Thoughts On: Numéro Deux - Say What!?


Numéro Deux - Say What!?

Thoughts On: Numéro Deux (Number Two, 1975)

An experimental film by Godard and that analyses the dynamic of a family.

If Godard's Histoire(s) du Cinéma is a failed experiment, Numéro Deux is a success. Histoire(s) du Cinéma is, in my view, incomprehensible because its montage moves too fast and its juxtaposing images are too disparate. As a result, Histoire(s) du Cinéma is opaque and impenetrable by design. Conversely, it is impossible not to be struck by Numéro Deux. In this experiment, Godard's montage is paced perfectly and so you can understand images or scenes as single units, but also in reference to the greater whole of the narrative. Thus, Numéro Deux is unified and self-justifying. However, I do find it very hard to give this film full merit.

Before we begin talking about Numéro Deux, it must be recognised that this is not cinema - especially to Godard. Numéro Deux is 'video', which Godard used in parallel to, but nonetheless separately from, cinema. Video is what Godard uses to reflect on cinema, the world and himself - we see this throughout Numéro Deux as we watch televisions screens and never have a true screen of our own to watch - and thus video is a medium that has traits of cinema and T.V, but formulates its own conventions and so becomes a separate form: Godardian video. You cannot then watch Godardian videos like you would a T.V show or documentary, expecting a highly formulaic and rigidly structured narrative. You also cannot impose expectations of cinema - cinema as contained to the avant-garde and the narrative - onto this. Though you can consider this cinema, Numéro Deux is very clearly attempting to be outside of its realms by reflecting on it to a degree that you can recognise this to be art, but a fringe, disinterested attempt at cinema.

With that established, what is Numéro Deux? In short, this is an attempt to do what cinema and television can't or won't. Thus, Numéro Deux speaks ambiguously, but simultaneously directly, about subjects that these forms usually do not - or, if they do, certainly not in this way. Specifically, this looks at the exchanges of knowledge, love, malice and dominance in a, in my view, dysfunctional family. To begin to articulating all of this in a coherent way, let us look at an example:

In this scene, we have a stack of images that are recurrent throughout: a young daughter's face superimposed over a mother and a father having sex. The image of the daughter's face fades and is manipulated so that there is a constant interaction between these two planes, and the direct result of this mise en scène is, to speak plainly, disgusting. Though there is truth in the fact that children come from the act of sex, there is a clear moral boundary passed with this montage. And this is emphasised throughout this film with the two young children of these parents not only appearing with them naked, but discussing sex, analysing the parents' sexual organs and even questioning the possibility of the children being able to watch the parents have intercourse.

Why does Godard do this? Firstly, it seems obvious that he means to provoke and to get a reaction from his audience with transparent immoral and unethical filmmaking. Secondly, Godard means to question. To further understand, let us return to the scene depicted above to see the story that is told in V.O as it plays through:

Something terrible happened. Sandrine had fucked another guy. She refused to say who. I wanted to rape her. She let me, so I fucked her in the ass. She started screaming. Afterwards we realised that Vanessa had been watching. Family affairs, I suppose.

If the mise en scène wasn't enough to provoke disgust, I'm sure the V.O will. This incredibly dark story has the rhythm and structure of a joke - and, in a way, it is. The joke emerges from the presented absurdity and pain:

A wife cheats on a husband and so he wants to hurt her through his own sexuality. She agrees, which mutes his sexual violence; which in turn forces us to question the idea of rape. However, despite her agreement, he still inflicts pain upon her. But, if she agreed to be 'raped', are her screams and pain genuine? Is she just indulging the husband? Is there a sadomasochistic pleasure here? What is their daughter to think?

This cycle of abuse is commented on throughout the narrative with ruminations on the place of women in a household and a man's in the world in juxtaposition to their abilities to love and harm one another. This is all superseded, however, by the fact that they are parents and their interactions impact the whole family - which includes their kids, who are forced to be witnesses to their dysfunction. This system of interaction and communication is the disgusting 'family affairs', and as dark as this allegory is, there is absurd truth to it.

We see Godard further reflect on this paradigm throughout with the juxtaposition of men and women, sex and politics, pain and pleasure, constipation and communication, life and death, factories and landscapes. And this begins to give incite into the meaning of the film as a whole; it is about duality: the number 2.

So, from Godard's provocation comes some shade of truth, or at least something we can recognise as resonant with reality; we can all envision a broken household in which children are exposed to their parents' poisonous relationship. I nonetheless think that Godard's kind of questioning merely evokes anarchism; he questions to question, and often without good reason. In such, whilst Godard projects a family dynamic that is open, dysfunctional and highly graphic, there is no true reflection upon this and there is no recognition of the disgusting things he puts to screen. In such, there is a clear difference between Godard's created shade of truth in the discussed scene and the kind of truths he projects in later shorts that are concerned with war, terrorism and genocide. To further clarify, depicting the emaciated corpses of Nazi concentration camp victims is disturbing, but, the footage is real and so is a part of human history that we all have to confront. (That said, Godard's use of such imagery doesn't always evoke such a notion; it can be repetitive and meaningless for the sake of alienation that, itself, produces no fruits). In contrast to this, Godard presents an anarchist family of his own creation for the sake of an ambiguous allegory. Whilst I would recognise that he is free to do this, I don't think there is depth or merit in simply presenting something awful without any reflexive commentary on it. Compare, for example, this to the infamous scene from Irreversible in which we must watch a woman be raped for more than 10 minutes. This is truly disgusting, but the narrative reflects on this by showing a wider truth that 'time destroys all', which includes the pain and torture that the victim had to endure; we can all agree and empathise with this and so the disturbing scene is salvaged. With this scene from Numéro Deux, however, there is the presentation of the reprehensible and that is all; there is no real commentary, just an idea of conflict and duality in life that, speaking personally, doesn't resonate.

As a result, whilst there is some truth and tragedy that emerges from the dark, absurd comedy Godard presents, we are lead to see the positives and possibilities within the darkness of this narrative; Godard's ideology - his vast, interconnected body of work - corrupts the manner in which we judge the picture, and thus, the seeming disagreement between ourselves and him negatively impacts the merits of his art. This is what is so divisive about this narrative. Whilst Godard would assert--and this is evident in the film--that we must learn to interpret images as we do life (which has no auteur to provide commentary), there is a laziness and an incoherence through Numéro Deux. In such, we can never be sure of the degree to which Godard's own anarchist, anti-capitalist, revolutionary leanings affect his camera; does he agree with the dysfunctional family? Are we supposed to think positively of this family's confrontation of adolescence and sexuality?

These are questions that prevent me from fully appreciating or liking this narrative. Whilst I understand that Godard believes that he is presenting us material that we are to reflect upon - and I am fully capable of assessing the presented material - it is hard to assign merit to a person who slaps shit in your hand just so you have that experience. However, whilst it is hard to give this kind of provocative, anarchist filmmaking merit, it is possible, and so I could provide a plethora of exemplary films that do this well: Goodfellas, Wolf Of Wall Street, Irreversible, Pickpocket, Au Hasard Balthazar, Bad Lieutenant, Apocalypse Now, Taxi Driver, etc. However, whilst morally challenging films are often commendable, they are all about tone. We discussed this, somewhat indirectly, in quite a lot of depth recently when exploring The Wolf Of Wall Street.

Using diagrams like this, we then explored the space that we occupy when watching films like Wolf Of Wall Street. Whilst we are all free to like or dislike the film - whilst we are all free to be immersed in the 'exploitation space' or inject discord into it - the filmmaker has to be in control or at fault. With Numéro Deux, Godard relinquishes control, and so I find it hard to see this film like I do Irreversible, Wolf Of Wall Street or any other morally questionable film.

To bring things towards a conclusion, I have to say that I think that Numéro Deux is a successful experiment and that I appreciate Godard's provocation - I even think that this is the best film of his that I have seen. The success of this experiment lies in its ability to communicate without just 'saying' something - which is one of Godard's ultimate goals in fighting against traditional cinema and television. However, as smart and articulate as Numéro Deux is in contrast to Histoire(s) du Cinéma, it is too questionable for me to want to assign it merit; I'm left asking what this narrative is trying to say more than I am interacting with its questioning. So, like Pasolini's Salo, Numéro Deux is a challenge that asks too much and provides too little; I am on the fence with one foot on the opposite side to Godard's. Maybe my opinion will change in the future, but, for now, these are my thoughts. Have you seen this film, what are yours?

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