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Foreplays #7: Jean-Luc Godard & Anne-Marie Miéville’s "Liberté et Patrie"

Godard & Miéville's adaptation of a novel about a Swiss painter erases the distinction between fiction and reality, between life and art.
Foreplays is a column that explores under-known short films by renowned directors. Jean-Luc Godard & Anne-Marie Miéville's Liberté et Patrie (2002) is free to watch below. MUBI's retrospective For Ever Godard is showing from November 12, 2017 - January 16, 2018 in the United States.
I.
One of the most beautiful essay films ever made, Liberté et Patrie (2002) turns out to also be one of the most accessible collaborations of Jean-Luc Godard and Anne-Marie Miéville. The deeply moving lyricism of this short may astonish even those spectators who arrive to it casually, without any prior knowledge of the filmmakers’s oeuvre. Contrary to other works by the couple, Liberté et Patrie is built on a recognizable narrative strong enough to easily accommodate all the unconventionalities of the piece: a digressive structure full of bursts of undefined emotion; an unpredictable rhythm punctuated by sudden pauses, swift accelerations, intermittent blackouts and staccatos; a mélange of materials where the great masterpieces of art and music coexist, in no hierarchy of value, alongside children’s drawings, chansons, film excerpts, magazine illustrations, literary quotes, photographs, book and CD covers.
The main narrative line of Liberté et Patrie concerns the story of Aimé Pache, a painter born in the Vaud, a Swiss canton bordering with France in its western and southern sides. After the death of his parents, Aimé moves to Paris to pursue his vocation as an artist. There, he lives humbly, goes to all the exhibitions and studies the masters. Years later, with his wife, he returns to his birthplace. The couple have a child. But, after a series of unfortunate events, Aimé loses both his wife and child. He abandons painting and retires to the woods to live in solitude. Slowly, Aimé begins to recover; he comes back to life and to painting. A large tableau commissioned from him by the 2002 National Swiss Exposition serves as the pretext used by Godard and Miéville to make their film.
This pretext, however, is fictional. And so is the figure of Aimé Pache, that painter “who is never mentioned in art history and never will be.” He’s the protagonist of the 1910 novel by Charles Ferdinand Ramuz, Aimé Pache, peintre Vaudois. With Liberté et Patrie, Godard and Miéville render a beautiful homage to the novel, remaining more faithful to its themes than to the particular life events depicted by Ramuz. The relationship between the regional and the universal, or between nature and art; the depiction of the artist’s struggle as an act of faith and a vital apprenticeship; the movement between two countries with different landscapes and idiosyncrasies—all these themes are important topics from the novel that Godard and Miéville not only preserve but truly adapt. They find a new way to elaborate them, using different means and methods, creating a poetic and essayistic dialogue with the source that serves them as inspiration. And, by doing this, they manage to erase not only every distinction between fiction and reality but also, and more importantly, between life and art.
II.
 Aimé Pache, peintre Vaudois is considered to be Ramuz’s most autobiographical work; the filmmakers find a complex way to explore this angle. Liberté et Patrie not only reinvents the incidents of Aimé’s life, but alters its entire timeline (jumping from the 19th to the 20th century). Liberté et Patrie is full of details that can be retraced to Godard’s and Mieville’s own biographies: the commission of Aimé’s tableau by the Expo 02 coincides with the commission of their own film; there’s a mention of the Café du Marché in Rolle, the Swiss village where the couple currently lives; the references to the death of cinema and to the different viewpoints on images expressed by Aimé’s parents are not foreign to the filmmakers’s preoccupations; the performance in Lausanne of Jean-Paul Sartre’s False Noses that prompts Aime’s trip to France was, in fact, a play co-staged in 1948 by the legendary former Cinémathèque Suisse director Freddy Buache—to whom Godard dedicated his short film, Letter to Freddy Buache (1982).
And yet, Liberté et Patrie is far from being the biography of a fictional individual created by a mere transposition of the real facts that make up the filmmakers’s lives. The figure of Aimé arises in the interstices, between a photograph of Ramuz and a still of a kid from Luis Buñuel’s Las hurdes (1933). But he is also the little Johan in Ingmar Bergman’s The Silence (1963), discovering his first naked woman in a black and white reproduction of Rubens. And he is, as well, the protagonist of F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise (1927), trying to overcome the darkness after reality has been shattered by modern art.
Aimé’s life may be narrated by two voices (those of Jean-Pierre Gos and Geneviève Pasquier), but also with the words and works of many: film clips by Alexander Dovzhenko, Carl Dreyer, Robert Bresson, Sergei Eisenstein, Robert Flaherty (and, of course, Godard & Miéville); music and songs by Ludwig von Beethoven, Serge Gainsbourg, and Philippe Val; drawings by Pablo Picasso and Honoré Daumier; paintings by Diego Velázquez, Arnold Böcklin, Georges Seurat, Alexej von Jawlenski, Nicolas de Staël, and Kazimir Malevich; notes by Ludwig Hohl and Ludwig Wittgenstein on the nature of reading and thinking; literary fragments by Hermann Broch (The Death of Virgil), Jacques Chardonne (Claire), and Rainer Maria Rilke (The Book of Poverty and Death); a maxim by François de La Rochefoucauld (“Neither the sun nor death can be looked in the face”); a description by Joan Miró (“a painting that could hang on the cell of a condemned prisoner”); an anecdote by Paul Cézanne (his refusal to give titles to his paintings), a concept by Paul Klee (“the prehistory of the visible”)…
Godard and Miéville, in a work of radical appropriation, re-write, re-paint, and re-edit these stolen quotes. Practicing an elevated form of collage, they treat their sources as raw materials that combine to give birth to something new—but not as the parts or fragments of a fixed whole. Inseparable, all these visual, musical, and literary quotes sing together “like the strings of a violin.” Indistinguishable from the hands that trace their movement, they glow, flash, and vanish. Intertwined, they become the veritable events of a life. A life that moves through Aimé as, in In Praise of Love (2001), history had to move through the character of Églantine.
III.
Aimé’s trajectory across countries is indeed the trajectory of Godard and Miéville (they too grew up in the Vaud canton and, after spending many years in France, returned to the region). But it was also the trajectory of Ramuz himself. In Paris, notes d'un Vaudois (1938), he wrote:
For twelve years, I spent several months each year in Paris; and those trips from Paris to my home, and from my home to Paris, were my only trips! It's Paris itself which freed me from Paris. It taught me, in its own language, that I must serve (or at least try to serve) my own language. For we must distinguish between its immediate lessons, and those lessons which matter deeply: and the most profound lesson is doubtless that, in being so amazingly itself, it teaches you to be yourself. It has obeyed certain laws: it teaches you to obey yours.
Against the backbone of Aimé’s life, Liberté et Patrie builds a deep, poetic meditation on the relation between fatherland and freedom—the terms inscribed in the flag of the Vaud canton, the words that form the title of both Aimé’s large-scale painting and Godard & Miéville’s short film. Variously associated with Switzerland and France, with the father and the mother, with the hands and the eyes, these terms become veritable conceptual notions delineating the entire universe of the film. Fatherland and freedom may face each other, but should not be understood as opposites—rather, as the complementary sites of an intermittent decanting.
Many of the painters, writers, filmmakers, and philosophers quoted or referenced in Liberté et Patrie share this condition: to have lived and worked across two lands, in-between. This bordering condition doesn’t need to be literally geographical, even if many times it is. We are reminded of Godard’s words at the end of JLG/JLG: Self-Portrait in December (1994):
If there’s a ‘JLG by JLG’, what does this ‘by JLG’ mean? It is a matter of childhood landscapes of the past, with no one in them. And also more recent landscapes where things were filmed. ‘Land’ is in ‘landscape,’ and two different notions of fatherland can perhaps emerge, a fatherland given and a fatherland conquered. Like the negative Kafka spoke of, which was to be created, the positive having been given to us at birth.
At the start of Liberté et Patrie, a distinction is made between images and representations: “Let’s look at the difference. Trying to see something. Trying to picture something. In the first case, you sort of say: ‘Look right there’. And in the second, ‘Close your eyes’.” We are tempted to think in terms of contraries. But a further formulation clarifies the matter: “We may say that the sound we hear is in a different space than the sound we imagine.” It’s never a question of opposite terms, but of interrelated spaces: France and Switzerland, the eyes and the hands—and, in the middle, the dim, fuzzy borderline as the condition par excellence of the artist.
When Aime’s parents die, the father is buried in Tannay and the mother in Yvoire, on the other side of Lake Geneva. In one of the most beautiful moments of Liberté et Patrie, a vista over the lake forms two, differentiated layers—in the monochrome bottom half, the village covered in pitch black and the transparent, moving waters; at the top, highly saturated, the painterly blue sky and mountains, and a rounded, orange sun. Slowly, this image mutates into two stripes of yellow and blue that evoke Mark Rothko’s experiments with color, charged now with an affecting implication: “Fatherland and freedom as he saw them from his window, out over the rooftops. The father here, the mother in front. And, in between, the waterline he’ll later learn from Rothko.”
IV.
We need to invent new names to describe the ways that Godard and Miéville treat images. In the same way that they are never afraid to suddenly interrupt a piece of music, or to cut to black without using fades or transitions, they don’t hesitate to mix black and white with color, moving with still images, landscape shots with paintings. While they often use photographs, reproductions, or still frames, there’s always a sense of a throbbing in them. As if they were always tending toward some new state: exploding into animation, receding into freezing, opening up into something else, or being devoured by something other.
Sometimes, the image created from the combination of different sources exhibits differentiated patches that never quite merge. Rather, they face each other, like fatherland and freedom. At other times, the filmmakers focus on certain parts, shapes, or colors that are like that Rothko waterline: the bordering zone in which two matters meet and transform themselves, becoming indistinguishable for a moment. A painting emerging like a veil that defines the contours of a face, a white rose born from the rays of the sun, a train crossing the body of a child, a trace of color that appears as a phantasmagoria at the bottom of the frame, or that punctures the very center of the image…
The passage in which Aimé meets his future wife gives us many fine examples of this dynamic, overlapping work. It starts with fragments of Philippe Val performing his song “L’embarquement.” We keep hearing the song over an advertising photograph of Susan Hayward, in which she looks intently at a man lighting her cigarette. The borders of the photograph have been obscured, erasing the male figure, keeping only his arm, lighter in hand, pointed towards her. The colors are vivid and warm, the surreal shadow of a passing bird is cast upon the wall. As the still begins fading out, a black and white photograph of Ramuz with a taciturn expression starts fading in. Hayward’s figure is absorbed, disappearing into his face.
The music stops and the narration tells us how Aimé, after leaving a concert, noticed a young girl in a white dress. Over a black and white clip of a train arriving at a Métro station platform (borrowed from Godard’s Band of Outsiders, 1964), a red stain appears at the bottom of the screen, like a drop of blood. The clip of the train slowly fades out, and the red stain grows into the figure of a woman in a white dress, with her back turned toward us. She seems to be flying—like a bird, or an angel—over the rails. A male hand from Bresson’s Au hasard Balthazar appears, in close-up, as if trying to catch the woman’s tiny body. But her body vanishes, allowing the complementary female hand (Anne Wiazemsky’s) from Balthazar to now become visible. A sentence from Ramuz’s Adam and Eve closes this magnificent passage: “He decides to return home, she accepts. She rests her head on his shoulder, because love is heavy to bear.”
V.
While it’s easy to become entranced by the power of a quote, an image, or a sound, it’s not in the isolated elements that the emotion of the film is located. The affect of any given moment is always determined by how we arrive to it, or where it propels us to. It’s in the vibrant, kinetic chains formed by the careful combination and modulation of the materials. Like those trains from the Paris-Lausanne (or Lausanne-Paris) line that appear insistently during the film, this movement never goes only one-way. It grows and sparks in many directions at once.
Liberté et Patrie starts with several references to September 11, 2001 (“when everyone was saying, ‘Nobody ever thought of that’”). This apparently offhand comment triggers the reflections by Wittgenstein on the nature of thinking that, afterwards, in a brilliant cabriole, will be matched—as the camera moves across several paintings, hiding parts of the faces and concentrating on their small details—with the philosopher’s ideas on aspect perception and interpretation.
The September 11th reference returns, however, even if only implicitly, when the Vaud country is presented as (in the words by Jean-Marie Dunoyer) a “complete and harmonious whole that could live on its own with no need for the rest of the world.” Here, the contrast between a country that is the center of the world and a moment in history where all the eyes were turned to the same place (September 11th in the USA), with a small region that is, despite all, “more than a canton or a province, a veritable country,” introduces the theme of the relation between the regional and the universal that is central to the film.
But mention of the word “think” also triggers the use of a beloved technique often employed by Godard and Miéville: the fast cross-cutting or videographic cross-fading between two different images flashing in rapid succession (here, a plane and an explosion of light). The violence associated with thought prompts the use of this procedure again when Aimé watches his first naked woman and this “does something to him,” or when he starts experiencing the rich variety of color. At some point, the fragment of a reproduction of Seurat’s Bathers in Asnières is intercut, using the same method, with a copy of de Staël’s Reclining Blue Nude. Both images exhibit a similar tricolor combination, even if the properties of the three main colors (blue, red, white) are different, being more intense and saturated in the latter picture. Those are also the colors of the French flag and, in fact, they trigger the fourth chapter of the film, devoted to the Vaudois revolution and the intervention of Napoleon that liberated the region from the yoke of the German-speaking Bernese. The chapter that opened with the French flag closes with the flag of the Vaud canton, where fatherland and freedom embrace each other.
I have offered here just a few examples of the ways in which Liberté et Patrie threads connections, builds ideas, and traces trajectories. These trajectories can intersect or run in parallel lines, but sometimes they upset each other, forming different chronologies whose facts doesn’t necessarily add up in a conventionally historical way. They can be fast or slow—it takes time to go from those blossoming “trees of freedom,” reminiscent of Odilon Redon and Pierre Bonnard, to the naked trees that accompany Aimé in the winter of his life. They can move forward or backward—to go back to the origin, we must pass from the magical apparition of a bird at the start of Georges Franju’s Judex (1963) to the breaking of an egg at the end of Miéville’s The Book of Mary (1985). But the paths drawn by the film are never isolated.
VI.
Aimé’s story starts (or re-starts, after the superb introduction) once the initial question (“When did he get the commission?”) is slightly reformulated (“Why did he get the commission?”). The change of one, single word opens up two series of events, different storylines that are, in both cases, historical, geographical, and political. There is, in Liberté et Patrie, a constant back and forth, an obsessive tracing and retracing, a return to certain points or ideas that are many times unfolded and refolded.
At the end, when Aimé comes back to painting after the death of his wife and child, we see—across nine different shots, intercut with black frames—the process of composing his painting. It’s one of the film’s most moving passages. He starts by putting in the children and the road. He covers the black with color: first the reds, then the blues and greens. But, when the painting seems finished, his brush starts covering the figures in black again, and the whole tableau is repainted. Feet in the fatherland, eyes on freedom, and a painting singing with the emotion of the brushstrokes of a little child. “Because one must endure to be able to return.”
Liberté et Patrie
Chris Marker’s Sans soleil (1983) begins with the image of three children on a road: “One day I'll have to put this image all alone, at the beginning of a film, with a long piece of black leader; if they don't see happiness in the picture, at least they'll see the black.”  One hopes that if, nothing else, the spectator of Liberté et Patrie will be able to see the amazing movement it performs. Not the darkness, not the light, but the miracle of an apparition: “Three paces back, three paces forward, and the children emerge from the night.”

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