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  • Godard and Sound: Acoustic Innovation in the Late Films of Jean-Luc Godard by Albertine Fox
  • Douglas Knight (bio)
Albertine Fox
Godard and Sound: Acoustic Innovation in the Late Films of Jean-Luc Godard
London and New York: I.B.Tauris, 2018: 288pp.
ISBN: 978-1784538422

Ever since Claudia Gorbman’s formative Unheard Melodies (1987), in which she drew attention to Jean-Luc Godard’s flouting of narratological propriety, Godard’s highly distinctive cinematic syntax has regularly drawn the eyes and ears of film music scholars.1 Several other articles and book chapters on the auteur followed,2 although it would take over twenty years before Godard’s soundtracks became the subject of a dedicated book-length study.3 It is a happy relief then, to find that Albertine Fox covers so much fresh ground in Godard and Sound: Acoustic Innovation in the Late Films of Jean-Luc Godard, both intellectually and in terms of the objects under the microscope. The book is structured around synoptic close-readings of two or three texts, which are preceded by two theoretical chapters. A history of post-war, Francophonic experimentation with the mechanical reproduction of sound unscrolls alongside the broader Godardian narrative, united by the cinematically consumptive experience of what Fox terms ‘acoustic spectatorship’, distinct from Michel Chion’s notion of ‘audio-vision’ (1994).

The study’s delimitation of Godard’s ‘late’ work is not arbitrarily chosen. Sauve qui peut (la vie) (1979) was hailed as a new beginning in the director’s career (Godard: ‘my second first film’), and, somewhat erroneously, a return to mainstream filmmaking. In Fox’s account, the post-1979 films are ‘indelibly marked by the formal experiments with video, television, and speed alteration that he had carried out with Miéville in the 1970s’ (p.28). Sauve qui peut (la vie), Passion (1982) and Prénom Carmen (1983) can be seen as an interconnected trilogy, with each film centred on a question about filmmaking that fulfills an abstract, postmodern narrative function. In Sauve qui peut (la vie), ‘Where did that music come from?’ is asked in reference to Gabriel Yared’s synthesised leitmotivic variations on a Ponchielli aria,4 used as the film’s underscore. In Passion, a character enquires, ‘What’s the story?’ regarding the plot that the filmmaker intends to create around his filmed re-creations of classical paintings. And finally, in Prénom Carmen, ‘What is the role of the string quartet?’ is queried with regard to the inserted sequences showing the Pratt Quartet rehearsing Beethoven’s late string quartets.5 Thus, the first [End Page 92] two questions individually voicing diegetic and narrative concerns combine in the third iteration of these self-reflexive interrogatives to question film music’s phenomenal status in relation to the film’s metadiscourse.

Godard and Sound organises these early works, instead, around their video scenarios, dividing them between Sauve qui peut (la vie) and Passion with Prénom Carmen. A brief point of clarification should be made here regarding the video scenarios. Where Scénario du film Passion (1982) was made after the feature film had been completed as a type of marketing material, reflecting upon the completed film, the former video scenario was submitted to the Centre national du cinema in 1979, instead of a screenplay, to secure funding for Sauve qui peut (la vie).6 Consequently, where the musical soundtrack of Passion’s scenario is congruent with its attendant feature film, the earlier example differs noticeably, featuring instead brief quotations of Handel’s Rinaldo and Schumann’s Piano Concerto. These disparities go unremarked here, and it is interesting that the earlier short film seems to look forward in its place to Passion’s soundtrack.

Sauve qui peut (la vie) is bookended by two diegetic performances of the opera aria, one comprising only its soprano vocal melody and the other merely the orchestral accompaniment. Alternatively, Yared’s MIDI-constructed score, bearing faint traces of string accompaniment, helps ‘leitmotivically’ define the film’s different characters, discursively drawing on different musical topics (e.g. the romantic piano waltz) (p.37). Fox argues that the ‘slow motion’ effects used as part of the visual montage, which cause the image...