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Tout va bien

Tout va bien
Criterion 275
1972 / Color / 1:66 anamorphic 16:9 / 95 min. / Street Date February 15, 2004 / 29.95
Starring Yves Montand, Jane Fonda, Vittorio Caprioli, Elizabeth Chauvin, Castel Casti
Cinematography Armand Marco
Production Designer Jacques Dugied
Film Editor Claudine Merlin, Kenout Peltier
Original Music Paul Beuscher
Produced by Jean-Pierre Rassam
Written and Directed by Jean-Luc Godard & Jean-Pierre Gorin

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 sniffed at.

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 as well.

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:
Movie: Abstain
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
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

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