whenever you look at those movies. All these things have since been redone with advertising, TV, video clips, and now it’s not original. So I tried not to recreate this, but revisit it, and put it in a way in which I could tell the story in a more classical way. I really enjoyed doing it like that.
“When we went to Cannes, some critics were upset with me; it was almost like being in the Sistine Chapel.”
Q: Do you feel that you’ve engaged with the (French) public perspective of the 1960’s?
MH: Well, the movie is not huge. But the people who’ve seen the movie have really enjoyed it and loved the recreation. May ’68 in France is something that’s really iconic, and while Jean-Luc Godard is iconic as well, it’s not in the same way. Godard is for the elite, and it’s a sharp subject, so a lot of people don’t feel concerned with his life and topics. But May ’68 really changed the way we lived in France, and it really freed the country. The schooling was different, the sexuality was different, the politics were different after that, and it really changed the way people lived. So yeah, there’s something really fresh about May ’68 and from what I know there’s no movie that’s recreated that period the way this movie does. It was really funny. The slogans were really funny. When you see images of the main activists, they were always smiling, almost arrogant, but in a cool way, in front of the police and everything. So I tried to recreate that really specific energy.
Q: Is it easier to write the breakdown of a relationship than the beginning?
MH: I think it’s easier when characters have conflict. The beginning of the movie can seem a bit slow because there is no conflict, it’s just two people falling in love, and nobody cares. We need conflict. Anyway, it’s a cliché, both the beginning and end of a relationship. The question is how to be original while telling that kind of story, and to capture the reality of the end. Love stories end. The book is really good in telling that. And what happened in reality is very interesting, because she [Wiazemsky] was 20 years younger [than Godard], so she was in a way influenced by him, and also it was the 60’s, so women were not free like they are now. She was an observer. It was normal for her not to take part in the conversation too much. And it’s a very painful situation, especially when your husband changes so radically.
Q: How much perspective did Les Mepris give you on the break down of that marriage?
MH: Well, it wasn’t so conscious. But in doing it, I realised that it was the same movement. A women looking at her husband, going further and further from herself, so much so that she had no other choice but to not love him anymore, or at least realising she doesn’t anymore. But I didn’t try to make it look like Les Mepris. The only thing like that is in the book as well as the film, when they go to the south of France and Godard is going to Cannes, I tried to find the same kind of mood. The sunny beach she lays naked on, that was reminiscent of Les Mepris. I of course watched all of Godard’s movies, and especially the ones from the 60’s, while I was writing, but then I stopped, because the idea was not to recreate exactly, but to work on the memory of him.
Q: Have there been any downsides to winning an Academy Award?
MH: Well yeah, of course, theres always side effects in every important thing like that. Maybe it changes you in a unconscious way, I don’t know. But also it changes the way people look at you and look at your work. Some of them love you too much, some hate you too much. So sometimes I like to be seen as a normal director to whom nothing happened. I mean what people don’t really understand is that I didn’t make a success, I made a movie, and the audience made it become a success. I was an observer.
Q: Do you prefer making period pieces like this and The Artist or character pieces like The Search?
MH: Well, The Search was also a recreation for me, in the sense that at first it was in 2000, which would’ve been 15 years prior, but also is a conflict far from my life, so we had to recreate a lot of things. So it’s not exactly a period movie, but still it’s not what I would call a contemporary movie, in the sense that with those you have to recreate everything. When you make a frame, you can’t just say “Okay, I’ll only shoot this way”, because it’s not accurate, so you have to recreate everything that is in the frame. I think it’s very challenging as a director, and also, it allows me to put some cinema between the story, the characters and the viewer. It works like a mirror.
Q: Are you a big film fan in general?
MH: I guess I am, compared to a lot of people. Compared to real cinephiles? Not that much. I mean if you talk to Quentin Tarantino, he, I mean, he knows everything. I don’t. But with The Search it was different. I just took inspiration from classical Hollywood for the narrative structure, and that’s it. I didn’t refer to the [original] movie. The original was taking place in World War II; here it’s Chechnya, and I changed so many things that I wouldn’t put it in the same bag. It started with the OSS 177 movies, the first one, because when people usually recreate a period they pay close attention to what they are shooting. The clothing, the set-ups, but not the way they shoot it. So my point was to recreate the way they shoot these things, to make something more coherent and to create cinema. To propose to the audience a game which plays with the memory of those movies. The way they were doing James Bond. And for the audience, it’s funny. You don’t have to be a connoisseur of those movies, but if you know them, you have another layer.
Q: When you filmed the nude scene, did you already have it planned out in your mind?
MH: No no, not at all. I didn’t know that Stacey [Martin] would be the actress. I never compromised on that naked scene. Usually as an audience member, I would say “what do they think it brings to me?”. I mean I know people love themselves, make love, fuck, or whatever, I know that. I don’t need to see it, so usually I’m not comfortable. But in that particular case, I thought that to point Godard’s story in an intimate point of view, would be needed. I also thought this scene when they talk about nudity while being naked was really funny, so I wanted to use it. I mean it’s an old sequence that I’ve had for maybe 20 years, and I’ve had no opportunity to put it in a movie. So based on that, I wanted to create something. And the bed, for a couple, is a very important place. It’s a recurrent place. I wanted to put some drama in the bed sequences, and also the nudity there, being very graphic, was, in my opinion, a way to recreate the flavour of the late 60’s.
Q: When you constructed the character of Godard with Louis Garrel, what kind of process was it?
MH: There was a script. For me there’s many steps. The way I work alone on the script was one thing, and it was very important to find the right balance between irony, the positive and the negative. So I thought making a movie in that form would be a real tribute to Godard’s work, and I thought in doing these more positive things with the story, I could be more ironic. And also because Godard was an asshole in general. Not just an asshole, but he acts most times as an asshole, so I had to be sympathetic. He wasn’t being mean just to be mean, he was being mean because he was pursuing a goal for him, which was some sort of truth. I think he’s a sick man, but his own victim, and when you realise that, you can be empathetic. If he was just destroying things around him to protect himself, he’d be an asshole, but that’s not the case. When we started to work with Louis, this work was behind us. I mean, he adores Godard, really. I tried to push him a little bit to comedy, but he’s not used to that, so he was insecure. He usually said, “I trust you for comedy”, and it was funny, because he did some very funny things, while saying “Ah, I don’t have that Vis Comica’”, which is Latin for “I’m not funny”, which is already very funny, because nobody uses Latin to say that kind of thing [Laughs].
“I think [Godard]’s a sick man, but his own victim, and when you realise that, you can be empathetic.”
Q: Was Anne Wiazemsky involved in the film at all?
MH: Not really. She refused to give the rights to many directors, well I don’t know how many, and when I first called her about making a movie about the book she refused. Before I hung up I said “It’s a shame, because I think the book is really funny”. And she was like “What? You think my books are funny?”, and I said “Yeah, of course!”. She said “Are you sure? Because nobody’s told me that before!”, so I said “Yes, I think it could be a really funny movie!”. Then she realised I wasn’t on the same line as the other directors, and I wanted to make a comedy. So we met, and after that she said “Okay, I’ll give you the rights”. Well, not give, sell [laughs]. So I said, “Why?”, because she was supposed to refuse. And she just said, “I don’t know, I trust you. You are from another planet, I like this. But don’t send me the script or anything, just do your job. Then screen it for me, and if I don’t like it, we’ll find a solution”. So I put her name in the credits, and that’s it. She knows how I can be, so she didn’t want interfere with the process, and she didn’t want to be the one in control. And when she saw the movie, she was very very moved. She told me the best compliment. She said, “You made a comedy, with a tragedy”, which for me is the exact definition of the Italian comedies which I’m a big fan of. And also she really recognised Godard. She said couldn’t imagine we could portray Godard like that. She had more problems with her character, which is normal. But I guess if she recognised Godard, maybe it’s also because the relationship was good, so I didn’t think I betrayed her.
Q: Do you think it was good for Louis that Godard himself was not involved?
MH: Of course, of course. I mean, even not being there, it was very intimidating for him. He’s very intimidating for a lot of people, so you have to be like one of The Little Rascals. Because if you show too much respect for him, you’re going to do some meaningless things. At first, when I was writing the script, I wanted to make a sequence with the real Jean-Luc Godard, because that’s what he was doing in the 60’s. Like, a character would encounter a philosopher or something, and for five minutes they were talking, in the theme of whatever, and then you would just go back to the movie, so I wanted it to be him, with him facing Louis. But that would be something very violent, I think. I thought he could be very very mean with it, y’know; “This is bullshit, this is bullshit”. I mean, in his own words, much more intelligent [Laughs]. Anyway, I didn’t do it because I was pretty sure he wouldn’t accept. But yeah, I wanted to make it much more classical.
Q: The film begins with Godard saying ‘Mozart was right to die when he was 35”, and he spends the rest of the film seeking the approval of students. Do you think the tragedy you talked about is Godard’s fear of becoming old and no longer relevant to young people?
MH: I think when you want to be a revolutionary, it goes both ways. In one it’s freeing, and the other it’s a dead end. You’re forced to kill yourself. Always and always and always, to renew yourself. I think that’s what happened to [Godard]. I don’t know if he was happy with that, but he’s Jean-Luc Godard, so that’s his path. It’s not just being old, I think it’s much deeper than that. It’s being innovative. Being revolutionary. You know, he made his first movie when he was 30 years old, and it was a revolution in cinema. There’s really a before and after Breathless, and a before and after Jean-Luc Godard. But 7 years later, when he did La Chinoise, he thought he was doing a revolutionary movie, but soon realised he was not, so he had to find something. He was just 37, so I don’t know if the question is of being old or not, it’s deeper than that. And when you look at his work, each decade he starts a new period. He did very activist, very political movies in the 70’s, then he came back to his more classical movies with actors, big actors, and in the 90’s he did something different, then something more experimental in the 2000’s. Since then, well, 2010, he’s being doing more contemporary art. I mean, he’s always doing something new. That’s what he was seeking, I guess.
Q: And for you?
MH: Oh, I don’t think I’m a revolutionary… [laughs]. No, I try to go much more simple, and much more classical, and I love comedies. So I hope it will be a comedy. I mean I’m working with a French producer on a very very good script. It’s a comedy that’s very original, so I really hope that will be my next movie.
Redoubtable is out in UK cinemas from Friday 11th May.
Image: Studio Canal