AGIT-PRANK
Jean-Luc Godard's underappreciated 1972 comedy
Tout Va Bien

by Les Phillips

Tout Va Bien begins with a closeup of a man signing checks. The camera frames the amount of the check -- we see that they're drawn on the account of a film production company. The man, the director, signs the check, quickly followed by another check and another and another. After a minute or so, a female voice: "If you get stars, people will give you money." The checks keep coming, faster. Then, superimposed on the frame: JANE FONDA. Then, YVES MONTAND. In the next scene, Fonda and Montand are a couple in love, walking along the beach, yada yada; in the next sequence they're quarreling bitterly; next, the female voice interrupts again. This is no good, she says, that is too conventional, you have to show how society makes them as they are. You have to show the context.

And most of the rest of Tout Va Bien is context. The story of the man and the woman is interrupted, punctured, by a wildcat strike in a sausage factory. Fonda plays an American journalist who's trying to report on French politics and culture; Montand plays a washed-up film director; but they're caught in the strike before we know much about them. And they're literally caught, trapped in the factory office with the manager, who's besieged by angry young workers. The union said it was supposed to be a brief work stoppage, but it "got out of hand," with workers trashing the offices and terrorizing the managers.

Some writers have called Tout Va Bien worker agitprop; I don't know what movie they've seen. Godard steps well back from the barricades. He shows the multilevel, glass-walled factory in cross-section; one critic wrote that it looks like an ant farm. The workers talk directly to the camera about their jobs, their bad wages, their lives; they attack the union and the leftist parties and the boss. But the boss gets to speak to the camera too, his own perfectly respectable defense of his job and the market. He's presented as a buffoon, but so are many of the leftist leaders in the film, and they're all equally trapped in the system. When the boss needs to use the bathroom, the strikers tease him by letting him out and then camping in the lavatories, turning office rules back on him: "Sorry! Your five minutes are up! Back to work!" Ultimately he has to break his window -- Godard's glass fourth wall -- so that he can pee.

The film's centerpiece is a long, long tracking shot that takes place in what appears to be a supermarket. The camera moves down an endless, surreal series of checkout counters, all with long lines of people obediently queueing with big wagons of food, dozens and dozens of registers, hundreds of customers, a slow parade of consumption. Then the radicals come to liberate the groceries. They shout: "Free! It's all free!" And the camera reverses, starts tracking back to the left, as all the shoppers run to fill their carts and try to charge out of the store. The police arrive (the camera keeps tracking), they try to subdue the crowd, and a comic war of all against all breaks out before your eyes. It looks like a collaboration between the Keystone Kops and Jacques Tati, overseen by Mao, but it's Godard's view of the way we live, circa 1972: a society hamstrung by its own political posturing (from all sides), thrown into a weird mixture of chaos and ennui.

What of Montand and Fonda? Montand tells his story directly to the camera. He used to be a New Wave screenwriter, but found he "couldn't do it any more. It's hard to make political films." (!) "It was more honest to make commercials." The commercials he makes are brilliantly inane and slutty, tiny infuriating masterpieces; it's immediately obvious why he's depressed, and why Fonda's grown to detest him. As for Fonda's journalist, she's profoundly blocked, unable to make sense of the culture and politics she's been sent to interpret, speaking false start after false start into her tape recorder. Finally she concedes, in exhaustion: "I am an American correspondent in France who no longer corresponds to anything."

Throughout the 1960s, Godard disdained cinematic form, yet Tout Va Bien is elegant and shapely despite itself. The scattershot jokes and subversion of his earlier films, and the anger and chaos of films like Weekend, begin to coalesce here. Godard's tone and meaning are usually indefinite, "between" settled attitudes; Tout Va Bien hovers between comic play (the jokes are marvelous) and despair. The critical consensus is that Tout Va Bien is one of Godard's lesser films. I think it's one of his best.

©2008 Les Phillips
CineScene