Translated by Susan Spitzer


This film, Passion, expresses or attempts to express, through music, an intermediate world, an in-between world. What’s more, in-between situations recur repeatedly as one of the film’s leitmotifs. How can an intermediate world be expressed through music? And first of all, what does “through music” mean? “Through music” implies the mystery of the work’s construction, because Passion is clearly a film based entirely on themes and variations. It is not based on the typical order of a story but neither is it based on an instantly intelligible symbolic order. It is really based on themes and variations, as well as on expositions, developments, and conclusions, which are also borrowed from music. If you pay close attention, you can discern these three movements, the three classical movements of a concerto, in almost every scene.

The film can therefore be said to present a twofold articulation, which no doubt requires being seen or experienced several times. First, there is an articulation based on recurrence or return, something that could be called the canonical image, the image that comes back, the image that is like a matrix of the film’s development. Then, there is a second articulation based on progression, on linkage, at which point we get what could be called a resolving image. I think that this twofold pattern – on the one hand, the use of repetition, and on the other, by means of this repetition, something like the search for a resolving image – is really the key to the film’s meaning.

“Through music” also means, of course, that music properly speaking plays an essential role, namely the series of successive musical themes, contrasting and coupling with the image, those great musical passages – Ravel, Mozart, Beethoven, Dvorak, Fauré – along with a theme that clearly revolves around the idea of the requiem. It is moreover on Fauré’s Requiem that the film concludes as everyone returns home.

The question posed by the film becomes: a requiem for what? What is being commemorated here, albeit commemorated in the manner of the commemoration of the dead, of the Last Judgment? This is my second subject. The film really attempts to express an intermediate world, a world between two worlds, a world in which something is finished, or most likely finished, and in which something is trying to begin but hasn’t really done so.

Some further clarification is necessary here. Passion dates from 1982. Even in terms of Godard’s career it is a film between two periods. It obviously comes after his period of absolute politicization of cinema in the 1970s, which extended, roughly speaking, from 1967 (from La Chinoise, which, in my view, completes the period just before) to 1979, the year of Sauve qui peut (la vie) (Every Man For Himself). Between 1967 and 1979, Godard went so far as to disappear qua Godard and melt into a cinema collective, the Dziga Vertov group. Passion is situated after that period and before another great phase, when the filmmaker would be increasingly committed to a kind of reflective cinema, a sort of retrospective and prospective meditation on what cinema is and what the image is, with Histoire(s) du cinema really representing the peak of that trajectory.

Passion is typical of what could be called the period of the 1980s in Godard’s work, which began with Sauve qui peut (la vie) and ended, to my mind, in 1987 with Soigne ta droite (Keep Your Right Up). This period included four main films, Passion, Je vous salue Marie (Hail Mary) Prénom: Carmen (First Name: Carmen), and Détective, all of which have something in common but of which Passion is really the focal point, the sensitive plate, with all that that term can connote in terms of mystery or complexity.

Essentially, the film attempts to depict the early 1980s and to depict them as an intermediate, enigmatic, elusive period. The general question it poses is: Where do we stand, in the early 80s, in terms of the possibilities for thought and life? It is a film about possibilities, which is also why it is not easy to understand, because it is less about reality or the fragments of the real than about possibility. Where do we stand in terms of the possibilities for thought and for life, or for life as the thinking of life? That is really the film’s theme.

Cinema would provide Godard with the means for creating a sort of allusive poetics of this question. This is also why Passion is both a fragmentary film and a musical one. Actually, Godard’s method, particularly in these films of the 1980s, could be said to consist in changing questions into situations, that is to say, in finding a cinematic situation that is the equivalent to the question (although without asking it explicitly): “Where do we stand in terms of the thinking of life and the relationship between thought and life?”

The film is a series of situations. I need to explain what is meant by “situation.” In reality – and this is one of the film’s themes – Godard refuses for the film to be constructed on the basis of a story. In the film, an Italian producer shows up demanding a story, “una storia.” There may not be a story, but nor is it a matter of the story as such being eliminated, or, for example, of something that would replace the story with haphazard successions of moments. In reality, what Godard intends to do is extract schematic or typical situations from the notion of story. These situations, which are completely familiar and bound up with the history of cinema, are no longer presented as stories but as the skeletal structure, kernel, or matrix of a story.

Let me give two examples of this method.

(1) Passion is concerned throughout with one of Godard’s major questions, namely where do we stand in terms of love? More to the point, where exactly do we stand in terms of sexual difference and its effects in life and, ultimately, where do we stand, if we are men, in terms of the cinematic representation or figure of women? To express this, instead of taking a story that would relate such a thing Godard takes a completely ordinary concept: a man between two women. Jerzy, the director of the film-within-the-film, is between Isabelle Huppert and Hanna Schygulla. The man between two women has given rise to countless film plots. Cinema has nearly always explored the issue we are talking about by using the situation of a man between two women. So Godard will go about it in the ordinary way in this respect, except that he will retain only what is ordinary about this ordinariness. He will keep only the concept of “a man between two women” without developing it in any plot or story. This could be called the reduction of the story to the situation, of the story to its concept. And, as a result, this concept can be polymorphous since it is no longer attached to a story but is reduced to its kernel. Something can spread through the film or take it in several different directions. For instance, this man between two women will also be the man between a bourgeois woman and a factory worker (Hanna Schygulla, the hotel owner, and Isabella Huppert, the worker character). We thus go from the initial question about love, about sexual difference, to the question of class relations, of the relation between bosses and workers, which had preoccupied Godard so intensely in the 1970s. Here, then, is the possibility for a simplified concept, borrowed from a traditional story in film, to reorient a theme or enable another theme or question to be developed.

The film thus allows for different questions to be interwoven on the basis of little matrices that are, at bottom, tired old stories, reduced to their pure cinematic situation.

(2) How has cinema usually approached the social issue (let’s call it that), namely the question of work, class relations, relations between workers and bosses? It has usually done so by depicting its dramatic moments: revolts, uprisings, strikes, demands, and so forth. And it is usually an epic or semi-epic treatment that the issue has been given in film. Here, Godard goes about it in a completely different way. He’ll take up the question of struggles, protests, strikes, and so forth again, but instead of giving it an evental dimension, an epic dimension, he will reduce it as well and turn it into a sort of little microcosm. The factory is reduced to two or three machines and a few women workers; the boss is the only boss there is; the police are represented by a single police officer whom the boss will go seek out; and politics is concentrated in a sequence devoted to a quasi-virtual meeting of the workers, at which what they would like to say, write, and declare is discussed. As for political action per se, it boils down to an almost slapstick chase scene in the pseudo-factory, where the rebellious worker is chased around by a caricatural policeman and the factory owner (Piccoli is an old hand at playing this type of character). This set-up bordering on slapstick functions as a reference, reduced to a microcosm, to the ordinary treatment of the workers’ struggle issue. I will conclude on this point, but this is the method of legibility of the film, meaning that it must always be seen in such a way that you can discern in it something that functions not as a story but as the matrix of a potential story within a reference to cinema’s ordinary ways of treating the situation in question, regardless of whether that situation involves sexual difference and love, or social struggle and the worker-boss relationship.

Now that the method has been established, I think we can turn to the various types of questions the film runs through, the types of questions that it frames. I will deal with just a few of these in order to show how extraordinarily complex the film is and what I mean when I stress that it expresses an intermediate world though music.

First, as we have just seen, the film deals with the question “Where do we stand in terms of love and the historicity of the situation?” It does so in a variety of ways and concludes (if you can call it a conclusion), as so often with Godard, that the issue is caught between the opacity of women, which is usually shown by the interrogation of a face, and an abstract erotics represented by the pictorial style of the various instances of nudity in the film. It is in this interplay between the two that the interrogation emerges. The film is split between an attempt to signify femaleness as thought, as interrogation, as representation, in Hanna Schygulla’s or Isabelle Huppert’s face (there are some very beautiful shots, shots of pure opacity, mystery, questioning), and, on the other hand, Godard’s contemplation of the erotic act, which is a little icy, a little detached, a little mechanical. Between these two aspects the new situation of the question of sex and love appears.

Second, the film weaves this together with the question “What meaning does the word “worker” have in politics in the early 80s, what meaning does “class struggle” have, what meaning does “social struggle” have, and what meaning does the generic function of work have?”

The question of work is a key issue in the film, whose subject, in essence, is the passion for work as a figure linked to love. You could say that the key subject comes down to the maxim that is heard in Passion: “One should love to work or work to love.” This is ultimately the fate of humanity, which lies between these two terms.

Naturally, the issue of worker/boss/class struggle will be represented by Isabelle Huppert’s character, by the situation in the factory, by the other women workers, by Piccoli as the factory owner, by the workers’ meeting, and will be dealt with abundantly. It is important to understand that the year is 1982, in other words, when the 1970s and everything that came after ’68 were coming to a close. This was the time of what could be considered the last political experience with significant working class content, the Solidarity movement in Poland – Poland, a signifier that will become a crucial element in the film for this very reason.

One might wonder whether the other question running through the film – and it is one that may still be of interest to us today – isn’t the following: Is an orderly exit from actually existing socialism possible, a way out that doesn’t simply amount to a collapse? Is there a possibility for a way out of socialism? At a given moment Poland inspired hope of that sort, namely that in actually existing socialism, the countries under the control of Communist parties, there might be workers’ political movements so significant that they could change the situation in a way that wouldn’t merely amount to its collapsing and the state of things being replaced by some anarchic form of capitalism or other. Passion is a film that attempts to capture this “Polish way,” whereby an alternative to actually existing socialism that was not a ruthlessly capitalistic one might ultimately emerge in the workers’ movement. This is of course the reason why everyone leaves for Poland at the end of the film, to see whether there might not be something else there besides the terrible choice between an actually existing socialism that has collapsed or is on the verge of collapsing and the unbridled capitalism that was in the process of being established there.

Third, the film naturally deals with the question “Where do we stand in terms of the arts?” Love, politics, and the arts. Or rather, where do we stand in terms of the impure place of cinema as compared with the situations of the other arts? Passion puts forward some complex propositions concerning this issue. To begin with, it clearly shows that cinema is linked to a temptation exerted by America. This is another way of seeing the film, as suspended between America and Poland. At the end, will they go to America or to Poland? Some of the people go to Poland, the others to America. That has to do with cinema’s impurity. It also has to do with the fact that money issues are a constant obsession. There is never enough money. But the all-important meditation in the film is the meditation on the relationship between cinema and painting. And it is a masterstroke of cinematic invention, I believe, to have placed at the very heart of the film, and as an elusive project at that, the recreation of great masterpieces of painting.

One after the other, we see Rembrandt’s Night Watch, a painting by Goya, and Delacroix’s Entry of the Crusaders into Constantinople, by means of images that are rather baffling because, at bottom, their real intention is absolutely enigmatic. It is neither a matter of a simple display of the paintings nor of something that is their exact equivalent. Rather, it is the filming of live bodies recreating something that already existed as an image within the painting. This is an interrogation that amounts to saying that painting and cinema have a number of elements in common, first and foremost the question of light, which is an essential leitmotif in the film. How is light distributed in such a way that it does justice to the visible, and is cinema’s fate in this respect superior, or equal, to painting’s? Godard experiments with this (the movement of light in the visible world) by constructing cinematic equivalents of well-known paintings, in an attempt to understand whether or not light distribution in film can elucidate light distribution in the masterpieces of painting.

Fourth, there is an interrogation of language: in this enigmatic world, in this in-between world, what can language still say? This is the reason behind the “Say your line” sentence. You also find this theme of the forcing of the line in both the issue of sexual relations (a scene involving sexual relations during which the man is extremely brutal and the woman says, “Say your line,” a line we won’t hear at all or will hear only imperfectly) and social relations, inasmuch as Isabelle Huppert will interrogate her old grandfather by saying to him, too, “Say your line, say your line.” Here, the line will be “As a rule, the poor are right,” which the film in a way constantly seeks to question or refute.

This is the question of the sentence as a sexual or political one. In the world being interrogated here, is there a sentence that could express jouissance or desire? Is there a sentence that could express the relationship of justice and injustice between the rich and the poor? Likewise, we hear: “We need to make a declaration,” to which Isabelle Huppert replies, “We need to see what we say.” The problem of the relationship between seeing and saying is also one of the major issues in Godard’s cinema, which, along with its whole battery of words, quotations, and clippings, was suited to the situation of the 1980s.

But the film is shot through with anxiety about the power of speech, about the possibility of expressing those essential experiences of love, on the one hand, and class struggle, on the other. The most important symbol of this is Isabelle Huppert’s stuttering, which must be taken at face value. The working class stutters, the working class is no longer able to speak, no longer has a candid, straightforward, confident way of speaking. The stuttering it suffers from is ultimately the stuttering of the political situation itself. Let me remind you that 1982 was the year after the Left’s return to power, and the stuttering is probably also related to that return, the stuttering of the Socialist government.

Of course, there are still other basic themes in the film, which I will just mention briefly. One of them in particular seems very important to me: where do we stand in terms of human turmoil? In this case, too, Godard treats the issue through a unique capture of cinematic material, such as in the scenes where people run around in different directions. This is one of the film’s leitmotifs, one of the ways it resonates: shouting people run over to cars and Jerzy’s assistant calls him to say “Jerzy, you’ve got to come right away.” This is truly an interrogation of the pointlessness of turmoil with no real purpose, an aspect of modern life captured on film by all this absolutely desperate activity around the cars to no apparent end. It all concludes with the purely farcical episode involving a sort of free-for-all in which people start hitting each other without anyone having the slightest idea why. It’s perfectly obvious: if you want to treat human turmoil in film, broad comedy is surely the most appropriate and effective means of doing so.

I also need to mention the lateral themes, the themes circulating between the themes, such as the connection between love and work, which is constantly elucidated in the film, including with the hypothesis that, at bottom, neither love nor work can really be filmed because they are the same in terms of their gestures. Isabelle Huppert says, “I notice that films never show people at work.” Her interlocutor replies with a down-to-earth answer: “Filming in factories is not allowed.” Isabelle Huppert then comments, “I’m right, it’s because the gestures of work have something in common with the gestures of love.” That is why work can’t be filmed. Here, the idea is essentially that the ultimate real of human experience, which lies between love and work, in the common space of love and work, is something that in a certain way is inaccessible, still in 1982, to the operations of cinema.

There is clearly one final theme, which takes in all the others: the theme of the sacred. It is on this theme that the film opens, with the sky and the moving line of the jet’s exhaust trail, which, little by little, cuts enigmatically across the image of the blue. And it is also on this theme that Passion ends, with the great upward movement toward the final image of the painting, an ascent toward an implicit transcendence, a transcendence that is unnamed, unnamable, but clearly an essential resource of the film.

All of the foregoing shows the extent to which Passion is the film of a passage, of an in-between space, because to none of these questions does Godard give a tenable, considered answer. The film essentially depicts a time when the old politics, the old hope cherished by politics, lives on only in its last possible forms. Whether it is the Polish workers’ movement or the Left’s coming to power in France, the fact remains that this is the unsettled closing of a certain period of politics, and, by the same token, an enigmatic period in the relationship between men and women and in the history of desire.

So there is another way of defining the film: it is a compilation of uncertainties. That is why it is about gaps and difficulties in understanding. But this compilation of uncertainties nevertheless lets something come through, it seems to me, something like two different kinds of power. There is a compilation of uncertainties, but the diagnosis is not entirely a foregone conclusion: two kinds of power are at work in this compilation. First, there is a definite power, a power that I would say is basically Godard’s last refuge, in every period of his work, namely the power of the light of the visible, as the enduring possibility of a contemplative distance independent of life’s incidents or ups-and-downs. This power is very evident in the film. I already mentioned the white line at the beginning of the film, that first image of the sky; one could also mention what I consider to be the extremely powerful scene in which Hanna Schygulla watches her own image in the video. This effect of delayed or distanced self-contemplation is filmed with extraordinary subtlety, with that way of turning partly away from your own image, letting it linger on sort of tenderly and at the same time leaving you a little out of sync, as it were, with it. There are also, to be sure, the images of Isabelle Huppert walking beside the stream, which also possess that quasi-sacred quality coming from the light of the visible, or of the snow at the end of the film, in which they are leaving for a Poland at once emblematic and totally uncertain. So that is the first of the two powers, a purely cinematic power, the passage of the illuminated power of the visible.

But there is another power, which, back then, at that time, was still only hypothetical: the power of work. Work remains the common feature, the common reference point, the name that is common to love, art, and politics, through the successive figures – the woman factory worker and the other female characters – of the film’s uncertainty. So there is a definite power, the light of the visible, which is partly metaphysical, and a hypothetical power, still kept alive in 1980, which is the question of the agency of work. Everything is played out in this in-between space, and the montage is indeed a compilation of uncertainties.

Passion – and I will conclude with this – never fails to make me think of a tremendous play by the young Ibsen, Emperor and Gallilean. It is a play devoted to Julian the Apostate, the Roman emperor who, after Constantine and after the Roman Empire’s adoption of Christianity, wanted to restore the old gods. At a certain moment, Julian, in despair, realizing that his enterprise is futile, says, “We live in a world in which the old beauty is no longer beautiful but the new truth is not yet true.” Passion is a film about just such a thing. Something of what there was before no longer exists, but something of what is supposed to come hasn’t come. That is the space the film inhabits, and its genius lies in changing it into a form of themes and variations, all the while borrowing its power from the light of the visible.

Lecture delivered at Le Lieu unique, Nantes, November 2001. (The text was transcribed from a video recording.)


This talk will appear as a chapter in Cinema, by Alain Badiou, translated by Susan Spitzer, forthcoming from Polity Press, Cambridge, U.K.


Joomla SEF URLs by Artio

Buy Lana Turner #9

Issue 9 is HERE!

Order Now

@ltjournal on Twitter