Director Michel Hazanavicius on His Non-Traditional Godard Biopic ‘Redoubtable’
“I’m talking, shut the fuck up!” Michel Hazanavicius is having a Godard moment. But unlike the Nouvelle Vague master, Hazanavicius is only joking as noisy Cannes revelers pass by, briefly disrupting and interrupting our interview.
The French director, whose film The Artist won the Best Picture Oscar and Palme d’Or back in 2013, returned to the Croisette this week with Redoubtable, a stylistic tragicomedy about yet another artist, Jean-Luc Godard. Yet it is not a classic biopic but a time capsule of the inevitable unraveling of his marriage, career and reputation. Based on the book One Year Later by his ex-wife Anne Wiazemsky, we meet the man she — and cinema fans — fell in love with and the man he changed into. Revered by many filmmakers as a visionary and a trailblazer, Godard made some unforgettable works in the Sixties. Then May 1968 happened. Expecting a revolutionary change from the infamous Paris demonstrations, he shunned his old films and embraced a new form of radical filmmaking that led to an artistic downfall.
Played by Louis Garrel, we meet an insufferable man, making it harder with each frame to feel empathy for him. Anne Wiazemsky, his very young wife (played by Stacy Martin, seen in Lars Von Trier’s Nymphomania), accepts his public displays of misplaced anger in silence, outbursts that cause scandal at a meeting with students at the Sorbonne or famously stopping the Cannes Film Festival. (Yes, he really did stop the festival from taking place.)
Almost 40 years later, another political revolution is taking place in France; the Croisette is protected like a military fort, yet no one has stopped the festival.
You’ve never met Godard?
MICHEL HAZANAVICIUS: No, never.
Why did you want to adapt the book into a movie?
HAZANAVICIUS: I read the book first and I was very attracted by this beautiful love story in a very allegorical tone and very particular about one of the greatest artists in cinema. I thought it was a beautiful love story, because it’s a mending story, their split is very noble in a way and it’s very allegorical of many things, desperate because he wants to change, and to change, he’s forced to kill the Jean-Luc Godard everyone wants him to be. He has to kill Jean-Luc Godard, to become another one. By killing him, he kills the man that she loves, the man that she knew. So he’s the murderer of her husband. And in a way I think it’s what we do when we split up, because one of us is changing and the other person doesn’t accept that change for many reasons. That can be something like aging; it can be any kind of changes. It’s something that we all know because that happens to a lot of people among us, but it’s also an allegory of Jean-Luc Godard himself. I think that’s how he became the great Jean-Luc Godard, it’s because he killed the one he used to be.
It’s also an artistic crisis for him. In Redoubtable, his movie La Chinoise is a flop. Was that an allegory for your last film, which wasn’t very successful?
HAZANAVICIUS: Yes, I felt it and I played with it, of course, and I think this movie helped me stand back up. When I read the book, there was room for me to put in very intimate scenes that had happened to me, and I could understand. I don’t compare myself with Jean-Luc Godard, but this guy makes a movie and he thinks it’s a good movie and he thinks it’s a revolutionary movie. But the movie is not well received. And it’s not about the audience, it’s about other people and how people understand the movie. So yeah, I felt like I put a lot of myself into the film, but it’s not a self-portrait. The first thing was this very nice love story and I thought there was room for comedy — the kind of comedy I really love are the Italian comedies, comedies with tragic motivations, tragic events. There was also room for visual and cinematographic work.
What’s the starting point to get the comedy out of this real tragedy?
HAZANAVICIUS: The book. A lot of things were very funny in the book. Actually, when I first called Anna Wiazemsky to buy the rights for the movie, she declined. She thought this movie would not do well. And just before she hung up, I told her I think it’s very funny. She said, “What? You think it’s very funny?” And I said, “Yes, I think it’s hilarious, even. Very, very funny.” So we started to talk about this and she accepted to see me, and she finally accepted to sell me the rights because I thought there were a lot of funny things in the books and with this character. For example, when he comes back from the Chinese embassy and he says to her, ‘they said I was a jerk and I didn’t understand anything about the Chinese Revolution and they want o censor the movie.” I think it’s hilarious!
His other films are very funny and you must have fun playing around with the stylistic things in your movie and when you play with the audience’s expectations.
HAZANAVICIUS: The early Godard is very funny and witty and irrelevant and inventive and very free and he for sure didn’t lose his [artistic] freedom. It was very fun for me to play with all of Godard’s motives and try to put them into a more classic movie, because my movie is much more classic and I really tried to respect that character and to tell that story. So yeah, it was very fun and very refreshing for me.
Redoubtable is filled with a lot of references that only people familiar with Godard’s films will grasp…
HAZANAVICIUS: You change Godard to “black-and-white and silent” and you have the question I had for The Artist. I try to respect all audiences. I don’t make a movie for specialists. I say this because I had this kind of question for The Artist. People were wondering if you don’t know about black-and-white and about silent movies, if you’re not a specialist, do you think people will enjoy the movie? And I said, “Yeah, they can enjoy the movie. I don’t know if they will, but they can enjoy the movie.” I think for this one it’s exactly the same. If you don’t know Godard and if you don’t recognize the Godard motives, the experience will be better for you because you will discover something and you will think I’m a genius because I use his idea. But you will discover a very fresh way to tell stories. You don’t have to know what belongs to Godard and what belongs to me. It’s just about enjoying a movie. And also there’s a very simple story and there are some very funny situations. So yeah, you can enjoy the movie.
Godard famously stopped the Cannes Film Festival and funnily enough, this movie is now in competition on Cannes. Was that anywhere in your mind?
HAZANAVICIUS: No, not really. You know, I work in segments. The first segment is to find the right project, what you want to do — this is the most important. Then you have to write the script. Then you have find the money. Then you have to prep, you have to shoot and edit the movie. And then comes Cannes. So the Cannes question came at the very end of the process, the movie was almost finished. So I didn’t aim to go to Cannes when I was shooting. But it’s in the book, it’s one of the highlights of Godard’s career. He stopped the festival in May ’68. But it’s very ironic to come here with this movie, and it’s very funny. When we were selected, it was during the election in France. Marine Le Pen was at the door of the presidency here in France. And there was that Melenchon guy and very radical people everywhere in France. And I had this movie taking place in May ’68 at the Cannes Film Festival, so it was lined up all together. So I made this teaser where one of the characters says during a demonstration, “You’re going to Cannes with all this happening right now in France. It’s so stupid. Only tourists go to Cannes.” And at the end of the teaser, there was the logo of Cannes with the Official Competition sign. It was really funny to do it.
You mentioned the tragicomedy element in the film. His glasses kept getting smashed, and every time he got a new pair, a new facet of Godard would emerge.
HAZANAVICIUS: Well, I would say it’s the symbol of humor. It’s a very burlesque movie. It’s like a running gag. But I think it’s funny for a guy who’s such a visionary to break his glasses. That’s the symbol that I like in that very simple running gag.
But did he really break his glasses?
HAZANAVICIUS: Yeah, yeah. In the book, he breaks his glasses twice, and when I was talking to Anne, I said, “It’s so funny, I want to make a running gag about it.” And she said, “He broke them a lot of times, actually, I only mentioned it twice though.”
He was full of contradictions. Was he really a man of conviction or just a bored bourgeois?
HAZANAVICIUS: He’s very difficult to define. He’s everything and he’s the opposite. He’s a paradox. He won’t let anybody pout him in a box. So I think he’s a real convinced revolutionary and a real bourgeois, because he was born a bourgeois. He can be very generous and he can be very petty. He can be very opulent… Really, I think he’s a lot of things. Everything is true about him. He never wanted to be sympathetic, which is very freeing for a screenwriter because you don’t have to make a statue of him. You can accept all the dark sides of a character and play with it and we still have empathy [for him]. I wanted people to have empathy for him and one of the keys in my opinion is because he’s his own killer. You blame him for killing himself, but you feel bad for him. He’s his own victim. You’re always between “what a jerk!” and “Poor guy.” He destroys everything as a way to destroy himself.
Like at the Sorbonne.
HAZANAVICIUS: Yes, of course. He puts himself in very difficult, embarrassing situations.
Why did you choose Louis Garrel?
HAZANAVICIUS: At the very beginning of the writing process, I thought about him so I called him. He’s a very smart guy, he’s like an intellectual dandy and something was very believable for the audience, because when he speaks with Godard’s lines, you can believe he understand what he says, which is not the case with all the actors of that character. He’s a huge actor. He’s very, very good. He comes from the auteur genre in France, but I think he has a huge comedy potential. So I think he was the perfect actor to do it. And he has a deep respect for Jean-Luc Godard, really adores him. He was very relevant and I was pushing the character to something comical like a clown, and he was pushing to something very respectful. There were these two energies.
And the character of Anne is rather quiet next to his exuberant outbursts.
HAZANAVICIUS: It was very difficult because the character doesn’t speak too much, which was the situation in 1967. I mean, he’s 20 years older. He’s that imposing Pygmalion, an imposing figure who’s superior. And she’s 19, 20, and in those days, women were not treated like they are today. So I couldn’t have her take part in the discussions because it was not true. It would be really anachronistic. So I had to find an actress with a face that would express a lot of things silently, and Stacy Martin was perfect. First of all, she’s awfully handsome and she has this vintage face, so I could shoot her as a pop object. She has no problem with nudity. So she was perfect for the role. I started the casting process for the character, and after one week, Berenice (Bejo, his wife and actress), who met her six months earlier – said, “Did you think about Stacy?” And I said, of course, you’re right, it’s obvious! She lives in London, so she came to Paris and I made her read for the part. I really think she’s amazing. She’s perfect for the part.
Have you met Godard, Bertolucci, the big directors we see in the movie?
HAZANAVICIUS: No, I didn’t feel I had to. Bertolucci, I met him once but from afar. We didn’t speak but I saw him – I didn’t meet him. Godard, I didn’t meet him either. Since the beginning, I’ve been talking about Godard, but in reality I’ve been asking about my Godard. I’m talking about the character and the movie, not the real one. I don’t know the real one. Nobody knows him. So I created my own Godard. But the Godard you saw is a combination of the real one and Wiazemsky’s one, my Godard, Louis Garrel’s Godard and your perception of all this interpretation of Godard. It’s not a documentary. I didn’t have to meet those people.
But are you an admirer of Godard?
HAZANAVICIUS: As a director, I have a deep, profound respect for him and how he created his own path and his own line. He really created his own language in cinema. As a political character, no, I do not admire him. And as a viewer, I really adore all the Sixties period and I respect but I don’t have any pleasure watching the movies made after that. Some of them, I like to watch, but it’s not my favorite.