In her second book of 2022, My Life as a Godard Movie, the prolific British hybridist Joanna Walsh performs her own Parisienne summoning rite, invoking the specters and delights of the French capital from the solitudinous remove of early lockdown protocols. This is, in its way, a sidewise pandemic diary, a flâneuse’s account of longing for her bygone occupation: city-wandering, disappeared by a time when “there is no street.” As for many of us, the locational constrictions and temporal strangenesses of quarantine engendered in Walsh new ways of seeing, both where we have been — what we make of the lives we had until the virological cliff edge, past which they were irrevocably altered — and what new world we imagine in this beyond. In this suture, Walsh turns to Godard, whose immortal Paris remains accessible and outside of time, unintruded upon by our present griefs. What, Walsh wonders, do the Parisien(ne)s think, “locked down in a reality of [Godard’s] imagination? Or do Parisien(ne)s take it for granted that they live in a movie?”
Walsh’s recursive act of rewatching Godard becomes a process of visual mourning for a sociality that may no longer exist. At the end of the world, she considers, what will survive of art may not be any iterability of art itself but, rather, the act of looking. The book asks what is to be done when physical proximity to other people entails an attendant contiguousness of our own possible deaths. Its answer — that we look to these others on screens instead — is a testament to emotional resilience as much as it is one more nail in the coffin of our modern condition. We are, as it turns out, rather easily severable; COVID-19 merely literalized our dull capacity for self-containment within the vacuous adjacencies of our digital lives. And yet Walsh’s evocative exploration of Godard’s films, her insistent scrutiny of how we identify ourselves in the art objects we love, reminds me that art — in any case, when it is good art — is principally a manner of communication, of brokering some stuttering connection against this grain of contemporary dislocatedness, situating wonder where perhaps there had been none.
In My Life, Walsh remembers a time when “instead of dying I went to Paris,” a providentially budgeted eleventh-hour day trip consisting of “ten hours’ travel and eight hours’ walking: eighteen hours: a day, a day that saved my life.” The transformation by the pandemic of Paris — of crowds, of urban bustle, of the tactile delectations of flânerie — from a font of salvation into a space of mortal dangers and morbid anxieties appears as a kind of violent inversion. But this alienated affect sits comfortably in Walsh’s oeuvre: the founding condition of her writings is a consciousness and interrogation of feelings of geographic, interpersonal, and emotional displacement. Her women navigate their worlds in the exilic mode. Walsh’s settings are intermediary or quite literally transit/ory: hers is a literature of the cafe, the train, the bus, the hotel. That the principal concerns of Godard’s early period were the ennui and political uncertainties of an interstitial generation (“the children of Marx and Coca-Cola,” as Godard notoriously identifies them in 1966’s Masculin Féminin), the defamiliarization of romance, and a kind of uncanny French apocalyptica (think, for example, of the remarkable, and remarkably long, single-take traffic scene in Week-end) establishes an especially fructuous ground for Walsh’s philosophies of the uprooted.
Walsh’s Godard is, like mine, the New Wave Godard of the 1960s — from À bout de souffle to Week-end, with several of his major films (La Chinoise, Le Mépris, Une femme est une femme) gathered between them. Once, I thought of Godard as a sort of poet of tumultuous eros — and I do still think that much of his work is given texture through its interest in how desire structures knowledge systems and political life. But as I have gotten older, I have become increasingly fascinated by his films’ obsession with unstable notions of freedom, particularly in the way he tries and fails to understand women, and how we must invent our own methodologies for seeking that freedom. (I am also — having lived in major metropolises for 15 years now — more fixated than I once was on his peculiar mapping of urban life.)
In September of this year, Godard died at the age of 91 by assisted suicide in Switzerland, having completed his final film, Le Livre d’image, in 2018. (A family friend remarked, in an oddly Godardian way, that “he was not sick, he was simply exhausted.”) While his films traveled from Switzerland to Tunisia, Odessa to Barcelona, he will always have been one of the preeminent engineers of modern Paris — or, at the least, the architect of an idea of the city that is, more than nearly any other, instantaneously recognizable in the cultural imaginary. Walsh does not predict Godard’s passing, but My Life, in its unanticipatedly premonitory timing, reads like an elegy for the filmmaker, for his Paris and for his destabilizing attempts to perceive (to contain?) women’s lives and longings. My Life is about his films, yes, but it is also, crucially, an inquiry into Godard’s women, from the position of the specifically female spectator. How, for women, do we manage the affective interplay between desire for and identification with his so-called “muses”? And how, for those of us women who are also artists, do we assimilate this complicatedness into a parallel yearning to be Godard?
The long-embattled question among feminist film critics of a specifically female gaze — of whether it is possible for women in film (and women watching film) to be subjects of desire rather than merely objects subordinated to it — casts a long shadow over Godard’s women. And the discursive and visual play between female looking and the spectacles made of women (what Laura Mulvey famously termed women’s to-be-looked-at-ness) is perhaps the interpenetrative friction propelling Walsh’s body of work. While acknowledging that Godard’s New Wave films are fundamentally about women, Walsh wonders whether the women he insinuates into his world are granted the same autonomy and integrity of subjecthood as his men. In Godard films, she writes, the camera is itself an instrument of desire: it functions “like a man who wants” his female characters. Godard’s women, in turn, are things seen, and should they on occasion return the regard of that camera, it is only to suggest a kind of winsome knowingness concerning their objectification. A Godard woman, in other words, understands implicitly the metatextual register of spectacularity: she delights in “watching herself in performance.”
At moments, Walsh cosigns this tack, seeming to agree that Godard’s women tend to be severed from filmic subjectivity; that, indeed, women spectators are, by default, forcibly situated within the fetishizing gaze of his male leads. (The book insists, for example, that we reckon with how young all his women are, and how arrestingly beautiful.) We cannot, in this framing, be Seberg, Karina, Bardot, or Goya, for their motives remain substantively opaque, their emotional lives and longings indecipherable. We can only look upon them as the camera does, as if they are “something [it] finds alien, filmed finding something alien.” Elsewhere, Walsh remarks of fashion that “men’s worlds and clothes are designed to fit their bodies, whilst women’s bodies have to fit their clothes and the worlds they find themselves in.” An apt mirror, perhaps, of the dynamic between female spectator and the woman she watches: one compelled to refabricate herself, her own ways of seeing, within an existing paradigm; one meticulously contrived to shore up only the potentialities and the powers of men.
But My Life is not so neatly prescriptive, and Walsh is the sort of writer energized by ambivalence. In anatomizing Godard, she suggests there is a haunting at the heart of his work: the “melancholy of the spectator.” If Godard’s women are animated by the lacuna between their ways of seeing and the world that, as Mulvey contends, structures itself with “woman as image, [and] man as bearer of the look,” then there remains a radical potentiality in such a gap for strange modes of resistance. Walsh identifies this in the provocative hesitancy of Godard’s women, the ways they deliberately obfuscate narrative clarity and slyly hold the men who objectify them at a critical distance.
I am reminded of a long scene in Masculin Féminin where we watch Jean-Pierre Léaud’s Paul watching Chantal Goya’s Madeleine in the washroom: 10 minutes pass as Madeleine looks back upon her reflection, reapplies her lipstick, and tidies her hair, all while eliding Paul’s fumbling attempts to woo her. Later, in a recording studio (Madeleine is an aspiring yé-yé singer), Paul repeatedly seeks the attention to be had in her gaze, but Madeleine’s interest in the scene, rather, is the labor of her art. Walsh writes that she likes “to see Madeleine ignore Paul […] to see that her work is more important than her work’s subject; that she will not, IRL, do anything for love.” Although Godard’s films may not always understand women’s desires, the women nevertheless do — and act upon them.
Throughout Masculin Féminin, Paul interviews several among the women on a variety of subjects, although mainly skating around the questions — still taboo in 1960s France — of their knowledge of and experience with contraceptives, sex, and the pill. Despite her best efforts, Madeleine becomes pregnant in the story’s course. In the closing minutes of the film, we discover that Paul has fallen from an apartment window to his death. As she gives the police a witness statement, Madeleine says she isn’t sure what she’ll do about the fetus. She’s heard rumors of curtain rods, she murmurs. We become fixated on her expression in this moment, during an extended closeup. Her eyes search some place seemingly far behind us: “J’hésite,” she repeats, “j’hésite.” As Walsh writes, “Godard continues to insist that sex is the difference.” Madeleine’s (re)productive future — not to mention her capacity to continue making records, particularly as she is now in the papers — being determined by a dead man’s sperm seems to confirm this. But in Godard, the gendered disparity on display is as much a material extension of the ravages of capitalism as it is the product of some mythic erotic destiny or sexual biologism.
It is not, then, that Godard’s women are without desire, but that their desires simultaneously exceed the boundaries of the narrative and are constricted by the often grim realities facing these women in their times, in their circumstances. Is Godard a misogynist? I find the question no longer riles me. (I myself came to Godard’s work through a man, an ex-lover, a real Godard type. The man I had to leave. Godard stuck.) Such aesthetic purity tests are for the young, and I, like Walsh — who, in My Life, is “mourning age” — am making peace with the dull fact that youth is a passing ship. The more intriguing, the more rigorous, query might be: to what extent do the limitations Godard’s women strain against reveal how sexual difference becomes encoded in culture, in the politics emblazoned in graffiti on the city walls they wander past? To navigate the world as a woman is to commit — or to be conscripted to — a refraction, a split, a multiplication of one’s consciousness within a politics of looking. Godard’s women remain painfully aware of their beholdenness to the heterosexual economy, to their subjection in a world where, Walsh reminds us, beauty is the central currency they are granted. As Hilton Als remarks, “Godard’s women […] have the singular honor, almost always, of knowing that cinema is a lie.” They self-reflexively live inside film — they know, in ways his men rarely do, that they are being watched.
Jamie Hood is a poet, critic, and memoirist. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Baffler, Bookforum, The Nation, Vogue, and elsewhere. She lives in Brooklyn.