A few weeks ago, critic Amir Abou-Jaoude talked to Oscar-winning director Michel Hazanavicius about his new film, “Godard Mon Amour.” In this interview, Hazanavicius discusses what he admires about Jean-Luc Godard’s work, how he combines politics with cinema, and how he reconciles an artist’s foibles with the masterpieces he creates.
The Stanford Daily (TSD): The film is based on the memoir that Anne [Wiazemsky] wrote. What attracted to you to that source material?
Michel Hazanavicius (MH): I read the book by pure coincidence. I didn’t read it on purpose to make a movie. When I read it, I really fell in love with the characters, with the period. I think it was a good way to capture the spirit of the period. May ’68 in France was something really important. It’s the fifty-year anniversary now and it’s still a big thing. May ’68 is still like a symbol of, anarchism, freedom, power to the young people. And to make a movie with not the real Jean-Luc Godard, but a fake Jean-Luc Godard was fun for me because it was a little transgressive for the critics. He’s a fun character, and I could make a movie using the patterns or the motifs of Jean-Luc Godard’s movies.
TSD: Yes, the film contains all those delightful homages to “Vivre Sa Vie” and “Contempt”…what attracts you to Godard’s aesthetic?
MH: He’s freedom, I guess. He’s freedom to create new images. I made a much more classical movie than his movies of course. [“Godard Mon Amour”] is a classical comedy. [Godard’s] aesthetic is not just in terms of images, but how you think about sounds and images and how you play with it. More like a painter, in a way. That was very fun to do. It’s like a freestyle playground. Here there were no rules.
TSD: It’s interesting that you focus on this moment in his career in 1968 where he’s trying to bring that free aesthetic into a political context. That struck me as something that’s particularly relevant to 2018. We’re in a politically charged moment now and many artists are facing the same dilemma that he confronts in the film. How should an artist combine politics and cinema?
MH: What I strongly believe is that everything is political. Even if you make the stupidest comedy, you make a political statement. No politics is politics. That’s what I deeply believe, so you have to be aware of it. But I also think that every artist should do whatever he wants to do. If you think the right thing to do is political because of the context, you should do it, and maybe it’s going to be one of the greatest masterpieces ever. If you want to be funny, be funny. If you want to make a sentimental story, you can do it. There’s no rules. There’s not one road to follow. I try to put a little bit of awareness of the world [in my films], even if it’s not 100 percent political, but I try to listen to things. The cinema I want to make has to be entertaining. Cinema is very expensive. It’s very expensive to watch a movie. You spend two hours. I like people not to get bored.
TSD: It struck me that the film focuses on this figure of Godard who is a brilliant artist and a conflicted man. He can be cruel and rude. Similarly, Harvey Weinstein and other artists are people who have both done terrible things and created some masterpieces. How do you separate the art from the artist?
MH: It depends on the artist. For example, Michelangelo. He did the Sistine Chapel. Do we really care if he was a good guy or a bad guy now? We don’t care. It’s not the point. He did something really great. And maybe he was the worst asshole the universe created. We don’t really know, and it’s not important.
I think when the artists are contemporary, it’s very difficult, and we know everything about everyone in two seconds. I think Harvey Weinstein is not a good example. Obviously, he had some very bad, bad behaviors, but he’s not really an artist. He produced movies. But something maybe more confusing would be the Woody Allen scandal. For what I know, he’s supposed to be innocent. He’s never been condemned of what he is accused. The pressure on him is very strong. A lot of people say, “I will never work with him.” The social pressure on him is very strong for someone who’s supposed to be innocent. I think the confusion [between art and artist] comes from the nature of his work. In his own movies, he’s dealing with the topics that he’s accused of. Even if Woody Allen would be guilty, you still can say that “Manhattan” is a masterpiece. But he’s dealing with this guy who’s 40 going out with a girl who’s 17 or 18 in that movie. I think that creates confusion with people.
TSD: So what do you think the relationship is between your film and Godard’s work? Your film exposes the turmoil that occurred in Godard’s life. Do you see your film as existing as totally independent from Godard’s work?
MH: In the movie, everything is connected. I think the way he destroyed his love story with Anne Wiazemsky is directly connected to the way he rejected his own previous movies. Actually, I think in the name of revolution, he rejected everything and it destroyed everything that he did and was before. He started from point zero. He did that for political reasons. Maybe because of the context, maybe because of his temper, maybe because of his midlife crisis, he erased everything. Doing this, he created a pattern that he did almost every 10 years. This is how he became the living legend and this is how he is now, reinventing himself and taking the risks to lose himself. He was looking for something, but even he did not know what he was looking for. Searching was more important than finding, or more interesting for him than doing what he knew, or doing what people expected him to do. In a way, it was heroic and very brave. In another way, it was very stupid. In another way, it was very difficult for people around him. That makes him a very complex person and a very paradoxical and controversial character.
TSD: A few years ago, you had a phenomenal success with “The Artist.” After that movie won the Oscar for Best Picture, did you feel pressure to reinvent yourself?
MH: Not really. The movie I made after that was a movie I wanted to do for a long time. I couldn’t do it because it was too expensive, because it was not in my field. It was the perfect opportunity to do it. The pressure was coming from Hollywood, in a way, because they were sending me scripts. The temptation was big to make a movie here. But I followed what I thought was good. It’s the most difficult thing to do. It’s how to follow yourself and not do what other people want you to do.
And you know what? This Oscar thing — I never really believed it. I know that it happened for real, of course. But a lot of people told me at that moment, “your life is going to change now.” And I was not upset, but I was thinking, “But actually, I like my life. I don’t want to change my life.”
TSD: This film, even though it deals with making a movie and the filmmaking process, is very different from “The Artist.” Godard himself has made several movies about filmmaking — “Contempt,” “Histories du Cinema”— what drives you to make these films about filmmaking?
MH: I like the form of cinema. For “The Artist” and for this one, “Godard Mon Amour,” [I chose] a subject and [did] a certain form of cinema. The subject of an actor who has to deal with the rise of the talkies is not the main thing that interested me in “The Artist.” What interested me was doing a silent movie, telling a story with images, no dialogue. I knew that if I would do a contemporary story using a silent format, people would be a little bit confused, like why is it silent? That doesn’t make sense to me. But when you tell the story of a silent actor, suddenly that makes sense because it’s a way to make you believe in that character. For this one, it was different. I first read the book, and I fell in love with the characters. I thought, if I want people to believe in Jean-Luc Godard, I have to put him in his own environment, his mental environment. I thought the form of the movie should be an homage to his work just to create a balance.
TSD: It’s interesting because Godard also imitated Hollywood styles.
MH: Godard works on what he calls the language of cinema, more like a contemporary artist or a poet. He used to be a searcher of this language. I like to tell stories using the form of cinema. [Godard] was not very concerned about stories or character. He was much more concerned about the language itself.
TSD: The film really evokes the 1960s aesthetic of Godard. How did you work to create that kind of look?
MH: Once again, it was all about creating a movie that had the flavor that you could believe, oh, okay, that was the environment of Jean-Luc Godard. I didn’t want it to be the same, but using the aesthetical environment of the artist you are talking about is a good way to make the audience believe they are actually watching this artist. The actors in Godard’s movies are not playing natural. They are talking a very specific way, but it’s not natural. I wanted the actors to have that flavor of the 1960s, so I watched a lot of [Francois] Truffaut’s movies, a lot of [Claude] Chabrol’s movies and everything … in terms of image, I tried to immerse myself in that aesthetic, not to mimic it but to recreate it, because the movie has the distance of the years. I made it today, so it’s a contemporary movie. It’s like in “The Artist,” the movie was aware that it was silent, which was a big difference from the accurate silent movies of the era. They had no other options. So they wouldn’t consider that they were silent — they were just cinema. It’s the same here.
TSD: Louis Garrel and Stacy Maritn both give excellent performances in the film. How did you work with them?
MH: [Garrel] comes from that kind of cinema — auteur cinema. So I [brought him into] the field of comedy. I think he liked it. He was able to make a very convincing imitation of Godard. We decided not to push the imitation too much to [give] him some space and some room to go into the situation. So I think he did a very human Godard. And Stacy Martin was very good. She’s gorgeous, and she’s a very good actress, and it was very difficult because she does not have many lines. There’s a lot of silent moments for her. I made a lot of close-ups of her. And you can put a lot of feeling just watching her face to the character. It was really a big pleasure to work with both of them.
TSD: Godard, of course, is still alive. Ironically, 50 years after he shut down the festival, his new film has been selected for competition. Did you have any communication with him?
MH: I wouldn’t call it communication because I sent him a letter. Just to let him know that I was starting a movie, as I told him, with a main character who’s called Jean-Luc Godard. He never answered. While I was shooting, he asked for the script. So I sent him the script, but I had no news. It’s not really communication. Communication implies that both of the parties are talking.
TSD: How much artistic license did you take with the events? I was just curious where you came up with the motif of the broken glasses. I know his glasses were broken in the brawl at Cannes, but I was wondering whether that was historical or whether that was your own invention.
MH: In Anne Wiazemsky’s book, I think he wrecks his glasses once or twice. The first time I met her, I told her I wanted to make a running gag with it. And she smiled, and she said to me, actually, it happened more than one time. So it was a running gag in real life. I didn’t know it, but it was. But yes, of course I took a lot of license. There’s no point to try to be … nobody can say I made a movie, and this is the straight truth. That doesn’t exist. Truth is very long, there’s no editing, there’s no acting. This is not what it’s about — we create a lie. So everything is artistic license. The big things — the suicide, for example — really happened. But I tried to make these things entertaining and put them in a dramatic movement that makes a script.
TSD: Some of the strongest moments in the film occur when your style merges with Godard’s. For example, the scene where they’re making love in the beginning of the film, and it’s black-and-white. That struck me as very Godardian.
MH: That is Godardian. I had a lot of fun. It was very playful for me to use that freedom that he used to have. It was freeing and funny. I really enjoyed making the movie.
TSD: I enjoyed watching it. Thank you so much.
Note: This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Contact Amir Abou-Jaoude at email@example.com.