Another work from Godard; this one comes after Passion, and clearly follows its style and themes. This time, however, narrative elements are stolen from Godard’s own Pierrot Le Fou, but Godard doesn’t bother to surprise the spectator with a fundamentally different conclusion. It would probably aid a viewing of this film to be familiar with the opera Carmen, on which it is at some level based. The choice of source material is fitting, based on Godard’s obsession with music at this point in his career. Always playing tricks on his audience by blurring the distinction between diegetic and non-diegetic music, in the 80s Godard was making films that were explicitly operatic and in some ways also paintings. (See Passion in particular.) For example, not every movie has an opening music credit going to “Ludwig v. Beethoven,” as we have in First Name: Carmen.
The string ensemble which gives First Name: Carmen its Beethovian soundtrack is depicted throughout the narrative failing at interpreting the music according to the ideals of its conductor. Fittingly, the musicians are shown variously decapitated and otherwise physically fractured. Musicians do tend to be reduced to the sum of their parts, while composers encapsulate a monolithic idea of genius or vision. Carmen’s violinist counterpart is played by the actress who will later play the main character in Godard’s Hail Mary, retroactively giving her a melancholic beauty that befits her tempered struggle to do justice to the sheet music in front of her. The musicians eventually break into the diegesis, only to end up on the sore end of a cinematic hoax within the film. The hoax combines Pierrot Le Fou with Bande à part, a bunch of bored youngsters with nothing better to do than try to swindle the better-off bourgeois. And how better to do it in a Godard film than for the would-be thieves to use film as the shroud disguising their heist plan. Appropriately, the rapscallions in First Name: Carmen have no political bent to their escapades, as they did in Bande à part. Has Godard outgrown his political naivete, or does this film simply reflect the (relatively) apolitical 80s versus the politically fiery 60s?
There is abstraction of an objectival and, for lack of a better term, a panoramic sort. Human characters are given no priority in the frame over things. At times the stationary frame implies a hidden camera, especially in the characters’ shared hotel room. This implies a spying, a voyeurism that corresponds to the self-reflexivity of Godard’s films. The camera is fixed in the hotel room somewhere between Ozu’s tatami level and a more conventional “Western” height. Hands-off is the idea; the camera is as apathetic as the characters are pathetic. Somehow, in this way the camera gives the frame itself an objectival status. As that which surrounds or encapsulates the mis-en-scene, the frame likewise becomes an object with little more priority than an abstracted or discarded item within or just outside the frame. The visual is liked to the aural; just as characters and objects move into and outside of the frame, so the soundtrack (musical and otherwise) is in and out of the audience’s experience. Further, objects within the frame are drained of visual uniqueness. Constantly in First Name: Carmen, human figures monochromatically fuse with their surroundings. Almost never does the human stand out from the non-human. Are the people non-human or do the things surrounding them have a human-like status?
The other, “panoramic,” abstraction at times looks positively like Tarkovsky, particularly when landscapes are being used, and especially those that combine the elements of earth and water. It gives the land a look of destruction, an unnatural condition, as if it has been pulverized by man and is now left simply to “be” in all its destroyed beauty and beautiful destruction as the object of a huge gaze. Godard’s consistent painting-style of filming (see not only Passion but scenes in Pierrot Le Fou with characters set against a blank backdrop) clashes with these depth shots. Juxtaposed with the sky (in all its two-dimensionality), these landscapes are distinctly three-dimensional, unlike any other shots in the film.
Godard plays a version of himself in the film, a slightly-nuts film director who fakes illness to extend his hospital stay. His character’s mental instability seems to find its referent both in Godard himself (the actual director of the film First Name: Carmen) as well as the proverbial “film director,” that meta-idea that Godard has as much a right to mock as anyone else ever has. Godard’s films throughout his career implicate film and filmmaking as something at least borderline criminal. So when he and the film crew are fooled while trying to film (within the film), the director’s obliviousness to what is happening indirectly implicates the act of filmmaking, putting it on the same level as armed robbery. It would also seem to imply the ignorance of intellectuals. Navel-gazing may help create thoughtful films, but it leads to an absent-mindedness that makes one unaware of the most obvious facts.