Film History classes are full of important classics. Some are hidden gems of entertainment, waiting to be discovered by pleasantly surprised students. Others are difficult films that set out to challenge the medium, force-fed like broccoli to hapless film majors.
Although I have seen, appreciated, and even liked some of Godard’s work, it is broccoli. Anyone wishing to acquire the taste of Godard should start somewhere other than Keep Up Your Right! (Soigne Ta Droite!).
Waiting for Godard
Jean-Luc Godard got his start in the movies as a film critic for an influential magazine called Cahiers du Cinema. Godard and his colleagues complained about the state of French cinema in the 1950s. They complained so loudly that at one point, Italian director Roberto Rossellini (one of their idols) told them to stop whining and go make their own movies.
They took that advice to heart, and Francois Truffaut, Alain Resnais, and Jean-Luc Godard went on to brilliant and important careers. Of the three, Godard took the least conventional road.
What Godard brought to cinema is a defiance of convention. Audiences expect a film to engross them so thoroughly that, for a time, they actually imagine the movie is real (the effect is called “the willing suspension of disbelief”).
What Godard does is to take this expectation and dash it, either through jarring edits, unbelievable monologues, or incredibly long takes. Godard aims to engage the mind instead of the heart. By refusing to fulfill audience expectations, he forces you out of your willing suspension of disbelief. He makes it impossible for the audience to get sucked in, forcing them to ask why the movie doesn’t look or act like other movies.
Naturally, by taking this approach, Godard alienates the average moviegoer. Joe Multiplex isn’t interested in having his expectations dashed, and Barbara Blockbuster is likely to be bored, confused, or annoyed by Godard. That that was his intent won’t change her mind.
Godard did make a few approachable films. Breathless plays with the American gangster genre, but it is fairly straightforward. Alphaville is mostly linear. Even Vivre Sa Vie has a continuous plot, although the film’s structure is deliberately broken apart.
But many of Godard’s films are simply mysterious to the average viewer, and I’m afraid that Keep Up Your Right! is among them.
Facets Video is selling Keep Up Your Right! as a wacky comedy, an homage to Jerry Lewis. And indeed there are some funny moments. But more than a comedy, Keep Up Your Right! is Godard’s return to his challenging style. Just look at the character names and you can see Godard is bucking convention: The Man, The Individual, The Average Frenchman, Ant, and Grasshopper.
What’s It About?
Several stories intertwine through Keep Up Your Right! One involves a filmmaker, played by Godard himself, who has a single day to make a movie. His story consists of a day of travel by airplane and doesn’t actually involve any filmmaking. Twice he is approached by people who comment on the shiny metal film canisters, oblivious to the beauty of the film within. Another thread follows The Individual through a series of vignettes and ruminations about death, and a final thread shows a rock band putting together a recording.
Clearly, what Keep Up Your Right! is “about” is not its plot. But finding a theme or object elsewhere also proves unsatisfying. Some phrases of dialogue and shots are repeated. A metaphor is introduced — a glass door is the barrier between life and death. But a second viewing didn’t clear anything up. Keep Up Your Right! doesn’t seem to convey any emotion or thought or insight. Not even a clear mood was established. Watching it made me feel like I was back in Art Film 101 with a condescending professor trying to weed out the slackers.
Do Not Try This At Home
Godard’s genius, if it exists in Keep Up Your Right!, is beyond my ken. Perhaps if this release included an audio commentary essay by a film scholar I wouldn’t feel so lost. But as a lone viewer with nothing more to go on than a box promising a “brilliant homage to Jerry Lewis,” I was quite disappointed. It would be hard to recommend this movie to any but the most die-hard fans of Godard.
Maybe one of them can explain it to the rest of us.