Cinema superstar Jean-Luc Godard is making a comeback. This is important news, because it means his stimulating brand of filmmaking will be accessible to a much wider audience than it has had in recent years.
It's even more important if it signals a change in American moviegoing, which would benefit from more openness to works that challenge the sensationalism and commercialism of many Hollywood products.
Whatever the deeper meanings of the development, Godard's films are definitely finding increased visibility on American screens. His newest movie, "For Ever Mozart," is his first picture in several years to have a regular US release, courtesy of New Yorker Films.
At the same time, filmmaker Martin Scorsese and Strand Releasing are presenting a revival of "Contempt," Godard's 1963 masterpiece starring Michel Piccoli as a French screenwriter, Brigitte Bardot as his discontented wife, Jack Palance as a high-powered producer, and legendary director Fritz Lang as himself.
Godard launched France's powerful New Wave movement with his energetic "Breathless" almost 40 years ago, and to this day he inspires high praise. A fellow filmmaker has called him "the one ... who never disappoints me," and a noted critic has hailed "Contempt" as not just a fine movie but "the greatest work of art produced in postwar Europe."
American moviegoers are less receptive to European pictures than they were in the 1960s, however, when Godard's visits to the United States were major events for countless admirers. Compounding this difficulty is the challenging nature of Godard's work, which calls on audiences to shed Hollywood-style viewing habits. While ordinary movies encourage us to be passive consumers, he craves an audience that's alert, engaged, and critical.
"For Ever Mozart" demands just such an attitude, and its success in US theaters may indicate whether the Godard revival will gather more momentum. The main character is a filmmaker whose new picture goes astray when he can't find the proper cast. He goes to work on a theatrical production in Sarajevo instead, but this runs aground as the Bosnian war hurtles toward the city. Godard sees the horrors of war as a symbol for modern greediness and materialism. What he cries out for in their place is a rebirth of art, which can heal society by guiding it toward higher, more refined values.
With its references to wartime savagery and vulgarity in the entertainment world, "For Ever Mozart" is itself less refined than some moviegoers might wish. But its messages are uplifting and its cinematic beauty is breathtaking. It's also very funny - as when it begins its Mozartean voyage with a passage from one of Beethoven's most beloved pieces!
'Contempt" begins with a shot of Godard's camera gazing at us from the screen. Then it shifts to the dramatic story of a writer trying to adapt "The Odyssey" for a Hollywood producer who's more impressed with his own power than the glories of ancient Greece.
Also involved in the tale is a great filmmaker whom the writer - like Godard himself - admires. But the writer's attention wanders when his wife loses respect for him, convinced he's allowing the producer to flirt with her. The movie reaches its climax during a sun-drenched visit to a Mediterranean island, stunningly filmed in a setting that combines modern architecture with the timeless beauty of exquisite landscapes and seascapes.
At once intelligent, deeply emotional, and original, "Contempt" deserves its reputation as a brilliantly absorbing work. Godard's enthusiasts will be thrilled with the newly made wide-screen prints being shown in its current revival, and newcomers can now make the acquaintance of a movie long unavailable in its original form.
* Adding to the Godard festivities, Lincoln Center's Walter Reade Theater is hosting 'Jean-Luc Godard Movieman,' a series of eight major films from different stages of his career: the seminal 'Breathless,' the tragic 'My Life to Live,' the comedy-drama 'Band of Outsiders,' the complex 'Every Man for Himself,' the painterly 'Passion,' the tumultuous 'Weekend,' the mythic 'Hlas pour moi,' and the enigmatic 'Nouvelle Vague.' It continues through July 17.