Michel Hazanavicius on Redoubtable: ‘I had to be able to talk about Godard’s dark side’

The Oscar-winning director of The Artist has traded the silent era for the French New Wave in his new comic portrait of its most notorious auteur. But what did it take to channel Jean-Luc?

Jake Cunningham

Louis Garrel as Jean-Luc Godard in Redoubtable (2017)

Louis Garrel as Jean-Luc Godard in Redoubtable (2017)

Michel Hazanavicius burst silently on to the international stage in 2011 with The Artist, a love letter to early Hollywood. He’s now back with Redoubtable, which takes on the stylings of a different, but no less important, cinematic era: the French New Wave – in particular, the godfather of it, Jean-Luc Godard, and his relationship with actress Anne Wiazemsky.

In Redoubtable, the Godard we see flips from brief moments of malaise to supreme confidence, with questions of self-identity and anxiety constantly boiling under it all. When I sat down with Hazanavicius, the man playing Jean-Luc himself, Louis Garrel, was also present, and their dynamic seemed to have the same emotional partition that we see the great director also attempting to balance. Garrel is the silent Godard, sipping coffee, sat casually back in his chair (he doesn’t smoke, but for a while his vaping is the only thing coming out of his mouth).

I begin by saying to Hazanavicius that Redoubtable may be presented as a film about Godard, but it’s just as much Anne Wiazemsky’s film. He instantly retorts: “No, it’s my film!” Despite the lukewarm reception his film received a year ago at Cannes, it’s clear that Hazanavicius is the other Godard: passionate, assertive, and with a magnetic confidence.

Michel Hazanavicius filming Redoubtable

Michel Hazanavicius filming Redoubtable

The Godard in Redoubtable is at a turning point. It’s set around the time of La Chinoise (1967), when Godard was turning away from narrative filmmaking and increasingly wanting to be seen as political filmmaker. There’s a running joke around requests for him to make fun films again.

Hazanavicius says that both creatively and personally he sees this as “the most important chapter in [Godard’s] life”. A film about Godard’s successes wouldn’t be interesting – it’s the transformative period that fascinates; he is “destroying himself and starting something new in other ways and other ways and other ways”. Many of these “other ways” are recounted in Anne Wiazemsky’s 2015 book Un an après, the text Hazanavicius adapts here, chronicling Wiazemsky and Godard’s time together.

Hazanavicius says he still doesn’t know “which one is the main character – she tells the story, everything is seen from her point of view, but he’s very active”. He had no plans on making a film about Godard and Wiazemsky until he found the book, and it was their conflicted passion that drew him in. Forty years after the fact, “there was much love in the way she described their relationship, even if she knew it ended badly. So when I was doing the adaptation, my goal was to find the right balance between the negative side of Godard and the positive one.”

That balance is a challenge in any film, but is presumably exacerbated when the roles are so iconic. For Hazanavicius, the answer was distance. “In the process of writing, he was just ‘Jean-Luc’. He wasn’t ‘Godard’ anymore, and for me that was very freeing. Because I really worked on him as a normal character; I had to have distance to be able to talk about his dark side, to be able to make fun of him.”

As a result of maintaining that distance, the film’s boldest tribute to Godard is perhaps its form, pickpocketing from his 60s films with a few successful lifts. One emotionally charged scene takes place at the cinema, during a screening of Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) – a nod to Anna Karina’s own emotionally overwhelming viewing of that film in Vivre sa vie (1962). Addressing this intertextuality, Hazanavicius admits that “it might be one of the best scenes in Godard’s work… maybe it can be considered blasphemy, but I thought he was very playful, so I thought telling his story, I could be myself.” This magpie-like approach allowed him “to go a bit further in to the negative”, attempting to find a depth of character that Hazanavicius says he rarely finds in Godard’s films.

Redoubtable (Michel Hazanavicius, 2017)

“I really try to respect the characters and to tell the story. When you watch a Godard movie he doesn’t really care about characters. That’s not his point.” He pauses, reflecting on one of the most heavily referenced works in Redoubtable – “except for Le Mépris, [in which] there’s a real story with real characters! When you look at Breathless, you don’t really care about the character, you care about Jean-Paul Belmondo the actor.”

Redoubtable itself has a strange relationship with its actors and their real-life personas. One wink to camera is a joke that sees Garrel-as-Godard profess his distaste for actors. You do wonder whether there is a more probing, emotionally-led film beneath all the references; something Hazanavicius may be aware of. He tells me about a scene in which subtitles reflect the characters true feelings, not what they say. “When they were doing it, I thought I don’t need the subtitles, they are really good, the scene works by itself.”

Discussing this conflicted admiration for the character of Godard sparks something with Garrel. Initially drawn to the role by Godard’s internal strife, which coincided with the French riots of May 68, he says he was excited by the “relationship an artist can have with the collective movement” while experiencing turmoil in his private life. He suggests that the lighter tone of the film “could help audiences to have the distance to be able to watch a movie about politics”.

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