In this time in my life, when I feel my French is slipping away… that my own competance is one step above abysmal, I somehow find hope that all my French film fantasies are not lost, thanks to Godard and company. Ever since I can remember, French cinema has had a hold on me. France was not a perfect world, but an ideal one where art and personal expression were the norm. Part of this no doubt fits in what I knew of the 1920s, as post-war Paris was the artistic capital of the world where some of the most talented men and women of the time came together. From Hemingway, to Picasso, Paris could not be beat. Here is where the seed was planted. Then came Zola, who didn’t always write about Paris, but of France and it’s people. There wasn’t necessarily idealism in his writing, but the locales, the people and places intrigued and captured my imagination. Unlike my own home, Europe offered a place who’s history seemed endless to me, and ever present and living. Modern existence was ever connected to the past, and everyone seemed connected. It’s almost strange that Gregory Corso’s poem was one of my favourites, as to him it’s history was it’s death. Paris was dead, New York (and the “new” world) was alive.
Spirits of angels crouched in doorways,
Poets, worms in hair, beautiful Baudelaire,
Artaud, Rimbaud, Apollinaire,
Look to the nightcity –
Informers and concierges,
Montparnassian woe, deathical Notre Dame,
To the nightcircle look, dome heirloomed,
Hugo and Zola together entombed,
Seine generates ominous mud,
Eiffel looks down — sees the Apocalyptical ant crawl,
New Yorkless city,
City of Germans dead and gone,
Dollhouse of Mama War.
It was rather shortly after my discovery of this poem, that I found Godard.
To go back a bit, my fantasy was to live in Paris (if you couldn’t tell), and this didn’t seem to difficult or foreign because I thought my French was sufficient, or I would at least improve as I got older (which wasn’t the case). A few days ago, I was hit by how incompetent my French language was. Luckily my understanding isn’t too bad, but I can’t be relied to write in the language, and my spoken French leaves a lot to be desired. I seemed at a loss, as all my teenage romantic fantasies of the Old World seemed to be slipping away. I was about to write an entire post, mourning my lost dreams… until I started going through (mentality) Godard’s and even Truffaut’s filmography, realizing how many characters are not in fact French. I’m not afraid to admit, it lifted my spirits. I went from imagining the only way I could live a European dream was to be like the German wife in Fanny and Alexander, to remembering that Karina was Danish, and rarely (if ever) did she actually play a French woman. She was a foreigner living in Paris, going on French that was moderately better than my own, no doubt improved by being totally emerced in en entirely French environment (compared to my semi French one). Hope is not lost!
It may seem so silly to hold onto these fantasies are real. France is a much different place than it was in the 1960s, and especially the 1920s. Even though I don’t think you could say they sugar coated the city, it is still an idealised vision, especially through my eyes. I am aware that these dreams are likely not to be reality, and even given the opportunity to live in Paris, I don’t think it could ever live up to my expectations. Yet, if I were to lose my dreams however sillly they may be, I think it would hurt me more profoudly than I can express. My dream’s seem attainable, and once again it’s film that fuels that hope.
Aside from the wonderful Karina, in Breathless there was Jean Seberg and in Jules et Jim, Oskar Werner. I’m sure there are others, but that alone is enough to sastisfy. French New Wave is one of those movements that speaks to me so personally, that I really must thank the filmmakers for offering me a personal kinship. While I think Godard’s characters are often hopelessly lost, and often shallow, they still manage to be so human. This actually helps the films in the case of Contempt and more importantly (as I have a deeper connection to it) Band of Outsiders, that perfectly captures the loneliness, and the fantasy of youth. While many people name Rebel Without a Cause, or some 80s teen comedy as the film of their adolescence, Band of Outsiders is my choice. I first watched it when I was 17, and although that’s just on the brink of that period in my life it spoke to me… and spoke for those painful and treasured years (that really aren’t that far behind me, despite what my writing suggests). I was Karina, if not a little brighter. I spent (and still spend) a lot of time waiting for life to happen, or something exciting to come about. I never met two guys who were faux criminals, but I could see myself acting and reacting like her. Dancing in the cafe, or running around her parents house. I don’t think I ever would forget the cruelness of the real world though… something that the characters never came to terms with. For them, life was cinema… and I guess I didn’t learn the lesson, because their detachment from the real world caused their downfall. Yes… I don’t want to be exactly like the characters, just sorta like them… let’s move on.
Then of course there is Jules et Jim. I must admit being a lot more like Catherine than Karina it Band of Outsiders… well not only in Outsiders, but in most Godard films. I don’t think I’m as in the moment she is, and that might refute me from being like her at all since it’s a defining characteristic in her personality. I think it’s more that I relate to her struggle in being a woman, and wanting to be as free as a man. I don’t think she’s ignorant in the fact she hurts those she loves, but I don’t think it’s enough to stop her from behaving the way she does. Catherine is intelligent, talented and charismatic, but I think the most important thing is that she is a woman (as cheesy as that may sound). I can’t remember if it were Jules or Jim, but one of them remarked how she was the first and only woman… or something like that, and that line is very telling. Despite her struggle to be free (like a man), she is more woman than perhaps any character I’ve ever seen. All at once she relishes in this identity, and tries to escape it. It probably contributes to her polar personality, and moods. She is always running away from herself, and her life but always comes back. Catherine’s decisions are very self centered, although there is no doubt they cause her a lot of pain. She takes on what is traditionally perceived to be a male approach to sexuality and relationships, but her “womanhood” interphere with it. I must admit being something of a feminist, although I couldn’t tell you exactly in what ways. I don’t necessarily appreciate the general disinterest and supression of “female” characteristics by the media, and the world in general. I think that men and women are different, and should be appreciated for it. I never deny that there are certain emotions, characteristics and ways of thinking that are predominently present in one of the genders, and in this case I think it’s Catherine’s womanhood that makes her unable to deal with Jim marrying another woman. Despite her own unfaithfulness, she can’t emotionally or spiritually handle his. She is forever trying to be a man (even literally, dressing as one), but it’s her womanhood that drives her off that bridge. I don’t think this is anti-feminist in the least, but an admission of the roles we are forced to play in order to be free. It’s perhaps an oxymoron, because to be free we should be true to ourselves, at least the way I see it. Catherine unfortunately could not have lived, it wasn’t in her character. She is in many ways, perhaps the most interesting character put on celluloid and I don’t think anything less than a book, or a very long essay could do her justice. Perhaps all that needs to be said or shown is the film. It speaks for itself.
I think the conclusion that can be made from this is that maybe my fantasy isn’t so much about France, but about a wonderful menage-a-trois… I doubt anybody could make sense of that, but the point is I have to say thank you Godard and Truffaut, for allowing my fantastic dreams hang by a thread, however thin it may be. I don’t think my personal connections to these characters are on paper as strong as they feel in my heart. I feel like Catherine and Karina, but I probably am not like them. We may not share the same ways of living but we definetely share the same emotional and intellectual thoughts and concerns. As I continue to explore French New Wave (Cleo 5 a 7 will be next), I think I hope to continue to find these characters and moods that reflect my own life and experience. Paris is alive in my dreams, and hopefully one day it will be realised. I will be someone with a marginal handling of the French language, living and loving France.