Objects to be Read, Words to be Seen: Design and Visual Language in the Films of Jean-Luc Godard, 1959–1967
One of Godard’s primary methods of recording his thoughts on-screen—a personal utterance—was the use of his own handwriting.
The films of Jean-Luc Godard have been written about perhaps more than any other cinematic works, often through the lens of cultural theory, but not nearly enough attention has been paid to the role of designed objects in his films. Collages of art, literature, language, objects, and words, Godard’s films have an instant, impactful, graphic quality, but are far from simple pop artifacts. This research explores and interprets the role of visual language within the films—title sequences, intertitles, handwritten utterances, and printed matter in the form of newspapers, magazines, and posters.
By examining le graphisme within the cultural context of Paris during the 1960s, this research seeks to amplify the significance of graphic design in Godard’s first fifteen films, beginning with 1960’s Bout de Souffle (Breathless) and ending with 1967’s Weekend. While Godard was not a practicing graphic designer in the traditional sense, he was an amateur de design, an autodidact whose obsession with designed objects, graphic language and print media resulted in the most iconic body of work in 1960s France.
The act of writing, whether on paper, in a journal, on a blackboard, on objects like book jackets, newspapers and advertisements—even in the form of graffiti spray-painted on cars and walls—is a common French new wave graphological trope. In 1948, eleven years before Breathless, Alexandre Astruc, a novelist and journalist, who also made 16 mm films, wrote a prescient essay entitled “Birth of a New Avant-Garde,” in which he proposed the idea of the “caméra-stylo,” or “camera pen.” Astruc imagined the cinema breaking free of the concrete demands of narrative, and images themselves functioning by means of writing, just as flexible and subtle as written language. “By language,” he wrote, “I mean a form in which and by which an artist can express his thoughts, however abstract they may be, or translate his obsessions exactly as he does in a contemporary essay or novel.”
Over the next twenty years, it would be Jean-Luc Godard who would “exemplify the philosophical filmmaker of Astruc’s fantasy,” but in the meantime, it was François Truffaut who would serve as the French cinema’s most outspoken critic. Truffaut’s now famous essay “Une Certaine Tendence du Cinema Français” (A Certain Tendency of French Cinema), published in the January 1954 issue of Cahiers du Cinéma, asserted that directors were the ultimate auteurs (authors) of their films, capable of expressing themselves through recurring thematic elements, distinctive ways of building characters, and above all, through the deployment of actors and objects within the time and space of the shot. He singled out eight French directors as auteurs, those whose stature he insisted was equal to the greatest artists in other media, including Jean Renoir, Robert Bresson, Jean Cocteau and Jacques Tati.
Thus the “Politique des Auteurs” was born—but it was not without its own detractors, namely, André Bazin, the editor of Cahiers du Cinéma. Bazin sought to distinguish two camps: filmmakers who believed in reality (Gance and Murnau) and those who believed in images (Eisenstein and Dreyer). Godard’s list of favorite filmmakers included all four, and therefore collapses Bazin’s logic. Additionally, Bazin maintained that directors like Alfred Hitchcock “did not leave as distinct a mark on their work as Picasso or Matisse.”
On this point, no critic was more at odds with Bazin than Godard, and their conflict went public in a pair of polemics appearing in the December 1956 issue of Cahiers: Bazin’s “Montage Interdit” (Editing Forbidden), and Godard’s “Montage Mon Beau Souci” (Editing, My Beautiful Concern). Bazin’s essay praised the long take for its “presumed fidelity to physical reality,” while Godard’s maintained—three years before making his first feature film and innovating the jump cut—that editing evinced “an acute psychological reality through its spatial discontinuities,” asserting, “if direction is a look, editing is a heartbeat.”
In 1953, Roland Barthes published his first book, Writing Degree Zero, suggesting a subtle critical theory that places emphasis not on the historical dimension of literature (what he calls “language”), nor on the personal dimension (the “style”) but on a third element, the product of the two—what he calls écriture (“a mode of writing”). Susan Sontag, in her preface to the English translation, points out that while écriture is literally translated as “writing,” it has no real English equivalent, suggesting “personal utterance” might come closest.
One of Godard’s primary methods of recording his thoughts on-screen—a personal utterance—was the use of his own handwriting. In a 1962 short film, Le Nouveau Monde,a romantic tragedy about a post-apocalyptic city, Godard’s handwriting is seen for the first time at the very end of the film, as the male character looks out the window at a group of modern apartment buildings. Next, a hand is shown writing in extreme close-up in a notebook, with a corresponding voice-over. While the voice clearly belongs to the actor, the shot of the notebook is taken from an ambiguous first-person point-of-view, suggesting a merging of Godard—the auteur—and the male character:
The new world has begun, and a miracle has saved me. But I too may be contaminated by the ghastly mechanicalness, the death of logic. That’s why I’ve written these words in this notebook. One day they’ll be read with curiosity as the last testimony of the world of freedom. Godard’s prediction is at least half-right, as we continue to read his words with curiosity almost fifty years later.
In 1965’s Pierrot Le Fou, the use of Godard’s handwriting and numerous other graphic disruptors helps create a dense, colorful filmic collage, allowing for the possibility of multiple readings. Godard’s fondness for fragmented narrative, cultural commentary, and visual wordplay is apparent in the organization of Pierrot Le Fou, which is divided into chapters, and dominated by a highly stylized color palette of red and blue. At the end of the film, a handwritten intertitle precedes the main character’s suicide, as we see the word “art” (l’art) become “death” (la mort) with one stroke of Godard’s black pen.
That this title is written on bright blue paper and that Ferdinand paints his face the same color in the last scene is not insignificant—it seems to reference one of Godard’s contemporaries, French artist Yves Klein. Klein belonged to the Nouveaux Réalistes, a group of emerging young French artists who shared a preoccupation with cultural appropriation, making them the French equivalent of the Pop Artists. On October 27, 1960, this New Realist group signed a constitutive declaration at Klein’s Montparnasse apartment. Film critic Sally Shafto notes, “Like the New Wave filmmakers, Klein had a knack for self-promotion, and it seems likely that Godard would have been keeping an intent eye on his various activities.” Yves Klein suffered an untimely death at age 34 in 1962, and while it was not a suicide, it’s possible that Ferdinand’s death in Pierrot Le Fou, combined with the art/death title card, is a comment on the fate of the artist in the world.
One year later, in 1966, Godard made two films at the same time, Made in U.S.A. and Deux ou Trois Choses Je Sais d’Elle (Two or Three Things I Know About Her). The films are extremely different—Made in U.S.A. is a pulp-genre film based on a Serie Noire novel, and Deux ou Trois Choses is a rich cultural critique of modern life, consumerism and prostitution. Probably due to haste, the two films have overlapping visual identities, and Godard used his handwriting as the solution for both films’ advertising and trailers.
In the trailer for Made in U.S.A., Godard again demands silence, and uses handwritten fragments of words to create visual puns, presented without any sound whatsoever:
Un Film Po
Un Film Poétique
Un Film Po
Un Film Policier
Un Film Po
Un Film Politique
This particular mode of wordplay quotes is reminiscent of Cassandre’s cheerful, ubiquitous triptych advertisement for Dubonnet with the text “Dubo, Dubon, Dubonnet” (It’s beautiful, It’s good, It’s Dubonnet) from 1932.
In Two or Three Things, Godard uses the soundless trailer as an opportunity for a powerful critique, making clear that the Her of the title is not the female character but the feminine French pronoun Elle—in other words, an ever-changing Her, written in a random array of red, blue, yellow and black marker on a white background:
HER, the cruelty of neo-capitalism
HER, the Paris region
HER, the bathroom that 70% of the French do not have
HER, the terrible law of huge housing complexes
HER, the physical side of love
HER, the life of today
HER, the war in Vietnam
HER, the modern call-girl
HER, the death of modern beauty
HER, the circulation of ideas
HER, the gestapo of structures
The lack of sound in both trailers may be a practical matter, but the silence nevertheless calls the attention to the words themselves. “What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence,” Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Godard was surely familiar with the Tractatus, as he quotes it in his voiceover monologue at the end of Two or Three Things, revealing “the limits of my language indicate the limits of my world.”
Beginning with 1966’s Masculin Féminin, Godard’s characters become increasingly radicalized, in keeping with his own evolving leftist politics. Handwriting becomes more insubordinate, expressed in Masculin Féminin as graffiti. In a film about the difficulties of politics, dating and youthful rebellion, the purist Paul (Jean Pierre Léaud) scrawls “Down with the Republic of Cowards” on the door of a bathroom after witnessing two men kissing in the stall. In another pair of scenes, he spray paints “Peace in Vietnam” on an American Diplomatic vehicle (before stealing it), and starts to write something about de Gaulle on a wall behind a movie theater before being distracted by a couple kissing in an alley. Paul’s personal utterances are in the spirit of protest, both written and verbal, but the distractions of modern life and its newfound sexual freedom is never very far away.
More than paper, pen or spray paint, the blackboard suits Godard’s need for personal utterance, pedagogical expression and pop impermanence. In 1964’s Bande à Part, the three main characters are taking an English class, and the teacher suddenly writes on the blackboard, “Classique = Moderne” (Classic = Modern). She cites T.S. Eliot, adding, “everything that is new is thereby automatically traditional.” This quote is most likely apocryphal, but it suits Godard’s myriad artistic and literary tastes. For while Godard is making decidedly modern films, his most overt references are to Picasso, Beethoven and Racine, rather than to his more avant-garde contemporaries.
Blackboards as a medium of expression gain greater prominence in later films, and cover nearly all the walls of the apartment setting of 1967’s La Chinoise, where a group of (superficially) radicalized young people are spending the summer while their parents vacation. The blackboards are covered in Godard’s now familiar cursive (“anarchism, ultra democracy, subjectivism, individualism”). The film, which is a true assemblage—”I shot autonomous sequences, without any order, and I organized them later”—is packed with graphic images of Brecht, Shakespeare, Mao and Marx that flash on screen in quick cuts throughout the action. Film critic and Godard expert Richard Brody sees the apartment walls “as canvas for Godard’s graphic sense,” covered in magazine pages (Peking News, Cahiers Marxiste-Léniniste, Red Guard), as well as Godard’s own designs, including a large slogan done in rectilinear letters (“One Must Combat Vague Ideas With Precise Images”).
The penultimate moment in the film, which signifies Godard’s break with everything he has done until that moment, is a set piece that takes place at one of the blackboards. While one character delivers an off-camera lecture, Guillaume (Jean Pierre Léaud) stands at a blackboard covered with the names of several dozen writers including Sartre, Giraudoux, Racine, Cocteau, Goethe, Sophocles, Chekov and Shakespeare. One by one, Guillaume takes a wet sponge and erases the names, until only one name remains: Brecht. “The effect is that of an intellectual purge—a purge largely of Godard himself,” notes Brody, “who was wiping out his own ample literary culture in favor of the sole writer he could rescue in the name of his narrow new political doctrine.”
Or as Godard himself once expressed it, “I was a bourgeois filmmaker and then a progressive filmmaker and then no longer a filmmaker, but just a worker in the movies.”
The blackboard scene, as well as Godard’s prolific use of handwriting, is reminiscent of the work of Jean Cocteau, the Surrealist artist, poet and filmmaker Godard greatly admired. The title sequence for 1948’s La Belle et La Bête (Beauty and the Beast)— features Cocteau himself at a blackboard in his studio with actors Jean Marais and Josette Day across the room observing. In the sequence, Cocteau writes the name of Jean Marais on the board, and Marais is seen erasing it. Cocteau then writes his own name and the name of the film, after which the title sequence becomes a montage of superimposed hand-lettering against the photographic blackboard, with Cocteau’s hand appearing magically to erase the content every few frames. “The cinema is still a form of graphic art,” Cocteau wrote in his Journals, published in 1956. Through its meditation, I write in pictures and I secure for my own ideology a power in actual fact. I show what others tell.”
Cocteau’s presence in the opening credit sequence, as well as his signature—not to mention the personal, mythical nature of his films—anticipate the as-yet unformed auteur theory very strongly. For Cocteau and Godard, handwriting is an inseparable part of their artistic and graphic identity, and the writing in the film is treated as an integral part of the formation of the image.