At the risk of sounding like a philistine I have to admit I’ve never been a particularly big fan of Jean-Luc Godard. I thought Breathless was style over substance, and that Alphaville is perhaps the most over-rated sci-fi film ever made. However I do admire his work ethic and his willingness to tackle serious political ideas. From an ideological perspective Godard was a Marxist and much of his early work reflects this perspective.
Tout va bien was his first film after a brief career hiatus and examines France in 1972, four years after the events of the May 1968 protests. It starts with disaffected workers occupying a meat processing plant and taking their employer hostage. Film-maker Yves Montand and his wife, American journalist Jane Fonda (mostly referred to throughout the film as Him and Her), arrive to interview the manager and are promptly confined to his office as well.
During this process both sides of the argument are expressed with the manager and workers giving monologues directly to camera with their viewpoint. This obviously gives the film a slightly theatrical air which is further reinforced by the factory set which resembles a giant doll house. This allows the camera to pan between walls and rooms to focus on different parts of the action. The effect is not dissimilar to that used by Hitchcock with his huge soundstage for Rear Window. After a while the union representatives arrive, and we get to hear their side of the story where they argue that acts of rebellion like this only serve the interests of the owners, as it justifies them refusing to negotiate under duress.
The workers in the factory clearly feel that their union has failed them (also a theme of Paul Schrader’s film Blue Collar), but seem unsure of the best tactics or strategy to use to address their grievances. Personally I would have liked to have seen the entire film cover these events, how they develop, and the challenges they represent. Instead after about 45 minutes the film changes tack and instead begins to concentrate on Montand and Fonda’s relationship and aspirations. This involves more monologues to camera with each discussing their reaction to 68 and what came after. Montand’s piece in particular is striking, as his character was a formally radical filmmaker who decided instead to make commercials as he felt it was more intellectually honest. How many protesters from 68 did eventually end up living the bourgeois lifestyle they claimed to despise?
It’s interesting to speculate as to whether Godard meant this to be a sly comment on himself or not. He was obviously aware that Tout va bien itself could be viewed as a more commercial piece of work than his previous films due to his use of two of the biggest international film stars currently available. He even calls attention to this fact in the films opening sequence where the cost of the movie is discussed in detail.
As a film then Tout va bien doesn’t have a conventional structure as such, or even a story to tell. It’s clearly designed to demonstrate its own artifice at every turn, and instead acts as more of a political essay addressing the themes of class struggle, revolution, and the power of the state. While it clearly outlines the exploitation of the workers and the horrible conditions in the French factories, it doesn’t seem to come down on any one side as to how these problems should be addressed. It is however extremely relevant to today’s occupy movement who are wrestling with many of the same kind of ideas and issues. For that alone it’s worth watching.
Here is Jean-Luc Godard talking about Tout va bien in 1972: