To certain cineastes, Jean-Luc Godard is a sacred cow, an auteur who co-founded the French New Wave and who, even now as he nears 90, remains a provocateur. Michel Hazanavicius, the filmmaker best known for his OSS 117 spy parodies and his Oscar-winning silent The Artist, pokes at that sacred cow and throws a pie in his face for good measure in Godard Mon Amour, a comedy that captures the man just as his life is in transition. His films are undergoing a stylistic sea change as their author grows ever more political; he is embarking on a second marriage with his La Chinois leading lady Anne Wiazemsky, 17 years his junior; and as the strikes and riots of May ’68 explode, the 37-year-old director is intent on taking part even as his own midlife crisis rages.
“The movie is not an essay about Godard,” Hazanavicius says during a recent visit to the Bay Area where Godard Mon Amour screened at the SFFILM Festival. “It’s a comedy. I’m not a historian of cinema. I tried to make an entertaining movie. If I had to lie to do it, I would have done it. And maybe I did.”
The filmmaker remains captivated by Godard’s early work, less enchanted by the rest, but says he never intended to make a film about the man. But then he read Wiazemsky’s roman à clef, Un an après, about her relationship with Godard.
“I learned things and I fell in love with the character and the story, this love story and its themes and why it ended and the context of the period,” Hazanavicius says.
“He’s full of contradictions. There is something very freeing for a scriptwriter to work on a character who doesn’t care about being sympathetic,” he adds. “You can work on the negative parts of the character. You can put him in ridiculous situations and mix comedy with it. You can be ironic with him. My challenge was to find the right balance to make fun of him, but still hold the audience’s empathy for him.
“I think, in a way, he’s very heroic. He’s decided something, and he did it, whatever it cost him. It’s ridiculous, but also heroic. Also, he destroys everything around him, just in the name of revolution, but also himself. He’s his own victim.”
The character that emerges in Godard Mon Amour seems created out of equal parts of Charlie Chaplin’s gift for slapstick; Woody Allen’s penchant for self-deprecation; and Godard’s own intellectualism and radical politics. To play him, Hazanavicius settled on an actor not normally associated with comedy, 34-year-old Louis Garrel, a performer who has built his career on the work of auteurs: notably his father, Philippe Garrel (with whom Louis made his screen debut at 16 in 1989’s Les baisers de secours and who directed his son to a most promising actor César in 2005’s Regular Lovers ); Bernardo Bertolucci (The Dreamers); and Christophe Honoré (Dans Paris, Love Songs, and many more). He’s also a director himself, who debuted his first feature, Two Friends, in 2015.
“I don’t think Louis had ever even made a comedy,” Hazanavicius says. “He’s not famous as a funny guy. He’s very funny, but also touching.
“In real life, he’s very handsome. But I shaved his head and he had this very specific way of talking, which is Godard’s way of talking. I transformed him. I think it was brave of him to do it, because he really worships Godard. He’s part of that sect. Godard is a god for him. He was brave. He went out of his comfort zone, to make a comedy, to make a movie with someone who’s not his father or his friend. We didn’t know each other.”
Hazanavicius was born in 1967, the year before Paris (and so much of the world) erupted in unrest. Growing up, though, he says the spirit of that time was very much present. It was an era that was familiar to him when it came to time recreate if for his film. But he also knew he needed to recreate whatthat time was like for a man like Godard who experienced it as he was undergoing personal transition.
“I tried to recapture the spirit of May ’68, which was very – it was like a nice revolution,” Hazanavicius says. “They wanted to change things for the better and for the best. The way they made that revolution, you could believe you wanted a society made by these guys. They were fun. They were sexy. It was full of good energy.
“It was important to create the contrast with the character of Godard, who was almost 40. He was much older. He wanted to be with the young generation, but they rejected him. I need that contrast; I needed to show both sides of the conflict.
“To the character—I don’t know about in real life—youth is the most important virtue,” Hazanavicius avers. “He was claiming it and he was the director of youth. He was revolutionary. He was shaking cinema, shaking the bourgeoisie, shaking everything. But, suddenly, young people were shaking more than he could do. For him, it was very disturbing. I think that’s why he became more radical than everyone.”
Anne Wiazemsky passed away on October 5, 2017 at 70. She was able to see Godard Mon Amour before she died. She gave it her seal of approval.
“She really recognized Godard,” Hazanavicius says. “She was moved by the movie. She gave me the best compliment. She told me, ‘From a tragedy, you’ve made a comedy.’ That’s what I wanted to do.” –Pam Grady