Then and Now: Close-Up on Jean-Luc Godard’s "Le gai savoir"

One can find few films as startlingly contemporaneous as Jean-Luc Godard's timeless beauty from 1969.
Sherry Johnson

Close-Up is a feature that spotlights films now playing on MUBI. Jean-Luc Godard's La gai savoir (1969) is showing from January 18 - February 17, 2017 in many countries around the world as part of the retrospective For Ever Godard.

Le gai savoir

Le gai savoir (Joy of Learning, 1969) is a film by Jean-Luc Godard which, unlike classics such as Breathless (1960) or Contempt (1963) is hardly a household name. Godard’s Weekend (1967) gives us an inkling of what is to come in its postscript production credit: What translates to mean “END of story” and then “END of cinema” flashes in blue lettering on a black backdrop; a moment later, we see that this word game has been created using a statement of the film’s visa control number. Of course, Godard had already been engaging in this kind of word play for years in his credits and intertitles. Although these statements could also be taken as being typical, they presage what is soon to come, as much as Weekend itself forecasts major upheavals which would soon convulse the nation. In a later interview with Raoul Coutard, the cinematographer stated that it was the influence of Marxism which had made Godard decide against continuing to work with big-time producers who were inevitably interested in raising capital. Financial interests are by their nature at odds with artistic ones, and not surprisingly, creative conflicts arose on set. Godard, furious with producer Raymond Danon, carried out his own anarchic rebellion on the set of Weekend. If each of his films up until then had already been like a bomb thrown at the stagnant “cinéma du papa,” he was ready at that point to throw himself even further afield.

What happened after Weekend was a radical departure in Godard’s filmmaking, and one you can see indications of already in that film and others he also shot in 1967, Two or Three Things I Know About Her and La chinoise. As these films share many themes with Le gai savoir but are somewhat more accessible, it is a good idea to watch them in conjunction with it to provide context, along with One Plus One (Sympathy for the Devil) (1968), which has Rolling Stones rehearsal footage cut with scenes of Black Panthers and other politically-charged scenarios, and Tout va bien (1972), about a strike in a meat-packing plant, co-directed by Jean-Pierre Gorin and starring Yves Montand and a young, radical Jane Fonda, who at the time was married to proto-New Wave director Roger Vadim.

What distinguishes Le gai savoir from these other films of the period outside of One Plus One is that it is almost entirely devoid of narrative. True to his word, for Godard this was the end of cinema—or at least any attempts at making conventional cinema. Two friends, Patricia Lumumba (Juliet Berto) and Émile Rousseau (Jean-Pierre Léaud) meet very late for several nights on an empty sound stage in a dark television studio, parting at dawn. They discuss their hopes, fears, and frustrations with living in France, and formulate a three-year plan for a new socialist society. They smoke many cigarettes and conduct a couple of interviews in the name of research with a little boy and a fascist who looks like a filthy bum pulled out of the gutter. Neither the bum nor the little boy seem very coherent, although the boy, fresh out of communist daycare, seems promising in emitting the word “October” in word association with “revolution.” This about sums up the “plot” of the entire film. 

Of course, Le gai savoir should be approached for its content, not to be hooked into a narrative line. And as the characters mostly sit in the dark talking, their faces lit or engulfed in shadow in a mostly empty mise en scène, there is little opportunity for content to arise here from camera work, an oddity for a Godard feature. The film begins with electronic noises in a black void. Enter Émile walking in profile, dressed in a trench coat. He is counting, referring to a great number of images which “speak of her.” Enter Patricia, and Émile’s voice drifts—“444,000 males speak of her. About 2600 metres.” Sweet, grandiose statements which have a savor of courtly love. They also introduce the theme of reduction—of “returning to zero”— that is so prevalent in this work, in this case manifesting in the vein of absurdist theatre.

So is the entirety of Le gai savoir a work of the absurd? No, not remotely. “To find the solution, whether chemical or political, one must dissolve. Dissolve hydrogen, dissolve parliament,” says Patricia, who takes her surname from a Congolese revolutionary executed, it is now believed, with the aid of western nations. We learn that Patricia was fired as a delegate for third world Citroën factories in the North Atlantic for giving employees tape recorders to record abuse from French bosses. And likewise, we are given background on Émile’s revolutionary status: he took part in a mass protest after the government had decided “to make schooling mandatory until the age of 55.” The dean of the university ordered parachutists to fire on the protesters, who determined the correct angle to fire by using new knowledge obtained from a mathematician. The angle at which they fired was the same, Patricia says, as that “used by the B-52s when their white phosphorus bombs destroyed the silk factories of Hanoi.” In these brief expository descriptions of the main characters, Godard manages to mix humor with a critique of technology and education while simultaneously condemning western imperialism and recounting events of the day basically while they are happening.  

One can find few films as startlingly contemporaneous as Le gai savoir, which began shooting before the upheavals of the wildcat strikes of May ’68 and finished in the wake of them. The seeds of the strike were sown in student demonstrations that began March 22 in Nanterre and which moved by May 3 to the Sorbonne in the Left Bank’s Latin Quarter. Police with shields, truncheons and grenades came to clear the area and some students revolted by throwing cobblestones out of the pavement and setting up a barricade. Soon, the strike had spread to French workers with millions—a fifth of the French population—walking off the job. De Gaulle fled briefly to Germany, returned to negotiate and soon called new elections, which despite widespread unrest ushered in an era of renewed strength for the Gaullists. At the beginning of Godard’s La chinoise filmed the year before, the angry voice of a leftist declares on the voiceover, “The French working class won’t politically unite nor go to the barricades just for a 12% rise in wages.” Unfortunately this is precisely what happened, with the average worker’s wage increasing by just 10% and minimum wage by a quarter. Due to the rapid increase in living expenses, these gains would soon amount to nothing. In hindsight, many would feel betrayed by the cooperation of the CGT (the communist-dominated labour union Confédération Générale du Travail) and the communist party. As Daniel Singer notes in his marvelous conspectus of the May events Prelude to Revolution: “That very same morning the car workers of Renault rejected the compromise, and their resounding Non spread throughout the country, showing that the mood of the workers was more militant, more radical, than that of their spokesmen and thereby undermining the whole Communist thesis.”(1) 

If historical accounts can shed light on Le gai savoir likewise it and Godard’s other features of this period are valuable contributions to understanding the youth and climate of leftist politics of the time—its hopes, catchphrases and the discord within and among its factions which seem indefinitely divided into Leninists, Maoists, Trotskyites, socialists, anarcho-syndicalists, et cetera. The portraits of Patricia and Émile and their wide-ranging explorations are as much ethnography as a turning point for discourse. The conversation that occurs between them is quite dense but returns to the same themes again and again: The need to educate but to first return to zero, an erasure of all conditioning and assumptions in order to achieve clarity. Their loneliness and isolation. The power and misuse of media. When Patricia announces that they are on television the fourth wall is broken. “A home, isn’t that an optical thing?” Émile asks, an ambiguous yet evocative question. A home after all as well as being a place to live in, is something to be seen, something shown to others. Thus, a home is fuel for consumerism, including the need for a television set, which at that time was in 60% of French homes. To put the burgeoning importance of television into context, a 1967 survey “showed that more than half of French dwellings had neither bathroom nor shower and no inside toilet. In rural areas, almost a quarter of the houses had no running water.”(2) France was trying to compete with America in its consumerism, but its infrastructure was not equipped to meet demand. Like many, Godard was disturbed by this encroaching consumerist mentality and abuse of technology, fearing its effects on French society. In one intertitle, Godard references Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man, which shares many of these concerns. Godard’s need to reference, eventually manifesting in entire films constructed from quotations, has been branded elitist by some. As Le gai savoir is a film about listening and engagement, it seems only fitting, and if anything, an act of humility. As one character says in La chinoise, “We are the words of others.”

After Émile and Patricia determine that they must learn before teaching others, the camera pans left past where they sit with the translucent umbrella which Patricia says is “a reflector of consciousness” into the total darkness of the studio. To learn is to enter the dark. Bach’s Siciliano BWV 1031, sonata for flute and harpsichord (transcribed for piano) begins playing, used sparingly but to great effect throughout the film. While the music is baroque, the glittering dark and the figures of Patricia and Émile are steeped in romanticism.

Suddenly the pan cuts to footage of a street scene, and then an advertisement which shows men lifting a giant razor. Written in black marker in Godard’s handwriting: “Révolution” with a giant R, followed by small letters, the design of the writing indicating the image’s role as a didactic tool. “Rousseau,” (Émile’s last name) says a boy’s voice. An image of what looks like pastel puzzle pieces with a pair of eyes peering out of them. “I  mage” written on it, a separation between I and mage. Godard knows that images are magic. Language too can be cracked open, returned to zero. The educational tools reference Jean-Jacques Rousseau's "Émile," which is supposed to be an educational treatise in novel form. In these stunning collages incorporating text, book covers, and pop media and in some of dialogue between the main characters, Godard manages that near-impossible feat: He is brazenly didactic, and yet turns this didacticism into an art and a thing of beauty.

More footage of street life, crosscut with images of bound Vietnamese prisoners in agony. “Until the end of the earth,” says a voice. Images cut very quickly into the diegesis and amongst themselves. While the set is extremely minimal, the actors and props in Godard’s typical palette of primaries, the “psychological primary” of green with a bit of secondary color, the cinematic complexity of this film lies in the subtle and mesmerizing use of text and image and in the way it erupts within the mise en scène with a spontaneity which seems at the speed of consciousness itself. But in this day and age of home media, do not be intimidated by this film: If something goes by too quickly and you wish to examine it further, you can simply rewind, watch it again, and pause to pour over the images.  

Voiceover (which as in most cases is Godard’s voice): “You no longer recognize the world of your language.” A scene of roadwork, a van and a worker with a barrel of rubble. This is the revolutionary enterprise: to deconstruct is to work as much as building something. Émile sings with the translucent umbrella (a reference perhaps to Gene Kelly in Singin’ in the Rain): “A constant current between the biological nature of man and the constructions of intelligence must be established, must be established.” This is an important observation. As man’s mind evolves, he further coevolves with the environment he has created. Both our habits and structures can damage the quality of our existence and be difficult to extricate ourselves from, even if they are touted by the powers that be as being beneficial. In Le gai savoir Godard is trying to guide the viewer into questioning these habits and structures.  

“There is no asphalt of oblivion,” says Daniel Singer.(3) Years ago the cobblestones in the Latin Quarter where student riots occurred were sealed off with a layer of pavement. A sign, Singer says, that authorities worry such events might recur. Although the strikes shook France in its entirety, the aftermath brought twenty years of rule by conservative governments. The left not only failed to take power, but had become hopelessly fractured. First refused airtime on French television for which it was made, and then promptly banned from French theatres, Le gai savoir was obviously a very radical film in and of its era. Now, of course, like other Godard films you can readily purchase Le gai savoir on DVD to watch it in the comfort of your living room. As we enter a new era of widespread protest this ease of availability of radical cinema may perhaps say more about how deeply entrenched our infrastructures and apathy are, and how very misguided our attempts at organization, rather than being any gauge of freedom of thought or mobility within our societies. If Le gai savoir is a study of failure, we require its message because we are still failing. “Blatant truths belong to the bourgeois philosophy,” Godard tells us. He formulates no strict dogma. What is most valuable and certain in this film though is reflected in one scene where Émile compares Patricia’s face to being that of a lamp, her hair a wick. While many thoughts are dubious, we can all of us be beacons to one another. As Godard instructs us in the intertitles, “the true revolutionary is guided by great feelings of love.” This is the most important message of the film, as well as that of the timeless French spirit of revolution found in one of the many slogans revived at that time: “Run, comrade, run, the old world is behind you.”


1. Daniel Singer, Prelude to Revolution: France in May 1968. (Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 1970, 2000, 2002), p. 11.

2. Singer, p. 85.

3. Singer, p. 4. 

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