Godard's 'Hela Pour Moi' is an unmercifully dense film about God

August 19, 1994|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

Where have you gone, Jean-Luc Godard?

Once the angriest and most radical of the French new wave film directors, who twisted the form of the feature movie into something new and astonishing back in the early '60s, the director has retreated to a more contemplative, more personal and, alas, more difficult cinema.

So here's where he's gone: In "Helas Pour Moi" ("Oh, Woe Is Me"), which opens today at the Charles, he's knocking on heaven's door.

Godard has found God.

It's hard not to notice the parallel with another of the great European radicals of the '60s, Bernard Bertolucci, who in his last film turned away from politics and toward religion, in the form of Buddhism. But where Bertolucci seemed to lose his direction as he bumbled into "The Middle Path," and issued a languid, uninvolving, unintentionally funny film, Godard is as rigorous and impenetrable as ever. His grip on his technique and his fiery intellectualism is still furiously in place.

And it should be emphasized that the God Godard finds in "Helas Pour Moi" isn't the same distinguished gentleman to whom you were introduced in Sunday school. No, indeed: Godard's heavenly figure is no less imposing a fellow than Gerard Depardieu, beefy as a meat pie, as tortured as one as Sartre's failed poems, as lonely as the last leaf of summer.

God has a problem, I mean other than the fact he ought to lose 25 pounds. He's curious. He wonders what it's like to be one of his own creations, to feel the twitchings of irrationality, the nudgings of passion, the pain of love, the heat of lust.

And so he ventures earthward, to a small town on a lake in Switzerland, and begins his coy investigations. But Godard, like his hero, moves in mysterious ways. He's full of tricks: After the end credits, he continues with the movie for another two obscure minutes, which, unhelpfully, explain almost nothing.

No, "Helas Pour Moi" doesn't yield its meanings without a struggle. (I've now seen it twice and still grope after its meanings.) One's immediate response to the film is confusion, coupled with a kind of serenity: It's a movie that seems to play on the surface of a reflecting pool, not a screen -- a slow, shimmering meditation expressed in images that wobble somehow. It is the least viewer-friendly film in years; it moves slowly, broken now and then by titles ("The Law of Silence," for example), its narrative progressing in layers of reality. In one sense it's an upstairs-downstairs kind of movie in which some of the action transpires in heaven or Olympus, in which angels or lesser gods squabble over the meaning of human destiny and deliver profound or annoyingly opaque abstractions (or, sometimes, quote literature or deliver one-liners like " 'The Communist Manifesto' was published in the same year as 'Alice in Wonderland' "). Pay attention and such varied authors as Joseph Conrad and Dashiel Hammett come blitzing out at you. You're at the University of Chicago in the No-Exit coffee house of Gods.

At the same time, Godard is too arrogant to give us the cliched movie-heaven of dry ice fog and gauzy curtains. His heaven is the very earth (a lake in Switzerland) where his human story takes place; you must watch very carefully to pick up on its subtle codings of reality. On that earth, Depardieu's Big Guy has inhabited the body of Simon and is picking his way through a thorny engagement with Simon's wife Rachel (Laurence Maslian), who knows that something is up, that "her husband" isn't quite her husband.

I should add that to continue the density, none of this takes place now, spontaneously before our eyes; rather, it seems to be occurring in a long flashback, as months later, a publisher named Klimt (Bernard Verley) has appeared in the town to investigate rumors of the event. It's also extremely helpful to know that the movie is in some sense inspired by an incident in mythology where Zeus impersonated Amphitryon to seduce his wife Alcmene.

At one point, poor Rachel says, "I don't understand sentences like that," which could be representative of a poor audience's point of view. The movie does offer on indisputable pleasure that demands little labor: The slow majesty of Godard's technique, the contrapuntal relationship between his beautiful imagery and the rigor of his ideas, is uniquely provocative. Though you may not get precisely what is going on, you understand one thing truly -- that something is going on.

"Hela Pour Moi"

Starring Gerard Depardieu and Laurence Maslian

Directed by Jean-Luc Godard

Released by Cinema Parallel

Unrated

***

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