An integral figure of France’s Nouvelle Vague, Jean-Luc-Goddard continues experimenting with the cinema in First Name: Carmen, a loosely based adaptation on Bizet’s opera Carmen. In fact, he reflects his views on what cinema entails by portraying them throughout the film itself.
Placed parallel to each other, First Name: Carmen regales a string quartet’s endeavor to perform Beethoven while aligning it to central character Carmen X’s attempt, together with a group of terrorists, to rob a bank and fund themselves for a film. Looking beyond the narrative, Louis Schwartz, an online critic, opines that Goddard examines the “relationships between cinema and other arts” by paying careful details to “composed shots of bodies playing music, making love and acting violently” that resemble “sculptures, particularly those of Rodin.”
Bringing together other artistic worlds into First Name: Carmen, Goddard manages to evoke the essence of what he intends to portray while placing another art as an artistic counterpoint, justifying cinema as an amalgam of creative expressions. Juxtposed to Passion, where paintings are used to drive the plot forward, Goddard taps on music as an equilibrum. Audio serves as a progressive element throughout, replacing his signature jump-cuts between scenes in previous works. First Name: Carmen employs fragmented sound to bring out what the characters are feeling and sets the tone for the film. During the attempted bank robbery, Godard directs the string quartet to ruthlessly hit their notes with an unnerving passion to highlight the ensuing tension palpable between Carmen’s gang. He further accompanies his narrative with establishing shots of the ocean while adding sounds of crashing waves and seagulls, adjoining these with cut scenes of the string quartet arguing over technique and rehearsing demanding scores over and over again.
The added layers serve as a justly reminder of Goddard’s love for the unorthodox. Amy Herzog, author of Dreams of Difference, Songs of the Same: The Musical Moment in Film, suggests that “while these various refrains do in fact prove to be interrelated, the end result is not one of synthesis and integration. Just as soon as one element joins another in a moment of harmonious collaboration, they are interrupted, separating into free-floating sonic and visual elements. Image and sound are continually mismatched: the sounds of the sea in certain scenes overlap shots of characters speaking, at times replacing the audio of their dialogue entirely. The music played by the quartet, too, accompanies many scenes non-diegetically, serving in some instances to support the action, in others halting abruptly mid scene, leaving in its place extended stretches of pure silence.” (Herzog, “Dreams of Difference, Songs of the Same: The Musical Moment in Film”)
By doing so, First Name: Carmen defines a new stage that Goddard is working towards in a poetic breakthrough that represents one of his most expressive aesthetic works. In a scene where Joseph wraps his arm around a television, Tom Waits’ “Ruby Arms” accompanies his hand moving over the set. Online critic Jake Cole expresses her admiration for this by elucidating that “Godard has routinely mixed the beauty of this shot transcends whatever message might be conjured by this image of a man tenderly caressing a TV. Building off the budding humanist streak in his previous two features, Godard now fully trades didacticism for evocation, even when he continues to pose his actors like models and mouthpieces.”
Personally, I felt that Goddard’s continual use of a stationary frame somewhat implies voyeurism, where a camera is just positioned waiting for things to happen. In fact, the camera assumes a principal role in the film itself when characters from within blend in with those around them. Employing this misc-en-scene trademark poses a pressing concern whether these people are of the same status to objects around them. Taking this argument a step further, I can deduce that Goddard assumes an almighty position dictating his actors as pawns who are to follow what he instructs them to carry out.
Culturally, Goddard manages to mirror social changes experienced by France’s youth in the 1980s. Cafes that were once home to pre-planned phases of staging revolutions were now places where careers are furthered. Discussing potential business deals and seizing collective ventures became characteristic of the society then. In fact, what these people communicated to each other was no longer as important as how they say it. Visually, Goddard translates this in a droll scene set in a glistening bistro, where he tosses cryptic aphorisms and cynical quips like Molotov cocktails.
Although Goddard is generally identified with previous notable works such as Alphaville and Breathless, First Name: Carmen represents a significant embodiment of the director’s creativity to transcend different boundaries and conjure a work that I can only describe as an artistic masterpiece. By combining various art appeals into a film, cinema can be seen as Goddard’s communication vessel to reach out and inspire those who operate this medium within its own trappings; that cinema can indeed be more than that.
About the Author:
Haikal is an aspiring writer who enjoys reading graphic novels and takes a keen interest in concept art.
1. Cole, Jake. “First Name: Carmen (Jean-Luc-Goddard).” 2012. Web. 22 Jun 2013. (http://en.paperblog.com/first-name-carmen-jean-luc-godard-1983-271341/)
2. Herzog, Amy. Dreams of Difference, Songs of the Same: The Musical Moment in Film. University of Minnesota Press, 2009. 79-81. Print.