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Is Jean-Luc Godard Antisemitic? Second Episode: Godard Actor? (1998)

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Nearly fifteen years have passed. I shot Le Jour et la Nuit [Day and Night]. In the middle of the battle, my friend Alain Sarde (also his friend as well as his producer) brought me a strange and beautiful poem from Jean-Luc Godard, whom I hadn't seen since the time of the Joseph project. It was typed (it seems to me on the same machine he used to type all the letters that would follow), but signed in his own hand (black ink, neat, round, bold writing, "to BHL, JLG, amicably"). The poem was entitled Eloge de l'amour [In Praise of Love]. I published the first and the last verses on page 55 of my book, Comédie. The first: "A trinity of stories. The beginning. The achievement. The end. The renewal. Love." The last: "Modifications with age. Social conditions. Love. The time passes. Does not change. Humans remain." This missive marked the beginning of a strange relationship, intermittent but cordial, initially without any other purpose than the pleasure of encounters and conversation between the film maker and me.

Sometimes accompanied by Sarde, sometimes without him, generally after a simple, spontaneous phone call to make sure I was there, available "for a coffee," Jean-Luc Godard stopped by my place on the Boulevard Saint-Germain. Long moments of silence would go by, as though he were lost in contemplation of the carpet, or the cover of a magazine on the low coffee table between us, or a detail of the ceiling. Sometimes he fiddled with the white spats, perhaps support hose, that he wore as stockings. And then all of a sudden, a bit like my old friend Lucien Bodard, he began to speak, but abundantly and rapidly, in a virtual torrent of words with which he passed systematically from one subject to another totally unrelated one, and where the drawl of his famous "Swiss accent" disappeared, all the while not looking at me but continuing to look fixedly at his support hose or the magazine.

We spoke of literature, cinema, life in general, politics, his career and mine, one of my columns, another newspaper article, whichever one, for the extent of his curiosity seemed infinite. And one day there thus arrived in the conversation the subject of a film project I had begun writing that was, obviously, to my mind, my "revenge" for the failure of Le Jour et la Nuit. The System, no less obviously, saw it in the same light and was blocking it in the early stages of a search for financial backing. Nonetheless, I had the time to propose the starring role to Godard.

From this little-known episode, I have kept a draft of the scenario, constructed as a sort of a Heart of Darkness whose Kurtz would be a great Jewish architect, a melancholy soul at the end of his rope, consecrating what remained of his life to the attempt to reconstruct a city in ruins, whose model came to me from the very recent experience of the devastation of Sarajevo. I also kept a letter I wrote to Sarde, dated June 11th, 1998, wherein I made my formal proposition, a copy of which I present here (document 1). And then Godard's reply, directly addressed to me, in which he does not refuse the principle but does mention (document 2) an "exchange exchanged" in the tone of a conversation we had had about French poet Paul Claudel a few weeks earlier.

This "exchange"--he also called it this "bargain" in our conversation, and repeated the word incessantly with a strange and childish glee--designated, with regard to his participation in the film, the participation of my production company, Les Films du lendemain, in the film that his wife, Anne-Marie Miéville, was planning, in which he would also act, the working title (or the already final title?) of which was to be Après la reconciliation [After the Reconciliation]. Miéville's film would be made--but without Les Films du lendemain. Mine would not, in spite of Godard and his prestige. But there still remained this other exchange, one of words, about the ghost of a film, and this one gave me a lot of pleasure.

Preliminaries, always. Second prologue, if you like. With, just the same, this point that I would regret not emphasizing: during those weeks, I had innumerable occasions to sound out Godard. We spoke freely, that is to say about everything and anything and thus, among other things, about national and world politics and, naturally, in passing, about Israel, of the mystery of being-Jewish my character of the architect would represent and, at least once, if I believe my notes, about the antisemitism that had been on the upswing as much in France as throughout the world. And, as intense as my admiration for the film maker already was, as convinced as I was of the necessary distinction of two orders (the political and the aesthetic), you can believe my word if I declare that at the time, there were enough actors, and even excellent actors, in Paris that I did not have to propose the starring role in my second film to a man who might have appeared to me to be the dreadful antisemite people are denouncing today. It is so.

Document 1: 11 June 1998, Letter from Bernard-Henri Lévy to Alain Sarde

Dear Alain,
I'm really happy about what you tell me and about Godard's acceptance in principle. I'm sure he will be magnificent in this bizarre, slightly crazy role, one, I think, that resembles him. As for me, I will try to do just the contrary of my suicidal extravagance of Le Jour et la Nuit. Modesty. Limited means. A reduced crew. A virtually clandestine shoot. Not a journalist in sight, obviously. Hardly even a photographer on the set. But a script in reinforced concrete (the one for Le Jour et la Nuit was already, by the way). And for him, JL, the fee he wants. What you're telling me is, to say the least, not a small matter, but I'll manage, for if there is a situation where skimping is not a possibility, it's this one. As for the location, it exists, yes, of course. It's a village in the region of Calcutta I passed through twenty-five years ago which has, in my opinion, remained as it was. As soon as we have a minimum of certainty as regards the production, I'll go back there to verify, to take bearings and figure out what must be constructed, added, etc. I don't dare ask you to accompany me!!!! But I am sure the site exists. You'll see. It will be very beautiful. And I adore this idea of Godard as an actor. Thank you for everything.

Document 2: 17 June 1998, Letter from Jean-Luc Godard to Bernard-Henri Lévy

Dear BHL, Alain Sarde spoke to me about your film project in India, in which you would like me to play a role. He took the liberty, according to what he told me, to cite a relatively high figure in exchange for an eventual accord. I want to make it clear that this figure included your company's participation as co-producer in our next films. So "the exchange will be exchanged", said the "connoisseur of the East". Amicably yours.
Jean-Luc Godard

This post is part of a series. To be continued.