Farewell, Godard: a charming tribute | 25YL

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Farewell Godard, the new film from writer-director Amartya Bhattacharyya and producer Swastik Choudhury, pays homage to the work of French New Wave author Jean-Luc Godard in the most unlikely and surprising way of setting. In a remote and deeply conservative village in India, an old man stumbles upon a pirated Godard DVD Breathless (Breathless) and dedicated himself to organizing a festival of his works for his village. It doesn’t all work out – either in its plans or in the film more broadly – but the story is told with such effervescent charm and style that it’s a winner nonetheless.

Ananda (Choudhury Bikash Das) has no real intention of training in world cinema. His desires are, shall we say, of a lower nature. Every week, he rents porn on DVD from a local merchant to watch with his buddies, who, like the old man himself, are thrilled with the footage. Ananda’s wife (Swetapadma Satpathy), who suffers from an illness as he watches, and his intellectual daughter, Shilpa (Sudhashri Madhusmita), who yearns for a life beyond the village and the basic obsessions of her father, is less so.

One day, the DVD that Ananda is renting disappoints his friends: it turns out that it’s not their typical moaning porn but, randomly, a pirated copy of Breathless, Godard’s groundbreaking debut in 1960. As one might imagine, Godard’s oddly cut detective story, with fully clothed characters and subjects to meandering conversations, fails to rouse Ananda’s cronies. Where is the nudity? Where’s the sex? Where is the action? Everything men are used to and expect is confounded by Godard’s anti-narrative and experimental approach to cinema. The stage is a gem, with jazzy Martin Solal Breathless score now comically punctuating men’s sober disappointments.

Yet Ananda himself is fascinated, realizing that in cinema almost anything is possible. It’s somehow – and in a different time and place – not so different from the accomplishments that Godard himself and his contemporaries brought to the medium over 60 years ago. That the standard way wasn’t the only one, this movie could tell almost any story with verve and panache. Fueled more by a passion for cinema and a thirst for knowledge than by technical skill, Godard sought to expand what cinema was and meant (and, for the most part, he succeeded). Ananda is inspired: even if he does not understand Breathless‘s jump cuts, leitmotifs or influences – or for that matter, even his native French nor his English subtitles – he is determined to find out more.

Choudhury Bikash Das as Ananda in Farewell Godard. Photo: Courtesy Film Movement.

Fueled by this new curiosity, Ananda tracks down other Godard films and even begs his friends to organize a Godard film festival in their village. As absurd as it may seem, they agree to do it, despite the technical and logistical difficulties they encounter. In a parallel storyline set years later, Ananda’s daughter, Shilpa, recounts these same events to her new boyfriend Pablo (Abhishek Giri), an aspiring filmmaker: her and her understanding of these events diverge considerably in a uniquely Godardian touch. Years ago, she was kicked out of the village over a rumored date with a local boy, an event Bhattacharyya uses to illustrate the village’s flippant but rabid sexism.

It’s a point well made, as Shilpa faces the discrimination the boy doesn’t have, and even later she’s determined to make her own choices in life, rather than letting society dictate her options. Scenes shot in dialogue between her and Pablo as she recounts previous events to him, are shot in color, with stilted and awkward composition, a meta commentary on Ananda’s fascination with porn and Godard. These conversations, although at first glance they look like those between, say, Brigitte Bardot and Michelle Piccoli in Godard Contemptmulling over an earlier interaction, offer little of Godard’s unique thrill.

Shilpa (Sudhashri Madhusmita) and Pablo (Abhishek Giri) lay in the waves at Farewell, Godard.
Shilpa (Sudhashri Madhusmita) and Pablo (Abhishek Giri) in Farewell Godard. Photo: Courtesy Film Movement.

The village scenes are shot, primarily, in bright, finely detailed black-and-white cinematography that highlights every distinct crease in Choudhury Bikash Das’ beautifully aged face. (Director and screenwriter Bhattacharyya also shot and edited the film.) Although the actor may be prone to exaggerated expression, his portrayal of Ananda is inspiring. The old man has ignored his wife and failed his daughter in his obsession with porn, and his newfound passion for learning ignites a spark that promises to resurrect his failed interpersonal relationships.

Yet can a conservative village host a film festival made up of content from a self-proclaimed anarchist with an intellectual bent? How will the villagers react when their naïve expectations are confused? Even in contemporary America, where communities became obsessed with banning books and the legislatures are busy dictating class content boundaries to teacherswe saw an open and vicious hostility towards any cultural material that might be considered offensive. Farewell Godard brilliantly illustrates the folly of such closed-mindedness, even if this lesson comes at a high cost to Ananda and his friends.

As in the film’s tale of a quest to bring Godard to the village, it’s not all in Farewell Godard works. Shilpa’s meta-commentary pales in comparison to the liveliness of the village scenes. And while Ananda’s quest is shot with a sleek aesthetic, the editing often (intentionally, I guess) leaves Bikash Das alone on screen, cut against his peers in a way that feels less than organic. Finally, for a film that claims to be a sufficient homage to Godard to justify giving it its name, there are very few Godards here: only Breathless appears, and no overt mention of any of his more than 100 other films: no AlphavilleNope Pierrot le fouNope WeekendNope Everything is going well.

These are not, however, damning criticisms. In fact, a film with stilted dialogue or curious editing may well appease Godard himself. And a little Godard is better than nothing! The filmmaker is still active in his 90s, generate new ideas and delay retirementmore … than 60 years after changing cinema forever with Breathless. The world has not yet said Goodbye at Godard, but with this lovely tribute, Amartya Bhattacharyya and Swastik Choudhury bid the director a sincere, unassuming and charming farewell.

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