Saturday, November 22, 2008

Associational Narrative Form in Godard's MASCULIN/FEMININ

My initial reaction to MASCULIN/FEMININ after the screening was one of perplexity and stupefaction. I thought that the film was," all over the place," and lacked a certain thematic unity that could be discerned in all of Godard's previous films no matter how far he might have digressed from the plot. But my previous post on the elided scene of Paul's death has now caused me to re-examine MASCULIN/FEMININ (Henceforth simply M/F) after wrestling with the film in my head for several hours last night. Now I believe that what Godard has accomplished within M/F is the exploration and expansion of a new type of cinematic narrational form that I call: associational narrative form. It is called associational because the concept is similar to Sergei Eisenstein's theory of association montage, but practiced not at the level of the justapositioning of shots, but instead at the level of mise-en-scene and the juxtaposition of dramatic actions within a scene. Eisenstein described association montage as the combination of shots as means of creating," chains of psychological associations... As a means for pointing up a situation emotionally." (1) He uses an example from his film STRIKE to illustrate the concept: In STRIKE," the montage of the killing of the workers is actually a cross montage of this carnage with the butchering of a bull in an abattoir. Though the subjects are different, "butchering" is the associative link. This made for a powerful emotional intensification of the scene." (ibid) Despite critic Andre Bazin's vehemence against montage and his oversimplification of Eisenstein's concepts we have seen this form of associative montage before in the opening of Charlie Chaplin's MODERN TIMES (e.g. workers and sheep) and of course Francis Coppola's APOCALYPSE NOW (e.g. The butchering of Colonel Kurtz and the slaughtering of a water buffalo). In both instances there is a powerful intensification of emotion wrought from the justaposition of the different, yet associatively similar shots. In MODERN TIMES there is the emotion of humor elicited from the juxtaposition and of course in APOCALYPSE NOW there is the emotion of 'horror'. But knowing that Godard and the other New Wave directors were all put in a rather precarious position vis-a-vis montage and Bazin's "democratic" mise-en-scene there was a concerted effort to find new ways of cinematic expression without resorting to Soviet-style montage aesthetics or repeating the deep focus mise-en-scene of Welles and Renoir. Of all the French New Wave directors we know that Godard explored and experimented the most within these two parameters, adapting and changing his style with almost reckless abandon; opening new stylistic door ways and seeming to dare anyone to go through them. M/F presents us with another one of these sytlistic doorways by applying the notion of association montage to mise-en-scene and dispensing with classical cinematic narrative.
Quickly, in Classical cinematic narrative form every scene has a direct causal relationship to the preceding scene that endorses the purposive conveyance of dramatic information; that is, there is the deliberate organization of dramatic information from the end of one scene through to the next scene rather like Stanislavsky's concept of the "spine" of the play. In fact, this purposive conveyance follows from the tradition of the Elizabethan theatrical tradition where dramatic action was both physically unified under the proscenium arch and thematically unified via the causal relationship of scenes and Acts to one another. For instance, Act 1: Scene 1 of Shakespeare's Macbeth introduces the three witches who announce that they will meet again to," meet with Macbeth," thereby establishing a causal relationship and dramatic purposiveness to Scene 2 which describes Macbeth's military achievements on behalf of the king. Thus, each scene has a direct causal relationship to the next via the movement of dramatic material within one scene that builds on that initial movement- gaining in momentum through various scenes and Acts until the climax: the showdown with Macduff and the beheading of Macbeth.
It is my contention that what Godard has done in M/F is that he has dispensed with that form of classical cinematic narrational form which was borrowed from the theatre that I have previously described and he has created a full length associational narrative form; a narrative form where the causal relationship of purposive dramatic action from scene to scene has been muted in favor of presenting a juxtaposition of various dramatic actions within a scene that involves a rich interplay between the principal characters and background characters that the story is not following in contiguity. For instance, in the opening cafe scene where Paul (Jean-Pierre Leaud) introduces himself to Madeleine (Chantal Goya) and the two discuss a mutual friend, the scene changes from a series of perpendicular counter-shots to a wide angle reverse shot of the cafe which has Madeleine and Paul balanced on opposite sides of the frame in the foreground and another couple with a child seated together at table in the background. (2) The husband and wife are in great emotional distress and the sound of Paul and Madeleine's conversation is muted as the background sound of the husband and wife's argument in brought forward on the soundtrack. This is a deliberate inversion of what is known as the point of audition where," the choice was between a [sound] recording that duplicated the camera position, so that the volume given the dialogue would change as the picture cut, say, from a close up to a full shot, and one that would insist on the independence of the audio from the pictures, keeping the microphone close to the mouths of the characters even when they were seen from far away." (3) In the case of this opening scene in M/F Godard has chosen to increase the volume of characters who are the furthest away from the camera and decrease the volume of the main characters who are in the foreground of the shot. It is in this way that the mise-en-scene is being split into two planes of dramatic space instead of using two different shots (e.g. one of Paul and Madeleine and another of the the couple). The scene continues with the husband angrily leaving out of the cafe with the child and the wife going back to the table for her purse. She pulls out a gun and rushes outside of the cafe and shoots him in the back. He falls dead. She throws the gun down and runs away with the child. Here we are given two different dramatic events that are not organized by a plot, but instead have been associated together via mise-en-scene, camera placement, and soundtrack emphasis. The beginning of one relationship between a young couple is juxtaposed with the destruction of the relationship of an older couple. By associating the two circumstances via mise-en-scene instead of montage the spectator is forced into a different relationship with the film. The spectator cannot look for classical purposive dramatic action within a scene, but must now re-orientate themselves to a form of narration where different circumstances are divided within the frame and contrasted with each other. Associational narration form in M/F as the duel effect of 1) forcing a comparison and contrast between the two circumstances which expands the narration from that of simply a set of characters to the relationship between a set of characters and their environment; and 2) introduces a higher degree of fatalism within the film as the associations build up resonances that seem to impinge upon the characters by the film's end.
This associational narrative form had also been practiced briefly in earlier French New Wave films. In Agnes Varda's CLEO de 5 a 7, the first cafe sequence (Chapitre 2: Angele de 17h:08 a 17h:13) where Cleo meets with her personal assistant Angele and is upset over her tarot card reading and her impending cancer test results. When she finally calms down and orders a coffee, she drinks it as Angele engages in a discussion with the cafe manager off-screen. The camera moves in closer to frame Cleo as she drinks on the right hand side of the image and on the left side of the image we can see a couple at another table behind her breaking up. The effect is much the same as in Godard's M/F but here Cleo's anxiety is compared with her assistant who doesn't think the situation is that grave and her anxiety is contrasted with the couple whose love is falling apart. Cleo relationship to her environment is emphasized between the sound of her assistant telling a story and the sound and image of the couple breaking up next to her. The mise-en-scene has been split in two on the image track and in three on the sound track. There is a fatalism increased in these associations that eventually resonate within the character as the film reaches its finale. Thus, via camera placement and the emphasis of sound (first on the assistant's voice and then on the dialogue between the couple) associational narration juxtaposes mise-en-scene to break up the causal relationship of classical narration. Godard explored associative narration in VIVRE SA VIE (the machine gun fire in a cafe as well as Karina observing a happy couple at a table next to her) and UNE FEMME MARIEE (as Charlotte overhears two young girls discussing sex and boys behind her at a cafe). Yet in M/F Godard pushed this narrative form to the forefront by using the technique beyond simple cafe scenes. The scene on the Metro which quotes Leroy Jones' THE DUTCHMAN is played out as Paul looks on at the two black men and the white girl. Also when a man threatens Paul with a knife and then uses it to kill himself or when Robert distracts a military chauffeur while Paul paints an anti-Vietnam slogan on his car. Each one of these examples does not have a direct causal relationship to the scenes which proceed them but instead builds up a chain of associations that cannot be resolved until the end of the film.
The true meaning of associational narrative form is not found in the sequential order of the narrative where scenes build upon previous scenes, but instead the meaning is suspended until the final scene or final actions or circumstances that we witness happening to the principal characters. Only at the finale of an associational narrative does the spectator have the opportunity to fully assess the meaning of the various dramatic juxtapositions. During the film one only encounters the startling effect of the juxtapositions as when the man stabs himself in front of Paul in M/F, but after the final scene one can recognize both the associational structure and discern its meaning which is usually (but not always) a pre-figuration of the fate of the principal characters. In M/F it is the theme of murder and/or pre-determined suicide that prefigures Paul's murder or suicide at the end of the film. The narcissism of a pop-star is pre-figured in Madeleine by Bridget Bardot learning her lines for a play in the cafe scene as well as the interview with a consumer product scene. Thus, associational narration is a process of pre-figuring the fate of principal characters via the observed fates of background characters; it is a process whose meaning or thematic associations are not fully revealed until the finale of the film.
Finally, another important feature of the associational narrative is episodic construction or the use of scenes as independent episodes that fade out or cut to black and stand separated from the preceding or following scenes as self-contained narrative units. We see an episodic construction in Cleo de 5 a 7, Vivre sa Vie, and in M/F. Episodic construction is yet another means to insure that the film's scenes are not to be read as having a direct causal relationship to preceding or following scenes since the episodes can begin and end arbitrary to the plot and don't have to adhere to a strictly contiguous linear temporal order. I believe Godard employed this strategy in M/F as a means of finding a balance between Bazinian aesthetics and the significance of montage to cinematic expression. We know that Godard was at pains to reconcile his allegiance to Bazinian aesthetic notions of long take and democratization of mise-en-scene with his knowledge of montage as an important syntactical function of cinematic expression. His ideas about associational narration can be seen germinating as early as 1956 in his article, Montage My Fine Care, which he wrote for Cahiers du Cinema. In the article Godard states that," if direction is a look, montage is a heartbeat. To foresee is the characteristic of both: but what one seeks to foresee in space, the other seeks in time... talking of mise-en scene automatically implies montage." (4) Here we can see that Godard realized the importance of montage and mise-en-scene as expressive tools of cinematic narration and that he could effectively alternate between the two principles by emphasizing one or the other within a single film. Associational narration is attempt to practice montage at the level of mise-en-scene by juxtaposing different dramatic events between the principal characters and the background characters within a single scene. Instead of cutting to various shots, aspects of the mise-en-scene are "enlarged" (e.g. the use of sound in M/F or the use of titles in Une Femme Mariee) to create the juxtaposition in a unified field of view. The murder or suicide of Paul at the end of M/F forces the spectator to see these juxtapositions as pre-figurations of the final circumstances of a principal character whose fate is that of death.


(1) Page 57, FILM FORM, Sergei Eisenstein. Harvest. New York. 1949
(2) Godard is again here deliberately avoiding the use of a standard shot reverse-shot sequence by shooting Madeleine in a straight on medium shot and Paul from a side angle medium shot of his profile.
(3) Page203, FILM PRODUCTION THEORY, Jean-Pierre Geuens, State University of New York Press, Albany. 2000.
(4) Page 39, Godard on Godard, ed. Tom Milne, Da Capo, New York 1972.

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