'Two or Three Things Auteurs Know About Auteurs', by Rebecca Harkins-Cross


Illustration by Benjamin Urkowitz.

Jean-Luc Godard idly swirled a spoon in his coffee. Baz Lurhmann was very late and Jean-Luc Godard, now on his third Caffe Americano, was starting to get jittery. Around him, the world began to disappear. All he could see were bubbles roiling on the pitch-black liquid’s surface, a galaxy of turbulent constellations reflecting back his troubled mind.

Like history’s greatest friendships, theirs had been written in the stars. Jean-Luc Godard never told Baz Lurhmann that he attended the Strictly Ballroom (1992) premiere at Cannes by accident – that in fact he’d misread Lurhmann as Lanzmann. Jean-Luc Godard was convinced that old Claude’s nine-hour Holocaust epic Shoah (1985) must have finally sent him cuckoo. Why else would he follow it up with a dance movie? Expecting schadenfreude, Jean-Luc Godard had unwittingly discovered a cinematic saviour and kindred soul instead.

Or so he’d thought, until he saw The Great Gatsby (2013). Knowing there was no way he could face Baz Lurhmann, Jean-Luc Godard had snuck out of the cinema before the credits rolled. When Baz Lurhmann texted from the after-party, insisting Jean-Luc Godard share a celebratory bottle of Cristal with him and Jay-Z, the reply was characteristically oblique: “Jean-Luc Godard doesn’t know what to do”.

The Great Gatsby was supposed to mark Jean-Luc Godard’s exultant return to the pages of Cahiers Du Cinéma, providing the hook for a manifesto on auteurism’s rebirth. Now the deadline was upon him and he hadn’t even picked up his pen.

Obviously it becomes difficult having a coffee with someone if that afternoon you have to write that he’s made a silly film.

Jean-Luc Godard was so consumed by his dark thoughts that he failed to register the bustle of the surrounding Starbucks. He didn’t even notice the flash of a silver mane hurrying through the door, jumping when Baz Luhrmann pulled up a stool beside him.

“Crazy hair day,” said Baz Luhrmann, pointing at his perfect quiff as if in explanation for his tardiness. “Hair is emotional.”

Jean-Luc Godard stared up at Baz Luhrmann quizzically. He self-consciously ran a hand across his own bare crown, smoothing down the tufts that were badly in need of a trim.

“Where’d you get those cool pants?” asked Baz Lurhmann. Now Jean-Luc Godard knew Baz Luhrmann was taking the piss; he’d been wearing these grey suit pants since 1960. Jean-Luc Godard was so despondent that he couldn’t even take the bait.

“Film is over,” Jean-Luc Godard sighed. “What to do?”

“What does that mean?”

“People like to say, ‘What do you mean exactly?’” said Jean-Luc Godard. “Jean-Luc Godard means, but not exactly.”

“Oh, cut it out!”

“In movies, comedy and tragedy are all the same.”

Over the years Baz Luhrmann had gotten used to Jean-Luc Godard’s quicksilver moods, but now he was discovering that they had new depths. Jean-Luc Godard turned back to his coffee, and Baz Luhrmann had a chance to look at him properly. Jean-Luc Godard looked as crestfallen as Odile in Bande À Part (1964) when she realises Franz and Arthur were just playing her for Stoltz’s money.

Baz Lurhmann decided to change tack. “Why is it that you always look fresh, like you’re having a lot of fun – and yet Baz Luhrmann knows the life you lead!” It was like Jean-Luc Godard couldn’t even hear him.

“Baz Luhrmann was thinking about putting a bucket of acid on his face,” said Baz Lurhmann, waving his hand just in front of Jean-Luc Godard’s nose. He didn’t even look up.

Jean-Luc Godard was a world away from the Starbucks on Avenue de l’Opéra. All it took was a glint of sun off a passing car and there he was on a dance floor in suburban Sydney, shielding his eyes from rhinestones sparkling as bright as a paparazzi’s flash. Here Jean-Luc Godard was just another face in the crowd, cheering for the renegade couple as they dance to the beat of their own cha-cha-cha. And they’re spinning and twirling and Paul Mercutio’s bolero is twinkling and the crowd’s stomping is so fierce it fuses with the rhythm of Jean-Luc Godard’s racing heart.

He understood Jean-Luc Godard perfectly, Jean-Luc Godard thought, and Jean Luc-Godard too understood everything he said.

Forget jump cuts, forget Brechtian alienation, forget the gap in Anna Karina’s teeth: Strictly Ballroom was pure cinema. Francois Truffaut might have been a royal prick, but this was talking about when he said “long live audacity”. Here Jean-Luc Godard had glimpsed the élan, the joie de vivre that would portend Baz Luhrmann’s entry to the pantheon of auteurs; Baz Lurhmann had the technique, the personal style, the inner meaning. In Strictly Ballroom Jean-Luc Godard glimpsed a soul so heavenly it bordered on the divine. Or so he thought.

“Are you going to ask Baz Luhrmann why Baz Luhrmann did that?” Baz Luhrmann asked, cutting to the chase.

Deep down Baz Luhrmann knew exactly why Jean-Luc Godard had been avoiding him. He’d looked over during the kaleidoscopic carnival of The Great Gatsby’s party scene, expecting Jean-Luc Godard’s face to be lit up like it had been that very first night. Instead Baz Luhrmann saw him peeking at the screen through splayed fingers. Baz Luhrmann was perplexed that Jean-Luc Godard could remain unmoved by the crowds cavorting to an orchestral cover of will.i.am’s ‘Bang Bang’. Instead Jean-Luc Godard was thinking, It is crude, backward, caveman music.

“It was not a very good movie,” Jean-Luc Godard replied.

Baz Luhrmann had learnt to ignore this kind of criticism from the press, but never from his friend Jean-Luc Godard. Baz Luhrmann was starting to feel like Nulla standing on the edge of the cliff in Australia (2008), facing the stampede of cheeky bulls. But where was his Mrs Boss Lady, who would catch him when he was about to fall? What Baz Luhrmann needed was someone to cradle him in their arms and whisper, “It’s alright, you’re safe. I’ve got you.”

“The outsider is a champion, and he starts a revolution,” protested Baz Luhrmann. Jean-Luc Godard couldn’t tell whether Baz Luhrmann was talking about Gatsby or himself.

“It means nothing,” Godard replied. “The story is not told. It is a mixed cocktail.”

“You feel like you’re eating whipped cream, and yet you feel nourished.”

“There is no mystery at all, and no beauty—just makeup. It’s Max Factor.”

What Jean-Luc Godard had come to realize was that Gatsby, like all Baz Luhrmann’s characters, was just a stand in for Baz Luhrmann himself – the lonely millionaire in his gilded mansion. Jean-Luc Godard was terrified to follow that train of thought to its logical conclusion: perhaps the auteur was just an egomaniac after all.

“The whole thing came from growing up in a very isolated country town…” Jean-Luc Godard cut Baz Lurhmann off with a raised hand. If he had to hear Baz Lurhmann’s origin story about the poor boy from Herons Creek, discovering how to dream when his father inherited the local cinema, one more time…

“A story should have a beginning, a middle and an end, but not necessarily in that order.”

Baz Luhrmann was beginning to feel like Nana at the end of Vivre Sa Vie (1962), listening to the old man in the café drone on with his faux philosophising when she’s just trying to turn a trick. Baz Lurhmann’s eyes lit up with crazed fury.

Who was Jean-Luc Godard anyway, Baz Luhrmann thought. How many people went to see fucking Film Socialisme (2010)? Jean-Luc Godard’s career had been on a downward spiral since Anna Karina divorced him in 1965 and everyone knew it. But Baz Luhrmann would always have Nicole Kidman.

“If someone is telling you that there is only way to cha-cha-cha, or that there is only one way to make a movie, or to paint a picture, or one way to live your life… Or there is only one particular religious code… If they are telling you there is only one way, and that is the secret, and that as long as you do what they say… Baz Luhrmann just has never been able to buy into that belief! Baz Luhrmann is not saying there shouldn’t be rules or structure! But within that, you need to find self-expression. You need to find self-revelation.”

Here he goes again, Jean-Luc Godard thought. “Voilà. No mystery.”

Jean-Luc Godard felt like one of the starcross’d lovers in William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet (1996). Yet when Jean-Luc Godard pressed his nose to the fish tank, he still saw the face of an angel staring back at him. He remembered what he’d said to Baz Luhrmann when he first saw it. They say, ‘You mean that’s Shakespeare? But it’s wonderful.’

As Baz Lurhmann continued to drone on, however, Jean-Luc Godard’s patience soon waned. “It gets right back to Greek mythology,” said Baz Lurhmann. “Telling stories in a very universally shared mythological structure. One that amplifies the human condition.”

“The Greeks gave us logic,” Jean-Luc Godard sneered. “It was Aristotle who came up with the big ‘therefore’. As in, ‘You don’t love me any more, therefore…’”

Enough was enough. “Baz Luhrmann’s life is incredibly rich! Baz Lurhmann is creative! Baz Luhrmann thinks that Baz Luhrmann would love to sit inside the box. Baz Luhrmann thinks it would be, perhaps, an easier road. But maybe not. Maybe it wouldn’t be so truthful.”

“Photography is truth. The cinema is truth twenty-four times per second.”

When Jean-Luc Godard repeated this platitude, the tagline from Moulin Rouge (2001) began to run through his head like a mantra: Truth, Beauty, Freedom, and above all things, Love. Where is the love? Jean-Luc Godard thought. Wait, wasn’t that a song by the Black-Eyed Peas featuring will.i.am?

“Look, you’ve got to take the leap of faith,” Baz Luhrmann implored. “A life lived in fear is a life half-lived.”

With those words, it was like the spell was broken. The black cloud dissipated and Jean-Luc Godard saw his old friend sitting before him again. Jean-Luc Godard began humming ‘Love is in the Air’ under his breath. Baz Lurhmann flashed him an ultra-white grin.

“What is love, fear, contempt, danger, adventure, despair, bitterness, victory? What does it matter compared to the stars?”

Maybe that night at Cannes all those years ago had only been the middle. And this, this was the beginning.

Author’s note: the dialogue in this piece is constructed entirely from quotes by Jean Luc Godard and Baz Luhrmann. Any first person pronouns have been tweaked. Jean Luc and Baz are not bros, obvs.

Rebecca Harkins-Cross is the film editor for The Big Issue and theatre critic for The Age. You can find her online at rebeccaharkinscross.com.

This piece originally appeared in The Lifted Brow #23 — The Ego Issue (the one that entirely excluded all subjective, objective and possessive first-person pronouns, both singular and plural). Get your copy now.