2016 Film Essays

At the Cinémathèque: Jean-Luc Godard Finds Pleasure In Estrangement with ‘Passion’


In Jean-Luc Godard’s 1982 film, Passion, Isabelle Huppert’s stuttering voice is out of sync until she brings a harmonica to her lips. The audience has been let in on the joke — in this cinematic universe, the audio-visual image has lost its veracity and cannot be trusted. Centered on a made-for-television film, Passion blends the far reaches of Western art with the birth of new mediums. By way of its idiosyncratic and playful tone, the film challenges the audience’s belief in the supremacy of realism in the cinema.

Godard doesn’t settle on his laurels for his concepts, and a sometimes out of sync soundtrack could have easily been the extent of his experiment. The complex sound design in the film uses layered voices from various sources as diegetic realities intersect, creating a rich auditory experience. This seems to be a practice run for future explorations that Godard would take up in his more contemporary work, as he continues to toy with even more sounds, voices and music on an ever crowded soundtrack. Beyond just the layers of sound and music, characters are dubbed; they stutter and cough. Godard challenges audio as the binding agent between reality and fiction and exposes the artificiality of all creation.


Within Passion, the persistent recreation of famous paintings — in both irreverent and painful detail — exposes how the art world diffuses the impact of the artist as a labourer. Too often, we deem a work of art as sourced from divine inspiration, downplaying the work of the artist and shutting off any meaningful engagement. As if to say that, in the contemporary era, any art that aspires towards realism might be even more artificial than poorly synchronized sound, Godard exposes the lies we tell ourselves, little by little, about the way the art world works. In this context, bringing attention to the labor breaks down the hierarchy of the artist as God. Rather than indulging in too much self-congratulation, Godard diffuses any grandstanding with humour and grace, refusing to let his ideas collapse under the weight of overt seriousness. More Frank Tashlin than dense philosophy, Godard’s Passion focuses on pleasure rather than stiff lecturing. 


The film plays with the idea of some important tenants in the philosophy of cinema, such as a moment when Huppert breaks the fourth wall. Cast behind her, a glowing light acts as a halo, deeming her cinema’s newest goddess. Huppert evokes Marlene Dietrich and Renée Jeanne Falconetti, as she stares into the audience and preens. Does the camera work as a mirror or a window? In this case, it serves as both, suggesting a fixed narrative of theory limits rather than expanding how we think about film. Throughout Passion, Godard seems to approach the medium as if it were just discovered, as he tries to undo the assumptions about the essence of cinema while losing himself to happy accidents and obsessions. Although the film dredges at points, the overall experience has an air of celebration as Godard pulls together both theory and poetry, showcasing that pleasure and estrangement are not antithetical.

Justine Smith (@redroomrantings) lives and writes in Montreal, Quebec. She has a bachelor’s degree in Film Studies and a passionate hunger for all kinds of cinema. Along with writing for Vague Visages, she has written for Vice Canada, Cleo: A Feminist Journal and Little White Lies Magazine.


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