Alfred Hitchcock may have been the one who famously likened actors to cattle, but leave it to Jean-Luc Godard to actually depict the analogy. Throughout Godard’s Grandeur et décadence d’un petit commerce de cinéma (The Rise and Fall of a Small Film Company), his comic 1986 contribution to the multinational “Série noire” program, the iconoclastic French auteur pokes and prods a roundup of filmmaking measures, from the casting corral and the necessary financial wrangling to the ever-evolving technical wilderness of modern media. Recently born again into the world of narrative filmmaking (a singular variety of narrative filmmaking, to be sure), Godard began the 1980s with Sauve qui peut (la vie) (Every Man for Himself, 1980), a release he dubbed his “second first film.” The transitional period that followed—and no one has had more transitional periods than Godard—went on to generate some of his finest work: the madcap Prénom Carmen (First Name: Carmen, 1983), the scandalous Je vous salue, Marie (Hail Mary, 1985), and the genre-twist Détective (1985). But the film Grandeur et décadence most resembles (aside from Le mépris/Contempt some twenty years before) is Godard’s Passion (1982), a similarly meandering, self-aware assessment of the moviemaking business.
Godard’s submission to the television anthology, produced by TF1 and Hamster Productions, is ostensibly based on James Hadley Chase’s 1964 novel “The Soft Centre,” the same novel being adapted by Grandeur et décadence’s main compatriots, film director Gaspard Bazin (Jean-Pierre Léaud) and producer Jean Almereyda (Jean-Pierre Mocky). Added to the mix is Almereyda’s wife, Eurydice (Marie Valera), an actress looking for her big break in this haphazard production. Compared to what Godard put forth in the decade prior, and what he would steer toward as the following decade ensued, his work of the 1980s progressed along a path of relative normalcy, with discernible plots and a stable, if not exactly conventional, editorial structure. But as a sketchy reworking of Chase’s detective text, Grandeur et décadence retains few of the pulp foundation’s superficial qualities; the cloudy criminal enterprise does feature espionage, theft, monetary manipulation, betrayal, and violence. Not surprisingly, however, Godard readily and joyously takes these narrative threads and effectively entangles them to the point of near irrelevance, as the film becomes more about its central themes than the professed story it has to tell. The resulting picture is, as Richard Brody describes it, “A film noir, of sorts, about the making of a film.” But it is far more devoted to the latter process than it is the former genre.
Grandeur et décadence is primarily another Godardian analysis of the always-precarious relationship between television, film, and video, preoccupations that have played an integral role in his modus operandi since the early 1970s. With intertitles taunting “The Omnipotence of Television,” Grandeur et décadence takes unmistakable aim at TV’s technological influence and integration, not only as it relates to and counters cinema, but also other, more revered forms of art and communication; Gaspard repeatedly holds up classics of art and literature as superior to such trifling contraptions (when he and Jean stare at TV fireplace, it’s hard to argue with the empty banality of it all). There is the impression of characters settling for a second-rate medium when they resort to television, and given his involvement in the “Série noire” series, it’s an ironic, classically combative stance from Godard, who is, it would seem, doing just that. Even when—spoiler alert—Jean meets his demise, the news report of his death (on television) notes that like many independent producers, he “succumbed to commercial TV.” But film doesn’t get off any easier. “Cinema is going backwards as well,” states Godard himself as he makes a brief, comical cameo, and as Jean muses on the genesis of photography and film, he asserts their black and white origins were because they were a “reflection of the mourning of life.” The mortal suggestion has parallels in his contention that movies destroyed Gaspard and in an earlier statement about film almost being capable of stealing one’s life essence.
Never one to rest on the laurels of verbalized provocation, Godard augments the academic speculation of Grandeur et décadence—its thesis on the art and commerce of visual media and the state of the industry circa 1986—with the sort of formal defiance that put him on the map as far back as his heady New Wave days. Always keen to draw attention to filmmaking fundamentals like composition, lighting, and montage, Godard initiates a succession of imagery primed to enforce spectator detachment: characters posing with their backs to the camera or seen only as disembodied limbs protruding the frame; featureless figures in silhouette; individuals obstructed by objects or other bodies. More industrially, he also fills the picture with a veritable electronics department of technology, a proliferation of cables, cameras, televisions, and VCRs. To envision this operational disclosure, Godard shapes an audio-visual tableau built on the overlap of erratic audio cues (music and disparate sound effects) and details especially conducive to television, like color bars and monitors adorning the frame with screens-within-screens, a technique previously seen to far more complex effect in his Numéro deux (1975). Rather than jump-cuts and split-screens, Godard favors cross-dissolves and multiple superimpositions that form a composite single image (pointing the way to his use of 3-D in 2014’s Adieu au langage/Goodbye to Language). And even these transitional devices, connecting lines of thought as much as they link individual scenes, are rather fitful to say the least: the photographed and printed letters “SS” lead to the mention of Jews and the Gestapo, but it’s a mention that doesn’t go anywhere and only minutes later is rehashed in the form of an insipid joke. In any event, the method and the madness converge as they often do for Godard, making Grandeur et décadence what Wheeler Winston Dixon calls, “a quintessentially Godardian examination of the process of filmmaking, at once vicious and joyous, compromised and unfettered.”
For all its content centered on the technical means of filmmaking, the predominant focus of Grandeur et décadence is acting. Starting with a throng of aspiring thespians who flock inside the office space/studio (to the tune of Leonard Cohen’s “The Guests”), Godard charts the course of the on-screen profession with ceremonial headshots and a recurrent parade of people past the camera, hastily and at times harshly ushered through by filmmakers who provide only the vaguest of guidance, if any at all. The system is bland and serviceable, like rotating through uninspired merchandise or following nondescript parts on an assembly line. This regular procession, seen in several prolonged sequences, grows repetitive and lifeless, but it could easily be argued that is in fact the point. Returning to the assembly line comparison, these scenes recall the tracking shots of car manufacturing seen in Godard’s British Sounds (1970), where the piercing metallic howls and monotonous progression begs the question: If you think this is bad to watch, what do you think it’s like to experience for a living?
Nevertheless, successful casting was no small part of Godard’s filmmaking during this time, having just worked with the likes of Isabelle Huppert, Hanna Schygulla, and Michel Piccoli, all in Passion alone, and it would seem he could sympathize with the exasperating tedium, from the screen tests to the divvying out of coins on a paltry payday. To that end, Grandeur et décadence is unique in the Godard canon for the way its stylistic traits mirror character psychology. People behave in a manic style, with the type of random digressions and perplexing actions regularly seen in Godard’s more lighthearted fare of the period (see also his immediate feature follow-ups King Lear and Keep Your Right Up, both released in 1987), and Léaud in particular is, as Dixon notes, “frenzied beyond all reason in his quest for money and fleeting glory.” But Grandeur et décadence is exceptional in that the incessant variety of pictorial means (the discordant cutting, the obstinate camera placement, the layered dissolves, etc.) seems to reflect the high-strung sensibilities of the film’s primary characters, as they likewise struggle to balance compound details in a way that is somber and frantic, constantly theatrical, and ultimately laughable. It’s a haggling strain for all involved, and Godard renders that exertion in the film’s own hysterical constitution.
Naturally for Godard, Grandeur et décadence also peppers its premise with numerous allusions to popular culture. As savvy viewers will undoubtably notice, the character names of Gaspard Bazin and Jean Almereyda have their own cinematic roots (critic and guiding light André Bazin and gone-too-soon filmmaker Jean Vigo, whose real name was Jean Almereyda), while the film also contains chockablock references to everything from Woody Woodpecker to Janis Joplin singing about a Mercedes Benz and, fittingly enough, a color TV. Fellow directors get a nod, like Roman Polanski with his enviable budgets, Jean Cocteau, Jean Renoir, and John Cassavetes, who had recently, with Love Streams (1984), engaged in an unlikely collaboration with the notorious Cannon Group, just as Godard would do the following year with King Lear. And aside from Godard popping up for his walk-on (“But it’s Godard!” exclaims Jean), Grandeur et décadence is also awash with the filmmaker’s own common habits, like ubiquitous café conversations and certain tendencies toward disjointed exposition. Though Gaspard is scolded by Jean for reading passages about acting theory, which he deems too scholarly and thus voices just one age-old difference between the theoretical director and the more pragmatic producer, Jean (like Godard) is ever fond of contradiction. Before long, he is habitually pontificating on linguistic matters of word origin (“secretary” derives from “secret” he tells his guilt-ridden administrative assistant) and definition (“It’s odd,” he says, “‘Casual’ means ordinary but fatal accidents are also called ‘casualties.’”).
Grandeur et décadence is about piecing together incongruent elements into some sort of meaningful whole, like the animate and inanimate cogs that combine for any given film, or like the mixed-up words a young actress arranges into a sentence. Or it’s like the calculator keys seen so often in the film, tapping away to get at the sum of social security deductions, bank balances, and various receipts. It all adds up to a sardonic shuffle of existential and occupational questions, so often entwined as they are for Godard. On the other hand, though, in yet another cinematic bow, maybe it again comes back to Hitchcock and his distain for overthinking something. As Gaspard quotes, “My dear Ingrid, it’s only a movie.”