In her memoir Un an après, the purported basis for Michel Hazanavicius’s Redoubtable, the late Anne Wiazemsky recalls her astonishment, at the start of the May 1968 ‘evénéments’, on learning from the newspapers that Dany Cohn-Bendit, a fellow student and friend who had tried to enlist her as a revolutionary under the banner ‘solidarity of the redheads!’, was now Public Enemy No. 1, and that he and his friends Dominique and Jean-Pierre, whom she had taken for the Pieds Nickelés of militancy – cartoon characters – were now considered a menace to the Fifth Republic.
Reportedly, Wiazemsky resisted the idea of Hazanavicius adapting her book until he told her he would make a comedy of it; while her instinct was correct, she has been badly let down. Redoubtable is, as promised, a (mostly leaden) comedy about Wiazemsky’s brief marriage to Jean-Luc Godard, but Wiazemsky’s perspective has been jettisoned entirely – unless of course I somehow missed the chapter dedicated to her younger self’s arse. The film is peppered with homages to Godard, but owes its greatest debt to the ‘glamour shots’ of Bardot which he was made to insert into Le Mépris (1963).
In a just world Wiazemsky’s books would be translated, and Hazanavicius’s film disposed of in an environmentally responsible manner. But in this world it will instead provide a false image of Wiazemsky, played by Stacy Martin, not even with red hair, and her relationship with Godard, played by Louis Garrel, and a completely muddled picture of May 1968, a hallowed date but one that few under French retirement age experienced first-hand, referred to knowingly as ‘les evénéments’ because no one seems especially clear about what they amounted to.
The film begins in the summer of 1967, as Godard and Wiazemsky – already known to the press as the granddaughter of François Mauriac, and to cinephiles as the star of Bresson’s Au hazard balthazar (1966) – get married amid much fanfare, and launch the first film they made together, La Chinoise (1967). There was a 17-year age gap between them, so inevitably she is shown reading pop magazines, he reading Mao; and while there are jokes at his expense, as when the Chinese embassy calls his film reactionary, there is never a suggestion that Wiazemsky knew the main instigators of the insurrection to come – and found them amusing, nor that she had studied philosophy, conceivably in more depth than Godard, who seldom finished a book.
Most of the film takes place in May 1968 – indeed, May 1968 is made to seem like a permanent state of affairs, with ordinary life continuing, punctuated by the occasional riot, even though the couple lived on the Rue Saint-Jacques at the time, right at the centre of things. Godard becomes increasingly intent on abandoning the commercial cinema, and there are endless political discussions, but I’m not sure Cohn-Bendit’s name even comes up; at any rate the riots are never explained, no particular political position is advanced by anyone, and there is never the sense – debatable, but attested to by many who were there – that the future of the French state was in the balance. The film sets up two poles of ‘politics’ and ‘cinema’, and appears to back cinema; but if we accept this dunderheaded opposition for a moment, Redoubtable fails on its own terms, falling short of the basic task of generating cinematic excitement and interest even out of the historic events which are more than the background to its story.
In one scene Godard and Wiazemsky attend a chic party where Godard gets into an intense conversation with his future collaborator Jean-Pierre Gorin, pointedly excluding Wiazemsky, who, after a quick pout, finds herself being chatted up by a dancer; once again, though the joke is partly at Godard’s expense, Wiazemsky is presented as a simpering ingénue, and the same thing happens when she wants to go to Cannes rather than stay on the barricades. There is a difference between being bored and being oblivious, and Redoubtable shows Wiazemsky as the latter. Hazanavicius misses out entirely the film they made together in England in the immediate aftermath, One Plus One (1968), and indeed he never gets as far as describing or showing the sort of film Godard wanted to make, for all that he is shown talking about it.
Godard did break with the commercial cinema – after his sojourn working with the Rolling Stones – but although this is shown as the cause of their split in its turn, in reality Wiazemsky was still appearing in the so-called ‘Dziga-Vertov’ films as late as 1970, albeit possibly with less conviction than he in their appalling Maoist politics. Hazanavicius never really digs into this question, but it is precisely because of the – let us be charitable – incongruity of bourgeois intellectuals calling for ‘Maoism’ in France that the comic approach Wiazemsky wanted is probably the only one possible. That, however, would have required a finesse Hazanavicius lacks, and the result is an evasive film that will please no one, largely preserving Godard’s reputation – though it rightly identifies his anti-semitism – while travestying Wiazemsky’s.
Henry K. Miller is a regular contributor to Sight & Sound, and has written for publications including Film Comment, Cinema Scope and Framework.