With a title that invokes both the specific (cinema of Godard) and the universal (cinema is Godard), Cyril Leuthy’s Godard Cinema finds itself in conversation with another formulation: Everything is Cinema. Richard Brody’s 2008 study of the filmmaker, is beautifully sentenced, dare-ing criticism; one wonders, sometimes, if his honest contrarianism is the result of a theoretical attempt to widen the possibilities for transmission and reception of image and narrative. Such an attempt finds a natural bedfellow in the mercurial cinema of Jean-Luc Godard. Leuthy’s hagiographic documentary, on the other hand, is an awkward fit for Godard’s polyrhythmic image collisions.

That Brody will be on hand to introduce Leuthy’s film to kick off its New York run at Film Forum speaks, perhaps, to the heart and head-felt intentions of Leuthy, a documentary filmmaker who’s worked as a director and editor of several film histories, including a 2020 volume on Jean-Pierre Melville and a 2021 piece on Maurice Chevalier. Reverence is over-evident: Godard Cinema takes as its occasion, the filmmaker’s 2022 death, though there is no talk there of assisted suicide procedures. Such a problem of narrative is removed from the film’s toolkit, which is deployed only to paint Godard as an exceptional—if tortured/torturous—poet. How do you draw Godard as a line? The bigger question and problem: why do so many documentaries presume that lines are the best narrative strategy for telling a story?

That Brody will be on hand to introduce at Film Forum is moreover, a mark of the occasion: Leuthy’s film is being preceded by Trailer of a Film That Will Never Exist: Phony Wars, a “final work” by Godard. I don’t mean to be elusive or needlessly provocative with those quotation marks, even if “elusive” and “needlessly provocative” are two of the myths most relentlessly chased and interrogated by Godard. Phony Wars, a 20-minute film that splits the difference between trailer (for nothing) and Markeresque image-book. In its appearance after-death, it’s a kind of post-Late Style prank on cinema’s restless motion, both final and contradictory of finality, especially in its rhythm. Storyboard-like, it mostly unfolds in a series of still images, while multiple texts (spoken, written, scribbled, to say nothing of translated) draw our spectation across the screen. It moves us, even as it keeps a steady pace.

At its most Godardian, Phony Wars is eminently un-essential. As much a dare to motion and completion as it is a confession of an artist’s momentary infatuation with the writer Charles Plisnier, it summarizes neither his life’s nor his work’s work. At the beginning, Godard intentionally resisted the reductive nature of narrative arcing—consider Le petit soldat (1963). At the end—consider Le Livre d’image (2018)—he was too busy re-imagining the image as balm and bomb to care about enshrinement. These biographic points are raised in Cinema Godard, which, with its neat chapter divides, seeks to neatly divide motion itself. The film presents a combination of talking head interview, archival footage, and recital/ re-enactment, an increasingly popular method of information dissemination in the nonfiction forum (documentary and podcast alike) never as effective as its deployers hope. As many summaries of Godard do, a little too much reverence is paid to the sixties and a lot of unwarranted hand-wringing is expended over La chinoise (1967) and Godard’s role in the Dziga Vertov group—the spammy and canned incidental music turns nearly De Palmaesque when ‘Maoism’ makes its entrance. Late-period Godard, including his radical experiments in video, digital, and 3D cinema, gets a cursory nod that still reminds us “it’s no Breathless.” Notably, it’s Every Man For Himself (1980) that’s understood as a kind of homecoming for Godard the eldering statesman after his juvenile dalliance with collectivism.

Still, there is plenty of value in collating moving images of Godard, least of all his incendiary testimony at Cannes in 1968. And Leuthy’s efforts to center and include—in their own voice or at least words—a through line of Godard’s partners, muses, and collaborators is a genuine take, a notable divergence in doing history. For a man who, it is suggested, “worshiped but didn’t like women”, a chorus of Anna Karina, Marina Vlady, Anne-Marie Miéville, and Nathalie Baye forms a formidable and affectionate counterweight. But there is minimal attempt to articulate what precisely happens with women on screen in Godard itself, a move emblematic of Leuthy’s foundational narrative problem: the film cannot imagine a plurality. If Godard indulged occasional misogyny, it was in spite of genius. If he was a genius, it’s because the Great Poet’s art remedies the limitations of lower humanities.

How common a narrative reduction! I wonder what would have happened if, in truly attempting to convey the limitations of a Maoist film practice while broadening the possibilities for a woman’s autonomy inside dogmatic images, Leuthy’s film had taken Godard and the Dziga Vertov Group to task for Letter to Jane (1972). An expertly-argued hit-piece of leftist-ish essay film, the piece asks essential questions of responsibility over meaning-making, and over-confidently reveals an overzealousness to dismiss Fonda as activist and artist. It’s genuinely ugly, and not in the productive tenseness of so many images and moves in Godard’s cinema.

I wonder too, what would have happened if, in seeking to tell a story about Godard in or as cinema itself, Godard Cinema had found a way to reckon with the filmmaker’s own memoir, the grand-prank of Histoire(s) du cinéma (1989-1998). Garnering only a nod in Leuthy’s sketch, Histoire(s) teaches the spectator to anticipate the wormhole of history, to do cinema as a crucial rebuttal to presumed inevitabilities of historical construction. To tell the history of cinema is to reveal the abject cruelties and the crushing joys of 21st-century life as occupants in the same punctured frame. Leuthy’s work, which displays an overabundance of narrative (which is to say, political) staidness, falls victim to exactly the kind of history-telling Godard vibrated to explode.

Godard was a maverick filmmaker and a suspect set of shifting politics. These tendencies were married and remarried, afloat and drowned at varying occasions with shocking formal energy. The energy remains in Phony Wars, all kinetic drag and self-eulogy that, by way of sly programming on the double bill, immediately indicates the formal differences between talking about and doing cinema. I wonder what would have happened if, after we watched that film, we were asked to think, for 90 minutes, about “the life of Jean-Luc Godard.” In the dark, bodies sniffling and shuffling around for meaning or an armrest, I think even newer images would have emerged in our retinas. 

Godard Cinema and Trailer of a Film That Will Never Exist: Phony Wars are now playing at Film Forum and will expand.

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