Jean-Luc Godard is one of the founders of the French New Wave – and, at 87, he's still kicking at the limits lesser intellects erect around cinema. (His new film, a video essay called Le Livre d'Image, will compete at Cannes in May). Now Michel Hazanavicius, director of 2011's Oscar-winning salute to the silent film era The Artist, has rustled up the nerve to put the Godard story onscreen. Well, not the whole story – just the period from 1967 to 1968, when the moviemaker met and married actress Anne Wiazemsky, then 19, and became radicalized in sync with the student movement against capitalism, consumerism and American imperialism. Leftist French dissidents, meanwhile, wanted nothing to do with the then 37-year-old director, whose films (Breathless, Band of Outsiders) represented the status quo in their minds. The politically activated cine-postmodernist was in serious crisis.
Godard Mon Amour, the frivolous throwaway that's been made from this rich period in the life of a cinephile revolutionary, is not going to sit well with Godard acolytes, who still treat him like the first three letters of his surname. "It's a stupid, stupid idea," said no less a critic than Jean-Luc himself. Hazanavicius persisted, however, buying the rights to Wiazemsky's fictionalized memoir Un An Après (One Year Later) and persuading the actress – who separated from Godard in 1970 and died seven months ago after a battle with cancer – that a lighter touch might be just the method to bring out the comic absurdity the Contempt director once recognized as part of his own DNA.
It might have worked. Really. And it does at the start: The terrific actor Louis Garrel (The Dreamers) paints a wonderfully sly portrait of the young master, aware of his reputation and oblivious to his own arrogance. Wiazemsky, played by Stacy Martin (Nymphomaniac) is Godard's teenage dream. He cast her in several of his films during this era, including Weekend and the behind-the-scenes Rolling Stones portrait Sympathy for the Devil. Their sex scenes play like a parody of the legend's early work, with closeups of erogenous zones that separate the sex urge from the human connection. Hazanavicius also has fun showing Godard being periodically knocked down by his beloved protesters and having his trademark glasses broken and stomped on.
Sadly, a few delicious digs don't add up to a movie. Despite Martin's beauty and verve, Wiazemsky remains on the outside of her own story. The career and the life of this granddaughter of novelist and Nobel laureate François Mauriac deserves a movie that does her justice. What we have left in Godard Mon Amour, after the laughs dry up, is a thin sketch of a filmmaker who inspired a hero worship in his young bride that dissolved in squabbling, as had Godard's first marriage to another of his leading ladies, actress Anna Karina.
Hazanavicius crams his film with talk, talk, talk – debates about ideology, about shutting down the Cannes Film Festival in solidarity with students and workers, about turning on once-idolized filmmakers (John Ford, Fritz Lang) and disavowing one's own work in the name of pushing toward an amorphous future. Godard not only lost Wiazemsky in the shuffle, he traded his sense of identity for a more elusive sense of purpose. Valid topics for a film, for sure, but not one this skin-deep or lazy about laying the groundwork for a provocative character study. There's a movie in how a puckish, prankish film artist tuned in to the world around him then found he could no longer laugh at himself. This isn't it.