In the wild, humans may have been the most confrontational of primitive creatures, but as the world has aged and civilized, we have become more conforming and afraid. It takes a lot to get us engaged, and even then, the issues better be universal or unequivocal, or we are more than happy to sit along the sidelines, cheering on those who would actually enter the game.
But what makes the reactionary and the agitator that much different than us, really? After all, we stand up for ourselves all the time – to the boss, bad service, obvious injustice or the most minor of pet peeves. We're just not willing to take the bigger step, into the arena of activism where our powers of protest and persuasion are actually graded. Indeed, success is measured in social change, and the results either bad or good - or a complete lack thereof – will stare us square in the face for the rest of our life. We have the capability of commitment, the aptitude toward an agenda or a bias. It's just the action verb we're missing.
According to famed French New Wave director Jean-Luc Godard, and his collaborator Jean-Pierre Gorin, all it takes is a little awareness and a great deal of acknowledgement to get us going. In their 1972 meditation on politics, both personal and social Tout Va Bien (translation: "Everything Is Fine"), the filmmakers want to remind individuals of the power contained inside each and every one of them. According to them, tapping into it can actually cause the world to change. Too bad they makes their point in such a peculiar, perplexing manner. Tout Va Bien is not a simple film to appreciate – and it is even more unsettling as a cinematic experience.
Tout Va Bien is a supremely frustrating experience, a film that incessantly plays with the conventions of cinema while it hopes to simultaneously say something salient about the state of the world. It's a movie about relationships that spends little time with its featured couple, a story of politics without focusing on the foundations of its diatribes. It wants to attack the same consumerism it embraces, disconnect from the disputes it wants to champion and never let us forget that filmmaking, from its inception to its end, is all artifice in the name of narrative bias. There are elements here of electric genius. There are moments of mind-numbing dullness. And trapped somewhere in the middle is the magnificent Yves Montand and a fresh from Klute Jane Fonda, required to play lovers lost inside themselves, between each other, and the ever-changing political face of late 60s/early 70s France. The entire package is perplexing and pompous, pleasing some aspects of your intellectual sensibility as it spits on others. This may have been co-directors Jean-Luc Godard and Jean Pierre Gorin's rationale all along. Yet if it is, these incredibly mannered moviemakers aren't offering any clues.
Tout Va Bien is actually told in three "movements" if you will, individual sections that are held together by off screen narrators and occasional monologues from the actors. Part one is the set up, for both the film and the filmmaking. The movie even opens on a series of slates, scene classification and take numbers barked out in random, repetitive fashion. From this moment forward, Godard and Gorin never let us forget that we are watching something being created and shaped, manipulated and made over to fit shifting ideas and competing concerns. Two unseen voices, male and female (the assumption is that Godard is one of them) discuss the basics of plot: the need for a "him" and a "her" as characters, and the requirements of a scenario that they exist in. Of course, these fictional individuals don't fully understand their surroundings, so they must learn to grow. But the particulars are argued over, ideas tossed out and aside until all the themes are clear (though Godard and Gorin never really follow through on them) and the lessons to be learned are specifically spelled out. If it was the collaborators desire to throw their audience off as well, to push them as far away from the familiarities of film as possible, only to draw them back in with the rest of the movie, they surely succeed here. The first 15 minutes or so of Tout Va Bien are so baffling and bewildering that it is impossible to imagine anyone except the most ardent French film buff going on to section two.
In our middle, or otherwise major movement of the movie, Fonda and Montand are accidentally trapped in a sausage factory during a strike. The work stoppage has everyone up in arms, from the shop steward who must report back to the uncaring union to the flippant manager who wants to make sure he gets home to have his dinner party. During this amazingly muddled segment, comedy and chaos collide with obvious cinematic set pieces (the huge, compartmental set where we see what is going on in eight rooms simultaneously as the camera pans back and forth) to try and give us a unique glimpse of all aspects of the worker's plight in a post 1968 France. Indeed, May of 68 is a crucial time for the country's history and for Tout Va Bien's narrative. The revolutionary spirit of that important moment in French politics is concurrently mocked and admired by the sausage factory staff. The reason they are able to strike comes directly from the protests that unsettled the country back then (Tout is set in 1972 – or 'NOW" as the film keeps telling us), but the changes the resistance fought for have been half-baked and half-assed. Godard and Gorin try to show us this with the juxtaposition of fanciful elements (the startling set, the surreal absurdist activities) with a final fact filled conversation between Fonda and some of the workers. At first, we only hear stories of how horrible the conditions are. Then another gang of strikers pulls the jaded journalist aside and tells her the truth. Things are bad, but no one really cares about that facet anymore. It's a given. No, the real story in the processing plant is not the monotony of the stuffing line, or the horrors of the meat cutting room. The real reporting should be about the ability to change, about knowing and acknowledging that, for the first time, you, a single individual, could overthrow your environment and actually get someone to listen to your problems. The resolution, or lack thereof, is secondary to the struggle.
This appears to be Godard and Gorin's main theme in Tout Va Bien, the realignment of power. The directors want to prove that the capacity to call the shots is all personal, not located in a body politic or an organized movement. The pair does goad both unions and activists in the film, calling out intellectuals who will write the treatises for change, but barely lift a finger to realize said shocks to the system. They link the awakening of human awareness with the decline of physical love, hoping to prove that people only truly relate to one another once their eyes are opened to the inner strength they have, and how it affects the world around them. Most of this message comes across in lengthy monologues that make up the final section of the film. After they have been released from the factory and return to their daily lives, both Fonda and Montand have a kind of epiphany, a moment of mental clarity when they realize their life is a lie – or at least the militant aspect of it is. That this development of an ethical self comes at the cost of their lovers/married relationship is no surprise. What happens to the couple at the end is no great shock either. It's all part of Tout Va Bien's belief system.
Godard and Gorin demand our attention at this point in the film, giving Montand and Fonda their finest screen time of the entire 95 minutes. Yves's resolve is palpable – he is a man finally rousing from his commercialized, consumer culture dream. As he goes through the motions of his final advertising assignment (he leaves once it's complete to go back to making art films) the realization of time wasted and ideas squandered washes over that classic face in a wonderful performance of subtle shading. Fonda is equally good during her minor breakdown and confessional. In an interesting conceit, Godard and Gorin let Fonda speak her lines in English (she switches between the two languages often in the film) while another female voice talks "over" her, repeating the lines in French. While some might consider it a mere technical fluke, it has to be much more than this. After all, Fonda speaks in her native tongue at other times and the double dubbing never arrives. No, Godard and Gorin mean this to be a statement, a stylistic way of showing that Fonda's two personas – journalist and intellectual, American and ex-patriot – are finally starting to merge, to become one in her usually bifurcated brain.
Still, much of this is mere interpretation, since the Godard/ Gorin partnership is never going to be totally upfront with their ideas. They want the audience involved, allowing them to see what is and what is not going on in the frame and then to draw their own conclusions. Occasionally, they will step in and redirect the discussion, but first and foremost, Tout Va Bien is a film about perception, both personal and prosaic. Most of Godard's works have their raison d'etre in the re-evaluation of cinema, the carefully carving away of formula and familiarity to, hopefully, reach some level of deeper truth or purer authenticity. Why he doesn't just go out and make documentaries is a question left for the scholars who pour over his oeuvre and concern themselves with the shot selection in each of his films. But the truth is that Godard (and Gorin as well, though his career is less documented) is a radical in the truest sense of the word. He does not want to embrace the mainstream, but in turn wants the public to come around to his way of thinking. And the only way they can do that is by opening their eyes and actually starting to 'see' the world around them. Perception is a big deal for the director, not only in its literal term (how one actually witnesses things) but also in its more esoteric form (how we come to consider things). It is a sentiment he and Gorin will repeat numerous times in the film.
But it's not good enough just to view and comprehend the circumstances and conditions around you; you must also understand them. Godard and Gorin make it very clear that you must get beneath the surface (i.e., the superficial) and uncover that which is most important, the core value or validity of situations as they present themselves. The middle section of the film is draped in this design, a constant bombardment of images that asks us, the audience (along with Fonda and Montand, naturally) to see and to recognize the ramifications. What do all the bloody smocks signify? The application of fresh blue paint on all the walls (and the framed photographs as well) or the tug of war over bathroom breaks? Is the factory footage supposed to enrage us, or clarify our appreciation? Bit by bit, as we experience the visuals and the manner in which the collaborators supply them (repeating shots, replaying scenes from different angles) we build up a catalog of comprehension, a wealth of data that helps us over the broader humps of the directors' devious designs. By the time we move to the final aspect of the narrative, we are ready to be presented with the final piece of the perception/understanding puzzle.
Indeed, the last important component of Tout Va Bien is the notion of commitment. Godard and Gorin state that foresight and knowledge are nothing without a desire to put them into play, to take what you've seen and learned and make a difference with it. The notion of commitment is the strongest political statement Godard and Gorin make throughout Tout Va Bien, though they never really step up onto a soapbox and blasts it from the Heavens. No, their approach is far more fragmented, and therefore exasperating. After all the monologues and student demonstration flashbacks, after the dinner table confessionals and tear gas tossing police raids, the directors are still so determined to beat us over the head with their message that they stage what has to be one of the most surreal, serene and strange sequences ever to be part of a political epistle. Fonda finds herself in a grocery store, covering a Communist party member who is selling copies of his manifesto at a discounted price. As an endless line of shoppers remove an amazingly similar selection of items from their carts, and as the cashiers rattle off the prices on the register like muted machine gun fire, Godard and Gorin's lens slowly tracks back and forth, picking up pieces of conversation, making sure we notice the oddity of this state of affairs.
Suddenly, a group of students enters the store and starts causing trouble. In Godard and Gorin's eyes, they are the freeing element of society, the committed members out to question authority and drop it down the required levels. As Fonda silently surveys the events, scribbling notes and thinking about her future, the director's design starts to show through. At this grassroots level, at the 'uprising in the frozen foods facet' of rebellion, everyone can play a part. There is more to the world of wrongs than wars and working conditions, according to Godard and Gorin. Oppression comes in all forms, from the price of oranges to the way in which movies are made. Freedom only comes from actual liberty, consequences be damned. Such is the personal power that everyone has in them. Such is the sentiment that runs inside everything about Tout Va Bien.
It's just too bad then that such a sensational point gets misplaced inside Godard and Gorin's continuing desire to destroy cinema. You can hardly fault the actors. Both Montand and Fonda are given very little to do here, required to be more reactionary than active in the jumbled plot points pivoting around them. As stated before, it is only when offering their insights directly to the camera, soliloquy style, that they get a chance to shine. No, the true stars of the show here are Godard and Gorin, directors who refuse to stay behind the lens, static and sentient. In some ways, you wish this original peripatetic performance artist and his pal would just drop all the drama and get in front of the camera themselves. Their movie is so iconoclastic, so completely of their own construction that it's hard to separate the film from its makers. Tout Va Bien occasionally plays like pages from a madman's measured notebook, and the results are never very fun. While the movie does engage us on certain levels, it never completely wins us over either. We are stuck in a strange kind of logistical limbo, wondering what to make of the nattering narrative and flagrant flourishes being bandied about on screen. And while that may be good for late night conversations over too many cups of strong coffee and several packs of cigarettes, it doesn't necessarily make for entertainment.
So Tout Va Bien will either be an eye-opening or a mind-narrowing experience for you. Either you'll sync up with Godard and Gorin's designs, herald their halting histrionics as yet another work of cinematic genius, or you will roll your eyes in none too subtle disbelief that you traveled so far and held on for so long for so very, very little. There are probably untold parallels to the events of the early 70s that we, a new millennium audience, will fail to connect with. Perhaps viewed alongside the rest of his filmography, this movie stands up to the scattershot scrutiny. Or maybe Godard alone speaks a moviemaking language that we've long forgotten how to listen to. Maybe our brains are so pre-programmed with Tinsel Town tripe and ersatz indie ingenuity that we've forgotten what true art really is. There is no doubt however that this is all artifice for artifice's sake, and as such, Tout Va Bien ends up being a bit of a letdown. It is equally ingratiating and irritating and never really gets to its precise point. But as long as you get something out of the screening, Godard and Gorin will be happy. After all, they have made their movie to open up those closed entrances of personal enlightenment. And if it does nothing else, Tout Va Bien gives us the perception, and the perspective we need to walk on through.
More enlightening, and easier to digest, are the interviews conducted with Godard (from a mid-70s documentary) and with Gorin (from a recent Q&A). Both men have a definite way with words, but while Godard focuses on the esoteric, Gorin gives us the pragmatic. He discusses how he came to collaborate with the great French innovator, what the real purpose of Tout Va Bien was, and how successful he feels they made the message. Amiable and just a little boastful, he gives a much more personal face to the production than his partner in crime. Godard, unshaven and dressed in a bathrobe, is all pontifications and pronouncements, making his points in salient, simple ways, only to go back and reconfigure them with the next sentence. Almost as if he is working out the logistics of his lamentations as he speaks them, Godard is at once very approachable and far more distant than he ever was. His statements about Tout Va Bien clarify the film's basic intent. But once he gets into the meat of his meaning, the conversation clouds a little. Indeed, all three extras here have an equal power to persuade and confuse – just like the movie they are supporting.
Our final added feature is a hefty 40-page booklet that offers a striking assortment of critical and informational material. Inside, there is analysis of the film from a post-millennial standpoint, a discussion of May '68 and how it affected France, a revisionist look at Letter to Jane and an interview with Godard and Gorin from 1973. Together, they paint a marvelously dense and detailed portrait of Tout Va Bien, the timeframe in which it was made, the men who made it, and its lasting impact.