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STUDIO Cohen Media Group
RUNNING TIME 107 Minutes
• Three Featurettes
• Film Critic Commentary
• Booklet Essays
• 2013 Re-release Trailer
I know it’s not possible, but I’m pregnant. I feel like this could be important.
Jean-Luc Godard, Myriem Roussel, Thierry Rode, Philippe LaCoste, Juliette Binoche
A controversial film in its time, Hail Mary is Jean-Luc Godard’s retelling of the story of the virgin birth, transposed to modern day and filled with the mundane aspects of any teenage girl’s life.
Being a writer for a movie news website, I don’t often get the opportunity to see big films without first knowing quite a bit about them. I’m expected (by myself, even) to have an opinion before I go in. “The trailers looked bad, but I loved so-and-so’s last performance. Oh, and I read on RogerEbert.com that the film has a twist.” It just comes with the territory.
So when I get the rare chance to watch a movie without knowing anything prior to putting the Blu-Ray in the player, I usually take it. It’s especially desirable if I have to review the film, so that my reaction can be as pure as possible. I can watch the events unfold organically, without any expectations of where certain plot points will appear or when that cool shot from the trailer will show up. I should have learned, though, from my experience with For Ever Mozart (my first Godard film) that going in to a later Godard film without having done any research can make one feel hopelessly lost.
Here are three things I knew about Hail Mary before my first viewing:
1. It was made about a decade before For Ever Mozart.
2. I had heard that Godard’s films grew denser and more obtuse the older he became.
3. Hail Mary’s critical reception was warmer than that of For Ever Mozart.
While these bits of trivia certainly gave me some vague expectations for the film ahead, I hadn’t read that the first twenty-eight minutes of Hail Mary are actually another film entirely. That film is Le Livre de Marie (The Book of Mary), a short directed by Godard’s partner, Anne-Mare Miéville. The short had been attached to the original prints of Hail Mary as a companion piece. If you’re not interested in watching Miéville’s short, you’ll have to skip a few chapters in the film (don’t skip it, it’s good!). Had I simply read the back of the Blu-Ray case, I wouldn’t have been so puzzled when the beautifully shot short film I was enjoying abruptly ended and I found myself greeted by the familiar, troubled, cigarette-sucking young characters Godard likes to make movies about.
So now that I was watching the film proper, Godard introduced me to a side plot first (naturally). Speaking of side plots, there’s an awful lot of extraneous stuff happening around Mary’s story: Joseph’s interactions with his girl on the side (Juliette Binoche), and Joseph’s interactions with two very odd angels, whom he picks up from the airport in his taxi. While these side plots may seem unnecessary or distracting, by the end, they’re the meat that’s been hung on the skeletal virgin birth tale. They provide the story with fresh new context. There’s also a tangentially related B plot about a college professor obsessed with the notion that extraterrestrials seeded human life on earth. Let’s call this guy Professor Prometheus. Early in the film, he preaches to his students that “life was willed, desired, anticipated, organized, programmed by a determined intelligence.” He doesn’t make any direct references to God, but the metaphor here is obvious: the “pitiless universe” he describes is Mary’s womb, where life is willed into existence by some other cosmic entity.
The film’s cosmic aspirations go no further than dialogue, but the film’s frequent use of nature, moon, and sunrise/sunset imagery aligns Mary’s narrative with the rythm of the Earth, not only helping us feel the passage of time, but also to imply that Mary’s story has deep ties to nature. This isn’t elaborated upon in the verbal sense, but it’s an oft-used visual motif, and just feels like one of the many threads that Godard likes to weave into his denser tapestries.
So while the cosmic ideas stop there, the Biblical references are abundant. For instance: the professor has a brief tryst with a student, Eva, whom he calls Eve. Eva/Eve is one of many obvious biblical references, which becomes especially apparent when she takes a very dramatic bite out of an apple. She then starts getting very cozy with Professor Prometheus, and then the film’s most brilliant moment happens: we cut away to a close-up of a cigarette smoldering in an ashtray. It may not be as immediately suggestive as the train entering the tunnel in North by Northwest, but the cut is brilliant in that it feels rhythmically perfect, and tells us exactly what we need to know: the deed is done. It’s moments like these that the pretense of Godard falls away, and he skillfully shows us just how effective editing can be as a storytelling tool.
Now that I’ve told you about the side plots, let’s discuss Mary’s story. At film’s beginning, Mary is a bright and bookish teenager. She plays basketball at school. Her dad owns a gas station and doesn’t like her older boyfriend, Joseph. She’s been dating him for two years before she winds up mysteriously pregnant, and she’s been very guarded about her sexuality, because you can’t have a virgin birth movie without a virgin. The dopey Joseph is starved for sex, practically begging Mary to give him a peek at her naked body.
Instead of saving the reveal for Joseph, Godard chooses to show her body to us instead. We first see her fully nude while she bathes, while a voiceover drones “…I rejoiced in giving my body to the eyes of Him who has become my Master forever, and glanced at this wondrous being.” Mary is giving her body to the eyes of the audience, which could be ironic in that she intends to give her body to god’s eyes, but is instead giving her body to our eyes. Or, it implies unironically that the viewer is god. Since this is a Godard film, either interpretation could fit, or I could be talking out of my ass.
Mary’s body is one of the film’s most prominent themes, visually and verbally. We see her nude body many, many times in the film, often in extended shots that linger on her pubic hair or breasts, but these shots aren’t framed or cut into the film in ways that present her body solely an erotic object. Godard’s intention, stated over and over again, is to describe the body as a vessel. Much of Mary’s pondering is about how the soul affects the body, and how the soul takes precedence over this hollow vessel. There is some inherent eroticism to the film’s nudity in the sense that Myriem Roussel is one of many beautiful young women to star in a Godard film. Y’know, typical male gaze stuff. Joseph also regards Mary’s body in an erotic sense, and we are expected to identify with him, so one can’t exactly deny that the closeups of Mary writhing naked atop her bed are intended to titillate.
What I like about Hail Mary is that it presents as a more cohesive narrative than something like For Ever Mozart. The former film’s main themes are not so disparate, and the film follows a basic path that should be familiar to anyone with vague knowledge of The New Testament. Godard’s trademark philosophical bent is still there, but the discussions of philosophy are kept short and are less bleak. Hail Mary, while not a particularly subtle film, features storytelling techniques that are more classical, and doesn’t assault the ears too harshly with overlapping dialogue. While some may consider its frequent nudity and allusions to sexuality offensive when placed against the backdrop of a biblical story, by today’s standards the film is fairly tame. It’s weighed down by silly poetry and occasional melodrama, and there’s a super wacky montage about fifteen minutes from the end (“The Father and Mother must fuck to death over my body…”), but generally speaking, Godard knows when to rein it in here. For instance, there’s no labor or birth scene, because this isn’t fucking Juno and Godard knows it would be more effective in this context to just cut to a cow licking her newborn calf. It’s like the cut with the burning cigarette earlier in the film: it tells us exactly what has happened, without having to explicitly state it.
While I wouldn’t necessarily consider Hail Mary a great film, It makes for a great lesson on editing rhythm, one of the tenets of visual storytelling. It’s a more focused and accessible piece of Godard’s filmography, but that still means you might need to do a bit of homework before and after viewing to help process whatever the hell you just watched. There’s just no getting around the fact that it’s a Godard film; a fibrous vegetable, not easy to digest. Being that I’m still a newcomer to his work, it all smells like film school to me. That’s okay, though, because I could use a little film school.
Like the previous Cohen Film Collection release I reviewed, the transfer is just awesome. I am literally in awe of the detail in the closeups, the texture of the film, and the beautifully muted color palette. The LCPM 2.0 audio track is nice and clean, but is more perfunctory. Nothing in the sound mix will make your jaw drop.
The disc’s extras, while not terribly exciting, remain very educational. The commentary by Hal Hartley and David Schwartz is relatively casual and contains a little more dead air than I usually like, but the two men have a good rapport, having gone to film school together. They sometimes have difficulty expressing exactly why they feel certain ways about the film, which can be frustrating, but the commentary is a good listen overall. Two out of three featurettes are really engaging: the interview with Myriem Roussel, and Godard’s “video notebook” of his time working on Hail Mary.
Out of a Possible 5 Stars