Michel Hazanavicius on his Godard biopic: “This is why the ending is a sad one, he put politics before everything.”
We sat down with the Oscar-winning director to talk about his latest movie, Redoubtable
Michel Hazanavicius’ latest film follows Jean-Luc Godard’s life and relationship with Anne Wiazemsky during the late 60s where the director’s best work looked to be coming to a sudden end. This is partly due to his obsession with politics and the belief that old art needed to be destroyed in order for new art to exist. We talked to Michel about Godard’s famous destructive attitude, along with Redoubtable’s leads and Michel’s future movie ideas.
Is this film more indebted to Anne Wiazemsky’s memoirs or to the films of Godard?
Well it’s both. The challenge was to find the right balance between the negative things and the positive things. So, what she did very well in her books was to respect the woman she was back in the day, even though it’s 45 years afterwards, she respected the way she would see him. She was lucid about him, knowing he was doing some bad things, that maybe she didn’t realise at the time. So I had to find an equivalent, in terms of cinema, of how to pay homage to the artist which allowed me to be more ironic.
As a French filmmaker, how important has Godard’s work had on your own directorial career?
I used to go to art school and he was one of the few directors we would study there. It wasn’t a cinema school, he may really intimidate you at a cinema school. In art school, it’s less intense. He’s treated more as a pop culture figure. But of course he was important, he’s one of the few directors who you can say there is a before and after: he changed the rules of the game.
Do you relate to him as a film maker at all, or see a similarity between your entire filmography?
I wouldn’t say that, because I’m doing very classical stuff and comedy. Godard’s work was funny, but I’m not sure we can call it comedy. I think some people would be very unhappy with that definition. Working on the movie, what I wanted to do was not very technical. I wanted to play with some motives of his movies and more than the movies themselves, the memory of his films. There’s some things that directly come from his work and some are suggestions of what he could have done. So, the flavour of his movies was what was most important to me, and I wanted to frame it in a more classic-narrative way.
Does that mean you didn’t, as Godard would, improvise with the camera and actors?
No, not really. Because it’s a period movie it’s more difficult really. Talking about my work during the promotion – I don’t want to be presumptuous or anything – but maybe the similarity would be that we make the language of cinema visible. I do it in my comedies and I try to be funny with it, or sometimes I try to be smart with it and Godard was really working on that. However very different movies, and I would never compare myself to him!
Have you had any contact with Godard at all?
No. I sent a letter just to inform him I was preparing a movie about him.
With Louis Garrel was there a moment where you knew he was the perfect person to play Godard?
I didn’t write with him in mind, because the way Godard speaks is so specific that you imagine only Godard. But Louis was my first choice to play him when that stage of script writing came around. I thought he would be perfect in the role and it was a great collaboration.
Similarly with Stacy Martin as well?
Originally, I thought I would hire a younger actress, but it was not a good idea because I needed someone a bit sexier. I think she’s perfect, she’s beautiful and a very good actress. She has a timeless quality about her. My wife and her made a movie together, and my wife was the first to say that I should see Stacy.
Did you and Louis ever find it overwhelming portraying such a notorious figure on screen?
For me, no. Because I don’t adore him in a religious way. I think it was a lot more intimidating for Louis because he comes from that part of filmmaking – the pure arthouse movie. And of course, his father was connected to Godard, so Godard was a figure of importance for him as a kid. To me it was much more playful and freeing because it allowed me to tell a story in a very free form. When I did The Artist (2011) I loved it and respected the language, but it was incredibly rigorous. Because when you don’t have the dialogues, you can’t go too deeply with the characters, you have to be superficial in a way. You have to tell a very simple story and let the audience do the rest. Here, you can break the forth wall or put in inscription…you can do a lot of things.
I love the bit where Louis says something along the lines of “I’m nothing but a bad actor playing Godard” as Godard
[Laughs] Yes exactly, that was what was so freeing. I don’t know whether Godard did that or not, I think he did something similar in Weekend (1967), but most importantly he could have done that.
The breaking of his glasses was a great gag played throughout the movie, I particularly liked the instance after he has that iconic moment with the communist flag behind him and no sound – could you tell me more about the thought behind that scene?
My idea was to create a very nice moment, but mostly to prepare the joke for when he slipped and broke his glasses for the first time. So, my idea was to make it very surprising, so to make it a serene, timeless moment. It also shows one of the best things about Godard’s brain: the disconnection between sound and image. When editing the movie, it became a lot more powerful image.
It seems a main contradiction of Godard’s character you were trying to get across was the struggle between him being a high-brow celebrity and wanting to be a Maoist – is that true? Are there other contradictions that plagued him?
Yes, it is a huge contradiction. He comes from a rich family in Switzerland and he was a Maoist. But it brings some paradoxes, especially with his wife and of course he was one of the greatest authors, but also wanted to kill great authors. His revolutionary attitude of having to destroy the past to create something new was very destructive to him, he lost friends and girlfriends and changed how he saw the cinema and in the end he completely destroyed himself. This is why the ending is a sad one, he put politics before everything.
Yeah it was great how you portrayed his creative death as occurring at that time, and as Godard says in the movie all great artists die before they are 30, despite him being 37.
Yes exactly. That was an obsession of his that played on his mind a lot.
Do you think you shied away from his anti-Semitic views on Jewish people?
Yeah he had an obsession with Jewish people, I’m not sure if it was quite anti-Semitic but it’s not my problem, it’s his problem. He said some very, very harsh things and very strange things. I couldn’t do a movie with him as a main character and say nothing about it, so I wanted to do it in a way where it would not kill the empathy we had for him, but of course without glorifying him.
This is mostly centred around the events of La Chinoise (1967), if you were to choose another Godard film what would you pick?
I really love Un Femme Mariée (1964), because I think it is a really delicate movie and very simple. But Breathless (1960) and Vivre sa Vie (1962) are both really good.
Was there any part of you that wanted to do a movie about Godard and Karina’s relationship?
No, not really. The inspiration came from Anne’s book – I wasn’t going out looking to make a movie about Godard. I also think it’s the most interesting period of Godard, and if I was looking to make a film about him I think I would have still chosen this period. It’s a time that is very emblematic of the person.
After two historical films in The Artist and Redoubtable, are there any other periods or events you’d like to make a movie about?
Maybe one idea, I have this idea about a movie. I’d love to do it about an interview between Peter Bogdanovich and John Ford. It’s very funny because you have that New York, intellectual vision of cinema and he’s up against this old, Irish, West Coast tough guy! So, he asks very intellectual questions and the answers are amazing. John Ford is often like “I don’t know. I don’t know what you are talking about.” I think that would be an amazing backdrop to a movie.
Redoubtable is out in UK cinemas now
words by Tom WILLIAMS