Dir. Jean-Luc Godard
Even with a more commercial effort, as this was made to help fund his personal project Hail Mary (1985), with known stars and a pulp crime script, the films of Jean-Luc Godard are as multi-textual and layered as you could see. The reason why I once hated Godard films, only to keep viewing them until he became one of my favourite directors, is that you don't get films like Détective. Few people are this experimental, which makes encountering them exhilarating or alienating compared to films with more common cinematic tropes. Détective is a fully formed narrative of various characters set within the Hotel Concorde at Saint Lazare in Paris. A disgraced hotel detective William Prospero (Laurent Terzieff), his nephew Inspector Neveu (Jean-Pierre Léaud) and Neveu's girlfriend Arielle (Aurelle Doazan) attempt to answer the mysterious murder of two years earlier of a man called the Prince, while still being entangled with the relationships between them and those of individuals around the hotel. A couple, Emile Chenal (Claude Brasseur) and Françoise Chenal (Nathalie Baye), in a fraught relationship and his business failing, attempt to get money back from boxing promoter and trainer Jim Fox Warner (Johnny Hallyday). Fox Warner has a dept to pay to an elder mafia leader also called the Prince, his boxer Tiger Jones (Stéphane Ferrara) and his relationship with his love, known as the Princess of the Bahamas (Emmanuelle Seigner), causing further issue. And Fox Warner and Françoise Chenal have a relationship from the past that conflicts their interests. Almost completely set in the Hotel Concorde, Godard's take on the familiar tropes of crime cinema guts out all the extraneous exposition, making a series of fragments that interlock into one full story, and also continue his experiments with what cinema is alongside tangents on media, society and life.
The digressions and narrative co-exist in a film methodically put together. The first quarter of the film has the opening credits split across introductory scenes introducing the characters and situations. Narrative wise, it's tremendous, and despite the circumstances of its green lighting, it's treated as a full story with great performances and a novel take on the stories, willing to mix crime narrative, drama, even slapstick intercut into other scenes within its various plot strands. What differentiate it from the sixties films of Godard's its evoking is that it also shows the transition from Godard's final cinematic period of the 80s to staying within experimental filmmaking fully to the present day, with Historie(s) du Cinema (1988-1998), Film socialisme (2010) and various short films after, the seeds of them clearly visible in this pulp detective work. Sound and the use of it is the first thing you notice, the first film of Godard's which was in stereo. Dialogue continues while the image onscreen cuts to something or someone else, an almost-cut-and-paste collage of speech and music, all classical, taking place when exposition and character building conversations are fragmented, making one conscious of the structure of audio in cinema. It works to add to the narrative, while other moments have music intentionally jarring to the content of the scene on purpose. The film is as much about communication and disruption of it as it is a crime story. The multi-plotted story itself is as much about miscommunication, where barring a final series of shootings, most of the conflicts are through words. It's surprising how this film reminds one of American indie films, especially Jim Jarmusch, a genre narrative broken of its conventional plotting structure with additional allusions to philosophy and especially cultural items. Characters are pulp figures but still have time to be built up, fleshed out, through Godard's musings on life, able to use such thoughts, like the reason pornography is called 'x-rated', as part of the metaphors and thoughts of the characters as much as his outpouring of his thoughts outside of cinema.
Books populate a lot of the film, piled on mass on Prospero's makeshift desk in his hotel, his and Neveu and Arielle's names directly referencing The Tempest. Characters read a lot generally. Quotations are countless, spoken and in narration, and is even part of Fox Warner's character, a copy of Lord Jim he keeps with him, opened randomly to any page in a time of crisis, giving him advice in whatever passage he reads. It's impossible not to think, as communication is part of the narrative, how Godard is also directly commentating of how the way to communicate has changed in the period the film was made in. Cutaways to a media store, the neon of Cassette Audio and Video Cassette, in the colours of the French flag, tangential to the narrative, but in a film that plays with audio and visuals, a comment of how film and culture in general has changed from the Sixties crime films of his and cinema in general. Discussions on pornography in an era of video tape and porn theatres, to classical films on televisions, the black-and-white celluloid images fuzzy on the screens, evoking tropes repeated here in the story or, as characters watch Jean Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast (1946) in each other's arms, how its part of their lives as pulp characters as they are for the viewers. Arielle, with Prospero's interest, films directly out of their hotel room window with a film camera prominently, the grainy images from it the first of the entire film around it; it cannot be ignored, as Godard's shows, that the images are distorted even in these narratives as they will be for cinema as the technology did indeed change over the next few decades or so.
Détective has a very unconventional, tangential style to it compared to other Godard films in general. Still a Godard crime film, in what one would expect, but aspects stand out differently with this one to the others. Prospero is trying to figure out a crime, the random murder of a man known as the Prince, that is far too simple to be explained, confounded further by the Mafia boss also being known as the Prince existing at the same time, Godard's habit of dissecting genre and cinema taking a metaphysical tone here alongside with a meta one. Mostly within the main hotel location, barring one or two scenes outside, the setting is an unmapped series of corridors, stairs and rooms, beautifully filmed in static shots, but out-of-reach from reality. Where characters are hidden away in blackened billiard rooms, or squashed up together in hotel rooms, and each other's hotel rooms for that matter. In an almost sci-fi touch, with Fox Warner's extended circus of entourage, including a young girl unexplained in her prescience playing an instrument at times, he has access to a computer, part of the issue of technology being addressed by the director, but one, when asked questions in outputs, able to keep answers from the users on its own digression. It tips into legitimately freakish horror in one moment with a dead mouse and blood coming from the least expected place, asking what Godard would've brought to the horror genre if he tried it. Characters populate and intrude on each other's spaces, to comedic effect at points especially with Jean-Pierre Léaud as a sleuth keeping his eye on the situations around him or running through those he has no connection to. Entangled romance takes place, adultery and cheating one's lover, the follies of the heart, alongside misguided views and the deluded belief money is easy to come by, all spoken through Godard's quotations, experiments and reflections of the period. The result is sewn and weaved together without issue, a delicately balanced mix that works more so on a second viewing and shows its masterful constuction.
Abstract Rating (High/Medium/Low/None) - Medium
Altogether, Détective works both as a Godard experiment and as a genre film, but it is definitely an unconventional work as crime narratives go. It works as a great take on the tropes of a b-movie thrillers, in that it gets to the point in its fragmented tone, while still fleshed out, and letting the experiments work for the story and for the director's intellectual concerns. The experiments themselves do not detract from the full narrative, but they would be disarming to anyone encountering Godard for the first time, and take these well worn tropes into unexpected areas. On a second viewing, it still causes one to sit back and take in the level of experimentation you do not get in most cinema, marvelling at them, fascinating in its moments where it steps into separate observations. The advantage that makes the film more abstract is that is still works as a film, and it is immensely entertaining in that area. Gripping as a very talkative, cool toned crime story, each character subplot of interest when one puts together the pieces of each, and taking on a very different take on them for original results. It is a funny movie at times and despite the events of the end - beautifully set up with a use of a clip from an older film for one of the meta references - it finishes with high spirits which contrasts fully from the cerebral content and the seriousness of points. The hybrid of completely bold, uncompromising experimentation and genre actually manages to work and it's never conventional because of the melding.
It is to the director's credit, while very much transitioning to his winter period of filmic essays already signposted by films before like Slow Motion (1980), that he still made a film that cares for its narrative as much as the musings. From a script from a producer who was willing to fund his controversial take on the immaculate conception in Hail Mary, Godard uses it as a suit, an aesthetic, for his own ideas while still making it as was desired under his own terms. It turns back on the films from his first Breathless (1960) in the sixties, but with the matinee looks of a Johnny Hallyday against moments of the director disrupting his work further than the jump cuts of decades before. The two sides, of the past Godard and the one he would become after this, cooperate fully and the transition is felt here immensely with great results. This is also a film where a character pretends to do boxing sparring against his girlfriend's bared breasts, following her directions of which to box, the largest Toblerone I have ever witnessed in the flesh or in image, a clumsy waiter joke, self conscious computers with digital paint portraits of an actress in the film on them, and a monologue of how one washes their hands shows who they are that'll make Quentin Tarantino look like he's a twelve year old trying to write cool dialogue in comparison. With Godard, then or today, you get the intellectual meat but plenty of material and images you'd never see in most people's work, or together in one film like this, and it adds together to more than a plodding art film but something artistic with great character to it.