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Analogical Thinking: organizational strategies within the work of Jean-Luc Godard

Peter Harcourt (Cineaction 75 2008)



Throughout the Western world, the 1960s were a time of immense cinematic innovation. In France, the person who most epitomized this phenomenon was, unquestionably, Jean-Luc Godard and he is still active today. Indeed, if from À bout de souffle (1960) to Notre Musique (2004) Godard has retained the ability, as Jean Cocteau once said about Igor Stravinsky, to find a fresh spot on the pillow, it is because, from the outset, he has thought cinema in an individual way.

Less sequential than disjunctive, less logical than analogical, even his later films, although more relaxed, are as innovative as ever. It is this individual way of thinking that I'd like to examine. Arguably, it informs his entire output as, possibly, it has informed his entire life.

Analogical Thinking: organizational strategies within the work of Jean-Luc Godard 1

L'Analogie est un moyen de création—C'est une ressemblance
de rapports; or de la nature de ces rapports dépend
la force ou la faiblesse de l'image créée.
—Pierre Reverdy, L'Image (1918)

In JLG/JLG—autoportrait de décembre (1994), there is a moment when Jean-Luc Godard is sitting at his desk. On the desktop are paper and pens. He has been reading from Wittgenstein and Diderot—Wittgenstein on certainty and Diderot on blindness. He begins to talk about Jeannot which, he explains, rhymes with stereo—as if the creative use he now makes of sound has been influenced by his name.

He draws a triangle, first in black, then in red; first right-side up, then upside-down—intersecting to form a hexagon. Stereo projects Jeannot, the responsive function, he explains. Within the history of stereo, of triangles that respond to one another, Godard clarifies, the Euclidean triangle projected Pascal, as Germany did Israel, and (while we hear thunder in the background) Israel necessitated Palestine.

germany protects israel

This sequence encapsulates the artistic thinking of Jean-Luc Godard. As a tribute to Pierre Reverdy, let us call it analogical thinking. Even if disjunctively, one image leads to another. Every sound has its projection; every statement its dialectical opposite. Written ninety years ago, Reverdy's disquisition on the image is a celebration of analogical thinking. References to it occur in Passion (1982), King Lear (1987) JLG/JLG, and Histoire(s) du cinéma (1989-97).

Thoroughly to investigate the validity of this idea could involve a substantial philosophical digression. As far back as the eighteenth century, Immanuel Kant was arguing that the mind is less a passive receptor of experience than an active processor of it, that we know the phenomena of the world less in themselves than through their representations. 3 At the beginning of the twentieth century, Henri Bergson championed intuitive over intellectual models of perception, positing an élan vital as a creative process of apprehending the world. 4 And more recently, philosophers of mind have begun to re-examine analogical as opposed to digital models, continuous-time systems as distinct from discrete-time systems—systems that can distinguish between the biological and computational functions of the human brain. 5 If I understand them sufficiently, these examinations offer a more scientific endorsement of the intuitive potentiality of mind, especially concerning its ability to synthesize disparate bits of information into new intelligible wholes.

Such a digression, however, invokes a territory I have no wish to enter. It defines a field in which I am more a rambler than a cultivator. For this essay, I would rather return to more manageable matters-—to an investigation of how this process of analogical thinking, whatever its philosophical justifications, informs the way by which Godard constructs his cinematic works.


Analogical thinking is crucial to the binary organization of the films of Jean-Luc Godard. It inflects his montage, affects his addiction to citation and, while filling his work with irresolvable contradictions, it imbricates absurdity with the sublime.
In Godard's image productions, the less concerned they are with narrative, the more they are dependent on analogical thinking to unify their elements. Like characters in conventional films, in Godard binaries struggle with one another. The battle is never easy. If on/off and yes/no seem equal and symmetrical, female/male never is. Nor is nature/culture, documentary/ fiction, or Romantic/Classical. Even yes/no results in different positions of the mouth and in different effects within human interaction—an insight concisely recapitulated during the final moments of Armide (1987) when the two young woman scream out their acceptance or refusal of the male indifference to their offers of love they have had to endure.

Although binaries pervade Godard, the video essays are exemplary. Displaying the physical presence of both Miéville and Godard, Soft and Hard (1986) is a locus classicus of asymmetrical structure. The three "video-scenarios" are equally interesting in their differences from one another, but Scénario du film Passion (1982) is the most specific about the process of creation. Like the feature it refers to, it is, of course, a fiction; but again like the feature, it is a fiction that examines the way it thinks fiction as it goes along.

Scénario du film Passion establishes a dialogue between the video technology that surrounds Godard and the empty screen that confronts him. How to fill that empty screen? How to inscribe the televisual equivalent of Mallarmé's page blanche with characters and dialogue that might become a film.

page blanche

The renewed faith in the image that characterizes Godard's mature work leads to the desire to see before he writes.

to see before he writes

Yet less to see than to receive—as he can pun in French, less voir than re-ce-voir. To the sounds of Fauré's Requiem, the first image that is "received" is of a naked woman ascending a staircase to take her place within an historically determined tableau—Godard's carnalization of El Greco's Assumption of the Virgin (1608-1613). 6

assumption of the virgin

Later, we see a still of another woman with flowers (Hanna Schygulla) being chased by a car in a space not yet fully imagined.

woman with flowers

Thus we have the major dyadic structure of this work, the transcendent and the terrestrial—the iconized ideal inherited from the past and the dramatized real emerging in the present. Sometimes complementary, sometimes in opposition, these dyads roil our conditioned reflexes, leading us into new areas of affection and interpretation. And always, increasingly important in late Godard, there is the dimension of sound, itself part of the image-structure of the film.
For instance, if Fauré's Requiem seems in accord with the ascension motif of the El Greco tableau, what are we to make of the apparent discord of Mozart's Requiem played over some petrol pumps while a truck-load of new cars rumbles by in the background? In their discussion of Passion, Silverman and Farocki distinguish between oxymoron and analogue, between dyads that retain their difference and those that suggest similarity. 7 I should like to suggest, however, that the apparent discrepancy between aural and visual images is potentially more playful. It often suggests irony, even when inducing a sense of the sublime.

The video, however, keeps grounding itself in its discussion of images—on the need to see before writing. Like Tintoretto's Ariadne, Venus and Bacchus (1576),


as Godard has explained when showing us the painting, his film will be about a man and two women and will explore the relationship between them. It will also explore the relationship between gestures of labour and gestures of love. Following this logic of association, of analogy, sometimes simply of assonance, Godard begins to construct his script.

There will be a space with objects in it, he explains, a hotel and a factory, between which (entre) the characters enter (entrent). When the characters become clear, then actions can be imagined and words can be found. Jerzy will arrive, an exiled filmmaker, like Godard himself, looking for work. Since Jerzy is an actor, there will be action, Godard explains, "as in American films."

jerzy is an actor

And Jerzy will be attracted both to Hanna and to Isabelle


—the one open and the other closed. As Philippe Dubois has explained the process taking place in the video "laboratory" of Godard's imaginary inventiveness:

The images … appear, little by little, very slowly, in waves, as if bubbling up from the bottom of his thought-in-process, superimposing themselves on the silhouette of his own body, which haunts the "laboratory." 8

Approaching the video in this way, I have scarcely done justice to its insistence on binaries. Even the characters are described as double: we see Jerzy as a modern-day Jacob wrestling with his angel.

jacob wrestling with the angel

As Godard has explained, however, it is between these two selves, as between the different spaces, that the struggles occur. Paul Willeman once suggested that this emphasis on the between is "the ultimate refusal of binarism;" 9 and Gilles Deleuze has insisted that what matters in Godard is "the interstice … between two images." 10 And between two impulses, I would want to add, possibly between two conflicting desires—like the longing for grace and the need for gravity.

These ideas lead to a consideration of the virtually mystical emphasis that Godard now places on montage. Jacques Aumont has claimed that, in Godard, the purpose of montage is to bring forth the full potential of the image. 11 But as I have just suggested, another kind of montage occurs between sequences as well as between shots as it does as well within the images themselves.

In Pierrot le fou (1965) we may remember a tiny man with a huge bottle of coke;

pierrot le fou

or in Anticipation (1967), Anna Karina arranging her hair with a Brobdignagian comb. In Passion, Michel (Piccoli) suffers from smoker's hack, apparently caused by a rose. Like the full-size Crusaders prancing about the miniature sets of Delacroix's Constantinople,

full size crusaders

these instances of montage within the frame give these films a surreal dimension. Because most of the characters in Passion have been searching for love, the penultimate sequence may well reference (as Silverman has suggested) Watteau's Pilgrimage to Cythera (1719); 12 but it might more easily evoke the surreally red sails of Nosferatu's nefarious voyage in Werner Herzog's remake of that obsessional quest.

red sails

Finally, citation itself might be understood as referential montage. Janet Bergstrom has mentioned "the extending strategy" of citation in Godard; 13 and certainly, citation further compounds the analogical suggestiveness of any combination of images, whether between or within frames. That anachronistic ship in the field with a tractor is a surreal montage within the frame as Hanna runs about looking for Jerzy. Add to this incongruity the actual sheep elsewhere in the field

actual sheep

just after we have heard Fauré's "Agnus Dei" accompanying the defloration of Isabelle

agnus dei

and we have a concatenation of associations that, as so often in Godard, are extremely funny in their surface absurdity but which are also deeply moving in the allusive range of implications that all the images, both visual and aural, might have for us.


If we return to the poetic thesis by Pierre Reverdy with which I began this discussion, we might be able to draw together some of the above observations. The most extended reference to this thesis occurs in King Lear. As images form and re-form themselves on twin television monitors at the right of the screen, Godard speaks his reworking of the text:

Analogy is a medium of creation. It is a resemblance of connections. The power or virtue of a recreated image depends on the nature of these connections.
What is great is not the image but the emotion that it provokes. If the latter is great, one values the image for its own sake. The emotion thus provoked is true because it is born outside of all limitation, of evocation, and all resemblance.

Throughout this monologue, as images transform themselves while the sound of gulls suggests, with characteristic irony, that "Nature's above art, in that respect,"14 we can see that, when confronted by the blank screen, when searching for images, Godard free associates. Like his discussion of the shot/reverse shot in Notre Musique,15 through a process of collage, analogies are discovered which possess their own form of narrative logic—by-passing the sequential linearity of rational thought. Image precedes idea, idea suggests space, space sanctions character, and character enables dialogue. This process lifts the mundane realities of everyday life into the surreal—but less the surrealism of dreams and fantasies than of fresh ways of imaging the world, of establishing fresh perspectives, a new sense of proportion.

By fusing disjunctive and conjunctive conceptual realities, by yoking by violence different images together, 16 in the collision of these forces—within the interstices—explosive insights are generated and creative forms emerge. The obsession with character and plot endemic to Hollywood practice confines both films and spectators within the quotidian realities of our day-to-day world. Where there are no interstices, there is no imagination. No new insights can occur—certainly, not for audiences.

Godard's analogical thinking involves risk. It courts pretension and encounters failure. Nevertheless, evolving through patterns of progress and recursion, it is a process of organization that leads to fresh insights and which places—and allows—great imaginative responsibility on spectators.

For me, this received responsibility is the true value of Godard's on-going obsession with montage. Not only in the early days was he replying to André Bazin's championing of the sequence shot but he recognized that cinematic creation cannot take place just through representations of the real—as in documentary—but must occur through their collision with fiction. As he explains at the end of Scénario du film Passion, although the possibilities are infinite,

this infinity will end in metaphor attended by reality. You know the film can be made at the crossroads between reality and metaphor. Or between documentary and fiction.

If there is validity in Willimen's insistence on the idea of a "between" that destroys binary oppositions and in Deleuze's concept of the interval, I should like to suggest that the third term is most easily located in the minds of spectators. As Godard himself has written about the early days of cinema:

It was something that filmed not things, but the relationships between things. In other words, people saw relationships, and first of all they saw a relationship with themselves. 17

This freedom to achieve our own understanding of the relationship between fresh syntheses of sounds and images is what makes even an imperfect film by Godard such an exhilarating experience. Throughout the years in his films, I have been struck by the instability of tone. Over time, this tonal ambivalence is perhaps the most Brechtian aspect of his work. Even at their most serious—in Deux ou trois choses, Passion, Je vous salue, Marie, Nouvelle Vague—in true Brechtian fashion the films allow us to laugh while the characters are crying and to cry when they are laughing.

In Scénario du film Passion, when Jerzy's crane is flying above the miniature sets of Constantinople and Godard speaks of turning a camera movement into a prayer;

camera as prayer

and when actual sheep scurry about the fields after we have heard "Angus Dei" on the sound-track, we are in the realm simultaneously of the absurd and the wonderful. While we may smile at the wit of these outlandish analogies, we may also feel we are in the presence of the sublime.

Frederic Jameson has suggested that in Godard the sublime occurs through his desire "to do something with the camera that matches ecstatic moments only music was supposed to achieve … " 18 and Deleuze, following Kant, has proposed that

… what constitutes the sublime is that the imagination suffers a shock which pushes it to the limit and forces thought to think the whole as intellectual totality which goes beyond the imagination. 19

In Godard, however—an indication of his humility, indeed, of his humanity—the sublime is always inflected by irony. Undoubtedly, there is in late Godard a longing for "monadic closure." 20 Certainly, there is also, as James Williams has suggested, "a nostalgia for the plenitude of meaning in cinema and art … ;" 21 but there is also a sense of absurdity at his own necessities, as there is at the necessities of his obsessional characters.

Confronting the blank screen and his desire for creation; faced with his determination to achieve a productive dialogue between the dyads of his inventions; allowing the spaces between these dyads to be filled in by spectators, Godard has achieved a cinema of sublimity within a world which is absurd. The "most writerly of filmmakers," as Raymond Bellour has suggested, 22 a passionate believer within a world of disbelief, Jean-Luc Godard is a cinematic modernist in a post-modern world.



1 This essay is an extension of a paper I read at a conference on Godard at the Tate Modern in London in 2001. Many of the proceedings of this event can be found in For Ever Godard, ed. By Michael Temple, James S. Williams, and Michael Witt. (London: Black Dog Publishing, 2004)

2 From Nord-Sud, Self Defence et Autres Écrits sur l'Art et la Poésie (1917-1926), by Pierre Reverdy, edited with notes by Étienne-Alain Hubert (Paris: Flammarion, 1975), 74

3 See "Critique of Aesthetic Judgement," especially pp. 214-225, in The Critique of Judgement, by Immanuel Kant, trans. by James Creed Meredith. (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1952)

4 An Introduction to Metaphysics (1903); but see Creative Evolution, by Henri Bergson, trans. by Arthur Mitchell (New York: Random House, (1907/1944), 97

5 For an analysis of the work of thinkers such as Nelson Goodman, Allen Newell, Gerald Edelman and William Demopoulos (among others), see The Analog/Digital Distinction in the Philosophy of Mind, by Ellie Epp. <>

6 Also known as The Virgin of the Immaculate Conception. Given Godard's free rendition of these tableaux, however, he might also be referencing The Annunciation (1590-1600)

7 Speaking about Godard, by Kaja Silverman and Harun Farocki (New York University Press, 1998), 185

8 "Video Thinks What Cinema Creates," by Philippe Dubois. Jean-Luc Godard—Son+Image, 1974-1991 (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1992), 178

9 "Passion 3," in Framework 21 (1983), 7

10 Cinema 2—The Time-Image, by Gilles Deleuze, trans. by Hugh Tomlinson & Robert Galeta (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, (1985/1989), 179

11 Amnésies: Fictions du cinéma d'après Jean-Luc Godard, by Jacques Aumont (Paris: P.O.L, 1999), 18

12 Speaking about Godard, 195

13 "Violence and Enunciation," by Janet Bergstrom. Jean-Luc Godard—Son+Image, 51

14 Appropriately, from King Lear, Act IV, Scene 5

15 See "Bridges: a discussion of Notre Musique by Jean-Luc Godard," by Peter Harcourt. CineAction 65 2004, pp.62-63

16 As Samuel Johnson claimed for the poetry of John Donne and his contemporaries. "The Metaphysical Poets," in Selected Essays, by T.S. Eliot. (London, Faber & Faber, 1943), p. 283

17 Introduction à une véritable Histoire du Cinéma, by Jean-Luc Godard. (Paris: Éditions Albatros, 1980), 175.

18 The Geopolitical Aesthetic: Cinema and Space in the World System, by Fredric Jameson (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992), 181

19 Cinema 2—The Time-Image, 157

20 The Geopolitical Aesthetic, 163

21 The Cinema Alone: Essays on the Work of Jean-Luc Godard—1985-2000, ed. by Michael Temple & James S. Williams (Amsterdam University Press, 2000), 136

22 "(Not) Just Another Filmmaker," by Raymond Bellour. Jean-Luc Godard—Son+Image, 222

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