Criterion Corner is a Film.com column dedicated to the Criterion Collection. It is usually written by David Ehrlich, but – in times of need – he is honored to hand the reigns to esteemed writers like Mr. Calum Marsh.
Jean-Luc Godard’s much-beloved crime caper “Band of Outsiders” arrives on Bluray tomorrow via the Criterion Collection, a long-awaited upgrade over its initial DVD release in 2003. One of twelve Godard films available through Criterion and the fifth to date to be made available in HD, “Band of Outsiders” remains an enduring fan favorite and an obvious choice for vaunted re-release, soon to take its rightful place on cinephile shelves alongside similarly canonical coups like “Breathless” and “Vivre Sa Vie”, also presented in glorious 1080p. From a business perspective, in other words, this is a sensible film to lavish in streamlined packaging and a high-definition retooling.
But let’s not kid ourselves: as Godard films go, “Band of Outsiders” is not a very daring choice, and this particular release—not even a new release, just a nominal upgrade—is hardly worth celebrating, or at least not in the sense that, say, Criterion’s recent Pierre Étaix collection is. “Band of Outsiders” is a fine film that’s been widely available on home video in North America for more than a decade. (And as Richard Brody observes in his essential Godard biography “Everything is Cinema”, “its ongoing popularity is due precisely to the film’s overt neo-classicism.”) We needn’t oversell the occasion.
The Criterion Collection is at its most valuable when it makes obscure films easier to find and see—a job it does better than perhaps any other distributor. As I’ve written before, our conception of a popular canon and our understanding of film history are shaped to a staggering degree by availability, which is to say that the more great films made available on home video, the better our overall sense of what the cinema has to offer. So while it’s certainly important that Criterion has invested time and money into a dozen Godard films to date, it’s disconcerting that they’ve yet to release even a single Godard film made after 1972—despite the fact that he’s directed literally dozens of superb films since and continues to make them to this day. Canons are formed as much through omission as by what’s highlighted, and the decision to avoid the late-period work of one of the cinema’s most celebrated voices—work that grew immeasurably richer, if more difficult, as the filmmaker aged—has no doubt contributed to the misconception that Godard stopped making relevant films in the late 1960s.
It’s nice that “Band of Outsiders” is now available on Blu-ray, but not if it’s at the expense of something rarer and more challenging. Many of Godard’s best films remain unavailable on home video in North America in any form, let alone high definition, and it would be much more exciting if these obscure masterpieces were to finally see the light of day than for a widely seen film to be given a minor makeover. With that in mind, we’ve compiled a list—far from exhaustive—of five great Godard films that are deserving of the Criterion treatment. Let’s hope one day these wishes are fulfilled.
“King Lear” (1987)
(So it turns out that "King Lear" is available in its entirety on YouTube. Enjoy).
Regrettably few cinephiles seem aware that in the mid-80s, Godard adapted a Shakespeare play into an English-language post-apocalyptic comedy starring Molly Ringwald, Norman Mailer, and, yes, Woody Allen, but even fewer seem aware that “King Lear”—an oblique, difficult, and altogether peerless work about the reconstitution of the world’s art after it is wiped out in a Chernobyl-like catastrophe—is perhaps Godard’s greatest achievement. Unavailable on home video except as a shoddy Italian import, this is far and away the Godard film most urgently in need of a North American revival, evidenced in part by the enthusiasm with which it was greeted during a recent sold-out theatrical screening at 92YTribeca in New York City. With esteemed vocal champions like Jonathan Rosenbaum and the New Yorker’s Richard Brody bringing it back to the film world’s attention, a much-demanded DVD or Blu-ray release should be all it takes to catapult “King Lear” into the canon where it belongs.
“Sauve Qui Peut (La Vie)” (1980)
Thought it had a limited theatrical release in the U.S. under the title “Every Man For Himself”, Godard’s self-described “second first film” never gained much traction outside of its native France, where it was received more warmly than anything he’d produced in years. Though it was seen at the time as something of a return to form for the director after his decade-long self-imposed exile from narrative fiction, “Sauve Qui Peut” seems in retrospect to be considerably more progressive and forward-thinking than any of Godard’s pre-’68 features, combining his early exuberance and free-jazz sensibility as a visual stylist with a newly honed intellectual rigor and sense of moral weight. The result is a film that seems at once youthful and sophisticated, as provocative a vision as “Breathless” or “Weekend” but made with more insight and wisdom than either.
“Nouvelle Vague” (1990)
Formally elegant and richly textured, composed of gliding tracking shots and striking symbols, “Nouvelle Vague” seems an atypical film for Godard, known less for precision and subtext than for the rawness of his thinly veiled polemics. But in many ways “Nouvelle Vague” represents as much a career summation as an attempt to try something new, bringing together many of his obsessions—cinematic history, social change, the decadence of the idle upper-classes, and (of course) the ongoing legacy of the French New Wave—and setting fire to the lot of them. “Nouvelle Vague” is about change and death, or perhaps change as death, and so it’s oddly fitting that, as home video formats come and go, an attempt to reflect upon and reconfigure a personal and artistic history in changing times should remain nearly impossible to see. At this point it seems unlikely that “Nouvelle Vague” will ever find the audience it deserves, let alone the Bluray presentation its sumptuous photography needs.
“Eloge De L’Amour” (2001)
Maybe Godard’s most plainly controversial picture—not least for the accusations it flatly levels against Steven Spielberg for having exploited the Holocaust with “Schindler’s List”—the strange and wonderful “Eloge De L’Amour” is nevertheless among his most moving. Shot both in 35mm in black-and-white and on cheap, consumer-grade digital video, the film contains some of the most memorable and gorgeous images of Godard’s career, capturing the world in ways both nostalgically old-fashioned and almost shockingly avant-garde. More than just about any other late-period Godard film, “Eloge De L’Amour” is one that demands to be seen at a level of quality in which we’re currently unable to see it, making its absence from the home video market (and from the Criterion Collection in particular) all the more disappointing.
Godard’s nearly 10-year retreat from the limelight through the 1970s resulted in a wide array of experimental video work that’s often more intriguing than it is necessarily successful, but at its most effective—especially across the three features of the period, “Comment Ca Va”, “Numero Deux”, and “Ici et Ailleurs”, the latter two of which are happily available on DVD through Olive Films—this radical approach yielded much that continues to fascinate. “France/tour/detour/deux/enfants”, a 12-part mini-series commissioned for French television, remains among the most essential documents of Godard’s video experimentation, and its continued unavailability has relegated a fascinating period of creativity from one of the world’s most challenging filmmakers to the margins of cinema history.