In 2006, the Centre Pompidou took the rare step of inviting the French-Swiss filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard’s participation, as a designer and curator, for a retrospective of his own work. The exhibition included screening 215 films, a book of previously unpublished materials, and, most controversially, several galleries of multimedia installations.
Downsized and retitled, Travels in Utopia, Jean-Luc Godard, In Search of a Lost Theorem bore little resemblance to Godard’s original conception of the project. A hand-written note from Godard informed visitors that his exhibition had been cancelled due to artistic, technical, and financial difficulties. Models of Godard’s original design — a much more ambitious, nine-room piece to be called Collage(s) de France — were stacked in a corner as a rebuke to the museum, and as a testament to what could have been.
For the first time since 2006, these maquettes are visible in their entirety at Memories of Utopia: Jean-Luc Godard’s “Collages de France” Models, a complex, rewarding exhibition at Miguel Abreu Gallery. Each original maquette is accompanied by a large-scale model, created in collaboration with the set designer Jacques Gabel. Together, the 18 models in all provide an unsurpassed entryway to Godard’s unique visual world, offering both a complement to and a reevaluation of his filmmaking career.
By 2006, Godard was already far removed from his origins as a critic for André Bazin’s film journal, Cahiers du cinéma, and as a French New Wave auteur, known for breakthrough films like Breathless (1960) and Contempt (1963). The pivotal moment in Godard’s filmography came after the student uprisings of May 1968, a revolt provoked in part by the firing of Henri Langlois from the Cinémathèque Française. From the 1970s on, Godard dedicated much of his work to Brechtian agitprop, Maoist didacticism, and, later, films in collaboration with his long-time partner Anne-Marie Miéville.
Among his films, Collages de France most closely resembles Histoire(s) du cinema (1988–98), the series of film essays Godard designed for television, and in fact can be understood as an extension of the same project. As viewers progress through Godard’s miniature rooms, they encounter a historiography of the cinema, rendered with cinematic methods: montage, editing, overlaid sound, and images. As Godard said, “One can put a Goya after an El Greco, and the two images recount something without the need for a caption. One doesn’t see that anywhere else. … That’s cinema.”
Godard’s maquettes represent a three-dimensional amplification of his filmmaking technique. The visitor was intended to travel between themed rooms with titles such as “Myth (allegory of the cinema)” and “The Tomb (fable).” Along the way, the moving image not only emerges but mutates toward smaller and more pervasive forms. Neoclassical and Romantic paintings accompany films by Charlie Chaplin and John Ford. Books by Raymond Chandler and Arthur Schopenhauer lie nailed to the floor. Peering into one of the foamcore constructions, one gets the sense of venturing into Godard’s mind, where jumbled pieces retain some underlying logic.
As in much of Godard’s late work, his political and historical concerns here are clear. The model for the sixth room, “The Bastards (parable) — God is my right,” is both one of the richest and the most troubling. A series of enclosures juxtaposes Ford’s The Searchers with miniature flags from the European Union and its member countries, while Godard’s 2006 film essay Je vous salue, Saravejo plays on a video iPod, a shockingly small scale for suffering of such magnitude. At the same time, however, Collages de France does not shy away from the personal and the introspective. In the fifth room, “The Alliance (the unconscious totem taboo),” childhood drawings by Anne-Marie Miéville occupy a totemic position in an automated flipbook.
Each maquette merits repeated viewing. While looking at them and pacing between them, it’s startling to remember that in a famous scene from Godard’s 1964 film Bande à part, three friends break the world record for running through the Louvre in nine minutes and 43 seconds. The shots of them racing through the hallways are typical of Godard’s motifs: spontaneous editing, a desire to see everything, and a simultaneous fascination with and an irreverence for institutions. But in comparing that manic tour with Collages de France, one also sees the germination of Godard’s vision for the moving image, where every decision over what we choose to see forms part of a larger montage.
“Godard probably knew that this exhibition was impossible,” Dominique Païni, curator of the Pompidou exhibition, noted. “It is in this impossibility that he grounded himself, and I believe for the better, as this show, including its impossibility, is starting to reveal something tragic, which is also the tragedy of today’s impossible world. What points to the impossibility of producing an exhibition also points to the impossibility of building a functioning world.”
Although he would later disown most of his earlier films, including Bande à part, Godard no doubt had many of the same concerns in mind when conducting his museographical experiment. The aesthetic impulse remains the same, if not the political commitment. Godard would collapse all of Western history into one second of film, if he could. By envisioning the museum as a montage, Godard comes one step closer to that impossible goal.
Memories of Utopia: Jean-Luc Godard’s “Collages de France” Models continues at the Miguel Abreu Gallery (88 Eldridge Street and 36 Orchard Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through March 11.