A transcription of the entirety of Jean-Luc Godard's press conference for Prénom Carmen at the 1983 Venice Film Festival.
What led you, at the same time as several other international filmmakers, to shoot your version of Carmen?
What led you, at the same time as several other international filmmakers, to shoot your version of Carmen?
Jean-Luc Godard: First, the film is not called Carmen. It is called Prénom Carmen and in the film, at one point a series of questions is answered: “What comes before the name?... What is its name?... And, moreover, must it be named?... Must we names things or should things come to you without being named?...”
All these questions, because I think that cinema must show things before we name them: so that we can name them, to help us name them.
Today, we’re in a time where a powerful terrorism of rhetoric and language accentuated by television is being practiced. And so I, as, I don’t know, let’s say a modest cinema employee, I’m interested in seeing things, not before they exist but before we name them: to talk about the child before dad and mom give him a name; to talk about myself before I was named Jean-Luc; to talk... about the sea, about freedom before it is named the sea, wave or freedom.
If it happened that several directors were also making films that are called Carmen, it is maybe because Carmen is a major feminine myth, a major feminine myth that existed only through music. And if the times wanted the media and the audio-visual to grab hold of this myth – since a small independent producer like me as well as a big commercial firm like Gaumont is interested in this feminine character – it is maybe because it’s in the air. But, what is in the air? It may be Carmen, if we’re talking about it... But it may also be either the final fight of women against men or the first...
In fact, I like to deal either with things that are no longer going to exist or things that do not exist yet. From there, the film could be called...it’s true title could be: Before Names, Before Language, with in parentheses: (The Children Play Carmen).
If it’s called Prénom Carmen and not Carmen, it’s because of the originality of the work, in Anne-Marie Miéville’s script and adaptation. Everyone knows the story of Carmen. At the same time, nobody knows what happened between Don José and Carmen, between Joseph and Carmen. We know how it begins. How it is going to end. But how do we go from the beginning to the end? Telling stories is showing what happened. That’s where the big difference lies between the Carmen Rosi is finishing and Saura’s, which are illustrations of a classical theme. What interested us was showing what a man and a woman said to each other under the influence of this image of love that weighs on them. Whether we call this love or their adventure: destiny, love or malediction.
What did they say to each other when they were in a kitchen? What did they say to each other when they were in a car? We don’t know what they said to each other. In my next film, as if by accident, I’m keeping the masculine character of Joseph: his Carmen will be named Marie. Well, what did Joseph and Marie say to each other before having the child? If you’d like, Prénom Carmen is also a preparation for my next film. For me, a film always announces the next one...thanks to the friendship of a co-producer, I’m already announcing the music...and I’m trying to not announce the catastrophes...
Why choose Beethoven and his Quartets when we were expecting Bizet’s music?
I didn’t choose Beethoven. I’d say instead that Beethoven chose me and that I responded to his call. Younger, around twenty – that’s the young age of my characters – I listened to Beethoven. It was next to the sea, in Brittany. And I discovered his Quartets. It’s an accepted idea that Carmen does not exist without music. Hamlet exists without music. Antigone exists without music. Electre exists without music. Not Carmen. Music is part of the story of Carmen. Besides, Mérimée’s novel has never been famous. It only became so once Bizet set it to music.
Bizet is a composer who made music that Nietzsche characterized as “brown.” It was the music of the Mediterranean. Bizet is a southern composer. He is, moreover, very linked to the sea. So I did not choose another music but another sea. The Ocean instead of the Mediterranean.
In fact, my idea in regards to the music is that it was necessary to choose a fundamental music. Music that has marked the history of music. Music that is both the practice and theory of music. This was the case with Beethoven’s Quartets.
I could have also chosen Bach and something like The Well-Tempered Clavier. It’s music that, again, synthesizes the theory and practice of all the music that existed and gave work to future musicians for a hundred or two hundred years. It’s in that sense that I made my choice. Besides, my next film will be conceived with Bach’s music.
Did you feel a need to try acting?
It was to have fun... Yes... To see if one really has fun being an actor. I have always had relationships that are both very tender and very violent with actors or with the crew. But for once I wanted to see myself in front of and not only behind the camera. It was also with the goal of preparing. I want to direct a film where I play the lead role. It would be a bit like in the past with the films of Harry Langdon or a small Jerry Lewis, a character for which you know I have great admiration.
I think that it’s also in the interest of not working my mind alone. I wanted to work my body and my voice.
And then for technical and narrative reasons I thought it was good to play, under my own name, something that was not entirely me, all while being me, so that we believe in the truth a bit: just like we see the musicians, the one inventing the story is part of the story.
Carmen is a love story. Curiously, we never see Maruschka Detmers laughing. That didn’t bother you?
You must not have watched the whole film. Or you sneezed just at the moment when Maruschka was laughing. She was even laughing much too often for me. I had to eliminate laughs in the editing. She laughs often. Three or four times. On other hand, maybe she doesn’t smile. That’s true. But you would have to ask Maruschka why she doesn’t smile. I let the actors do absolutely what they want. I put them in certain conditions. They think it’s going to be easy and they discover that it is rather hard: it’s up to them to save themselves. They told me they knew how to swim. I threw them in the sea and I watched how they swam. That’s my manner of working with actors. Maybe that makes them not smile...
Doesn’t dealing with the theme of love in a film at the moment seem to you something out of fashion?
I think that in cinema there can only be love stories. With military films, it’s about boys’ love for weapons; with gangster films, it’s about boys’ love for theft... That’s cinema, in my opinion. And that’s what the New Wave brought that was new: Truffaut, Rivette, me and two or three others, we brought something that didn’t exist anymore, maybe, or that had never existed in the history of cinema; we loved cinema before loving women, before loving money, before loving war. Before loving whatever, we loved cinema. For me, I’ve often said that cinema made me discover life. It took a while. It took me thirty years. All that because I had to go beyond, in fact, what I was projecting, myself, on the screen.
There are no films without love. And if today cinema still works on television and it’s even the thing that works best, that’s the reason. There is no love in television. There is something else that is very powerful, both in life and the industry: there’s power in its pure state. If cinema, like sports, works it is because the people who do it, be it Zidi or myself...above all, we love: we need to go towards the screen to go towards others. In life we don’t manage to go towards others. We’re a bit powerless, which is to say we don’t have the power of soldiers or scientists or television people. We recognize ourselves as powerless but that said, we have the desire, the sincerity to go towards, to project, and then we hope...and then others come to meet us. That’s cinema. Cinema is love for oneself, love for life, love for men on the earth... In another way, it is very evangelical. It’s no accident that the screen is white: it is a canvas and it is me. In my next film I would like to take it as such: it’s Veronica’s Veil, it keeps a trace, some traces of the world. There are no films without love, whatever it is. I insist on that. That doesn’t exist.
Isabelle Adjani was supposed to have the role of Carmen. What happened between you and the actress?
It’s true, at the beginning we were supposed to make the film with Isabelle Adjani. I think she was very tired from the two films she had just finished. We went into production. She arrived. And she didn’t think she was pretty. She found that there wasn’t...and then no, I think that she didn’t think she was pretty enough. We did fifteen days of tests and afterwards I think that I fired her at the same time that she fired me. Following that, Alain said “We’re continuing.” We found Maruschka. That’s that.
Doesn’t recording direct sound lead to conflicts of incompatibility with the shot, especially during the shooting of a subject like Prénom Carmen where music occupies a predominant place?
Since the beginning, meaning since I have been directing films, I have worked this way. We were the first to make films with direct sound. I stopped seeing Italian films when, having shot in Italy, I noticed that they weren’t recording the sound whereas there’s a great Italian musical tradition.
In Prénom Carmen there is no conflict between image and sound. There cannot be any. Quite the contrary. The music is part of the action. I wanted that because I didn’t want it to be like Saura’s Carmen, a literary pretext to show that musicians are playing. Which is to say that if the musicians stop playing, I have no more ideas. When Prokofiev was working with Eisenstein, the battle in Alexander Nevsky was first written as a score. That gave ideas to Eisenstein. He had the score modified. Then they shot.
For example, the idea of the bank robbery came to me while listening to a certain part of the 10th Quartet. As I was thinking that there would be a police aspect in my film, the music made me see that Carmen could belong to a small gang and at that moment the idea came that Don José is a police officer and we return profoundly to the true story of Carmen.
I stand by the originality between sound and me in relationship to other filmmakers because I find that I am, in fact, very original. My work is even, undoubtedly, unique in so far as all my films, since Sauve qui peut (la vie) have only two tracks. I don’t know if you know the technical side, but in general for a film, there are several tracks. When a car arrives, next to the sea, there’s the direct sound, the sound of the car. Then there’s the sound of the actors’ voices: one says, “I love you,” the other responds, “me too” or the opposite, that makes a second track. On a third track we hear the noise of the sea. The sound of the music is on a fourth track. And if we are in the countryside, near a farm, there’s someone who says, “it would be good if we put in a rooster sound,” so we add a rooster and that’s five tracks. Then we place the tracks, beforehand, like in television, and we make them march like soldiers in a parade. We call that the mix.
I’m not against putting in a rooster, if we’re eventually within the proximity of a farm, but with me, all the sounds are regrouped and there is almost no more room on the two sound tracks. I use two tracks because we have two hands. If I had only one hand, I would film with one hand and I would only use one soundtrack. I’m sorry for talking a bit technically but it’s rare with journalists to be able to talk technically...and about art too...
Let’s go back to the relationship between image and sound. For the love scenes, I had asked the crew and the actors to go see Rodin’s sculptures. They refused. That was supposed to give me ideas. They didn’t want to. It wasn’t done... Nevermind that at the moment of shooting those scenes, we were saying: “Oh, we’re going to do the Rodin..." While cutting, myself, and mixing, I rediscovered the idea that I had about Rodin: the image of a sculptor who works with his hands a surface that he digs into. He digs into space, and here musicians would undoubtedly talk about sound space. It interested me to succeed in digging into the sound space. In filming the performers – they were only good performers, but very good, like the actors – I already had a physical feeling for the music. Especially with the violin. At times it gives the impression of digging. At those moments, you look for and find connections. After an image of the violin digging into the sound, what must be shown as the image? An image of the sea must come to mind. With hollows, highs and lows. If you have an idea about high and low, you find a story where there are two characters who are going to know highs and lows. Everything is linked. Logically. Completely. That’s cinema. There are is no invention in cinema. We can only look and try to organize what we’ve seen...if we have been able to see.
Aren’t you generalizing a bit with Italian cinema?
The only one who did sound in Italy is Nino Rota. There’s nobody else.
Many young filmmakers reference you. What’s the Godard style for you?
Godard has no style. He wants to make films, that’s all. If I’ve been able to influence young filmmakers who are a bit my children or my brothers or who were my parents before I began, it’s by showing them that a film is always something possible; that a film can be made without money. When one has a lot, one can make one too, but differently than Americans, Russians or television do it today. In fact, my process has always involved going to the side, being marginal, in the margin. I’m in the place of the audience who is watching. Being marginal is occupying the audience’s position.
A notebook doesn’t exist without margins. The margin is a necessary place.
I’m beginning to understand today all of the power of television. Twenty years from now, I won’t even have the right to pretend to have a place sweeping at RAI. They’ll refuse me even that. So I have to save myself. Likewise, I’m looking for characters who are interested in saving themselves. If these are Palestinians, these are Palestinians: I’m not forced to go see them, I can try to listen to them... If it’s a musician, it’s a musician... If it’s Picasso, it’s Picasso... If it’s an unknown, it’s an unknown... If...
I’m also now appreciating what must have been the drama of certain directors like Keaton – who fell – like Chaplin – who took time falling – like others who picked themselves up, when talkies appeared. At that time, cinema was a major and authentic popular art. That’s my idea and I’m preparing a history of cinema in collaboration with channel 4, in France, where we’ll try to show that, in fact, cinema, with all the cultural forces it put into play, was unique.
Painting never knew this. Goya was seen by few people. Beethoven was not heard much. There wasn’t like today with technology, 60,000 people who listened to Beethoven every morning. Those things were made for princes. Cinema, however, was immediately seen by 100 people at the Grand Café. And then it was a phenomenon of inflation. It met with a true popular anchorage: whether it was intentional or not, whether it was for reasons of money or not. Birth of a Nation was made for money reasons, to make some dough, even if Griffith had other reasons, and ultimately the reasons were shared democratically.
Talking cinema – speech – appeared at a time of unemployment in the US during which Roosevelt took power and during this time, in Germany, Hitler was beginning to take hold of power as well, meaning of speech. But it wasn’t about the true speech of philosophers, or even of lovers’ words of love. It was the speech of people in power; speech that today has been installed through technology, in television. As a result, there are no more images today and we don’t read anymore.
Jean-Pierre Gorin, during the time I was working with him, told me: “We don’t see films anymore, we read them.” And it’s for this reason that round tables where people – sincere and intelligent as they are – talk, aren’t very interesting. They talk without the object. It’s like parents talking about the happiness of their children without trying to see with them if they prefer a bike, candy or a bank account... How can they pretend to understand?
I, who was interested in new technologies before they had a certain order, a certain discipline, I noticed that video, which means “I see,” took hold of speech with the complicity of the crowd of people who desire, precisely, to not see. “What makes it so that in the world, American films are enjoyable?” The question has been asked, I ask it myself, because there must be something true in it. Didn’t an average American film, let’s say the remake of A bout de souffle, tour the world? It was bought everywhere. The people who made it live properly. They have cars, television sets, two bathrooms. It made them money. My films don’t tour the world. I have a big problem reaching people at the right moment. Americans know how to touch the public at four in the afternoon or eight in the evening, on television or with videotapes on which nothing is seen, moreover. That’s a huge force.
A Swedish film doesn’t tour the world either. One from time to time. It’s the same for a Japanese film. As for African films, from North Africa or South Africa, it’s not even worth talking about. People don’t want to see them.
What do we have to recognize in Americans that allows them, like Greek gods in the past, to have the right to accomplish things that men who live on the earth normally don’t have?
What I regret most is that Americans benefit from their situation by dominating instead of allowing a bit of freedom. When I meet a taxi driver who knows my name a little, who tells me: “I didn’t like your last film too much,” I respond: “I don’t like the way you drive too much.” This could be the same thing. It’s just an example. Which doesn’t stop there from being a deep mystery. Which is not ready to be cleared up. Of course, Americans are the last ones who want it to be. Is it a story about dollars?... What makes it so that we trust more in the dollar than in the Italian lira?
Based on the photography in Prénom Carmen, you still use very few lights. Nevertheless your palette seems to have been considerably enriched.
I’m happy. It’s time to talk about technology. Like all children, I began in primary school with primary colors, with everything that is primary. I filmed idiots, or people that were called idiots, who, however, for me, were not idiots. Now, I feel like I’m entering, and it’s normal at fifty, into secondary school.
For me, the camera is not a gun, it is not something you fire. It’s an instrument that receives, thanks to light. It is for this reason that in the opening credits, equally, you will see that the film’s photography is signed by three people. Me, who said “we’re filming this,” Coutard next who still manages today, when he hadn’t shot too much of SAS before, to accept – while all the other cameramen refuse – working without lights, while still thinking what he’s doing is interesting. He accepts thinking that light filtering through a curtain is not the same as light entering through a door. He tries thinking about this and we see together if we reconstitute it or not. Finally, the third character, who has always been a friend, Kodak. I prefer it to Fuji, and for once I put it in the credits. Which doesn’t prevent me from thinking that the Japanese are right to shoot on Fuji. Besides, it’s time that Africa invented its colors because in television and cinema the white or grey level is done but it is in relation to white skin, never in relation to the somewhat muted skin of the Japanese, somewhat yellow of Eskimos or black of black people.
Black and white are the most delicate colors. Here, we tried mixing them. But it’s still a problem for labs who are obsessed with the television-image.
As I was telling you, there is lighting, very little, but there is no light. That’s what scared Adjani. Like all stars, she thinks that lots of lighting, lots of spotlights assures a better rendering of her beauty. She didn’t manage to see that daylight, corrected a little – because now I correct it, I don’t accept it raw – could also ensure her beauty.
In Prénom Carmen, we tried constantly to mix the light in the shots, artificial light and daylight. We tried to have on the right what we see at the end, so yellowish light, candlelight, like in church, and on the left, daylight, so bluish light. All that in order to obtain a constant mixture of hot and cold corresponding to the film’s climate. In sum, we have a super classical film. We rediscover constantly in the photography, the hot and cold that Carmen expresses in her emotions. From this point of view, it was relatively polished.
What is a producer for Jean-Luc Godard?
A producer like myself...
Listening to you talk about television, one might think that cinema has entered a twilight phase.
No, not at all. When we say this called the dawn, it isn’t necessary to make us say that this is called dusk. Basically, I have in mind a notion of dusk. But aren’t the most beautiful walks often taken at nightfall when there’s hope for tomorrow? Lovers rarely walk hand in hand at seven in the morning. In general, they wait for seven in the evening. To my eyes, dusk carries hope rather than despair. I’m beginning to find something beautiful and very human in films that gives me the desire to make them until my death. And I think that I will probably die at the same time as cinema, such as it invented itself.
Cinema is neither painting, music or dance. It’s something that has to do with the reproduction of men and women’s movements. It can no longer last the way it was invented. Already television is has something else to do. The existence of cinema cannot exceed, more or less, the length of a human life: between eighty and hundred and twenty years. It’s something that will have been fleeting, ephemeral.
Now, we don’t see films anymore. We stock them on videotapes. But the more we buy tapes, the less time we have to watch them. We stock up more than we can eat. That’s not a film. It’s ephemeral. It lasted, moments. And I who lived through this period completely, whose parents knew the beginning, I’m going to extend your remark by saying: “It’s terrible, but what are we going to become?”
Originally published in Cinématographe, no. 95, December 1983.