Displacement, the act of moving something from an original or natural state, is one of art’s many tools for both changing and underlining the meaning of ideas, objects and people within a work. In visual art, we may, for instance, see a person or object removed from its expected location within the frame. In art with a temporal aspect, as distinct from art which has only a spatial aspect, displacement may be an act of re-ordering images or sounds from their natural order, casting conventional causality and narrative ordering aside in an act of expressivity. For cinema in particular, editing is the strongest means of creating displacement. However, fundamental to editing is also its power to connect and cohere that which when viewed separately might seem disconnected, joining or re-placing that which has already been displaced. Whether one views this as a dichotomy, two sides of the same coin, or even as two extremes of a spectrum is less interesting than considering the possibilities these tools open up for the artist.
For an early example of displacement through editing of images, the obvious realization is montage as conceived of in the 1920s. Here conventional expectations for narrative flow and continuity in space and time is broken in favor of establishing associative connections between images that when combined may induce emotions and ideas in the viewer that simple causality and realism cannot. Even earlier in cinema’s history, continuity editing and its ability to fuse together causally connected, but sometimes spatially distant, narrative elements helped to make cinema into a truly temporal artform rather than the more spatially oriented one it started out as . Going all the way up to the present, we can see temporal displacement as an important tool in the construction of the much-celebrated Twin Peaks: The Return. Without really spoiling anything (though those most averse to such things may skip ahead a little) an important aspect of this series’ narrative is how the events we are seeing are not really happening at the same time. Yet the order we are seeing them in is exactly the order in which the narrative makes sense. Lynch and Frost realize that in understanding the mysterious and intangible, we must sometimes abandon temporal causality and instead look for emotional and ideational causality and connectivity. What all of these examples have in common is that they use these most fundamental aspects of cinema to clarify aspects of their narratives and themes that more straightforward spatial and temporal structures cannot convey. So too does Godard’s Hail Mary.
Very briefly sketched, Hail Mary is the story of Mary,Joseph, and the Immaculate Conception, re-imagined in (then) contemporary Switzerland. Mary and Joseph have never had sex, yet Mary suddenly finds herself pregnant. Soon, angels appear and try to convince her of the importance of what has happened and Mary must try to navigate these absurd waters while also trying to elicit support from Joseph. As a person living in the contemporary world might do when faced with a claim of immaculate conception, he doubts Mary’s fidelity and struggles to reconcile their relationship, its particular physicality (and lack thereof) and what it means for their lives and the future. Though somewhat less impish than in his 60s work, Godard certainly treats all this with a healthy dose of humor, without ever really mocking the religious implications of it all. In fact, he retains a fairly graceful tone for most of the film. The one puzzling element in the film is a separate group of scientists/intellectuals who ponder the possibility of a non-natural origin of life. This can be seen as complementary to the idea of the Immaculate Conception (an immaculate conception of life itself), but it is a bit unclear how the intellectuals’ personal dynamics and the outcomes of their actions relate to the film overall beyond this thematic connection. All in all, it is a strange mixture of characters and events, but despite all this and Godard’s various Brechtian formal alienations (or maybe even because of these things), the film works extremely well as both a thematic exploration and formal undertaking while maintaining interesting characters and conflicts at its center.
The most obvious thing about this film is perhaps its superficially provocative nature: taking a foundational Christian story and not only putting it into the modern day, but also changing it and re-emphasizing the ideas (and also the nudity, which in light of the content seems to have caused a lot of stir back in the day). Given the previous discussion, it may seem obvious that this too is very much a displacement, but without the film’s formal aspects to underline this feature it may seem like more of a novelty. Approaching the film, I had displacement very clearly on my mind. This is something Godard has always done in his films: even disregarding the jump cuts of Breathless there are the sonic manipulations in, for example, A Woman is a Woman But something a bit more personal had put this thought it my head. Only a few weeks prior to watching the film I had attended a masterclass by experimental filmmaker Deborah Stratman. Sound editing and various other aspects of displacement are central to her work. So when the time came for questions at the end, I managed to cough up a naive question about the differences between editing images and editing sound. Having been too nervous to really pay attention, and using all my energy being o appear attentive and not panic as she graciously tried to explain her thoughts, I cannot really relay most of her answer. However, it boiled down to something about how editing sound concerns itself with stacking and simultaneous threads interacting, whereas editing images is more about temporal sequentiality, timing and ordering. However, finding an example of sound editing more akin to the latter, she mentioned Godard and specifically Hail Mary as her favorite. With all these thoughts buzzing in my head, I foolishly considered myself well-armed in the upcoming struggle against Godard’s masterpiece.
What is most immediately striking about this film for those coming to it familiar with Godard’s 60s output is how different it is in tone, aesthetic, and pacing. In my own experience, I have always struggled with most of his more slowly paced 60s films, finding the energy and strong convictions of films like La Chinoise and Week End superior to films like Contempt and A Married Woman. Yet here, Godard finds a superb use for a slow and steady pace by using it to construct his ideas more carefully and elegantly than in his more rapid-fire youthful exuberances two decades prior. His 60s output is hardly lacking in formal power, so it is no small feat that I find this film his most beautiful and formally elegant. Perhaps most arresting is how different it all looks and feels. Of course, the change in setting from 60s France to 80s Switzerland is significant, but you can also sense that a major transformation has taken place, even as this is still very much a Godard film. It is as if a significant part of his Nouvelle Vague-ness has been taken out, leaving only that which is uniquely his own creation and then constructing a new cinema around it. Though there is something more immediately mundane about the locations he uses here, and even a slight touch of neoclassical European realism at first glance, a different and new kind of beauty quickly emerges as it goes on. In particular, the natural world is suddenly allowed a place in his aesthetic toolbox in a way it rarely has before. Not only is nature, in particular the beauty of nature, a notable part of the film’s mise-en-scène, but there is something notable about the way he constructs his shots; with long, contemplative compositions of nature that are something quite new for him. I never would have guessed that there could be a beautiful sunset or an almost Tarkovsky-an vision of wind disturbing tall grass in a Godard film, but here it is, and it’s as mesmerizing as any of his urban visions of Paris in the 1960s.
However, the wonderful editing overwhelmed me the most. There is something very particular about the tempo of these cuts that I have seen very few other filmmakers achieve. In fact, I find it hard to describe the immense pleasure, bordering on rapture, I felt at so many of these cuts. The power of editing is often realized by what images are being connected by a specific cut, but here it has just as much to do with simply the precision and temporal placement of the cuts. It is the satisfaction of everything being just exactly right in a technical or rhythmical sense while also being beautiful and evocative at the same time – like a lovely melody being played on a percussion instrument. Any one of the dozens of these edits would be a landmark in any other film but here they keep on coming.
Myriem Roussel gives a breathtaking performance that is as impressive in its physicality as in its use of facial expressions and its reactivity to what is happening around her. Together with the other actors (Thierry Rode in particular), she and the film engage in a series of tactile gestures that convey both puzzlement and agency; gestures that create a feeling of security without unnecessary constrictions, but at the same time accept the direction of, and then flow with, the natural currents that are outside of human control. The way this ultimately interplays with The Story (or rather the subversion of The Story) is quite satisfying. Most interesting and impressive of all is the way Godard rephrases, or rather textually displaces, Mary’s pregnancy from a story of the unborn child to the story of a woman’s body. Especially in the context of the Immaculate Conception, Mary’s pregnancy and the birth of Christ — a foundational Western text — this redefinition, a shift of importance, seems particularly significant. Even more interestingly, by redefining the story in this way, this decision strikes me as one that subtly changes the story of the coming and birth of Christ into an actual pro-choice narrative. While kept mostly as subtext (she never considers abortion), there is something particular about how secondary the unborn child is made to its effect on, or rather as a specific change to, Mary’s body. Furthermore, there is also the notion of how the story becomes mostly about Mary’s control of her own body against a man who must learn his place in relation to her and her experience, and of how the angels eventually function as extensions of her own will and agency. Constructing all that around this particular story, the least likely story for such a thematic shift (though also in a way not), is nothing short of remarkable and brilliant. This is in fact, even with all of its formal triumphs, the film’s main achievement.
There is indeed a lot more displacement going on in the film, especially on a formal level: from the repeated intertitle “at that time”, suggesting simultaneity both temporally and thematically of spatially separate scenes, to the way both plot and sound bleeds through the border between scenes and locations (the ideas being more important than in-scene realism). More generally, there are continual contrasts between the soundtrack’s classical music (usually suggestive of inner, unvocalized thoughts and the serenity of a focused mind) and of man-made “noise” from cars and planes and the hustle and bustle of society at large. These sonic devices are doubled by the beautiful images of the natural world like the sun and the moon, and nature (standing in for God, the divine or nature as abstracted deity) contrasted with the very mundane locations in which the story is otherwise taking place (the everyday, the simply human). Perhaps most obviously, this is suggestive of, and underlines, the main narrative’s displacement from its biblical origin to modern times and its displacement from a story of an unborn child, Christ or not, to the story of a woman’s body and her own relationship with it.
Godard as a filmmaker has always been most interested in the very nature of cinema itself, what it is, what it can do and how we perceive it. While in the early-to-mid-60s these interests manifested themselves mostly as genre deconstructions and cinematic references, he eventually moved towards establishing a clearer dialogue between form and content. Even in great films like the political ones he made in 1967, there is no such elegance in the marriage of form and text as can be found in Hail Mary and some of his other late films. Perhaps only by “destroying himself” like he did at the end of the 60s and finally deconstructing his own cinema rather than making films deconstructing the cinema of others, could he arrive at this more seamless and, for lack of a better word, mature work. I can make no general claim that this is a better film, or a more engaging one, than many of his more beloved works, but, if I may go out on a limb, I would say that it is more interesting.