Academic journal article Framework

Myth and Narration in Godard's Hélas Pour Moi1

Academic journal article Framework

Myth and Narration in Godard's Hélas Pour Moi1

Article excerpt

When the father of my father's father had a difficult task to accomplish, he went to a certain place in the forest, lit a fire, and immersed himself in silent prayer. And what he had to do was done. When my father's father had the same task to accomplish, he went to the same place in the forest and said: 'We no longer know how to light the fire, but we still know the prayer.' And what he had to do was done. Later, when my father had the same task to accomplish, he too went to the forest and said, 'We no longer know how to light the fire; we no longer know the mysteries of prayer. But we still know the exact place in the forest where it occurred, and that should do.' And that did do.

But when I was faced with the same task, I stayed at home and I said, 'We no longer know how to light the fire. We no longer know the prayers. We don't even know the place in the forest. But we do know how to tell the story.'

-Abraham Klimt (Bernard Verley) in Hélas pour moi

When art becomes the product of a unique genius, the use of exact methods will yield positive results only if the study of recurring elements goes hand in hand with the study of the unique, which to us is simply a miracle. It matters little how we will classify The Divine Comedy or Shakespeare's tragedies: Dante and Shakespeare stand alone, and exact methods will not explain their genius.

-Vladimir Propp, Theory and History of Folklore

In the 1960s the films of Jean-Luc Godard frequently and daringly engaged social issues, but his mission was seldom to change the world in the manner of the Italian Neorealists or the Magnum photographers whose work he knew well. Since his return to Switzerland in 1979, Godard's use of social issues has increasingly turned inward toward film form. While the terrible political traumas of our era are still referenced-Poland's Solidarity struggle in Passion (France-Switzerland, 1982), the Serbian atrocities in For Ever Mozart, (France-Switzerland, 1996), etc.-his primary concerns remain with questions of representation, knowledge, tradition, and innovation. This is nowhere clearer than in Hélas pour moi / Woe is me, (France-Switzerland, 1993). Contemporary events continue to be cited here too,2 but they are simply annexed to the film's overriding preoccupations with narrative authority, an authority that Godard establishes in the structure of myth by modernizing an ancient Greek story.

Modern narrative analysis begins with the work of Vladimir Propp who studied and classified Russian folk tales. From his first publication Morphology oftheFolktale (Russia, 1928; U.S. 1958), Propp attempted to study the folk tale scientifically as a biologist would organic formations in nature.3 Propp demonstrated that Russian folk tales could be defined by their form, instead of by their plot, and he identified their underlying structure as repeating motifs or "functions."4 A function is the action of a character (actant) from the point of view of its importance in the development of the narrative.5 Propp believed that myths, sacred stories about the gods and historically anterior to folk talcs, could be similarly analyzed.6 He maintained that "in the course of historical development, plots can shift from one form (myth) to another (legend) and from that to a third (wondertale)." A wondertale, more commonly known as a fairy tale, involves marvelous elements and occurrences, but not necessarily fairies. While myths are taken to be true stories, expressing "the faith of the people," a legend may or may not be true, and a tale is synonymous with a lie or a falsehood.7 Propp's contribution was both formal and historical, and his influence on the study of narration has been immense. We shall have recourse to his ideas and to those of other narratologists in unraveling Hélas pour moi's recalcitrant form.

This film is an interpretation of a Greek myth so popular it entered Western dramaturgy. In this story of Amphitryon and Alcmene, Zeus, the supreme ruler of gods and men, seeks to fulfill his desire for a mortal woman by incarnating himself in another form. …

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