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When Jean-Luc Godard titles a film Tout va bien (Everything's Fine), as he did in 1972 for his collaboration with Jean-Pierre Gorin, you can be sure that nothing's fine -- not Western society, not love, not movies, not revolution, not capitalism, not labor and certainly not the lumpenproletariat's frenzied consumption of mass-produced goods in crowded supermarket checkout lines at the end. Supposedly, Tout va bien was to mark Godard's return to film's mainstream (or as close as he ever got to it) after a post-1968 excursion into Maoist radicalism, Parisian Left Bank-style. It still seems pretty wedded, however, to Godard's most overtly politicized period, the one in which the Dziga Vertov Group he co-founded with Gorin (they made five films) insisted, to the increasing alienation of audiences, that the message was the medium.
What's always saved Godard from self-immolation in his strained attempts at achieving a sort of naively-based Maoist cred is his virtuosity and light-handedness as a filmmaker. Tout va bien is tendentious enough to sink like a stone. That it doesn't altogether is due to Godard's way of rescuing himself from his weakness for rant with a redeeming sense of mischief. One of the reasons the film was hyped as Godard's return to film's mainstream fold was his hiring of two stars with box-office appeal - Jane Fonda, sporting the shag hairdo she brought straight from Klute (1971), and Yves Montand, the title-roleist of Costa-Gavras' anti-fascist Z (1969). They were as close as the Screen Actors Guild got to leftist royalty (although Godard and Gorin later scolded Fonda after her trip to Hanoi in a 1972 companion film called Letter to Jane). But that's another story. In Tout va bien, they permit her a feminist voice, and a degree of introspection that by no means came naturally to Godard with regard to his female characters.
Not that Montand and Fonda are characters here, exactly. Before we see them, we hear one of the voiceovers debating what the film - any film - should be. The voice points out that stars draw money. Fonda and Montand drew initial interest from Paramount, which cooled rapidly, one can only assume, when the studio heard what the film was about. Gaumont, however, came up with $250,000 -- a windfall compared to the pittances with which Godard and his colleagues filmed most of their political ruminations. One can't help smiling at one of the film's first sequences, in which we see checks being written in rapid succession thanks to the Gaumont largesse. Insofar as the star duo is seen, they are mostly characters in stasis. He plays a New Wave filmmaker who has sunk to making TV commercials. She plays a journalist, a radio reporter and correspondent who, she complains, feels she corresponds to nothing.
On assignment, she visits a sausage factory with him in tow, smiling cynically but passively, on the very day its workers stage a wildcat strike and imprison the boss in his office with the reporter and her escort. The workers' grievances aren't made entirely clear, but it's quite clear that the workers don't altogether trust their union officials, much less Communist Party honchos who also weigh in on the advisability and duration of the strike. In short, chaos reigns. Here Godard extricates himself not only by endowing these sequences with the feeling and timing and tone of farce, but by employing a nice piece of production design - a doll's house set, enabling us to see through the fourth wall of a warren of rooms and staircases in the factory. As the characters bounce off one another, stridently voicing slogans and grievances, with nobody listening to anybody else, we smile as the stage-blood-covered aprons and smocks of the workers trigger the old adage that sausage is one of those things the ingredients of which are best not scrutinized too closely.
Ditto, it soon follows, for revolutions, as Godard works in criticisms of the Paris student uprisings of 1968, driven by simpatico impulses but rudderless without being connected to a program. This, presumably, is where the Maoism comes in, but it's frankly too difficult to resist tuning out during the political diatribes. Godard has the characters deliver most of them right into the camera in the usual earnest misreading of Brechtian epic theater's alienation techniques. Succumbing to the usual gap between Brecht and his followers, this one fails, as so many do, to recognize that Brecht had the good sense to ignore his own dicta when dramatic necessity demanded it. (Remember the mute girl banging on the drum to warn the soldiers in Mother Courage?) Not Godard, though, puritanical bourgeois that he is at heart. And so Tout va bien commits the only sin of which a would-be work of art can be found guilty - it lapses into boredom.
Falling short of any real frisson of anarchy, which would have lit a fire of sorts under it, Tout va bien exchanges the energies of good old French boulevard farce for something raw and immediate only in the scenes between Fonda and Montand, as the characters whose love is being rent asunder by the growing alienation into which each has slid. Fonda, whose discontent is the more energized, gets rather the better of their rush to splitsville when she holds an 8x10 black and white photo of a penis in front of her enervated lover's face. Rarely has estrangement been so succinctly portrayed. If only Godard had trusted his impishness more and given in to his political case-making less, Tout va bien could have been more life-enhancingly buoyant (and truer to its anarchist impulses) and less dolorously draining. But tout is not so bien in Tout va bien.
Producer: Jean-Pierre Rassam
Director: Jean-Luc Godard, Jean-Pierre Gorin
Screenplay: Jean-Luc Godard, Jean-Pierre Gorin
Cinematography: Armand Marco
Music: Paul Beuscher
Film Editing: Claudine Merlin, Kenout Peltier
Cast: Yves Montand (Him, Jacques), Jane Fonda (Her, Suzanne), Vittorio Caprioli (Factory Manager), Elizabeth Chauvin (Genevieve), Castel Casti (Genevive), ric Chartier (Lucien), Bugette, Yves Gabrieli (Lon), Pierre Oudrey (Frederic), Jean Pignol (Delegate).
by Jay Carr