Anne-Marie Miéville is often no more than a footnote in the life of her partner Jean-Luc Godard. Her name appears occasionally in the credits for his films after 1976, occupying a variety of different positions depending on the production, but their collaboration is obscured by her placement in a pivotal role in the mythologized narrative of his genius: the woman who nursed the artist back to health after his motorcycle accident, who pulled him away from his most strident political work and pushed him toward a more experimental form of self-reflection, and who has remained by his side ever since in semi-working exile. Miéville’s influence on Godard’s amorphous filmography, both while working together and on his own, and her own short but remarkable body of work, has been all but ignored, especially in the United States, by a larger critical discourse that has remained tethered to a male-dominated theory of auteurism.
What’s clear from A Woman’s Work: Anne-Marie Miéville, a new series at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, is that part of the problem is that so many of Miéville’s projects have been dismissed simply because they are so difficult to find. Only recently have some of her earliest collaborations with Godard, such as Ici et ailleurs (1976) and Comment ça va? (1978), become available to watch outside their limited appearances on the repertory circuit. Groundbreaking experiments she made with Godard during the same period for French television — Six fois deux/Sur et sous la communication (1976) and France/tour/detour/deux/enfants (1977) — can be found on YouTube in deteriorated quality but are barely recognized beyond their brief mentions in any biographical text. In fact, neither program appears in the BAM series, possibly due to length — they each stretch multiple hours — but more likely because they were made on video and an acceptable copy to screen was difficult, if not impossible, to obtain.
From the beginning of Godard and Miéville’s working relationship, it was clear that collaboration between the two would be the foundation. Godard often used his romantic partners in work — sometimes in ways that bordered on the exploitative — but his work with Miéville was different. She has a stronger and interrupting voice, one that challenges and contradicts and refuses to be sublimated. In 1973, Miéville took over control of Godard’s production company, which was renamed Sonimage: sound and image, his and her image. The titles of some of their projects would hinge on a similar balance — Ici et ailleurs, Soft and Hard (1985) — with the “and” forming a bridge of sorts between the two.
In fact, it is Soft and Hard, one of the pair’s lesser-known video projects, that offers the most complete picture of their working methods. Commissioned and first broadcast by Channel Four in England, this video-essay explores the interpersonal dynamics of making images. Most of the first part of the film consists of the quotidian and intimate: Miéville irons clothes or arranges flowers; Godard comically practices his tennis swing or talks on the phone in broken English about his upcoming film King Lear (1987). Occasionally, the two aphoristically converse — Miéville: “Can it be talked of without the words ending up as always, twisting it?” — but what we are watching is the pathway to the second half, which is dominated by dialogue between the two. It’s filmed from behind Godard so that we only see the back of his head, with Miéville facing the camera and answering questions. But she is not under interrogation. She disputes some of his claims, turns the questions back around, attempts to untangle his thorny philosophies. She is an audience surrogate, certainly, but she is also revealing her importance to the work they make together, allowing herself to come out of her partner’s shadow and sit in the center of the frame. At any moment she might look right at the camera — and by proxy right at us. Who is soft and who is hard?
Previously, Miéville had only made cameos in their films (her most prolonged performance before Soft and Hard is undoubtedly Comment ça va?, but we only see the back of her head). The project seems to have sparked something in her own work, which she had begun before Soft and Hard was finished — Book of Mary (1985), a short film made as a prologue for Godard’s Hail Mary (1985), is of particular interest — but which would become more of a focus in the years ahead.
In two features made over a decade later, Miéville would again return to more personal material exploring partnership, aging, and (mis)communication. We’re All Still Here (1997) is an episodic film that features Godard heavily, first delivering a Hannah Arendt–influenced monologue on a theatrical stage, and later, in the final part of the film, as the aloof partner in a couple opposite the actress Bernadette Lafont. In After the Reconciliation (2000), Godard appears once again, less aloof but equally tiresome, opposite Miéville herself as his wife; the two of them fall into a stinging series of conversations with a man and women whom they pull into their marital discord. Godard reportedly took on roles in both of these films at the last minute as replacement for other actors who dropped out, but his presence is significant, offering a window into Miéville’s perspective on both their artistic and personal lives.
Unlike Godard, on whom there is a wealth of information, little is still known about Miéville beyond a brief biographical sketch. She has not given many interviews, and of those, few have been translated into English. When she does speak about her work, she says little about her personal life, despite plenty of interest from scholars and fans of Godard’s work. (In an equally funny and scary moment — at least if you care about surveillance — a photo of the couple was found on Google Street View and passed around the internet last year). But what people are searching for can be found in Miéville’s films, and has been there the whole time. It just turns out that nobody was looking.