A Bad Review + A Bad Translation.

This is one of those posts where I have to get something off my chest, so bear with my grousing. I just watched Godard’s Nouvelle Vague for the third time (the first two were several decades ago), and liked it even more than I remembered, doubtless because I’ve been immersing myself in his movies and am better aware of what he’s up to. Before I grouse, let me give you a brief description. The plot, unusually for a Godard movie, is straightforward and can be understood while you watch; stripping away the subplots and minor characters, here it is (quoting the relevant bits of the Wikipedia article):

La Contessa Elena Torlato-Favrini […] is a wealthy Italian industrialist living in a sprawling estate near Lake Geneva, Switzerland. […] At the film’s opening, Elena goes for a drive by herself and encounters Roger Lennox […], an apparent drifter. Elena’s trajectory is brought to an abrupt halt as she stops to help Roger, who has evidently been forced off the road by a truck and is severely incapacitated. […] Elena decides to take a motorboat across the lake to visit some friends. Roger obediently drives the boat, and stops when Elena wants to get in the water, but refuses to join her, citing his inability to swim. […] Roger falls into the water as Elena gets back into the boat. Elena watches him drown and does not help, appearing indifferent to his plight.

The servants and Raoul quickly attempt to cover up any existence of Roger but almost immediately there is a new crisis: a man identical to Roger, calling himself Richard Lennox and claiming to be Roger’s brother, appears. He claims to know about the boating incident and is apparently using that as leverage to take over one of Elena’s companies. Where before the figure of Lennox was passive and docile, he is now shrewd and aggressive; it is Elena that now becomes pliant.

The power struggle reaches a climax in a recapitulation of the boating scene. Now it is Lennox who decides to take the boat out (this time a rowboat), and it is Elena who falls into the water, apparently unable to swim. Richard, at first as indifferent to Elena as she was to Roger Lennox in the same situation, abruptly takes Elena’s hand and saves her.

There are all sorts of ways to interpret this (“Godard has said that the film is an allegory of the history of film”), but who cares? It’s effective and the acting is excellent (Alain Delon as Richard/Roger, Domiziana Giordano as Elena). Furthermore, it’s even more stunningly beautiful than the average late-Godard movie — for thirty years now I’ve remembered the long, slow tracking shot [from 1:09:23 to 1:11:50] that moves from left to right across the facade of the manor house at night, windows lit by lamps alternating with stretches of darkness, and then reversing direction and showing how each room goes dark as the lamp is switched off. It is, of course, endlessly allusive (significant references to Lucretius, Marx, Dante, and others, and intertitles like LES CHOSES, NON LES MOTS; JE EST UN AUTRE; and ACTA EST FABULA [‘the play is over’]) and deals with topics like nature versus the human world (with emphasis on the human labor needed to maintain the apparently natural surroundings of the estate — the gardener is an important character), love versus business, Europe versus America, bosses versus workers, and of course men versus women (endlessly fascinating to Godard), not to mention the nature of identity itself (JE EST UN AUTRE; “je ne serais pas obligée de vous aimer, même si vous n’étiez pas un autre”). And it has dialogue in various languages — Italian and English as well as French (Elena quotes long stretches of Dante in Italian).

Now, you may well be thinking “I can’t imagine wanting to watch a movie like that,” and that’s fine! Lots of people don’t care for Godard, and why should they? But a professional movie reviewer should be able to appreciate a wide variety of movies, especially one who writes for the New York Times. With that preface, let me quote Vincent Canby’s NYT review (Sept. 29, 1990):

”Nouvelle Vague,” a phrase that evokes the renaissance of the French cinema in the 1960’s, is a good title rather badly used for Jean-Luc Godard’s featherweight new film. […] Photographed in Switzerland in (it seems) late summer and early fall, ”Nouvelle Vague” is as pretty as a feature-length lipstick commercial. If you can’t get to Vermont, you may want to see ”Nouvelle Vague” just to admire its autumn foliage. There’s not much else to occupy either the mind or the eye. Most of the film is set by a beautiful lake on a handsome estate where the actors, including Alain Delon, wander around trying not to look self-conscious. It’s not always easy.

The dialogue is heavy with aphorisms (”Women are in love. Men are lonely”) and paradoxes (”There’s a price for being good, as well as for being bad”). Sometimes the actors quote poetry and sometimes they just drop names of people and movies […] Mr. Godard’s passion for Cinema now seems perfunctory, as do his tracking shots, his use of pretty actresses (often seen reading books) and the chapter headings (in French, Italian, English and German) that divide the movie.

Only people who despise the great Godard films, everything from ”Breathless” (A Bout de Souffle) (1959) through ”Every Man for Himself” (Sauve Qui Peut la Vie) (1979), could be anything but saddened by this one. The party’s over.

Note that Canby claims to appreciate “the great Godard films,” so he can’t be written off as a Godard-hater; the only conclusion I can come to is that he was in a bad mood when he saw it and leapt to the worst possible interpretation every chance he got. Beauty? Pah, it’s “a feature-length lipstick commercial.” Allusions? Mere name-dropping! The thing is, if he really knew and appreciated Godard’s earlier work, you’d think he’d have assumed the fault was his and at least written more cautiously: “I may not have been in the right mood for it, but I’m afraid it struck me as…” But no, he let his venom spew, and the result was (to quote Richard Brody’s splendid Everything Is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard, p. 529) “the equivalent of an assassination”:

Nouvelle Vague was never released commercially in the United States. After this hatchet job, no film by Godard played at the New York Film Festival until 2001.

Furthermore, the film is unavailable on DVD in the US to this day. (For the time being, anyway, you can watch it here, with no subtitles.) Shame on Canby!

I also have to complain about a mistranslation in Daniel Morgan’s useful if very academic Late Godard and the Possibilities of Cinema: he renders “Le hasard était de la partie” (a line from the movie) as “Luck was in business.” No! The phrase être de la partie means ‘to take part, to know what’s going on’ (moi qui suis de la partie ‘knowing the subject as I do’; il n’est pas de la partie ‘it’s not his line’), so it has to be “Luck was part of it” or “Chance was involved.”

And one more thing! In Colin MacCabe’s idiosyncratic but brilliant Godard: A Portrait of the Artist at Seventy, he ends the main section of the book with the last lines of the immense project Histoire(s) du cinéma, which he translates “If a man travelled across paradise in a dream and received a flower as proof of his passage and on awakening he found that flower in his hands what is to be said I was that man.” The relevant footnote begins:

The quotation is a riff on Coleridge via Borges: ‘Se um homem, em sonhos, atravessasse o Paraiso, e Ihe oferecessem uma flor como provo da sua estade ai, e se, ao despertar, encontrasse essa flor na mao . . . que pensar, nesse caso?’ Jorge Luis Borges, ‘A flor de Coleridge’, Novas Inquiricoes (Lisbon: Editorial Querco, 1983), p. 17.

WTF? Does MacCabe think Borges wrote in Portuguese?! (I will let pass without comment the wretched “Inquiricoes[for Inquisições] [actually, it’s only the lack of accents that’s wrong; see M’s comment below]; that’s presumably not MacCabe’s fault. See, I’m more charitable than that nasty Canby!)… OK, I think I’ve got it all off my chest and can now eat dinner without ruining my digestion. Thanks for your patience!


  1. David Eddyshaw says

    The Portuguese Borges is just weird. I can’t imagine anybody who actually wanted to cite Borges at all, not knowing that he wrote in Spanish. It makes you wonder if some vital connecting passage has perhaps got lost on the cutting-room floor somewhere.

    Though I’m pretty sure Borges himself would have loved the confusion. The Portuguese Borges might be one of his lesser-known stories …

  2. Though I’m pretty sure Borges himself would have loved the confusion.

    I had the same thought!

  3. Of course Borges wrote in Portuguese. If he had written in Spanish he would have been Borgez.

  4. David Eddyshaw says

    Bórgez, surely?

  5. J.W. Brewer says

    I, for one, have no truck with those who claim that that “Nouvelle Vague” is French for “New Wave” rather than for “New Vague.”

  6. Inquirições is authentic Portuguese (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inquiri%C3%A7%C3%B5es) and MacCabe’s mistake, as far as that word is concerned, was only his omission of the two diacritics. The word has nothing to do with the Inquisition.

  7. Michael Hendry says

    I hope someone here will be able to help me solve a problem tangentially related to this film. (I know our host loves tangents.)

    I have a distinct memory of reading years ago that Evelyn Waugh, when he first heard of the ‘nouvelle vague’ (the cinematic movement) burst out in annoyance, “Is that supposed to mean ‘new wave’ or ‘vague novel’?! I can’t tell!” or words to that effect. I’ve been unable to track down this anecdote, and would really like to do so, since there’s a similarly annoying ambiguity in Horace, which I am writing about.

    If you’re wondering, Horace’s Epistle 1.4 is addressed to Tibullus, a fellow poet whose works survive. Horace gently chides him for not writing more poems, and attributes his apparent writer’s block to finickiness, depression, and the numerous distractions in his life. (This is my interpretation: not all Horatians will agree.) Among his distractions and advantages are wealth, good looks, family obligations, political connections, an unfailing money-purse, and mundus victus, “a clean/neat/sensible [=frugal?] way of life”. What’s weird is that the adjective mundus, “clean/neat” is identical in form to a much commoner noun meaning “world”, and the noun victus, “way of life” identical in form to a much commoner adjective (perfect passive participle) meaning “conquered”. Is Horace punning somehow on “clean way of life” and “conquered world”? That would be bizarre, but the ambiguity seems too neat (heh! mundus) to be coincidental. Could he really have used it inadvertently?

    The pun, if it is a pun, is of exactly the same form as in ‘nouvelle vague’. If anyone has a third example of such a reversible phrase, please let me know. It’s not entirely unlike Groucho’s “Time flies like an arrow. Fruit flies like a banana.” where several homonyms change part-of-speech and meaning from one half to the other. Another ambiguity with some similarities is the title of the Grateful Dead album ‘American Beauty’. It is printed in a sort of melting-wax font with the bottoms of all the letters running together, so it could just as easily read ‘American Reality’. When I was in college (1971-75) people would say “Wow! Heavy!” when they found that out. I’ve never seen the movie ‘American Beauty’, but have always assumed the movie-makers knew about the album ambiguity and meant to imply ‘American Reality’ as a punning second meaning for their title.

    Help on any of these various angles would be appreciated.

  8. Inquirições is authentic Portuguese (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inquiri%C3%A7%C3%B5es) and MacCabe’s mistake, as far as that word is concerned, was only his omission of the two diacritics.

    Whoa, you’re absolutely right — thanks for the correction!

  9. David Marjanović says

    Bórgez, surely?


    “Time flies like an arrow. Fruit flies like a banana.”

    Lately extended with “Amelia Earhart flies, like, a plane!”

  10. The absence of diacritics within the quote, not just in the attribution, is striking. Paraíso, aí, mão… Perhaps MacCabe absentmindedly mistook Portuguese for Spanish, like Jules Verne’s Paganel? Of course Spanish uses diacritics too but somewhat less prominently than Portuguese.

  11. Michael Hendry:

    For part of speech puns, compare band names like The Teardrop Explodes or Smashing Pumpkins. See also crash blossoms.

    American Beauty/Reality would be a type of what Douglas Hofstadter calls an ambigram.

  12. Michael Hendry says

    Just remembered another example I thought of myself, though I’m sure it’s occurred to others: “General Tso’s chicken. (At least that’s what all the other generals say.)” Not intentional, I’m sure, and chances are > 90% it doesn’t even work in Chinese.

  13. Michael Hendry,
    I don’t have Waugh’s published letters or diaries at hand, but, fwiw, I found the “vague novel” quote associated online with him only in recent years.

    Maybe not relevant, but he did, reportedly, write an open letter to Nancy Mitford, mentioning a
    “…new wave of philistinism with which we are threatened by these sour young people coming off the assembly lines in their hundreds every year and finding employment as critics, even as poets and novelists….”

    Said to be in Encounter [London], December, 1955, and reprinted later. Some reports have “grim” rather than “sour.”

  14. Someone should point this out, and I guess that someone is me: nouvelle means ‘short story,’ not ‘novel’ (which is of course roman).

  15. That Waugh said or wrote the above quote is probably apocryphal.

  16. Absolutely, but I still thought it worth pointing out.

  17. Is Horace punning somehow on “clean way of life” and “conquered world”?

    Probably not. It doesn’t really fit the context; to be sure, I consulted two commentaries, Roland Mayer’s Cambridge Greek and Latin Classics commentary on Epistles, Book 1 and the classic commentary on Horace by Kießling/Heinze, and neither mentions anything like that. Kießling/Heinze gloss mundus victus as “keine schmutzige Knauserei”, while Mayer translates the phrase as “stylish way of life”: “the epithet is colloquial in tone and used often by H. to suggest a mean between luxurious superfluity and sordid lack”.

    Mayer questions whether the poem is actually adressed to Tibullus: “Unfortunately, Albius is a common name, composing elegy was the fashion, and Tibullus always refers to himself by his cognomen. In short, the identification of the two is unproven” (with a reference to Postgate’s Selections from Tibullus , published in 1910)

  18. PlasticPaddy says

    The article is available online as PDF download from unz.com/print/Encounter. That download has “grim”.

  19. Michael Hendry:

    “American Beauty” is a variety of rose created in 1875. Also, American Beauty is a ragtime piano piece published by Joe Lamb in 1913, named after the rose. (A lot of ragtime pieces were named after flowers.)

    I would not be at all surprised if Jerry Garcia knew of “American Beauty Rag”, as he had a good knowledge of the history of American popular music.

    This site goes into Dead album cover design, and there is more than one ambigram.

    Groucho didn’t say time flies like an arrow. He said “I shot an elephant in my pajamas” (Animal Crackers).


  20. @PlasticPaddy: the possibly apocryphal quote (IIRC) is the nouvelle vague grumble, not the “new wave of philistinism” bit (which probably referred to Kingsley Amis and the Movement).

  21. What the elephant was doing in Groucho’s pajamas we’ll never know. Especially now that he is dead.

  22. Michael Hendry says

    I know Mayer and others doubt that this Albius is Tibullus, but they seem to forget one thing we know about him: in the first line of this poem, Horace calls this Albius “fair-minded judge of my sermones” [= satires + epistles]. I doubt there were more than a dozen or two people in Rome that Horace would have willingly accepted poetic criticism from (Vergil, Maecenas, Varius and Tucca, obviously, but surely not a huge number of others). There may well have been several elegists named Albius in Rome, but it seems extraordinarily unlikely that more than one of them would have been on criticizing-each-other’s-poems terms with Horace. (As I said, I’m writing more about this poem.)

  23. Thanks, PP.
    Yes, AK, the attested Waugh quote (1955ff) is partly about The Movement (Kingsley Amis et al.), not about French film, but I mentioned it in case it played a role in false memory.

  24. @DE and DM re: Bórgez: If you’ve suggested this with a straight face rather than with your tongue placed firmly against your cheek, no, you don’t place an accent mark on the penultimate sylablle ever, even if the stress falls on it. The accent writing rules in Spanish are quite clear when it comes to polysyllabic words: if the stress falls on the last or antepenultimate syllable, mark it, otherwise don’t and everybody knows that the stress then falls by default on the penultimate syllable. Monosyllables, though, that’s a bit more confusing, at least for dinosaurs like myself, who were brought up in Argentina in the 50s and 60s knowing that it was ok to write “sí”, “fué”, “qué”, etc., until the Royal Academy in its infinite wisdom declared that it wasn’t so. So now I try not to write monosyllables in the very few occasions that I write in Spanish 🙂

  25. David Eddyshaw says
  26. David Marjanović says

    no, you don’t place an accent mark on the penultimate sylablle ever, even if the stress falls on it.

    You absolutely do if the word ends in z, which requires final stress (as found e.g. in Cortez) unless there’s an accent mark that says otherwise. In addition to the examples above, there are Sánchez, Hernández, Fernández and many others.

    A few last names do contradict the orthography. Sanchíz for example; its accent is superfluous.

  27. Oooh, an exception, who would have thought!? Yes, I guess the rules are a bit more complicated than what I wrote (more a rule of thumb than a real rule) and of course there are exceptions, and there are contrasts like ésta and está, ése and ese, which are not governed by the general rules. I still don’t see why Bórgez and not plain Borgez — Ah well, confusing…All I know is that at some point in my life I always got a 10 in spelling 🙂 I’d probably flunk it now

  28. Lars Mathiesen says

    Ésta and ése were two other things that the RAE, or rather the la Asociación de Academias de la Lengua Española, abolished, along with fué and dió for instance. But you still put tildes on = ‘yes’ and qué when it’s a question word, and = ‘you’. As opposed to si = ‘if’, que as relativizer, tu = ‘your’.

  29. Godard has died.

  30. Not unexpected, but still a shock.

Speak Your Mind