2003: The Use of Sound in the Cinema of Jean-Luc Godard

Throughout the cinema of Jean Luc Godard, sound and the construction of the auditory space occupied a distinct and vital role in the development of meaning, particularly through its interaction with the visual space of a given film. This interaction is marked in Godard’s films by a repeated oscillation between linkage and breakage, essentially a constant shift by the auditory composition in its proximity to the image. What results, then, is an audio-visual relationship in which meaning is created largely through the interaction not between sound and image, but more between the interaction between their conjunction and disjunction. In essence, it is not important that the disjunction exists between the two spaces, there is in fact an expectation set up that it has to exist, but rather how that disjunction is positioned in opposition to the traditional filmic methodology of connected sound and image.

One of the key ways in which this relationship between sound and image can be seen at work is in Godard’s manipulation of perspective. As is widely documented, the visual spaces of Godard’s films throughout his career have been constructed largely around the emphasis of the spectatorial gaze. Essentially this means that the relationship between figure and camera is set up in such away that mirrors and emphasizes the relationship between the screen and the spectator. As a result, the viewer is repeatedly reminded of his/her own relationship with the image as the film progresses, and the image is presented in such a way that emphasizes its exhibition. For example, Bridgette Bardot’s figuration in Le Mepris is such that the viewer is always aware of her character’s presentation as an object to be looked at, while the positioning of Jean Seberg next to a poster of a female image is meant to point to a correlation between the two feminine representations. Thus the visual perspective, the cinematic gaze, is meant to emphasize the way in which the spectator should and naturally does perceive the onscreen image.


The auditory perspective in his films, however, seems to work on a different, yet somewhat parallel level. What becomes important when the sound construction is examined is the way in which the filmmaker’s own perspective increasingly becomes the overriding emphasis. This is not to say that the auditory space is intended solely to allow Godard a venue to voice his own opinions, though this is a major and growing focus as his films progress through the New Wave and beyond, but rather that the sound of his films increasingly is used to inform the auditor not in the way he/she sees and hears the film, but allows for an observation of the text as the filmmaker observes it. This is particularly evident through the use of what can be referred to as disembodied sound. Disembodied does not necessarily mean non-diegetic, though it in many instances refers to such sound, but rather encompasses those sounds that don’t have a direct source within the visual composition of the scene, including such devices as voice-over, music, and non-specific ambience.


It is important before considering Godard’s use of sound in this manner, however, to examine the context under which his early films were made. The New Wave as a film movement was replete with examples of manipulation of meaning through the disjunction created between image and sound spaces, particularly in way disembodied sound was repeatedly employed to emphasize such disjunction. Truffaut, for example, used voiceover throughout his career, from his short film “Les Mistons” through Jules and Jim and beyond to create meaning through the sound/image dialectic. Alain Resnais famously structured his entire film Night and Fog around the interaction between image and an often-times disjunctive voice over and music soundtrack while Jean Rouch in such films as Les Maitres Fou and Moi, un Noir composed his sound independently of the image, opting for post-dubbing over direct sound which was unavailable due to technological constraints at the time.


While these examples serve as a basis upon which disembodied sound use was built during this time, what becomes intriguing about Godard’s cinema, beginning in the New Wave and extending well past the widely recognized end of the movement, is the gradual progression his films take away from the precepts upon which the movement was created. The New Wave was in many ways marked by a strong focus on and complication of the traditional filmic narrative structures. The audiovisual disjunction throughout this period was in many ways often intended to supplement this narrative focus, with wide ranging examples of disembodied sound dictating a specific narrational directionality. For Godard, however, while it was importantly served through the implementation of disembodied sound, the narrative structure of his films in many ways began to conflict with the creation of meaning. There began to arise a conflictory relationship between narrative and externalized meaning early in his filmmaking career, which became exemplified in the disjunction between disembodied sound moments and those in which auditory and visual spaces were linked.


By the time Vivre Sa Vie was released in 1962, this dialectic was fully entrenched in Godard’s filmmaking, and, while the narrative maintains its dominance over the meaning structures created through the audiovisual relationship, there is a distinct sort of initiation of the eventual rift that would grow between externalized meaning and narrative creation. Though the film is largely structured around audiovisual linkage, to the extent that even disembodied sound is repeatedly grounded within the narrative space of the film, Godard is able to emphasize the auditory perspective in several key scenes. In many ways, the uses of disembodied sound in this film act to subvert the strictly narrative meaning of the film and direct the spectator to a meaning that both emphasizes the filmic construction and stands outside it to represent the filmmaker’s own perspective on the text.


The first example of the importance of disembodied sound in the creation of the auditory perspective in fact comes during the first sequence of the film, specifically the opening titles. While it is typically noted that the visual composition in this sequence, the three portrait like shots of Anna Karina’s face, are created as such to emphasize the representational nature of her image, it is the interaction between the auditory and visual spaces that directly informs the spectator of the intended perspective. As each shot begins, it is accompanied by a simple piano score, dictating a specific reading of the material, pointing to a mode of observation long existent in the Cinema. There is a complacency to the spectatorial position driven by this musical accompaniment, a lack of responsibility that is directly linked to the way in which the cinematic text had been perceived since the advent of the sound film. The breakage in this sequence comes midway through the opening shot, and is repeated in each of the next two, immediately informing the auditory perspective. As the music abruptly drops out, leaving the image immersed in silence, the spectator is signaled to reevaluate the ways in which he/she perceives the filmic representation. Essentially, the disjunctive audiovisual relationship in this sequence, through the abrupt slip from linkage to breakage, forces the audience from the very outset of the film to observe with a certain set of expectations, namely that the cinematic text can not be trusted implicitly, that an active relationship must be taken up in order for understanding to be possible. The auditory space dictates the reading of the film, while the visual space contains that which is to be read.


Later in the film, Godard uses disembodied sound to a different, if not necessarily oppositional effect. At the end of the Sixth Tableau, the sound of automatic gunfire shatters the comparative calm of the film’s soundscape. Not only does this abrupt event signal to the instability and danger inherent in the narrative, particularly in relation to Nana’s life, but it directly dictates the construction of the film itself. As the camera moves toward showing the source of the gunfire, the image is disrupted by a series of jump cuts linked to the stuttering sound of the gun. In essence, the sound is dictating the way in which the sequence is perceived, on a visual, narrative, and emotional level.

There is an interesting interplay between unity and disjunction between sound and image at work. While the spectator does not see the gun being fired, does not know the exact location of the shooting, he/she nevertheless experiences it in the way Godard intends. Essentially, through the reevaluation of audiovisual linkage, the filmmaker is able to convey the meaning of the gunfire above the event itself, forcing an active reading of the text that would be lost, or at least marginalized, if a more passive relationship were to exist between spectator and filmic representation.


While these two uses provide clear examples of the auditory perspective at work in this film, it isn’t until the Twelfth Tableau, during the reading of Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Oval Portrait,” that the possibilities of this kind of sound usage becomes apparent. During this sequence, Godard infuses the soundtrack with his own voice, speaking through a visual intermediary as a young man reads to Nana. While this is clearly an attempt by Godard to overtly express his feelings toward Anna Karina, and is well documented as such, what becomes important is the way in which the auditory space is manipulated and pulled for the most part out of the narrative composition of the film in order to express the filmmaker’s own perspective. There is an interesting manipulation at work in this scene by Godard of the audiovisual relationship and of the nature of disjunction and unity within the Cinema. While the voice is clearly localized within the space of the film, both visually and narratively, it does not originate there, but rather exists on the outside and dictates from its own spectatorial position, independent of that occupied by the rest of the audience. In essence, the inclusion of Godard’s own voice in this sequence signals to the very nature of the auditory perspective, namely that of a third position, that of the filmmaker, whose perceptions dictate the reading of a given representation.


Despite the extensive and critical role this sort of sound usage plays in Vivre Sa Vie, there is the sense throughout the film, and rightly so, that the development of the auditory perspective is relegated to a secondary or even tertiary existence by the extent to which the narrative dominates the filmic representations. In each example of Godard’s use of disjunction and disembodied sounds as a method to emphasize this perspective, the focus on narrative advancement and coherence forces the auditory composition to be linked and localized at some level within the narrative and even visual spaces. Godard’s own voice, for example, one of the key points upon which the auditory perspective is hinged, due to the strictures of the narrative and the conditions under which the film was made, namely adherence to the precepts of the New Wave ideology, must be firmly embodied within the film’s diegetic and narrative structure. There are a variety of reasons for this, the most prescient being the fact that the filmgoer’s expectations are such at this period of time that anything more drastic would have been difficult to comprehend.


It wasn’t really until the very tail end of the New Wave period that Godard was able to fully advance his representation of the auditory perspective to another stage in its development, noted in his use of disembodied sound in Alphaville. This film, in many ways, marks the point at which Godard’s cinema begins to move out of the New Wave mode, a sort of transitional work that both rests firmly in the existent modes of filmmaking he had developed during the early 1960’s while at the same time presupposes several key moves his filmmaking will eventually assume. Alphaville, while clearly based in a clear narrative construction, and still relying heavily on the traditional filmic relationships between sound and image for the creation of that narrative, at the same time manages to widen the rift began in Vivre Sa Vie in terms of the disjunction between auditory perspective and visual/narrative construction.


Music plays a key role in this disjunction, most notably the repeated use of the detective genre-specific theme that is used heavily and seemingly without cause throughout the film. What becomes interesting is not the way in which this music is used, precisely, but rather when it comes into play and the accrued meaning it assumes through its repetition. There is a clear move in the use of this theme to reference the American cinematic genres upon which much of the film is based, and to play off existing spectatorial expectations about the meaning of such traditional usages. There is an expectation of something dangerous or ominous around the corner, yet the more the music is repeated, this expectation is replaced by an understanding that such expectations are wrong, forcing the auditor to question and reevaluate his/her perceptions based on the actual textual evidence within the film. Godard, in using music in this fashion, forces such a reevaluation and in many ways allows the sound to dictate, through its disunity with the image and narrative spaces of the film, the way in which those spaces should be read independent of pre-existing cinematic expectations.


This musical usage, however, and its role in emphasizing the auditory perspective, in many ways serves a secondary role in this film’s audio composition, the primary taking the form of extensive and varied use of voice over, or more precisely, the presence of the disembodied voice. The externalized voice in this film is manifested in two different ways, namely through Lemmy Caution’s narration and in the vocalization of the Alpha 60 computer. In many ways, though occupying similar positions in the soundscape, these two instantiations of the disembodied voice point specifically to the transitional role filled by the film in respect to Godard’s move out of the New Wave methodology.  Caution’s voiceover signals quite clearly to the traditional modes of narration long existent in the Cinema through this point. The function of his narration seems at times solely to advance the narrative, to allow the spectator to move from point A to point B. In essence, it is firmly linked to the narrative space of the film, its dictation centered on narratological progression. While disjunction exists between the sound space and image, it is limited and acts in much the same way a conventional narration would work in preexisting French or even American Cinemas. However, it serves a more important and interesting disjunctive role, in its relationship to the vocalization of the Alpha 60.


Where image, narrative, and sound are linked and dependent on one another in Lemmy Caution’s narration, Alpha 60’s voice seems to exist almost wholly outside of the filmic space. While its source is hinted at and alluded to within the image space, and within the narrative structure of the film, and while it clearly exists as a part of the diegetic world of Alphaville, there is a constant disjunction and alienation of the Alpha 60 from the rest of the filmic space. There is no directionality to the voice, its sound quality is unaffected by the physical structuring of the visual space, rather it is an omnipresent and externalized force. Through extensive manipulation, the voice of Alpha 60 is actually that of Godard himself, using, in a less defined manner than in Vivre Sa Vie, a narrative-based intermediary in order to present the film’s auditory perspective.

As a result, the computer’s words are continually presented to the audience, even when narratively it is engaged in conversation with an onscreen character. Opinions and perspectives which have little or no direct effect on the film’s narrative progression are expressed throughout the film through the Alpha 60, reflecting similar views and opinions held by the filmmaker himself.


The disjunction between these two uses of voice over in many ways functions as a crossroads in the way in which Godard’s films create and propagate meaning through their auditory construction. The narrative conflict between Caution and Alpha 60, through the instantiation of the auditory perspective, becomes a larger more extra- narrative conflict, signaling an directional uncertainty in Godard’s cinema regarding the ways in which meaning is made and translated to the spectator. The sound in this film, by working in separate and oppositional modes, forces a recognition within the spectator of this conflict, not only in Godard’s cinema, but in the Cinema as a whole.


This conflict carries through and is eventually resolved in the 1967 film 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her. Positioned well after the end of the New Wave, it is at this point where the progression of the auditory perspective in Godard’s early filmography reaches its fullest impact. There is a wide disparity at the very outset of this film between the presentation of meaning and the development of the narrative. To accomplish this disparity, the auditory space of the film is clearly delineated into that which supports and links with the visual space, and the externalized, disembodied sound of Godard’s own voice, for the first time free of a narratological intermediary. Godard’s voice, while delivered in a just-audible whisper, is given independent and equal status as the conjunctive audio presented during the narrative moments of the film.

The breakage present between conjunctive and disjunctive elements is an important and necessary move in this film. For meaning to be portrayed through the auditory space, or at the very least for the auditory perspective to be fully realized in this film, a dissolution of the pre-existing audiovisual relationship is necessary. In essence, Godard, by separating the sound moments focusing on the presentation of the auditory perspective, allows them for the first time to relay meaning directly to the auditor without the distraction of the narrative and visual dominance present in his earlier films. As the film progresses, the split becomes less and less severe, as the auditory space and the visual space reunite by the end of the film, at this point allowing meaning to take a dominant role to the presentation of narrative information. It is at this point that Godard’s progression in the development of the auditory perspective reaches its conclusion.


In many ways, this kind of progression in Godard’s early films, and his eventual removal of the narrative following 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her, in many ways acts as a marker of the end of the New Wave as a movement. Where meaning in the New Wave, and particularly in Godard’s early films had always had to assume a secondary role to the narrative progression within the individual cinematic texts. The audiovisual relationship present in his early films is indicative of this. While the sound space was always a critical source of meaning in these films, it was necessitatively localized and thereby limited within the narrative space. It is only through the expansion of the role of disembodied sound and its disjunctive relationship both with the image and with the conjunctive sound present elsewhere in the film that the progression of the auditory perspective, and by extension the filmmaker’s perspective, is possible. As this expansion in the auditory perspective progressed through the 1960’s, Godard’s cinema transitioned gradually away from the New Wave and a narrative focus to a more abstract meaning that would permeate his cinema for years afterward.