Jean-Luc Godard, 2002
Is it possible to select a single film from decades of viewing that defines one’s relationship with cinema? In fact, can any film to surpass the impact and influence of one’s earliest encounters with cinema, which in my case was Tarkovsky’s Mirror, Dreyer’s Gertrud and Vampyr, Bresson’s Mouchette and Diary of a Country Priest, Jansco’s The Round-Up, Antonioni’s L’Eclisse, and Gordard’s Vivre sa vie. I’ve revisited all of these these films in the last decade or so, and they continue to speak with great cinematic authority.
Since the late 70s, the New Zealand International Film Festival has provide countless opportunities for cinema to reimpress itself upon me, from retrospectives by the likes of Jean Eustache (Mes petites amoureuses), Maurice Pialat (Under Satan’s Sun) and Edward Yang (A Brighter Summer’s Day), through the work of singular masters such as Abbas Kiarostami (A Taste of Cherry), Bela Tarr (Satantango), Bruno Dumont (Humanitie), Lav Diaz (Norte, the End of History), Hou Hsiao-hsien (Café Lumiere), and Carlos Reygadas (Silent Light), to the visceral tremors of Decasia (Bill Morrison) and Leviathan (Lucien Castaing-Taylor & Verena Paravel). This smattering of titles barely skims the surface of the cinematic wealth the festival has delivered, from which any number of films could be singled out as the most significant of the decade.
I could perhaps cite the unexpected revelation when watching Thunderball recently (which I hadn’t seen since I was 9 or 10 years old, and was intrigued to see after all these years), that it wasn’t James Bond and his license-to-thrill that compelled me to go to the film almost every day during its school holiday run all those years ago, but the mesmerising atmospheric combination of sound and image. I was shocked to realise that it may have been Thunderball – not Mirror – that kindled an early appreciation for the profoundly intimate aesthetic power of cinema.
Then there’s the Blu-ray format, which has revitalised my viewing habits. When projected, the luminosity and depth of both the image and sound of a good transfer brings a film to vivid life. Consequently, my film viewing has increased from once or twice a week to almost every night. A recent joy was Alexandr Sokurov’s Whispering Pages (1993). At just over an hour long, this masterwork (along with Faust, which it resembles in some respects) is one of the most exceptional films I’ve seen this year.
But if I pushed myself to single out one film that occupies a special place in my ‘personal canon’ (if I can put it that way), it wouldn’t be (surprisingly, for me) some lengthy contemplative meditation on the miseries of the human condition, but a relatively modest 10-minute short by Jean-Luc Godard. DANS LE NOIR DU TEMPS (In the Darkness of Time, 2002) was cut from the same cloth as Godard’s De L'Origine du XXIe Siecle (2001), a 16-minute film gleaned from Godard’s 265-minute magnum opus, Histoire du cinema (1988-1998). Dans le noir du temps was released as part of a omnibus project called Ten Minutes Older, a collection of fifteen films by fifteen filmmakers who each contributed a 10-minute piece on the idea that in 10 minutes one’s life can change forever.
In my view, this film is essential viewing for anyone seriously interested in cinema, and particularly the work of Jean-Luc Godard. First and foremost, it acts as an invaluable key to understanding Godard, particularly his output over the last thirty years. His 60s films (most of them) are great, and his intriguing work in the 70s served to establish the methodology that would inform the impressive body of work that continues to this day, which in many respects is unsurpassed in terms of the breadth and depth of its formal, philosophical, political, and personal dimensions. Few, if any, of Godard's films from 1980 on could be considered easy viewing. Some are more ‘accessible’ than others, but all require active participation from the viewer and require more than one viewing. These films don’t tell you what to think (or feel) because they expect you to do so.
Dans le noir du temps is, to an extent, something of a portrait of Godard: his passion, anguish, joy, contempt, and hope, both for the medium he has dedicated his life to, and the state of human affairs. Few films affect me as this one does, but having screened it for numerous people over the years I appreciate that whatever it is that speaks profoundly to me won’t necessarily translate to others – at least, not in the same way. Which is as it should be. It’s not an easy film to recommend, but if one is open to it the film will act as a mirror. It will tell you something about yourself and, if you’re lucky, might just bring you to your knees.
Originally published in The Lumiere Reader