When Michel Hazanavicius was plotting his latest film, the date of March 29th, 1967 held great importance. It was easy to remember since it marks the occasion of when he was first brought into the world, thrusting him squarely into a period of rebellion in his native France, but it also gave him a starting point for his latest film “Godard Mon Amour,” which chronicles the turbulent relationship between director Jean-Luc Godard and actress Anne Wiazemsky since Wiazemsky made note in her memoir on which the film is based that the romance coincided with the testing launch of the French ballistic missile submarine known as “Redoutable.”
“It was pretty cool to film the day I was born,” Hazanavicius said recently, admiring this particular twist of fate on a cool spring day in Los Angeles that was still no match for his breezy charm.
Timing is everything when it comes to “Godard Mon Amour,” which follows the couple from May 1967 through 1969 as the already radical director of “Breathless” and “Contempt” reconsidered his purpose amidst civil unrest in France as protests spilled into the streets of Paris, with the aim of a complete upheaval of the social order as it stood under President Charles De Gaulle. While Godard (played by Louis Garrel) retreats, dismissive of his previous work, but uncertain of what comes next, Wiazemsky (Stacey Martin) struggles with seeing an artist she adores unable to see for himself what she sees in him and disappointed that at times he doesn’t appear inclined to even try in the wake of making “La Chinoise” together.
Although on paper, the writer/director of such crowdpleasers as “The Artist” and the “OSS 117” spy spoofs might seem like an odd fit to make a film about a subject as polarizing and experimental as Godard, he proves to be an inspired choice, in part because the two are both anarchists at heart, poking fun at convention through knowledge of what audiences already know through their conditioning from other films. However, there’s a sincerity on Hazanavicius’ part, not only in the immaculate skill with which he recreates some of Godard’s inventive techniques to illustrate what was so exciting about the filmmaker, but in a kinship he might’ve felt to Godard following the commercial and critical disappointment of his first foray into drama, “The Search,” an ambitious plunge into the Second Chechen War that never made it to America despite co-starring Annette Bening, wondering what kind of filmmaker he should be.
On the eve of “Godard Mon Amour”’s release in the States, Hazanavicius explains how the answer came to him inadvertently when he picked up Wiazemsky’s memoir by fluke, and how he was able to wrestle with his own ideas about cinema through his latest film and how to convey the truth about Godard, comedy was the only way to do him justice.
How did you get interested in taking this on?
I had a train to take actually. I was in Brazil and I forgot to bring the book I was reading so I had to choose [something] not too big from the library before I took the train, because the trip was [only] two hours, so I took that one and when I arrived in Paris, I was in love with the characters, with the story and with the context and the themes of the story. There was also a tragic love story with a lot of room to make comedy, so I liked that mix.
Since this was after “The Search,” where you had put yourself out there politically, did this period in Godard’s career resonate with your own experience at the time in perhaps rethinking what kind of films you should be making?
Yeah, of course. Not in terms of politics. I never thought about it. But I know that something very strongly echoed with me — the fact he was very successful and he had his own style and then nobody really cared about it, so he was like, “What am I going to do now?” It was really my situation when I read the book. I was not confused, but I had no real desire for any kind of movie. “The Search” was a very difficult film for me to make. I It was very tough. I spent six months in Georgia, dealing with very serious, dramatic topics and meeting some people who have such tough lives and nobody cared about the movie, so I was of course disappointed, but I was also confused, like, “What am I going to do?”
There’s a great scene in the film where I felt you might’ve been working that out where you have a bunch of people, including Godard, arguing over what cinema should be – some want escapism, others see it as a tool of democracy. What went into that moment for you?
Yeah, a lot of people love that scene and I think it could be maybe the favorite scene of a lot of people and I believe there’s something really true in that sequence that everybody is right. It’s not like there’s one character who is right. The guy who says, “I like nice stories” – he’s right. That’s what he wants to see when he goes to the movies. And the other one’s like, “Fuck you. That’s not my conception of cinema.” Movies can be everything. There’s as many goals as there are movies, so I like that sequence because everybody has their reasons [for liking the movies they do] and everybody’s right.
Since this was based on Anne’s book, but by nature she becomes an observer, was it tricky to figure out how to show tell the film through her perspective?
Yeah, I tried to adapt myself to Anne’s point of view, but I would say there’s a triple [point of view]. It’s all from her point of view, so the perspective is hers, but as you say, she’s observing him, so you can really touch his point of view about things because he’s always talking and talking, [and then] also I made the movie, so there’s my point of view as well, but I really tried to adapt myself to her point of view because when I read the book, I thought she did [something] great. She really respected the young lady she was at this time and really respected her young lady’s eyes and she told that story through these eyes, so I tried to respect that. But knowing that she was 65 when she wrote the book, there was some distance. She knew exactly what happened and she understood who Jean-Luc was, so I took that distance and in that distance, you can put a lot of comedy.
You’ve said the only reason Anne actually gave you the rights, which she was reluctant to do for anyone, because you mentioned you saw it as a comedy. Did Anne’s excitement about that embolden you to push even further in that direction that you might’ve initially?
First, I think Godard himself was really funny. Even in the book, sometimes [Anne] says, “We did this and he was really funny.” and when you read it, it’s not really funny, but she described him as a funny person, so I took that mood. And this movie is from the ‘60s, so there were a lot of funny, funny things to it. When you remember your youth [even in difficult times], you smile. For example, I spoke with people who [participated in the Social Revolution protests of] May ’68, the first reaction is to smile and say, “Ahhhh…” [warmly]. so I think this fun and living flavor is part of the memories. I also thought I had to be funny, just to be polite in a way because the natural love story is very tragic, and it would be too heavy to make a serious, tragic, political. intellectual movie. That’s not the movie I wanted to make.
You really capture the frenzy of May ’68 and by bringing a lighter energy to it, it unlocks it from most other depictions of it. It also seems like the biggest set-piece you’ve ever directed, so what was it like figuring out how to depict those events?
It was a big thing and from what I know, I’ve never seen May ’68 depicted like this, [in part] because movies about May ’68 don’t have much money, so they have to do it with small [resources], so it’s always like you have small groups and a dozen cops running after protesters. I wanted something really big also because I wanted to show that energy, that youth taking the power in the streets of Paris and the noise and the crowds. They were young, they were sexy, they were funny [as you could tell from protest signs] and [Godard] was almost 40, so it was not his story in a way. That creates [a tension] that pushed him into crisis, so I need to show that gap between him and what was May 1968. I really needed to show that — all that energy — for narrative reasons.
Because we had to be in the real streets of Paris where everything happened for real, we needed all of that [government] authorization and we had hundreds of extras, all dressed like in the ‘60s with haircuts. They were wonderful. The largest crowd I had was like 700 young people and they were deeply involved in the movie. It was like super hot because it’s summer, but they were really, really cool. And it’s very difficult to direct a crowd because with an actor, you can say, “Here, you laugh,” or “Can you put your head like this?” But you can’t say that to a crowd because everybody’s like this [moving in unison] It’s like cattle. [laughs] I really enjoyed it, but it was a lot of work.
You’ve always enjoyed investigating the style of the era the film you’re making is set in, going back to the “OSS” films and “The Artist.” Do the limitations or conventions of the time give you the jumping off point to be creative?
Yeah, so it’s funny because the second “OSS” was taking place in 1967 as well, but this is very different because I’m talking about an intellectual Parisian director from the French New Wave, so I wanted to put it in that style. But another way to portray Jean-Luc Godard was through the form itself and I think it helps the audience to believe the character because we can see him in his own environment. It also gives me an opportunity to create a balance because I’m a little bit tough with [Godard] in terms of script. He was not a sympathetic guy -and he never pretended he was, and I show that – so to pay homage to his work in the form of the movie allowed me to be tough with him. It creates the right balance.
One of the stylish flourishes I really loved was the use of music as an emotional tool in the way sound will go in and out to reflect the environment. What was that like to play with?
One of several lessons of Jean-Luc Godard was the disconnection between sound and image. We all use it in a certain way, but [the way he did it was] such an obvious way, it’s very freeing and you can play with it. I didn’t want a score for this one. I wanted to use some existing tunes, because I wanted to think about this movie as a collage. Even the very first version of the script was really more like a collage and it was a little bit too…not inaccessible, but too…
Yeah, a little bit. So I kept that. The movies [is presented] in chapters and the music is built like a collage, but I tried to put it more classical because I really wanted to respect the characters and the story. To me, the perfect balance is the Italian comedies from the ‘60s or Billy Wilder’s movies where it can be like ridiculously funny, but there’s a real story and you care for the characters.
I know that Anne passed away shortly after the release of the film in France, but did she get to see it?
Yeah, of course. She was one of the first to see it and she really loved it. She really recognized Godard and as a matter of fact, a lot of people who knew Godard at this time [tell me] they really recognized him. They think it’s really faithful portrayal of him, which is fun because it was not really my goal. I don’t consider myself as a historian. I did read a lot of things about Godard, but at one point, when I was writing the script, I decided not to call him Godard anymore, but to call him “Jean-Luc” and Jean-Luc was just a character for me. Then I just tried to make a good script and a good movie which was entertaining, but not superficial.
It was very moving because when we went to the Cannes Festival with Anne, and we were on the red carpet with her, I could feel that she was really moved. She knew she was sick at this time, so for her it was a big [deal] to come back to the Cannes Festival with a story about her life. It was really intense.
What was it like for you, returning there after “The Search” with a film about such a revered figure to that particular audience? Did you have any nerves?
Oh no, not so much. My previous movie was so tough. Some critics were so harsh with the movie that this time I was amused by this and I went there very relaxed. I thought they would be more harsh in a way because some of them consider Godard as a demi-God, and if you make fun of him, it’s like you’re someone to kill. The ironic thing is Godard himself hates people who worship him, [which] is something in the movie, by the way. When he goes in Italy for example, he’s facing a crowd and he says, “Godard is a piece of shit” and “I hate my own movies” and people are going crazy. They boo him because they say, “We love you,” and they are really angry because they love him and because he destroys himself, they can’t bear it. Some of them don’t like the fact [now] that I made that movie, so I think [I’ve expressed a truth about] him in this strange situation. And I love to make meta things, so that there was some meta in real life was cool. He’s so full of contradictions that at the end, the contradiction is full of contradiction itself. It’s a never-ending story, so it’s funny.