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Godard's Nouvelle Vague
Soundtracks and Stories

By Richard di Santo
13 August 2000

"... my film, if you listen to the soundtrack without the images, will turn out even better."
— Godard, on Nouvelle Vague

What strikes me most about Jean-Luc Godard's film Nouvelle Vague (1990) is its soundtrack; not simply the music accompanying the action and the images, but the total montage of dialogue, sound, music and ambience. This impression came with my first viewing of the film about two years ago, and now that I have returned to it and have seen it a second time, this is all the more clear. Sound is everything in this film. For this reason I was very happy to hear that ECM Records has released the complete soundtrack from the film on CD — that is, the complete and unedited soundtrack including all dialogues, music, sounds and (also most notably) the silences. The success of this release has spawned ECM to give the same treatment to Godard's video history of film, Histoire(s) du Cinéma, released as a five CD box set, packaged with a complete transcript of Godard's narration (translated into German and English) and an essay by Jonathan Rosenbaum.

The release of Nouvelle Vague comes with an impressionistic essay by Claire Bartoli titled "Interior View: Jean-Luc Godard's Nouvelle Vague." Bartoli is blind, and so consequently her experience of the film has always been of the soundtrack alone. In her essay, Bartoli comments on the film-as-soundtrack as she experienced it, focusing in sections on the sound, dialogue, and the various themes of the work. Her comments on Godard's use of sound are insightful and provoking: "Godard, with large cuts of the scissors, divides the material into fragments, producing sound miniatures, as pure elements." Indeed, when listened to divorced from the images, the soundtrack of Nouvelle Vague breathes a life of its own. "Nouvelle Vague invents a concrete music," writes Bartoli, "that does not hew the beat, that toys with the irrational." Sounds, music and dialogues are arranged in an organic and elaborate structure, much like a complex composition. Everyday sounds of bird-calls, dogs barking, car horns and traffic weave delicately around silences, dialogues and fragments of thoughts and conversations. In this respect Nouvelle Vague in places reminds me slightly of Wings of Desire (Wim Wenders, 1987), which also carries a flood of interior voices heard by the passing angels, attempting ubiquity and surrendering to the simultaneous love and envy of their human, all-too-human charges. Godard's film is teeming with words, piled up one over the other in a polyphonous mass. The soundtrack is filled with fragments, unacknowledged quotations (Schiller, Lacan, Chandler, Dorothy Parker...) and isolated monologues both interior and exterior. The figure of Jules the gardener (played with great solemnity by Roland Amstutz), for instance, is persistent in giving a gloss on the themes of the narrative action, rich in metaphor and meaning: "a garden is always unfinished, much like prose... it even seems to suggest its own improvements and corrections... but if it is abandoned..."

All of this is accompanied by yet another sound element: music. The music of the film, from the likes of Arnold Shoenberg, Paul Hindemith, David Darling and Dino Saluzzi, does not act as a mere accompaniment to the narrative action. In fact one could argue that the music is an integral part of that narrative, that the dialogues and movements inform and are informed by the musical score that comes in and out of focus in the film as a whole (to use an apt visual analogy). Saluzzi's quiet and melancholic bandoneon; the alienating concrete sounds of Jean Schwartz; the deep-throated cello of David Darling; all of these elements are so much a part of the story of Nouvelle Vague that I couldn't imagine the film without them. And we must remember, as we are informed from the very beginning of the film, that "it is a story I wanted to tell... and still want to..."

But what kind of story is this, where a sudden trickle of water, the sound of a crow or a bark from a dog carries just as much weight as a dialogue, an action? The story of a man and a woman (the oldest story of all)? Of mystery and double identity? Of separation and union? Of memory and time? All of these elements form a part of this complex story, told with images, words, music, sound and silence. I must admit that what I took away from my viewings of the complete film are mostly aural impressions. The sounds come alive in my memory much more than the images do. And this was the case before my introduction to the soundtrack on ECM. But if anything, the soundtrack of Nouvelle Vague is Nouvelle Vague. This film can undoubtedly be 'seen' without the images, and Bartoli's experience of the film is evidence of this. The question is whether one benefits from experiencing the film in total or as a soundtrack divorced from its images. Or whether the film itself benefits, as Godard's comment above would suggest, about the film having an even greater impact when the soundtrack is 'seen' without the images.

In a published conversation with Wim Wenders ("On painters, montage and dustbins," in The Act of Seeing, trans. Michael Hoffman, London: Faber & Faber, 1992; pages 165-171), Godard describes the process he uses in constructing a film with both images and sound, and how he works with the two elements. It's only natural that at the moment the film Nouvelle Vague comes up in the conversation, the topic turns to Godard's extraordinary use of sound. He explains that using the original sound from the film shoot is only one of many possibilities:

I start at the cutting table by looking at the pictures with no sound. Then I play the sound without the pictures. Only then do I try them together, the way they were recorded. Sometimes I have a feeling there's something wrong with a scene — and maybe different sound will fix it. Then I might replace a bit of dialogue with dog barks, say. Or I put in a sonata. I experiment with things until I'm happy. (171)

Claire Bartoli intuitively acknowledges this process with great accuracy when she talks about Godard working with "large cuts of scissors" on the soundtrack of Nouvelle Vague. Godard's elucidation continues:

JLG: It's no different than being a composer, really. He has a whole orchestra at his disposal, not just a piano. But it's still a useful discipline only to have the piano, and have to imagine the orchestra. An artistic discipline. I have the whole soundtrack in my head as I'm cutting. And once I've decided on the sound, I cut the scene, and throw the rest in the bin.

WW: In the bin? Are you so sure of yourself, do you never go back and change anything afterwards?

JLG: Well, maybe there's the odd occasion I run to the bin before the binmen get there the next morning. But it rarely happens. (171)

Godard as composer. This, I think, is where any investigation of Godard's use of sound in any of his films (but especially those in the latter-half of his career) will lead us. Godard has been redefining how a soundtrack works in a film, and, together with ECM, he has also been redefining what a published soundtrack can bring to the table. I could be wrong (history was never my subject), but I do believe that ECM's treatment of Nouvelle Vague is the first unedited soundtrack of a film to be made commercially available. Not that I'm suggesting that all films should follow suit and publish their soundtracks as well; far from it. Only a select few can pull this off, and Godard is undoubtedly on the top of this list of privileged innovators.

As for Nouvelle Vague, one final word: see the film, or listen to it (if you understand French, and a little Italian), and discover this poetic and ambivalent world constructed with great care by Godard. Perhaps, as its title suggests, the film stands as an homage to the "new wave" cinema (a movement with many faces, many histories), but more likely it is a continuance of the new wave's commitment to exploring new forms of cinematic expression.



Jean-Luc Godard: Nouvelle Vague [ECM Records | 1600/01 | 2CD]
Jean-Luc Godard: Histoire(s) du Cinema [ECM Records | 1706 | 5CD+book]