Reviews | Written by Nigel Watson 05/02/2016


This five-disc box set features Godard’s best early feature films. They are À Bout De Souffle (Breathless, 1959), Une Femme est Une Femme (A Woman is a Woman, 1961), Le Mépris (Contempt, 1963), Pierrot Le Fou (1965) and Alphaville (1965) along with six hours of extras that include trailers, documentaries and interviews with Anna Karina and Fritz Lang and a booklet with essays about his work is also thrown in for good measure.

Breathless lives up to its title by following the misadventures of small time crook Michel Poiccard (Jean Paul Belmondo), who races down the country lanes of France in his stolen US car cursing women drivers. Not surprisingly a police chase ensues with tragic consequences, and he returns to Paris to track down some money he’s owed.

Based on a treatment by François Truffaut, using real locations, handheld and tracking camera shots, and edited using jump cuts, it marked the beginning of French New Wave cinema that broke all the rules and themes of prevailing French cinema.

These techniques perfectly blend with the hustle and bustle of the Paris streets and the hectic comings and goings of Michel. Even though he is evading the law he finds time to pester Patricia Franchini (Jean Seberg) who is an on/off girlfriend. His is a world of petty criminality and casual sexual encounters. As in all Godard films, US culture, new technology, movies, literature, love and their meanings are featured, discussed and questioned.

Paris is the setting again for a love triangle in A Woman is a Woman. Angela (Anna Karina) is a stripper who is desperate to have a child, but her husband Emile (Jean-Claude Brialy) isn’t keen on the idea. Bookseller Emile would rather go off cycling and is only willing to concede to her needs when she flirts with his best friend Alfred (Jean-Paul Belmondo). Whereas Breathless was a black and white tribute to the Poverty Row action and adventure films made by Monogram Pictures, A Woman is a Woman tilts its hat at US musical comedies and fittingly uses color and Cinemascope.

In Contempt, Godard shows his disdain for the many problems and issues involved in the production of a film. Using the story of Paul Javel (Michel Piccoli), a scriptwriter who is married to Camille (Brigitte Bardot), he is taken on by Jeremiah Prokosch (Jack Palance), a flash American producer, to pump some life into his latest film.

Jeremiah is obviously a philistine as he wants to turn Fritz Lang’s (starring as himself) thoughtful film about Homer’s The Odyssey, into something with topless mermaids to bring in the punters. Making things even worse, Jeremiah lusts after Camille, so for the sake of money Paul has to prostitute himself artistically and his wife literally. This mirrors Godard’s own discontent with the filmmaking process in general and the behind-the-scenes battles with his producer Carlo Ponti and the American movie mogul Joseph E. Levine, and problems with his marriage to Anna Karina.

Alphaville takes us into the realms of science fiction, though it is still filmed in Paris rather than using studio set ups or specially created props. Private eye Lemmy Caution (Eddie Constantine) heads to Alphaville in his Ford Galaxie car. He is a character from the earlier age of naive, simplistic, B-movie worlds that were inhabited by the likes of Flash Gordon and Dick Tracy. The question is can they help us now against the might of Von Braun (Howard Vernon), who rules the planet with technology and logic?

To succeed in Alphaville you have to be a master of technology. Von Braun tells Lemmy, if he joins his technological elite he will get "all the money and women you want". Lemmy isn’t impressed. 

Alphaville, shows the war in the future between the cold, rational, controlling force of the Alpha 60 computer that minimalises ‘the unknowns’ and Lemmy who fights it because it would give him "nothing more than a physical and mental existence created and dictated by technology.”

Alpha 60 recognises that the unthinking allegiance to science and/or religion by the ordinary person has led inevitably to the conclusion that if they cannot take their destiny into their own hands then they "must be destroyed, which is to say, transformed". Alpha 60 wants to relieve man of the burden of existence, whilst Lemmy wants to embrace poetry, human freedom and expression.

Pierrot Le Fou is a tale of escape and tragedy much like Breathless, but this time it is a bourgeois married man, Ferdinand Griffon (Jean-Paul Belmondo), who seeks escape in the French Riviera with his young babysitter Marianne Renoir (Anna Karina). They have a bohemian existence by the sea but Marianne gets bored with Ferdinand’s constant reading, writing and philosophy. On returning to Paris, Marianne much like Patricia at the end of Breathless, double-crosses him. The sad clown of a man ends the drama with a tragic series of actions that Alpha 60 would certainly never understand.

These are excellent, engaging, early examples of Godard’s adventurous exploration of film, fiction, reality and the nature of being human. FIN


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