Tout va bien

(Italy/France - 1972)

by Mike Lorefice

Cast: Yves Montand, Jane Fonda, Vittorio Caprioli, Elizabeth Chauvin, Castel Casti
Genre: Drama
Director: Jean-Luc Godard & Jean-Pierre Gorin
Screenplay: Jean-Luc Godard & Jean-Pierre Gorin
Cinematography: Paul Beuscher
Composer: Armand Marco

“To change everything, where do you start?”

With Week End denoting the end of cinema and Le Gai Savoir calling for a return to zero, Jean-Luc Godard formed The Dziga Vertov Group with Le Monde newspaper editor Jean-Pierre Gorin and other young apprentices such as Jean-Henri Roger. Their goal was not to make political films, but rather to make films politically with the neglected Soviet master being chosen as their moniker due to his combination of radical politics with a deconstructive style that impaled all illusions of cinematic realism by consistently calling attention to his own filmmaking techniques. After touring with a series of small experimental films that generally weren’t funded, displayed, or even welcome by traditional distributors, Dziga Vertov Group were ready to make certain commercial concessions (stars, narrative, constructed set) in exchange for a chance to remobilize the many who had lost the revolutionary spirit of May 1968.

The key to enacting political change through a movement is always getting people who aren’t directly effected to take a stand on moral grounds. The few owners backed by the politicians whose pockets they overflow will always conspire to screw the workers, customers, and environment, maximizing their profit any way they can get away with. The workers only win when they make a compelling case to the public that manages to overshadow the requisite ownership propaganda that anything done for the workers will come directly out of your pocket (if true, it’s only due to the big shots refusal to share the tens if not hundreds of millions they are making or cut costs by sometimes accepting something less than the best for themselves).

Godard & Gorin’s premise is examining the differences between May 1968 and the present, which was May 1972. Workers and owners are still at odds because they have vested interests, but in 1968 there was legitimate chance for sweeping changes due to people from all walks of life getting involved. Students played a huge role in backing the striking workers, and filmmakers such as Godard and Francois Truffaut were among the many intellectuals and luminaries who did their part to rally the masses. Now, most people aren’t directly involved in the battles have become frustrated and ennui ridden; falling beneath the fray they are content to go about making money as usual, often through the unsatisfying path of least resistance.

Many of the once motivated intellectuals still believe they’re important and earnest to the cause, though they’ve become very detached. Godard & Gorin’s leftist stars Yves Montand and Jane Fonda, named Jacques and Suzanne but often referred to as Him & Her as one of the deemphasizing methods, represent two such self-important people. As one of the commercial concessions, they happen to be a couple, but this is anything but a love story. Their relationship is only allowed to exist within the context of their work, a commercial exchange that’s inherently as filthy and hypocritical as the employers they represent.

Jacques is a former nouvelle vague filmmaker who has forgotten his principles, now a selling out who makes TV commercials. He accompanies Suzanne, the French correspondent for the America Broadcasting System who is totally out of her element and a complete outsider, on a routine interview with the boss of a sausage factory. Disgruntled with their union, the workers take matters into their own hands, staging their own strike, which results in Jacques & Suzanne getting sequestered along with the Factory Manager (Vittorio Caprioli).

Godard obviously relates to and is more in touch with the intellectuals, but that doesn’t stop him from reproaching his stars, who are guilty by association. Though Tout va bien may be too generalized and “serious” (Godard puts too much faith in Marx and Mao, but the film is actually quite funny if you tune in to its humor) to fully succeed when it comes to politics, it at least avoids the primary aspects where political films fail as it’s anything but a one-sided treatise from the saintly do-gooders. If audiences hate political films it’s largely because they assume we’re supposed to entirely agree with one side whether we like it or not, but Godard and Gorin allow every side to speechify, delivering everything in a manner that sets the audience in opposition to it. One goal of the Dziga Vertov Group was to "combat the tyranny of image over sound". Their primary method to achieve this aim was to set the soundtrack and visuals at odds, distancing the audience from the material and the creating an ironic detachment.

Godard & Gorin attempt to reveal and question everyone’s ideologies, ultimately condemning the faults that lie within them or the laziness and disorganization that keeps them from succeeding. Suzanne believes she does her best, but business as usual entails reporting the incident by talking to management and ignoring the perspective of the workers. The various leftist factions can’t develop a cohesive rhetoric, much less speak to their entire side, so they instead engage in self-centered, petty bickering and squabbles. In particular, the communist party and union heads waste their energy on each other rather than their powerful enemies. Once energetic protestors have grown lonelier and become marginalized, an unwanted disturbance no one is outraged when the modern day Gestapo have their way with.

Jean-Luc Godard has always enjoyed frustrating his audience. Many who dislike Tout va bien are put off by the ennui. There’s no one to like, much less root for and believe in. Perhaps Godard & Gorin believe people aren’t as well off as they were in 5/68 or should have been, but aren’t as bad off as they believe they are either. But the constant repetition of title, which means everything’s fine or all’s well, is probably another ironic joke, a half-hearted assertion that’s akin to those who follow their hell in a handbasket declarations with, “but America is still the best country in the world.” Godard and Gorin repeatedly show their doubts that anyone has the leadership, initiative, and energy to find a way to breakthrough the stifling atmosphere they’ve used their set to create, but their method is provocation. They hope if they challenge everyone to prove them wrong, maybe they’ll get lucky and someone actually will.

The self-conscious and referential A Woman is a Woman showed Godard’s interest in Brechtian distancing devices, but they really come to the forefront in the Dziga Vertov films. Godard & Gorin film the strike in the most anti-documentary of manners, tracking back and forth across a compartmentalized set that’s a homage to Jerry Lewis’ The Ladies Man. Every group is confined to their very clearly delineated box, not only accentuating the power structure but also using the flimsy walls to keep them very much apart from both foe and potential, theoretical friend. Trapped in their own little cages, their issues increasingly blend into the woodwork and become their own solitary frustrations.

Godard & Gorin would undoubtedly like someone to tear down a wall and free themselves, but they aren’t about making films where the fictitious characters work everything out in the end, freeing the audience from the burden. Everyone in Tout va bien seems lost. The workers can’t even decide what to do with the manager. They have a little fun at his expense, forcing him to comprehend how inhuman his rules are by refusing to allow him a bathroom break. Though they threaten, “You’re gonna get it, Mr. Bossman,” he winds up shaving and exercising in his office while they pace around and worry.

While Dziga Vertov Group filmed real groups such as Al Fatah in Jordan, as a way to counteract the star presence of Montand & Fonda they not only hired unemployed actors to portray the workers, they put them front and center, forcing the stars into the background to the point they sometimes seem like the extras. Nonetheless, Jacques and Suzanne seem the best hope to change things because they are the way Godard & Gorin seem to envision the audience, capable of learning and reinvigorating themselves toward the issues, but lacking something to prompt them to do so. The surprise confrontation with reality causes the fictitious characters to temporarily reexamine what’s important to them, their work and their relationship. That’s all Godard & Gorin can realistically hope for from them, and more importantly their audience. Jacques returns to whoring himself to the enemy, but Suzanne realizes she hasn’t been accomplishing anything as a journalist because there’s so much more to the issues than she’s previously considered, and regardless it can’t be simplified into the few seconds of airtime she gets anyway (sound bites being the death of depth and debate).

Godard & Gorin are not only critical of their characters, but also themselves. Their deconstruction of the owner/worker relationship and capitalism also includes a hilarious dissemination of the process of getting a film made. The blunt manner in which the narration depicts the financing process to a series of checks being signed (“If you use stars, people will give you money”) makes it all seem so cold, calculated, and especially shameless. Godard & Gorin, of course, attempt to subvert the financiers and audience’s expectations through vagueness and gray areas, their story including such elements as “bourgeois who bourgeois”. They make the concession to a set, but defeat the purpose of it, never allowing anyone to think it could possibly be the real thing. They make the concession to stars, but never allow treat them as anything beyond fairly undefined tools who serve to thrust the equally wayward audience into the chaos more than lead them through it.

Jean-Luc Godard was actually going to make Tout va bien for Paramount, but suffered a near fatal motorcycle accident in New York on 6/9/71, the very day he was to sign the contract. Gaumont wound up financing the film instead, but with Godard hospitalized on and off for the next two years it was Gorin who was most likely primarily responsible for the finished movie. Though Gorin is thought to have shared authorship equally with Godard from Lotte in Italia onward, his knowledge and appreciation of Godard’s back catalogue, combined with the disheartening obscurity of the essay films he’s made on his own make it difficult to distinguish his contributions. It’s been suggested that the referential aspects are Gorin doing Godard. In any case, the showstopping finale that’s a tribute to the endless traffic jam in Week End is a tour de force.

Godard has always been a director who not only attempted to depict the world as it was at the moment, but also saw the direction the world was going in. This duality has allowed his films to function as time capsules while maintaining a freshness like few others of his era, especially the ones with political ideas which always seem to date quickly despite the absence of dramatic change. In 1972, 5 food industry giants controlled 25% of the French food industry, but Godard understands the goal of capitalism, regardless of industry, is that every business strives to be the monopoly that controls the entire world market. France was “ahead” of the USA in moving to the one stop for everything store, so Dziga Vertov Group imagines suitably empty and unethical political ideology being sold in the supermarket as well. Linking shopping to the factory, the unbroken back and forth tracking shot depicts shopping as the end of the factory assembly line. Once again, no one talks and the dehumanized place the products on the conveyor belt. But unlike in Week End where diversion is the order of the day, suddenly the people wake up and begin enacting change. Refusing to end on a positive note, something just seems to be missing. Their actions seem rather juvenile, lacking the spirit, purity, and hope of May 1968.




* Copyright 2007 - Raging Bull Movie Reviews *