Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Watching Tout va bien cold - without preparation for what it's all about and who
made it - is not a good idea. Expecting it to hold one's attention is not a good idea.
Jean-Luc Godard's pictures were rarely big commercial successes (a risky reality to mention in
discussion of the artist) and French audiences in 1972 reportedly rejected the movie from his
Dziga Vertov period.
This is a highly subjective review. What I learned about Tout va bien has come almost
exclusively from the booklet
contained in Criterion's DVD; even as a film student at the time the movie was made, Godard's
post- 1967 work lost me entirely. I guiltily admit that the attraction of movies foreign or
domestic, intellectual or emotional was always whether or not they entertained me or could hold my
attention in a theatrical situation. I was intrigued by Last Year at Marienbad but admit to
falling asleep every time it was shown at UCLA. Godard's earlier pictures employed
a constant satirical use of narrative conventions - or an abuse of narrative conventions - to
make their point. His movies showed a love of language and poetry along with the common pleasure of
watching a pretty face. Anna Karina is still a movie star, even when
her scenes are being dissected and analyzed in the most anti-cinematic ways Godard can think of.
Tout va bien is a post- 1968 film from the period where Godard and his partner Jean-Pierre
Gorin abandoned traces of The New Wave and made, not movies about politics, but political
movies. 1972 film fans and all but a few political intellectuals found Tout va bien virtually
unwatchable; for Savant it's a little better than that, but not by much.
He, a commercial director (Yves Montand) and She, a reporter (Jane Fonda) are
locked in with the besieged manager of a food processing plant when a group of Marxist activists
call a strike and take over the offices. The action against the administrators is undertaken against
the will of their own Union representatives. He and She review their place in the "new France after the 1968 riots"
while each segment of the three-sided work dispute airs its attitudes & philosophies. The struggle
seems to be spreading to a new general strike. A Communist selling books in a supermarket becomes
the center of a looting riot.
Tout va bien starts in reasonably familiar Godard territory. As a hand writes out a dozen big
checks to pay for production expenses, a voice tells us that "a big star is a way to get a movie
made." This circular joke gives Godard the same problem as Louis B. Mayer and raises our hopes for something
insightful. The narrator then continues to describe the need to invent a recognizable conflict
between the actors, so we see pitiful little skit-moments with Montand and Fonda arguing while
reciting dialogue from the movie
Contempt. When the narrator says the
movie will need various kinds of people, we see groupings of posed working-folk, etc., just staring at the camera.
Having gone way beyond any notion of employing a story to carry their political message, Godard and
Gorin build a comic book- like set of a factory with one wall missing, similar to constructions in
Footlight Parade (The Honeymoon Hotel, remember?) or Tati's
Playtime. They then refuse to
do anything coherent with it. The minimally-directed striking employees overrun the
staircase and refuse to let the boss leave his office. He's hemmed in with the visiting reporter (She)
and her socially committed, but alienated boyfriend (He). The camera cruises back and forth randomly
as the non-action occurs, and we watch actors (probably purposely) breaking stage waits on camera
to rush forward and start yelling. Fonda and Montand look lost and perturbed, with no dialogue to
say and no characters to play. The picture eventually devolves into more violent tableaux suggesting
fantasies of class war. Police confront leftist demonstrators in a disused field. Chaos envelops a supermarket, all
filmed with the same endistancing techniques.
The real content of the movie is in several static takes, each of which allows the boss, the Union rep and
the leader of the militant Marxists to address the camera for minutes at a time. It's numbing. The rhetoric
and arguments are not clear and suggest only emotional people spouting points of view. Their words all sound
as if they're written by the same hand, which of course they were.
By the halfway mark it requires a lot of effort to keep watching. For a film made by geniuses supposedly
burning with things
to say, almost all of Tout va bien rolls by like filler, empty noodling. Since all we're getting
is an incoherent lecture, the overall effect is no longer cute or in any way liberating. The freedom
of the screen is being used to express anarchy and confusion, but there's nothing interesting in
this anarchy and confusion.
Godard and Gorin are obviously committed intellectuals and not dilettantes and what they
say in interviews invariably adds up to fascinating insights on cinema and its relation to the world.
Artists trying to make their art relevant to the world is nothing new. Their articulate idealism
stands apart from both advanced cinema studies talk - which can be really dry - and advanced political
thought, which frequently goes far afield of reality. Godard and Gorin in print are not to be
Which is why their followup film to Tout va bien, Letter to Jane is even more
agonizing. For over fifty minutes we look at a couple of stills of Jane Fonda, one from the movie and
another of her listening to a North Vietnamese man during a trip to Hanoi only a few weeks after
wrapping Tout va bien. Gorin and Godard accompany the minimalist images with an endless
and shapeless harangue. One of the essays in the disc's fat booklet really goes after the
filmmakers for making what he thinks is a cheap attack on Fonda, but only a particular kind of
socially committed political scientist is going to have the patience to work through it. Watching the
film is like enduring a
phone call from an irate but articulate friend in the middle of the night, forcing you to
listen to his grievances for an unbroken hour.
So this review of Tout va bien is a description of what an average viewer is in for, as Savant
admits to reaching the end of his patience. Obviously there are Godard-philes for whom the movie is a
transcendent experience, and it's probably true that a review's first effect is to reveal the
limitations of the reviewer. So be it. Godard and Gorin reject Soviet style propaganda, which at least
knew what kind of truths and lies it was selling. Tout va bien isn't propaganda, but it comes off
as confused pamphleteering.
Criterion's DVD of Tout va bien is a stunning enhanced transfer of Godard and Gorin's film,
shot in bright color in 35mm. The famous scene of the rebellious worker painting a wall, and then
a picture on the wall in bright blue is intact. A few other scenes have a curious pop-art quality
Letter to Jane is flat and also in good shape, considering its rough-and-ready production.
According to the filmmakers, it took two weeks of writing and one day of filming.
The disc has two major interviews. The first is from 1972 with Godard and the second is new with
Gorin, now a U.S. citizen (an interesting turn of events) who speaks excellent English and makes a
number of great arguments for his Dziga Vertov films with Godard. Too many of his arguments
remind me of the tail-chasing discussions with the professors in film school, whenever anybody tried to be
objective about a film under discussion: "Who is to say what a good film is? Who is to say what
a film is? How dare you judge my creativity by your bourgeois limitations!" However, Gorin is a far
better talker than our professors back then - if I only
had a dime for every time I heard a professor praise a favored film for "having organic unity..."
The fat booklet contains the real meat of the package: Incisive essays by J. Hoberman, Kent Jones and
Colin McCabe, and an excerpted 1972 interview from Gorin and Godard.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Tout va bien rates:
Supplements: Letter to Jane (1972), Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre
Gorin's postscript film; 1972 video interview excerpt with Jean-Luc Godard; New video
interview with Jean-Pierre Gorin
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: March 5, 2005
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson