A few months back (March) my birthday was filled with an abundance of Jean-Luc Godard gifts. I recieved a framed screen capture of the famous madison scene from Band of Outsiders, a vintage poster of Band of Outsiders (my favorite movie ever), the Criterion DVD of Contempt, and Colin McCabe's Godard - A Portrait of the Arist at Seventy. And what would you know, only 4 months later I finally finished the book.
It's no secret that McCabe is a complete and total Godard fanboy. At one point he even called Contempt "the single greatest work of art to come out of post-war Europe." He does not mince words when it comes to his admiration of the filmaker and in part that is what makes the biography so enjoyable. The book almost comes across as a love letter to Godard and his films. But, it isn't just the films he examines, he tries to find out what it is that makes Godard tick as well. So, you have a whole chapter on his upbringing and family tree. This chapter while at times tedious at least shows a total dedication on McCabe's part.
The second chapter gets into Godard's early film criticism, Cahiers du Cinema, and discussion of some of Godards early shorts and how he started to break into filmaking. There is talk of Godard's admiration for Nicholas Ray, Hitchcock, and Mizoguchi. Unsuprisingly there is an emphasis here on Andre Bazin who was a great influence to Godard and Truffaut alike. At the end of this chapter McCabe talks of the death of Bazin and claims that film criticism hasn't been the same since he died.
Next, McCabe devotes a whole chapter to the breakout of the French New Wave, and his films with Anna Karina. Full books of course can and have been written on these films. That being the case, sometimes this chapter feels a bit rushed, and as if it doesn't have as much insight as some of the other chapters. For instance, there is only two paragraphs on Band of Outsiders, which of course was a massive disappointment for me while reading. Nonetheless, the writing on Contempt and on the actual relationship between Godard and Anna Karina, and between Godard and his primary cinematographer of that era Raoul Coutard was satisfying.
It's when you get to the final two chapters though that you begin to understand why McCabe didn't go so far into depth on Godard's most well known period. While there is plenty of resources out there to read on those films, there has not been as many on really any of his films post Weekend. A full chapter is devoted to Godard's films in his Marxist period and his relationship with Anne Wiazemsky. McCabe goes into great depth on some made for tv films of Godard from this period which I have not seen, and doubt I will ever be able to track down. But, the final chapter may have been my favorite.
In the final chapter McCabe talks at length about Godard's work post 1980, his Histoire(s) du Cinema project, and his relationship with Anne-Marie Mieville. McCabe is of the opinion that some of Godard's best work has come in these later stages of his career. His praise for the Histoire(s) is absolutely gushing. But at the same time, he notes some of Godard's shortcomings, noting that his Anti-Americanism is in part irrational, and has hindered some statements he has tried to make in later films. I think that is in part why I found this chapter to be my favorite. I loved how McCabe focused on Mieville as a muse for Godard, and the beauty of their relationship with eachother. Some of the films he speaks of, I have not seen, but I want very much to believe that these films are great, that Godard still can create work that is vital. And McCabe makes a convincing case. And yet, at the same time, as I said, he does honestly point out some shortcomings. I found myself re-reading this last chapter a day after I finished the book.
Clearly, if you have no interest in Godard this book would bore you to death. But if you have even a passing interest in his films, or in film history in general, I think you can find a lot to like here.