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Saturday Night Cinema: Jean-Luc Godard’s “Passion”

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Tonight’s Saturday Night Cinema is Passion, an intriguing movie by Jean-Luc Godard about love and work, starring Isabelle Huppert, Hanna Schygulla, Michel Piccoli, Jerzy Radiwilowicz. In light of the destruction of France, it is a snapshot of what was not so very long ago.

It is typically French, no storyline but beautiful imagery. “A superb film with more narrative than one usually expects from Godard and a surprising amount of humor.”

Passion, a major film in Jean-Luc Godard’s ongoing investigation of the relations between painting and cinema, uses innovative forms to explore political and economic questions. Jerzy Radziwilowicz plays a director shooting a film whose scenes are all reproductions of paintings by Goya, Valasquez, and other European masters. Production comes to a halt when his producers refuse to increase his budget until he explains the film’s story to them. Meanwhile, the director is ending an affair with Hanna (Hanna Schygulla), the wife of Michel (Michel Piccoli), who is the manager of the hotel where the film’s cast and crew are staying. In a sub-plot, Isabelle Huppert plays a factory worker who attempts to unionize her fellow employees. The story of Passion is elliptical and incomplete. It is a means of presenting a collection of scenes and images on related themes. This kind of story will become the hallmark of Godard’s later career. The links among the episodes become even looser in such films as Germany: Year Nine Zero and For Ever Mozart. Passion marks the reunion of Godard with director of photography Raoul Coutard, who shot many of Godard’s films of the 1960s. The cinematography is key to understanding this difficult film in which how an image is shot is as important as what it depicts. Godard and Coutard favor shots that begin as open, disorganized framings and become painterly compositions as the people and things in them move. ~ Louis Schwartz, Rovi

Jean-Luc Godard – Passion (1982)

October 4, 1983, The New York Times Archives

-LUC GODARD’S ”Passion,” which will be shown at the New York Film Festival at Lincoln Center today at 9:30 P.M. and tomorrow at 6:15 P.M., is much more light-hearted – breezy even – than I’m afraid almost any description can make it sound. Using a small group of absolutely splendid actors, who follow their leader with extraordinary confidence, Mr. Godard has made a funny, fractured, totally self-absorbed movie, without a real story, about the making of a movie that has no real story.

The result, which he calls ”Passion,” is less a narrative film than an essay on the artistic process, which in this case happens to be the process by which a movie is made, with side comments on painting, music, films, labor relations, film distribution and love, plus a few jokes. Question: ”What is a catastrophe?” Answer: ”The first stanza of a love poem.”

”Passion” is not a romantic view of movie making, nor are there any grand metaphors here. It’s about people slogging on in their professions, as uncertain of what they’re up to now as they are of the future. Throughout his career Mr. Godard has always been a couple of years ahead of his contemporaries. He still is. As did his ”Every Man for Himself,” ”Passion” points the way to a kind of intensely personal yet commercially oriented film making that would stand in relation to mainstream movies the way quarterlies stand to mass- circulation weeklies and monthlies.

”Passion” is the Godard report on the state of the world as it appeared to him at the time the film was being made. On hand to help him realize his thoughts on film, and to help him get the kind of big budget that will ease the film’s way into more or less conventional theaters, are no less than Hanna Schygulla, Isabelle Huppert, Michel Piccoli, and, perhaps best of all, Raoul Coutard, the great cameraman identified with almost all of the classic Godard films of the 1960’s, including ”La Chinoise” and ”Weekend.”

The setting appears to be Switzerland, where a film called ”Passion” is in the process of being directed on a comparatively small soundstage by two men, Jerzy (Jerzy Radziwilowicz), who is Polish, and Laszlo (Laszlo Szabo), who, I think, is Hungarian, though he’s not on the screen as much as Jerzy. The movie being shot has no story, which makes the high- strung Italian investors uneasy, but Jerzy keeps explaining that he can’t write a story until he has lived it, and Jerzy’s living a story is what ”Passion” is all about.
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The story he lives is not ”Gone With the Wind.” It’s largely a series of comic misunderstandings and arguments involving a pretty little, outspoken factory worker named Isabelle (Miss Huppert), Hanna (Miss Schygulla), who owns the motel where the film company is staying, and with whom Jerzy has an affair, and Michel (Mr. Piccoli), Hanna’s husband, who owns the factory where Isabelle works.

The film-within includes the reproduction of a number of masterpieces by Rembrandt, Goya, Delacroix and others as ”living” pictures, which allows for some funny, off-hand gags about casting. Says Jerzy, with impatience about an actress brought in for his consideration, ”She’s too pretty for Delacroix.” The total confusion on a movie set is detailed with deadpan, slapstick humor as the director works solemnly around nude women, horses, carpenters, bookkeepers and bored stagehands.

In one quintessentially Godardian sequence, Miss Schygulla, whom Jerzy apparently wants to play in the film-within, sits talking to the director as she watches – with embarrassment but increasing fascination – her own image struggling to lip-sync an operatic aria on a video monitor.

”Passion” looks beautiful – effortlessly so – and its images remain in the memory long after one has ceased to worry about the shape or the conventional sense of the movie. It’s not easy to make a film without a story, nor is it easy to respond to such a film with a few, well-chosen, definitive phrases. I suspect that ”Passion” may well be the sort of film that, in the future, will make up a small but solid portion of video-cassette sales. Mr. Godard remains in the vanguard.

State of the World PASSION, directed by Jean-Luc Godard; screenplay (French with English subtitles) by Mr. Godard; director of photography, Raoul Coutard; music by Mozart, Ravel, Dvorak, Beethoven and Faure; produced by Alain Sarde; a French/ Swiss Co-Production; SaraFilm/Sonimage/ Films A2 (Paris) Film & Video Productions (Switzerland); a United Artists Classics Release. At Alice Tully Hall, as part of the 21st New York Film Festival; presented by the Film Society of Lincoln Center in cooperation with the Motion Picture Association of America. Running time: 87 minutes. This film has no rating. WITH: Isabelle Huppert, Hanna Schygulla, Michel Piccoli, Jerzy Radiwilowicz, Laszlo Szabo, Sophie Lucachevski, Patrick Bonnel, Myriem Russel, Magaly Campos, J. F. Stevenin

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