As he announced with The Artist, writer-director Michel Hazanavicius makes movies about movies. So it was nearly inevitable that he would someday burlesque the work of Jean-Luc Godard, the Franco-Swiss director who virtually invented the meta-film. The result, Godard Mon Amour, is fascinating but not as much fun as the movies its title character made between 1959 and 1966.
There's a reason for that. Hazanavicius' alternately playful and brooding biopic begins in 1967 and turns on the events of May 1968, when protesters filled the Paris streets and sympathetic filmmakers insisted the Cannes Film Festival be cancelled in solidarity. This was when Godard completed the shift from freewheeling provocateur to pilgrim in search of an all-encompassing leftist ideology. Briefly, he supposed himself a Maoist.
That's enough material for several films, and this portrait is not of Godard alone. It depicts — and is derived from a 2015 roman a clef written by — actress Anne Wiazemsky, who married the director just as "the revolution" arrived. (She was 20; he was 36.) As Hazanavicius tells it, the brilliant but disillusioned Godard broke up first with cinema, and second with Wiazemsky.
The real Godard has dismissed this film as "a stupid idea." But he effectively granted a license for such projects when he injected episodes from his love life into such movies as A Woman Is a Woman.
The director is played by Louis Garrel, who's known for appearing in films that draw from the '60s style and spirit of Godard and Truffaut. With black spectacles and a bald spot shaved into his frizzed hair, Garrel looks quite a bit like the man he's impersonating. He also seems to capture accurately the director's crankiness during his New Left period, although it's hard to be certain. Godard often turned the camera on himself, but rarely did so in that era, when he sought to submerge his ample ego in collective filmmaking.
Stacy Martin, who survived Lars von Trier's Nymphomaniac, is fearless (and often naked) as Wiazemsky. She's just the sort of gamine Godard would have cast (and possibly married) during the '60s. Her nuanced characterization must draw on Wiazemsky's book, but it also echoes Godard's Contempt, in which a woman falls out of love with the movie-making husband she once adored.
She's not the only one. The "redoubtable" Godard — as the film's much better French title has it — alienates many friends and supporters. Among them are Bernando Bertolucci (who would dramatize the Paris-'68 youthquake in 2003's The Dreamers) and a friend played by The Artist's Berenice Bejo. Meanwhile, Godard is drawn to young cinematic radical Jean-Pierre Gorin, whose reputation has not increased since about 1970.
Godard is known for self-conscious design flourishes and subversive narrative gambits, many of which Hazanavicius emulates. Scenes are color-coded to the primaries of red, yellow and blue or to the tricolor of the French (and American) flag. There are also sequences in black-and-white and, less successfully, negative.
The story is divided into titled chapters, and voiceover narration or subtitles occasionally contradict the spoken dialogue. Some scenes are intentionally stagey or slapsticky, and lines are addressed directly to the camera. In one of drollest scenes, the case against on-screen nudity is discussed by two people who are completely bare.
While such moments are enjoyable, they don't help the story pivot from comedy to drama as the couple's marriage turns toxic. Perhaps Hazanavicius thought he'd follow his subject's example and simply jump-cut from happy to sad. Godard had the verve to get away with it, but Godard Mon Amour doesn't.