Intellectual as a Detective (Narrowing and Flattening of Human Thinking in the Post-cultural Society)

Godard rehearsing with Nathalie Baye and Johnny Hallyday

With this image repeated several times throughout the film Godard reminds us that our thinking about life (our images and ideas about it) is in the grip of corporate power and propaganda, like society’s energy policies are defined by fossil fuel corporations, our peace or war and our jobs – by the centralized planning of the decision-makers, and the destiny of humanity in general is controlled by our irrational need in self-enrichment that makes us compulsive gamblers putting our life on the card of a banknote.

Like the previous shot was about the corporate monarchy ruling our lives, this shot introduces us into the very galaxy of our existence. We see the sun of the world of money-manliness (and the will for wealth – the wealth’s will inside us), under which we all live today.

The Intellectual Clan (Human Destiny as Cognitive Superiority over the Studied Object/Subject, based on the Intellectual’s Ability to grasp its “Mechanism”)

Like traditional philosophers looked at human world from the balcony of their minds, like great writers and playwrights saw the world from the tower of their bleeding heart and proudly autonomous intellectual will, today’s intellectuals (although hired by earthy/ social authorities) are still looking at the world from the above with their intellectual vigil and register over what they observe with their cameras and tapes. Today their very “aboveness” has lost its monumental (theological or secularly cultural) quality and became more obviously (socially) functional.

In the previous shot we saw the legs of Arielle observing the surroundings of the hotel where our intellectual detectives (William Prospero and his nephew, inspector Neveu) investigate a murder. Arielle is a young assistant and student of Prospero and his nephew. In this shot she shares her interpretative inspirations with her patrons and teachers.

That’s how they work together – the uncle observes the hotel’s externals through the technological internals while Arielle (growing into a capable analyst) checks her intuitions with Isidore (inspector Neveu).

Uncle Prospero is a pure logical thinker, a Kanto-Hegel of criminal investigation. We cannot imagine him using a gun, but Isidore is much more up to date (mundane) and is ready for everything. But it doesn’t mean that gun is for him what books are for his uncle. He is somewhere in his soul like his uncle but he belongs to the next generation – he cannot afford nurturing the autonomy of his mind and heart. He has to adapt to the system. And he tries hard to play his part.

In today’s life, eroticism, like money, glues to everything. But Arielle’s innocent look and impeccable skin are not the reasons why the uncle couldn’t resist his nephew‘s girlfriend. It is rather her responsiveness to his intellectual torments inseparable from the philosopher‘s calling. William Prospero’s gentleness and his Terzieff charm of other-worldliness, his emotional refinement made her heart stumble, tremble and crumble. It’s not easy for her to sidestep the person she loves and who, no doubt, is dedicated to her (Isidore), but he is too prosaic and trying too much to fit in the world. How to name Arielle’s short romance with Prospero inside our classification of Godard’s couples in “Detective”? – May be they are a mystical-erotic couple: their togetherness is for them ontological alternative to the world. Arielle-Isidore relationship, on the other hand, is based more on an eroticism generated by soul-sharing. In this shot we see that Arielle is reading for the sake of William, to help him to regain his creative power from his Shakesperian namesake. He looks not at the text (he remembers it), not at Shakespear’s picture, but rather at his own hand touching the book.

For “thinkers” togetherness needs not only time but “cultural” mediation (which Godard shows in “geometrical” terms in this shot).

Isidore’s heart is torn apart between his fiancée and his genius-uncle. For people with conservative sensibility this is an either-or situation full of animosity and potentiality for violence. But we have a deal here with intellectuals. Sophisticated solution is not to fuss about what’s already happened. Isidore continues to care about his uncle and admire him, and he is as kind to Arielle as before. Isn’t it a bit superhuman? But to be like this is the task of an intellectual. Soon we learn that Isidore’s wise ability to accept reality as it is, is the same vis-à-vis the social violence. Is it psychological maturity and wisdom or philistine conformism?

A decisive scene, when opposing interests of different groups/clans come to an inevitable violent clash

Is there any possibility of preventing the violence habitually erupting in Western democracies in the form of criminality and wars against other countries? This question is especially relevant for US in 21st century when American culture is bleeding with people’s emotional anger, verbal aggressiveness and frustration about deterioration of material conditions of life. What we don’t know how to do is prevention of violence generated inside our socio-political system. The intelligent inspector Neveu is a direct reflection of this our ineptitude. As a person with a liberal sensibility he will not initiate or provoke violence (he is much ahead of the conservative carriers of violence). But as a democratic person he is not able to participate in the organization of effective prevention of intra-cultural violence. At the end of the film Arielle wants to prevent Mafiosi criminal (mafia in “Detective” is a metaphor of ruling groups in different countries) from carrying out murders, and it is here that Isidore gives her (and viewers) the lesson of their life.

The Money-investors Clan (Transformation of Human Destiny into Money Chance)

This shot refers to the compositional strain between a monumental column and stylized metal branch stretching out towards the column. Recent emotional difficulties in Francoise and Emile’s marriage provide the psychological context for the interpretation of this compositional motif. When two wills (always present in an intelligent marriage) start to contradict one another, the reality of the clash between the “traditional male authority” and the “new feminist power” often becomes an unfortunate part of the family dynamism. The column symbolizes man’s authority, while the metal branch woman’s power. The both elements are as if fighting for the center of the space.

Francoise’s suffering posture is on the same axis as Emile’s self-withdrawing one. Is she really suffering (in spite of their continuing emotional need for each other) or just talking on the phone and doesn’t want him to hear? Both possibilities are there reinforcing each other. The shot points out the fact that their lives are already separate – she is as much isolated from him as he is from her (he belongs to his mirror reflection and local light). The light from the open balcony (light of their mutuality) is gloomy as their life together came to be.

It was a time when Emile was ready to give his life for Francoise’s love. He still is – look at his eyes and facial expression: he gives his soul completely, not a corner is left that is not offered to her. But it doesn’t matter anymore – he has failed, he feels responsible for losing his wife’s money on investment which proves to be failing. It is very easy for us who didn’t lose a couple of million dollars (because we never had it) to reproach him and his wife for “allowing money to ruin their marriage and their love”. If we knew what it means to lose several millions we could understand better their predicament. It is not a question of money as such, of course – it’s a matter of ontological value. Money as such is an abstraction, but what it psychologically refers to – the value of everything humans are or do, is personal, intimate, essential.

Understanding that he’ll not be able to recover Francoise’s money, knowing that his wife is leaning toward Jim Fox-Warner, Emil feels that his life is at its end – he cannot anymore prove his value to Francoise, to himself and to the world. Is it admirable or reproachable to identify yourself as a human being with value? Is the value of human life beyond human understanding; is it beyond our ability to decide it? Searching for the criteria of human being’s life’s value creates such an incredible stress that it can push us into desperately risky behaviors including homicidal and self-sacrificial acts.

The Money-multipliers clan (Transformation of Human destiny into a Money Chance)

Jim Fox Warner has borrowed a lot of money to make a decisive financial breakthrough. He has a difficult time to pull it through. You never know, you have to risk, you hope for the best. People like him are in a desperate but honest situation. That’s why people like today’s big American financial players want more and more guarantees in their business of self-enrichment – like risk-free investments supported by tax-payers’ money through direct bail-outs.

For the boxing champion Tiger Johns and his girlfriend as for people of basic instinctual self-realization (without articulate sublime interests) – sex-based togetherness (SBT) and fight for income (FFI) is what human life is all about. In this shot Godard characterizes this instinctual double-ness of human nature. SBT is signified by the female nudity as a foreground to the public space (as if in metal corset), and FFI by a male training for fight, in front of the interior of a prosperous life. Godard constructs this shot by, as if, inserting the camera in between two bodies to show this particular couple’s main predicament – conflict between two instinctual modes of self-realization.

The boxer’s girl-friend becomes for a time an organic part of a business interior for the whole clan’s preparation for the decisive money-generating fight.

The Mafia-clan (Human Destiny as Tireless Efforts to Stabilize and Enlarge the Place on and Near the Top of the Social Hierarchy)

Mafiosi patriarch’s face can belong to a CEO of a global corporation, American neo-conservative politician or member of Soviet Politburo.

If we were dealing with a Hollywood film we could write under this still something like “mafia at work” or a “chilling warning”. But since we are dealing with a film by Godard – we are forced not to be satisfied with the obvious references. As we, Americans, have recently learned again, our solemnly proclaimed democratic prosperity is always spoilt – by invented wars, financial collapses, and a new kind of unemployment (which is a result of taking our jobs en masse to China, India and Vietnam). It always was something like a dead mouse amidst the American well-being (steadily growing cultural illiteracy of population or the destruction of American existential mind by pleasures of consumerism and mass culture). This shot represents this seamy side of the democratic life, which weakens its ability to reproduce and to improve itself. This rat for breakfast is what Ken Lay or Bernie Madoff’ are for the pompous American prosperity or what Cheney/Bush violations of Law and US Constitution are for American democracy. The mouse/rat motif in “Detective” (intertwined here with mafia-the family motif) is, it seems, a homage to Alain Resnais’ “Mon Oncle d’Amerique” (1980).

Godard reminds us here that Mafiosi also have children and grandchildren. Of course, mafia’s next generations are psychologically traumatized. Look at this little girl – how dollish her face is, how robotic her eyes; it is not easy to be a servant, a slave of money. But the main point of this shot is, it seems Godard’s mockery of the American press’ inability to enlarge the concept of mafia to cover not only obvious but mafia-like structures and elements of a democratic society. Godard represents the literal understanding of what mafia is by using the cartoonish cover of Time-magazine (simplemindedly addressing the existence of mafia in a narrow sense, i.e. a small part of a much larger reality).

Luxurious meal in a luxurious hotel (representing today’s democracy as it sees itself by the eyes of the mafia top of the social hierarchy) bought with somebody else’s money, extracted by routine force legitimating itself by the fact of its very existence.

Amour-erotic couple (Love as Positive Influence on Human Destiny becomes Superfluous)

Francoise and Emile is really a “romantic” couple – even in disagreements, even when they are disappointed in each other they are fixated on one another. Is Emile’s final sacrifice a heroic act (as compulsive as it can be) for the sake of Francoise’s happiness – last attempt to stay forever in her heart?

Agape-erotic Couple (Love as an Influence on Human Destiny becomes Self-sacrificial)

Jim after the disappearance of the boxing champ from the formula of profit

Francoise and Jim resurrect their humanity by the internal light of their love. To overcome animosity with love – to unite with the one who has failed you and whom you willing to consider your enemy is an incredible victory of human intelligence over the “ready-made” (“instinctual”) reactions. May be, this is how internal world appeared in human life in the first place and saved human beings from coming to righteous madness of destruction (even though a dose of sublimated irrationality always nesting inside love).

The three shots above show the three phases of Agape’s victory over psychological defensiveness, inflamed selfishness and injured narcissism prone to avenge the world, in Francoise’s soul (first – experiencing choosing love over bitterness; second – decision is made but not yet translated into its bodily confirmation; and third – soul and body come together in love).

Philistine-erotic couple (Love defining Human Destiny becomes More and More Trivial)

Even instinctual, ordinary people (belonging to living because they were born into it, the plastic philistines) are not alien to compassion (boxing champ’s girl-friend) and the feeling of duty (champ in relation to Jim Fox Warner).

The Young, the Girls, the Employees, the Servants

If you don’t have any particular skills or discernable talents but are very attractive…

…you can learn…

…and then step by step you can come to feel less lost and more confident. The importance of Julie Delpy’s character (“Wise young Girl”) in the film is that she personifies the endless young people in today’s formal democracies including many young Americans who always think about life in terms of their immediate situations. They are as if lobotomized by their inability to address the world in not empirical terms.

To overcome proclivity for transgressing norms of moral behavior, to feel shame, to get the desire to redeem your bad conscience can, according to the film, be dangerous for your survival much more than misbehaviors.

Clash and Collapse into a Blood Spill

The viewers/readers are encouraged to decipher whom each ball refers to in a situation of amorous triangle (Francoise, Emile and Jim) and in a situation of conflict between amorous attraction vs. attraction to money (champ and his girl-friend), and what the balls signify in a situation of the coming boxing match, etc. How many (symbolizing the competitive situations) triangles (represented by the pool balls) has Godard implanted into the film? Why did he decide to make pool/balls one of the basic metaphors characterizing today’s societies?

The last two shots is a semantic apotheosis of the film. In this format, we don’t have enough space to provide “who is who” information about people whose faces, arms and hands are recognizable – attentive watching of “Detective” will clear the confusion. These shots represent Godard’s concept of hierarchical relations in today’s post-industrial societies rushing ahead into super-industrial super-future. On the bottom we see a young person who had been randomly sacrificed by the system. Right above him we see a person who by the circumstances was pushed to despair that triggered his over-risky behavior. Still above we see a person who tried to assert justice and challenges those who are on the very top of the social hierarchy (they‘re personified by Angelo, a Mafiosi, shown with three hands instead of two). Ruling people are not vulnerable to dangers – they have the power to handle any danger with their bare hands. Godard’s “Detective” is overwhelming, a disarming dystopia undressed from the future, where the present predicts the future like essence the phenomenon.


What people with a bent for disinterested thinking, those who are dedicated to truth, can do in a society where circulation of smart-money and delirious dreams is an everyday life? The need in super-money and dreams of becoming super-rich are so normalized and naturalized these days that although most people don’t really have a chance to succeed in it the idea itself is omnipresent – it is incarnated in the very functioning of our socio-political system.

We live in a world where there are less and less philosophers, independent scholars, less and less serious writers and poets. These people cannot psychologically survive in an atmosphere where intellect becomes a servant of corporate greed and sells itself to a salary paid for technical tasks. It is becoming more and more difficult to root intellectually in a social niche. In “Detective” we see the incredible person, a sensitive and gracious like a philosopher and a poet (Laurent Terzieff) who is demoted by today’s cultural bastardization – an intellectual is forced by the condition of today’s division of labor to become a detective (private investigator or investigative journalist, reporter or any specialized analyst). This shattering of existential thinking is a result of debilitating anti-cultural processes hidden under the pompous slogans praising the glory of prosperous democracies.

Godard emphasizes that Terzieff’s character is by no means close to endless police detectives of pop-cinema by making him a person “not of this world” and without any “moralistic” indignation toward the transgressors whose deeds he tries to unravel. He understands his task as a search after factual truth. He needs a mediator between his “otherworldliness” and the social function of a detective (incarnated in his nephew – Jean-Pierre Leaud), who, while the uncle concentrates on the mental mechanism of the situation needed to be deciphered, is running around collecting relevant information and establishing helpful connections. If the uncle by psychological identity is a traditional thinker, the nephew is his mutation according to the spirit of times – he is a pragmatist and a realist, not an idealist of the truth. The uncle and the nephew have a pretty and an emotionally virginal assistant (with whom the nephew is amorously involved and with whom the uncle romantically falls during one of the crisis moments of his intellectual creative process).

The problem of cooptation of the intellectuals into professionals of technical knowledge is, of course, not the only problem Godard discerns in today’s “advanced” societies. He creates a typology of human groups (representative of today’s social life) and analyzes relations between them. As in his many films Godard is simultaneously scholarly and humorous. His visual comments and characterizations in “Detective”, his visual symbolism and narrative vignettes are overwhelming but rewarding.

Beside the intellectual “clan” Godard analyzes groups made of people through whom money circulate like fish through currents and waves. These middle and upper-middle class people with decent education, some are small business owners, are seduced by the system into the dreams of enhanced prosperity. Godard’s point here is that these people are still deeply human, that their sensibility is still congruent with the tradition of secular humanism – we can recognize in them our own humanity struggling to reconcile the tasks of financial enrichment with the “archaic” need to be psychologically and spiritually self-actualized. Godard represents these people as belonging to two categories – money investors and money-growers. The first category is personified by the people with whom we can identify naturally, without any effort (Nathalie Baye and Claude Brasseur – masters of gentle emotional characterization of their protagonists’ personalities). The second category is represented by the sport events entrepreneur (Johnny Hallyday who proved by this film that he can be a very sophisticated actor). They try so hard to be on the level of their tasks, and they still are capable to keep their humanity and decency! We admire them! And still, according to Godard, they are doomed.

In “Detective” – the destiny of democracy is decided by the destiny of the Middle class: will humanity and education on the one hand and money dream on the other be able to co-exist, or will philistinism inevitably swallow a holistic intelligence? That is the question the film indirectly poses to the viewers. The film suggests that there will be no winner in the contradiction between the educated humanness and philistine dream, but that will be the loser – those refined people themselves who will not be able to choose between the two motivations which rip them off.

The dominant minority that is common to both totalitarian and democratic systems (with some differences in the ruling style) is metaphorized by Godard as mafia-clan. This segment of the population is surviving by collecting/extorting money from the majority for their own inflated material needs. “Mafia” as Godard’s an inter-cultural generalization in “Detective” covers several categories that are successfully operating in real life in different conditions of various countries. For example, in Soviet Russia Godard’s mafia was a top segment of the Communist Party, but in today’s US it is corporations accumulating tax-payers’ money and making on it super-profits. The most unbearable truth about “intellectuals” “rationally” adapted to the anti-democratically hierarchical way of life (personified by Isidore) is their collaborative co-existence with mafia-rule (like, for example, today’s US Justice Department “co-exists” with alleged violations of law by not investigating aspects of war in Iraq or financial machinations which led to financial collapse started in 2008). The universality of Mafiosi as human types explains the monumental generality in Godard’s depiction of the condition of their souls (adding to the general impersonality of their characters).

The last group Godard found important for his characterization of today’s “developed” societies is the young people surviving around those who control some money, by working for them (middle class bosses use them gently and decently, in a democratic style). Only our refined couple is childless. Jim Warner Fox is surrounded by the young who are grateful for his generosity. But who are really fertile and reproductively proficient it is the mafia figures (in Godard’s figural sense). More, the children of mafia are brought up to fight for their privileges from childhood (it is difficult to avoid here association between mafia kids in “Detective” and many American kids today who are often from childhood encouraged into extreme competitive sports (like, for example, “ultimate fight”) or into adult-like financial calculations.

The film engages the viewers into clash between humanness and financial obsessions where humanness wins like Christian message in Christian tradition – by the price of a sacrifice of human life. In the film only Mafiosi survive (and intellectuals who “rationally” adapt to the anti-intellectual climate). Humanness wins in principle but human intelligence dies either together with human body or by its very transformation into robotic survivalist intelligence. Can humanness exist without human intelligence? Only if human (humanistic) intelligence will reinforce humanness both will be able to live and prosper in gentleness.

In “Detective” Godard shows us the road we are on. But, simultaneously, he shows that it is impossible for us to follow it, and he analyzes why it is the case.

Godard uses different types of visual images – identifying with the characters’ emotions, psychologically analytical, socio-culturally analytical, like political posters, monumentally imposing, comically over-dynamic, etc. The particular type of image he experimenting with in this film is the image-trap which encloses, limits the characters, catches them as if into the cage. The formal characteristic of the image-trap is a contrast between character’s intense emotion and the static camera or/and contrast between his/her physical movement and static camera. Often the personages are shown moving about in the hotel space of life as mice/rats in a labyrinth or as if frozen there as though in a tormenting stupor.

Posted a review on July 6, 2014   “Detective” (1985) by Jean-Luc Godard  by Acting-Out Politics