Matt Thorne explores the stormy relationship between the Catholic authorities and the seminal French film director Jean-Luc Godard Everything is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard by Richard Brody, Faber and Faber £30 Any film studies graduates looking for a suitable subject fora PhD could do worse than consider the relationship between the Nouvelle Vague (New Wave) and the Catholic Church. There is the Catholic Eric Rohmer, of course, but as revealed in Richard Brody's encyclopaedic new biography of Jean-Luc Godard the Catholic Church also took an active interest in the work of the other Nouvelle Vague directors, particularly when they tackled potentially blasphemous subject matter.
Only one of Godard's films (Hail Mary) was considered truly offensive by the Church, but his revolutionary approach to cinema, both in his deconstruction of conventional film technique and his conception of what was acceptable subject matter (one long-running preoccupation, Brody suggests, was incest and the relationship between adults and children), as well as his occasional political radicalism, often led him into areas of great controversy. There are six entries for the Catholic Church in Brody's index. The first relates to Rohmer and the CCQL (CineClub du Quartier Latin), a film club started by Frederic Froeschel and attended by Godard. The club, Brody explains, had a Right-wing quality due to the influence of Rohmer. a practising Catholic and a conservative, and the young film lovers' desire to champion American cinema and make films themselves. As , Brody explains: "Since the main French adversaries of the American cinema were the Communist Party, and since the CP and the unions it dominated made it difficult for young people like those of the CCQL and the Cinematheque to enter the film business, the young cinephiles who adored American movies and dreamed of making movies were necessarily anti-Communist." The second entry for the Catholic Church refers again to an occasion when filmmaking got caught up with politics and religious beliefs when the political scandal that played out in France's 1965 elections gave rise to a cinematic scandal in which Godard became embroiled. After Nouvelle Vague director Jacques Rivette left the influential French film magazine Cahiers du Cinema (where Godard formed a lot of his creative ideas). Georges de Beauregard proposed to him that they make a film based on Diderot's The Nun. Two years before this, under threat of censorship, Rivette had presented the material as a play, financed by Godard and starring Anna Karina, his girlfriend and an actress forever associated with Godard. After submitting the script for pre-censorship in 1965, the commission informed Beauregard that the script contained scenes which ran the risk of being cut. In spite of this, Beauregard let Rivette start shooting the film in mid-October, with Karina in the main role. As Brody explains, even before the film was completed, it became a political hot potato. with the Paris police commissioner and the minister of information coming under pressure from Church officials who had orchestrated a letter-writing campaign against the film. Initially it seemed as if this would blow over quickly. The commissioner and minister of information declared their willingness to ban it; journalists responded with indignation, and the issue dropped out of view after the elections while Rivette completed the film. But, Brody suggests, behind the scenes, Catholic institutions mobilised for a fight. In order to avoid censorship. Rivette and Beauregard changed the name of the film from La Religieuse (-The Nun") to Suzanne Simonin, La Religieuse de Diderot ("Suzanne Simonin, Diderot's Nun"), adding a title card stating the film was not intended to cause a scandal on the subject of nuns in general. The new information minister banned the film and the head of French television prevented news broadcasts from mentioning the ban. At this point, religious groups changed their mind, with priests and nuns speaking out to denounce the ban. Godard was the one who took the debate to the media, making sarcastic comments to Le Monde and publishing an angry letter to the minister of culture in another publication. When Catholicism is next mentioned in the book, it is in regard to one of Godard's own films, when Catholic groups demonstrated in the streets of Paris and Versailles in response to scenes depicting the Virgin Mary in his 1985 film Hail Marv, although Archbishop Jean-Marie Lustiger refused to protest against the film. Later Pope John Paul II denounced Hail Mary, saying that it distorted and offended the spiritual meaning and historical value of the fundamental themes of Christian faith, and led prayers in condemnation of the film. Godard responded by writing to Italian distributors to ask that the film be withdrawn from theatres in Rome, seeming to both want to respect the Pope's wishes, but also make a political point.
Brody returns to Catholicism next in relation to a much later movie, Godard's wonderful 2001 film Eloge de L'Amour which in one of its many versions featured a section set in Brittany, in reference, Godard claimed, "to Breton sailors who were the first to leave for London and join de Gaulle". Land of Catholicism, it is also the cradle of Colonel Remy, the great resister and founder of the Confrerie Notre Dame a Catholic resistance group. The final reference to Catholicism is also connected to this film, as it developed into a movie that addressed the relation of Catholics and Communists during the Resistance, and a scene in the film in which aged Resistance heroes have to decide whether they have the right to sell their story to Steven Spielberg (one of the film's best recurring jokes is the bitterness of Godard's feeling towards this American director), something Godard considers immoral. Godard's relationship to Catholicism is, of course, only one small theme in this 700-page book, but I have explored it here in depth because it helps illuminate Brody's central theme, expressed in the title, that "everything is cinema". This refers not just to Godard's use of his own life as material (and it is revealing to read just how much his romantic relationships and his attitude to women have determined his dramatic interests), but also his inability to separate politics and religion from creative composition, whether in regard to his flirtations with Maoism or his interest in Sarajevo. While Godard has made a number of films that seem likely to be remembered as all-time. greats, and his influence on threetots such as Quentin Tarantino and Gregg Araki has ensured that this will be passed on to subsequent generations, Brady's holistic approach suggests that to fully understand the director it is necessary to study the whole body of his work, and to see it not so merely as cinema, but as life.