This is a tale of two very different filmmakers. First, there's Jean-Luc Godard, the onetime enfant terrible of the French New Wave, whose galvanising 1960s work threw most of the conventions of filmmaking out the window – breaking the narrative into shards, addressing the audience directly, breaking things up with blasts of music and colour.
Second, there's the filmmaker sitting before me today: Michel Hazanavicius, the French comedy director who scored a huge, unexpected hit with The Artist, a light-hearted tribute to silent cinema which won the best picture Oscar in 2012.
Hazanavicius' new film Redoubtable is a fictionalised account of Godard (Louis Garrel) at a turning point in his career, as the city-wide protests that swept over Paris in May 1968 prompted him to reject the commercial industry in favour of new, politically radical forms of filmmaking. "Before that he was in the traditional field of cinema," Hazanavicius says. "After that, he never came back in that field. He was a lonely artist looking for something, really in the avant-garde."
While Redoubtable playfully borrows many of Godard's stylistic tricks, its portrait of the great man is not a flattering one. The "Jean-Luc" of the film is a vain man-child scowling behind his black-framed sunglasses, issuing constant high-handed pronouncements, and treating everyone around him like dirt, especially his girlfriend and muse Anne Wiazemsky (Stacy Martin) whose 2015 autobiographical novel One Year Later was the basis for Hazanavicius' script.
This satirical approach has understandably drawn fire from many Godard admirers – while Godard himself, now in his 80s, has publicly dismissed the project as a "stupid idea". (His own new film The Image Book premiered at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this month, and is reportedly as experimental and difficult as most of his later work.)
Hazanavicius is unrepentant. "He's still a legend," he says of Godard. "I think you can respect him, you can admire him, you can admire his work, and still you can make fun of him – you can make a caricature of him." A caricature, he adds, is not the same as a lie. "The people who know him, or knew him, really recognise him in the portrait."
What drew him to the story, he says, was primarily the characters, the relationship between Godard and Wiazemsky in particular. At the same time, he insists that he, like Godard, is concerned with film form: Redoubtable, like The Artist, was a chance to play with the style and iconography of a particular moment in cinema history. "I'm interested in the texture of cinema – how you tell a story, not necessarily the story itself."
There is another connection between Redoubtable and The Artist, one that resonates with Hazanavicius on a more personal level. Both are set in the film industry and show cinema at a moment of transition, the hero in each case attempting to reinvent himself to keep up with the times.
Discussing this, Hazanavicius brings up The Search, the film he made in 2014 on the back of the success of The Artist – a serious drama set during the Second Chechen War which starred his wife, Berenice Bejo, as a human rights worker who comes to the aid of a young orphan (Abdul Khalim Mamutsiev).
As Hazanavicius candidly admits, this was a "huge failure," leaving him wondering where to turn next. "Of course I'm questioning myself," he says. "What can I do? How can I be free in my choices? How should I understand cinema?"
But pondering these questions, which are the same ones faced by the Godard of Redoubtable, hasn't led him to firm answers. "To me there's no rules. I have no definition of cinema – I don't know what cinema is. And I don't know what people should do, or should not do."
What he does have is the knowledge of what satisfies him personally. "I love to make people laugh, really," he says, describing the pride he feels when a whole room responds at once. "But I don't regret The Search, which is not funny at all."
Ultimately, Hazanavicius sees a focus on the audience as one thing that sets filmmakers of his kind apart from others. "Jean-Luc Godard, for example, a much more important director than I am, I don't think he's making movies for people. He's doing movies for art, and he's looking for something – it's a very artistic process. Maybe my movies are way less artistic, but I do make movies for people."
Redoubtable is screening from May 31. Jake Wilson travelled to France courtesy of the Alliance Francaise.
Most Viewed in Entertainment
Morning & Afternoon Newsletter