As a small boy, Jean-Luc Godard’s favourite book was an adventure story called Le Voyage d’Edgar by Edward Peisson. The book features poignantly in Eloge d’amour (In Praise of Love), chosen as a memento by the hero – also called Edgar of course – from the library of the elusive and now deceased Berthe. It’s the last image we see before the screen flares into brilliant colour, heralding Edgar’s flashback to his earlier meeting with her. It’s an appropriately Proustian moment for a film in which Godard’s own personal history is intrinsically woven into the fabric of the story. Indeed the film advances many of the director’s most deeply held convictions and ideas about history, politics, and cinema – all themes he had explored in Histoire du cinema, but this time in a fictional form. For this, and for its formal and visual originality, Eloge d’amour is now recognised as one of Godard’s most accomplished and seminal works.
A mark of how much the film meant to Godard was reflected in the care, and attention to detail he brought to all aspects of the production. The script evolved through several drafts over some years. The first version, begun in 1997, concerned an older man leaving a younger woman for an older one and being happier for it. This scenerio may well have been inspired by Godard’s own close relationship with Bérangère Allaux, star of his previous film For Ever Mozart. She was originally to have played the younger woman but had a falling out with her director and left the project. The script then evolved into a complex narrative of three couples – young, adult, and old – who separate and then get back together again. This version too, was abandoned, though elements of it remain in the final film, including the story of young lovers, Perceval and Eglantine.
Still dissatisfied, Godard turned to cinema as a subject, splitting the story into two sections. In the first section a young engaged couple stay the weekend at their grandparents’ house. The grandparents, who had been renowned activists in the French Resistance, have received an offer from Steven Spielberg to buy the rights to their life story. The young woman, who is an aspiring actress, approves, thinking there may be something in it for her; the young man disapproves, breaks off their engagement, and leaves. In the second section, a man in Paris, who is heard but not seen, seeks actors for a project called Eloge de l’amour. He looks in particular for a young actress – the young woman from the first section – who is now working as a cleaner, but he fails to persuade her to appear in the film.
During casting and rehearsal the story evolved further. Up-and-coming actress Marie Desgranges was originally cast and went through extensive interviews with Godard but was fired shortly before the start of the shoot – she appears briefly in a scene on a bench in the streets of Paris. He auditioned fifty other actresses before choosing Cécile Camp. Finding an actor to play Edgar proved equally difficult until Godard saw a film called Les Passengers and was impressed enough by its young lead Bruno Putzulu to call him in for an audition. He asked Putzulu to read a text aloud and was delighted when he did so “without adding anything.” Putzulu, who had recently won the César for most promising young actor, had no objection to appearing off-screen, although by the time the film went into production, his role had taken centre-stage. In keeping with the film’s long pre-production, the shoot itself stretched out over a longer period than any other in the director’s career.
Retracing the journey that brought Eloge de l’amour to the screen helps to elucidate a film that can seem bewildering to many on first viewing. The narrative is actually quite simple but the way Godard presents it is not. In the opening scenes we see fragments of auditions but little in the way of context to explain what we are watching. Of course, this is how Godard wants it. Just as he used to cut out all the action that didn’t interest him in his earliest films – thus creating the jump cut – so here, through elliptical editing, he forces us to look more closely than we normally would, searching for some kind of clue to unlock the images and scenes we are watching. Like Edgar with his project, we need to look beneath the surface and listen closely if we want to get at the truth.
Rosenthal, the wealthy art dealer and financial backer of Edgar’s project, is one of our best leads. In answer to the advice of his financial advisor not to waste so much money on the boy, he explains that Edgar’s grandfather and his father were the same age and were partners in the gallery. As a boy he was in love with Edgar’s mother Hélène, but she preferred somebody else – the man who became his father. She was bought out of the gallery and spent the money on racing cars for her hapless husband who subsequently died at Indianapolis. “Then your debt is paid,” says his adviser. But for Rosenthal, “there’s still memory.” A pragmatic romantic, Rosenthal asks Edgar to clarify his project. “It’s like this,” Edgar explains, “With young people it’s obvious. You pass them in the street and the first thing you say is: they’re youngsters. With old people it’s the same thing. Before anything else you think: that’s an old man. But with adults, it’s anything but obvious. They’re never entirely naked, so to speak. They have to have a story.” It’s Rosenthal who encourages Edgar to find and speak to Berthe. Perhaps she can embody the adult incarnation of love. He tracks her down to a depot on the outskirts of Paris cleaning train compartments on the night shift, but she refuses his request to take part in his project. In these scenes, as in the rest of the film, we only ever see her from oblique angles or obscured by shadows. She is the mystery at the heart of the story and she takes her secret with her to the grave.
Gone but not forgotten. Edgar remembers their first encounter two years before at her grandparent’s house. They glimpsed each other for a moment through a glass door and sensed: mutual recognition? Love at first sight? Later she drives him to the station. He tells her that he recently separated from a woman he had been with for ten years and she quotes Saint Augustine: “The measure of love is to love without measure.” Perhaps it is this refusal to compromise in an age of compromise that makes her so compelling to him. He tries for the same quality in his project but struggles to find it. But the important thing is he tries.
In contrast, Godard suggests, the film proposed by the Americans, representing ‘Steven Spielberg Associates’, concerning the grandparent’s years in the Resistance, which will star Juliette Binoche, and in which “all the young girls must get undressed and roll around with their lovers,” will be a travesty of the truth. The grandparent’s sign away their life-story in order to save their hotel. Only the abrasive Berthe raises any opposition to the deal. She objects to use of the word American by the two film executives and the man from Washington who have come to secure the rights. “Which Americans do you mean?” She enquires, pointing out that “Mexico is also made up of United States of North America, and those people are called Mexicans; Canada too, and they are called Canadians.” She continues: “So what is the name of what you call your United States? You see, you have no name. This agreement has been signed with the representatives of a country the inhabitants of which have no name. It’s no surprise that they need other people’s stories, other people’s legends. Since you don’t have a long history, you go looking for it from others.”
Anti-Americanism has been a recurring element of Godard’s work since the anti-Vietnam campaigns of the mid-60s. There’s a reference to that war here with Rosenthal’s Vietnamese maid commenting, “the Americans are everywhere. Who remembers Vietnam’s resistance?” Elsewhere Mark Hunter, an American journalist, condemns his country’s involvement in a later foreign war then taking place in Kosova. But the most forthright attack is against what Godard perceives to be Hollywood’s cultural imperialism. The two brash Hollywood executives who come to buy the life rights from Berthe’s grandparents are accompanied by a representative from Washington, Sumner Welles Jr, who explains his presence at the meeting to Berthe: “Do please understand, my dear young lady, that Washington is the real director of the ship, and that Hollywood is only the steward.” Whether Godard is justified in equating the American cinema industry with the American government’s foreign policy is open to debate, though it can’t be denied that Hollywood’s domination of the world’s entertainment industry can sometimes crush indigenous cultures – a point made here in a hilarious moment when two young girls wearing the traditional lace caps and white aprons of Brittany arrive at the door of the grandparents’ house with a petition to have The Matrix dubbed into Breton.
Godard saved his greatest ire for Steven Spielberg who he’d already publicly criticised when the New York Film Critics’ Circle wanted to honour him in 1995 and he’d refused, sending back a list of nine aspects of American cinema that he had been unable to influence. Top of the list was the failure “to prevent Mr Spielberg from reconstructing Auschwitz”. The failure of cinema to prevent or record the concentration camps had been a major preoccupation of Godard’s for some time and was one of the major themes of Histoire(s) du cinéma. Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, with its reconstruction of the camps for the sake of telling a story, was, from Godard’s perspective, an obscenity. He makes direct reference to the film when Berthe comments that, “Mrs Schindler was never paid. She’s in poverty in Argentina.” At the time of the film’s release some took issue with this including the critic Roger Ebert who wondered if Godard himself had sent Mrs Schindler any money after using her name. Godard made no statement in response, letting Eloge de l’amour – in which all the main characters are Jewish and the memory of the Holocaust casts a long shadow over the present – do the talking. Rather than trying to reconstruct past events, Godard reveals the past to be an integral and inescapable part of the present.
Memory, rather than love then, is the central theme of Eloge de l’amour. No wonder therefore that Godard condemns so harshly Hollywood filmmakers for exploiting memory and treating it as just another commodity to be bought and sold. “There can be no resistance without memory” is a repeated statement in the film and one can see an analogy here between the Resistance in occupied wartime France and the resistance Godard suggests is necessary against the forces of capitalism that have colonised modern day France. To show how important memory is to him, Godard floods the film with his own personal associations. There are direct references to some of his own heroes and significant influences, including Robert Bresson, Jean Vigo, Henri Langlois, Sartre, Balzac. Even longtime Godard favourite, hard-boiled writer Peter Cheyney is cited. Much of the cast too was made up of people of personal significance to him. Jean-Henri Roger, Philippe Loyrette and Lemmy Constantine were all connected to his past. Claude Baignères, the long-time critic for Le Figaro and a close friend, played Rosenthal. Rémo Forlani, who played Rosenthal’s attorney, had written the fake script for Pierrot le fou. The street magician was played by Bruno Mesrine, the son of the gangster Jacques Mesrine, about whom Godard had wanted to make a movie in the late 70s. Godard also chose locations of personal significance to him, places where he had lived or filmed such as Montparnasse and the Place de la Concorde. He even appears himself in Montparnasse, sitting on a bench at night and reading a book as the hubbub of the city swirls around him.
Such evocative scenes of Paris, shot in velvety black and white, and the even more arresting scenes set in Brittany shot in evocative colour video, were what immediately captured people’s attention when the film premiered in competition at the Cannes Film Festival in 2001. Reviews were generally favourable yet most failed to perceive the film’s depth of meaning or were put out by its attacks on mainstream cinema. And, despite an intensive publicity campaign, cinemas remained on the whole empty. Audiences seemed more interested in retrospectives of Godard’s earlier work. And yet, for those willing to engage with it, Eloge de l’amour is as vital and thought-provoking as any of the films from Godard’s more celebrated periods. Told with a simplicity and directness reminiscent of Bresson, whose Notes On Cinematography is quoted in the film, this heartbreaking story of love and loss, cinema and history, brings the central ideas present in Godard’s work of the proceeding three decades into one cohesive statement, and now, some ten years after its release, looks to be one of the director’s greatest achievements.