Je vous salue, Marie

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Jean-Luc Godard’s Je vous salue, Marie (1985) adapts that brief portion of The Gospel According To St. Matthew dealing with the Immaculate Conception. Godard omits the contents of the second chapter of St. Matthew’s gospel, transitioning the film into material inspired by rather than adapted from the New Testament. Godard may have only adapted the second half of the first chapter of The Gospel According To St. Matthew, but in these short passages he has found more than enough to debate and ponder. Je vous salue, Marie is, after all, nothing more than a philosophical interrogation of this most famous of Bible stories.

The structure of Je vous salue, Marie is incredibly simple and yet, as with Godard’s best works, is able to yield a complex visual and auditory discourse that is entirely contained within its own cinematographic complex. At the core of the film is the Bible story transposed faithfully to France in the eighties. Godard takes this cast of characters, adds a few new interpersonal relationships, and weaves two new narratives around the story of Immaculate Conception; Joseph (Thierry Rode) now has a lover named Juliette (Juliette Binoche) and the totally original character Eva (Anne Gautier), a classmate of Mary’s (Myrien Roussel) and Juliette’s, is having an affair with a visiting professor.

Excerpts from texts read by these characters join in the interior dialogues of the ensemble as a means of critiquing the very notion of the Christian concept of Immaculate Conception. Godard arranges this discourse so that each of the two new narratives provides a commentary on the central Biblical narrative that remains focused on Mary’s own reflections. Creationism, evolution, parenthood, identity, and a slew of other themes and ideas are employed to investigate this theological puzzle. Eva’s narrative is used to explore themes of parental responsibility and human sexuality while the narrative of Juliette examines the nature of love and desire. The class lessons these girls participate in at school invite the broader issues of Creationism versus Evolution.

While on an auditory level Je vous salue, Marie is an exercise in rhetoric, on the visual level Godard constructs a tapestry of recurring motifs that mirror the classical music on the soundtrack. A sense of space never truly exists in Je vous salue, Marie. Geography is completely dispensed with in favor of an open plane whose landscape changes from shot to shot. Time, on the other hand, does exist but in a fluid fashion. Events occur linearly but without a sense of a fixed location. It’s never made clear how much time passes between scenes. These strategies enable Godard, like Vertov and Eisenstein before him, to concentrate the images on the discourse that dominates the soundtrack. The graphic in Je vous salue, Marie serves the audio; it supplements it with visual patterns that coincide with recurring conversations and monologues.

The visual agenda of Je vous salue, Marie never changes even though the work of the audio does. Once Mary has given birth Je vous salue, Marie ceases to be an interrogation of theological concepts. Suddenly there is a subtle transition into an episodic, classically executed, dark comedy. It’s sort of a jape on Godard’s part. The final ten minutes of Je vous salue, Marie devolves into something akin to Jerry Lewis. The thesis here is little more than “what if you had to deal with raising the Messiah in the eighties?” It’s a silly ending to an otherwise serious film but it works. All of Godard’s efforts to expose the truth behind the Gospel fail so his only recourse is to settle for accepting its existence and then satirizing it. It’s enough for Godard’s film to understand why the narrative of Immaculate Conception exists even if it can never know more beyond that from this sort of investigation.

Within the visual complex of Je vous salue, Marie there is yet another level. Though all of the images serve the spoken words on the soundtrack in some way the images themselves have relationships to each other. Like all things in Je vous salue, Marie the relationship between all the visuals centers around Mary. Mary isn’t treated as some part of a Biblical visual lexicon; Godard takes great lengths to avoid evoking Christian iconography. The gaze in Je vous salue, Marie perceives Mary as a sexual object, actively fetishizing her body which is known to be virgin. The women who populate the cinema of Jean-Luc Godard, from Anna Karina to Anne Wiazemsky and beyond, are subject to the idolatry of his lens. These female characters either begin as virtuous and end as debauched or simply remain chaste, like Mary in Je vous salue, Marie. Godard’s old world chauvinism outwardly eroticizes the figure of the Virgin Mary which led to a storm of controversy for the film and its maker.

When shown theatrically and often home video Je vous salue, Marie is preceded by Le livre de Marie (1985), a short film by Anne-Marie Miéville. A long time companion to and collaborator with Godard, Anne-Marie Miéville’s short film is aesthetically opposed to Je vous salue, Marie. Le livre de Marie is deeply concerned with spatial relations and human emotions as it tells the story of a girl caught in the midst of her parents’ separation. It’s purpose as a prelude to Je vous salue, Marie is mainly to establish the emotional qualities associated with innocence and the toll that the loss of innocence takes so that when those events occur in Godard’s feature length film the director needn’t interrupt his own machinations.

Je vous salue, Marie is pure cinema where sound and image are totally reliant upon each other in every imaginable way. Godard’s cinema has always been a cinema of ideas, not narratives, and Je vous salue, Marie is one of his most successful outings in communicating thought. It’s not traditionally a Christmas movie of course, but when I was considering which film to write about for today’s blog post I couldn’t come up with a better candidate. Is it not fitting to consider the narrative of Christmas and where that narrative lives in our society more than two-thousand years after these alleged events occurred? From a religious standpoint I think Je vous salue, Marie has more to say about Christmas than most holiday movies do.