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  • Encounters with Godard: Ethics, Aesthetics, Politics by James S. Williams
  • Keith Reader
Encounters with Godard: Ethics, Aesthetics, Politics. By James S. Williams. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2016. xiv + 324 pp., ill.

How far does it make sense to treat Jean-Luc Godard in his more recent work as simply, or even primarily, a film director? This is one of the multifarious questions posed by James S. Williams's magnum opus, a scholarly tour de force that opens up Godard's polymorphous œuvre to far-reaching historical, political, aesthetic, and philosophical scrutiny. Known to anglophone audiences at least largely at second hand, above all through the work of Michael Witt, the Godard of the current millennium is here analysed in exhaustive detail, the restricted accessibility of the films themselves apart from La Chinoise (dealt with in the opening chapter) palliated by thorough description and the regular inclusion of stills. Godard appears here as the interlocutor supreme, his dialogues with key figures from the worlds of literature (Broch, Duras), art history (Malraux—as much of an inspiration aesthetically as he was famously a bête noire politically), and philosophy (Badiou, Agamben) deservedly receiving a similar degree of attention to the audio-visual works themselves. If one figure predominates here it is surely that of chiasmus, which, thanks to its amalgam of perversity and reversibility, seems the predestined trope for Godard's later work. Chiasmus and montage are closely associated via their affinity with reversibility and the intertextual and historical juxtapositions they enable, so that it becomes all but impossible, in a remarkably productive way, to disentangle text and context—two terms whose interdependence has always been crucial to the director's work. One of Williams's major achievements is to situate the œuvre historically and politically while maintaining a stress on its aesthetic qualities—a dimension the rebarbative Godard of the post-1968 years might have wished to disown, but one that nevertheless inheres throughout his work. The book is far from hagiographic, as becomes plain when Williams asserts: 'I claim the right here to be uneven, eclectic, and polemical' (p. 14); Godard's at least partial complicity with 'a "refined" anti-Semitic discourse long prevalent in France and elsewhere in Europe' (p. 185) is confronted, along less harshly with the fact that 'it is now the "new Europe" that has become his most immediate foe' (p. 54), which in the run-up to Brexit may make for rather queasy reading. This is an indispensable contribution to Godard studies, attractively produced, and exhaustively referenced.

Keith Reader


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