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A Fraying of Voices: Jean-Luc Godard’s Prénom Carmen Verena Andermatt Conley A NY DISCUSSION about literature and film brings to mind glossy adaptations of so-called literary masterpieces, from David Lean’s Passage to India and James Ivory’s Bostonians, to, more recently, Hollywood’s paradoxical commemoration of the French Revolution, the commercialized Dangerous Liaisons. The film seemed to retain of the novel mainly the title and weave in the scenario a few provocative scenes. All these films have in common a before and an after, that is, a literary work that has been “ adapted” to the screen for commercial effect. We must ask, however, what happens in recent avant-garde and alter­ native cinema, that is, in projects that do not either presuppose a simple order of cause and effect or transpose one medium into another. We can recall the French New Wave, with collaborations between writers, critics and filmmakers, before the scriptwriters turned to the camera them­ selves. What comes to mind are films that have, like much philosophy and literature in the past two decades, questioned the very possibility of a story, such as Duras’s and Resnais’s Hiroshima mon amour or RobbeGrillet ’s and Resnais’s Last Year at Marienbad. Though marked by lit­ erature, these films do not accord a primary status to the literary work. They combine media, and in so doing, they splinter literature, music, painting and architecture within film. Film is no longer a seventh art but the art staging a disarticulation of all arts within its form .1The result is often less an insistence on a seemingly sutureless image-movement, than on images organized around ruptures and interstices.2 To put it yet another way, our century does not develop magisterial theories of philos­ ophy and literature. Attention dwells upon fragments. The combination of reflective fragments, the pleasure of writing has given birth to a new genre, the literary and critical essay.3 But the same literary and philo­ sophical fragments have also found their way into film, where pleasures of filmic writing are mixed with reflexive concerns common to atomistic essays. This is particularly evident in Jean-Luc Godard’s films that have made fragmentary creations from literature, paintings and music. In all of his films, Godard literally meditates on what has been called the loss of 68 S u m m e r 1990 C onley aura, on the synthesis of the arts, and on the breakdown of genre. Much of his œuvre is concerned less with “ adaptations” of various arts to film than with their transformation through and in film. If works like Passion are devoted to the exploration of painting, others, like Prénom Carmen, at first appear to question the status of music in everyday life since the rapid development of the sound industry.4Prénom Carmen is one of a series of films that tests conversions of music as adaptations of Mérimée’s story and Bizet’s opera of that name, from Carlos Saura to Francesco Rosi. Yet Godard complicates what at first might appear like a simple displacement from one medium or place to another. In its pre­ miere on television in the United States, on Bravo Channel in June 1985, E. G. Marshall, a former Hollywood actor hired to introduce the film, presented Prénom Carmen as “ an adaptation of Mérimée’s novel that has seemingly little to do with it.” In fact, Godard kept none of the local color so dear to the art-historical and archeological talents of Mérimée. The film is shot in Paris and on the Norman coast. Except for two whistled tunes, Bizet’s music is absent from the film. And though set par­ tially in a ponderous nineteenth-century architectural setting underlining the massive weight of institutions—an asylum, a bank, a luxury hotel— resolutely contemporary characters move about. Mérimée’s Carmen, presented as a story in a story, was, in the style of the period, told by a narrator as a moral tale, a sacred lesson of an exam­ ple not to be imitated. It dealt with the account of an encounter between a...


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