Tout va bien (1972)

Directed by Jean-Luc Godard

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Jean-Luc Godard likes to innovate.  His films challenged preconceived notions of what films were and how they could work, and his films were described as anarchic.  If a movie is meant to deliver catharsis, then he would do the opposite.  Breathless ends with our hero shot dead in the street, the woman he thinks he loves looking down at him with little emotion.  Weekend ends with… well I can’t quite remember, but it’s a story about a Mad Max style countryside in which countless people die in fiery car wrecks, and multiple animals are gutted on camera (from the looks of it).  Tout va bien is less aggressive than Weekend, at least on the surface, but it breaks down its story, its characters and the film medium itself with even more intensity.

Though Weekend made allusions to the nature of film, making it clear that the characters were, at times, aware they were in a film, Tout va bien‘s reality is flimsier, meaning that the story onscreen isn’t the point.  We’re told that Jane Fonda is cast because she’s a movie star, and there’s only a love story because that’s what the audience demands.  We watch a story unfold onscreen even as offscreen voices explain why and how it’s unfolding.  If it’s a love story, the voices say, then there should be something to overcome.  So there’s a conflict, but the conflict can’t just be between them, it must be in the world at large as well.  So there is a class struggle, and the forced takeover by the workers of a meat factory, imprisoning the manager who’s out of touch with their struggles, will reflect the struggle between a married couple, Jacques and Suzanne (Yves Montand, Jane Fonda).

It feels like Godard is really trying to tell us something about class struggles and the bourgeoisie (“There’d be farmers who farm. Workers who work. And bourgeois who bourgeois.”), but he’s so transparent with what goes into the making of a movie that I’m not sure if we’re supposed to take anything away from this.  Are we foolish for looking too deeply?  It’s like a magician surprising you by explaining, in blunt terms, his magic trick, and you’re so caught off guard by his directness that you think there must be something else, the real magic.  Surely he isn’t telling us everything.

Though Tout va bien has a couple movie stars in the leading roles, Fonda and Montand are almost bit players in the film.  The focus of the story is on the frustrated workers, the ones who take over a factory and who start a riot in a grocery store at the end of the film.  Like in Weekend, there are long scenes with very slow-moving dolly shots, left and right.  These takes often run a few minutes long, and the emphasis is on the scope of a particular problem.

In Tout va bien, Godard pushes the camera slowly back and forth across a constructed set (like the boat in Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou) which looks like a doll house, allowing us to see inside rooms across two floors of the meat factory.  Suddenly Montand and Fonda are just small figures in the left-most room, and we see that they are no different than the other actors towards whom the camera moves.

It’s quite impressive, the scale of this production in these moments.  Maybe the set isn’t so large or the scene too complex, but the moment depends on the success of all these background actors, their pantomiming and movements through the space meant to convey all the emotion.  By pulling the camera away from the two leading actors, we’re reminded that this is Godard’s film, the director the star and the main influencer of what we see.

This isn’t about who’s in the movie or even what it’s about.  It’s about who’s behind the camera, and what they’re trying to say, and since it’s Godard, you can be extra sure that the nature of the story doesn’t matter as much as how he tells it.

And how does he do it?  Well, he takes a lot of breaks from the narrative with long takes of a character talking to the camera.  These characters, in these moments, seem to give up trying to convince another character of their point of view, so they appeal directly to the audience.  The manager of the factory is tired of trying to explain to his workers why things are the way they are, and why they should remain that way… so he explains it to us.  Then the leader of a workers’ union tells us that he’s fighting for the workers’ rights but doesn’t approve of the way a few bad apples have locked up the manager, putting a bad spin on their cause.  Later we see a few of the workers explaining how they don’t agree with the union because the union is only concerned with numbers and not the real treatment of the workers.

Eventually we hear from Jacques, and I can’t quite remember if we hear from Suzanne directly, though we do see her in action as a correspondent at a French radio station.  In Jacques’ monologue he discusses his move from art filmmaking to commercial filmmaking and why he did it.  He’s not talking about the class struggles with which the film seemed to be concerned, he’s just talking about himself.

Jacques and Suzanne have a fight that doesn’t really matter, if only because we see how quickly it’s resolved, when the offscreen voices from the beginning of the film explain that they have to resolve their issues since that’s how movies work.

There is little connection between Jacques’ and Suzanne’s relationship and the class struggle.  Sure, they are present in the factory during the worker takeover, but it feels like they were just inserted into the scene, with purpose, but only because the point is to show how arbitrary this story and any story is.  Maybe there is no connection whatsoever between this personal and class conflict, but you can go ahead and insert them in the scene anyway.

The film ends with text that reads,  “this has been an account for those who don’t keep them.”

It’s hard to understand what the ultimate takeaway from this film should be, and I think you have to know Godard and the nature of his films to know what to make of this one.  It’s not overtly funny, though it certainly is in moments, and it’s definitely not dramatic.  It never feels scathing, even if it is as it breaks down the movie-making process, and it feels like a documentary presented with complete objectivity even though that is very much not the case.  It’s a document in favor of Godard’s own political leanings but presented as an unbiased view of the world.

I’m familiar with Godard on the surface.  I know his pivotal role in the French New Wave, how Breathless was highly influential and challenged so many filmmaking techniques (jump cuts, shot on location, homages to Humphrey Bogart and a message about the need for France to have its own filmmaking identity), and I know that his films were purposefully challenging.  But I don’t yet know enough about his own interests beyond breaking down the film medium.  It seems he has some Marxist-leanings, but his desire to burn everything down feels as though it outweighs his need to prop up any kind of ideology or political beliefs.

Still, he’s a director whose work comes from deep within him.  Of his three films I’ve so far seen (BreathlessWeekendTout va bien), they feel like they could have been made by only him, and in particular the latter two films are made with the same energy and much of the same style.  The dollies and use of color, even the way the characters interact, feels one in the same.

2 thoughts on “Tout va bien (1972)

  1. Do you listen to the ‘You Must Remember This’ podcast? The last series centred on the inter-twining stories of Jane Fonda/Jean Seberg and did cover this film. It didn’t really come down on the side of recommending it though.

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