Jean-Luc Godard’s introspective 1994 film shows that his idea of portraiture is characteristically opaque. An hour-long rumination on his life and work, JLG/JLG: Self-Portrait in December is like a cinematic lucid dream. Discrete images and phrases – musical and dialogic – are layered like the individual strokes of a painter’s brush, forming a Godardian picture of Jean-Luc, artist and man.
There is a contemplative, often melancholy nostalgia running throughout, a desire to engage with the past that is expressed right from the early shots of a framed photograph of Godard at ten-years-old. History is a tangible thing in this film, much of which consists of the director sat alone, either considering past work of his own and other artists or drafting new or previously unarticulated philosophies.
In his exhaustive study of Godard during the 20th Century, Everything is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard, Richard Brody summarises the director’s position eloquently: ‘If Godard’s presence and persona had become more valuable in the film marketplace than his actual work, he proceeded with a project that was calculated to take advantage of that state of affairs – and that he turned into a study of his own solitude.’
Solitude spreads its fingers through Self-Portrait in December. The energy of Breathless (1960) has long since dissipated, and the curated chaos of Weekend (1967) has been superseded by a quiet wistfulness. Forests and beaches, some of Godard’s favourite places, perhaps, are occupied only by a lonely silhouette and the wind that pulls on his coat-tails.
Godard loves words; he is a master of them. Once again, the auteur-character directs (or misdirects) the viewer through his handwritten notes, just like he did in Pierrot le Fou (1965) or the short segment he contributed to the portmanteau film Ro.Go.Pa.G. (1963), titled Il Nuovo Mondo. In that film, he talks about his testimony in a changing world. Things are still changing, constantly, and while Goodbye to Language (2014) proved that Godard has kept pace, fragments of his personality were left rooted in the past from the moment Jean-Paul Belmondo collapsed on the Rue Campagne-Première. Godard’s testimony in Self-Portrait in December is an acknowledgement of this fact, a tip of the fedora to the ghost of history. As Brody suggested, he uses this film to return to the comforts of his achievements, the notebooks and the artists that so strongly influenced him.
Brody goes on to suggest that Self-Portrait in December exposes some of the more unsavoury aspects of Godard’s ideology, particularly his views on Israel and Palestine, a subject that has seen the director accused of anti-semitism throughout his career. Indeed, at one point in this film he waxes lyrical about the mechanisms of stereo sound, contriving a diagram to make his point that eventually forms the Star of David. He goes on to consider Israel in this context, perhaps as a cynical riposte to those that claim his cinema to be inherently anti-semitic.
Regardless of his motive in this particular instance, it proves once again how inextricably Godard the man and Godard the director are linked. This would not be surprising to someone who claimed that everything is cinema but it means that films like Self-Portrait in December, whether testimony or not, dwell in a peculiar place outside of his certain history.