“Oh, Woe Is Me” Is Godard’s Study Of The Changing Sensibility Of Our Epoch

In the post WWII period of flowering democracy of material prosperity and secular spirituality people took pride in rituals of mutual tolerance and development of scientific knowledge. But closer to the end of the century: with the growing uncertainty and unpredictability of life and enlarging opportunities to make easy money outside the West (and with the influx of foreigners, represented in the film by Zeus’ entourage) something new started to happen to the Western soul and Godard was very quick to register it in “Woe Is Me”.

What happened is the intensification of interest in the supernatural (super-human) power. People started to think not about god (they always were believers) but about god’s power, god’s might. They even started to feel the power of (manmade) technology as a superhuman might, for example, as we see in the film, a passing ship puts people into a fascinated stupor, or the passing train activates in some a cartoonish iconoclastic reaction, or the electronic voice of the pin-ball machine mesmerizes not only the characters but the viewers as well. Bloated interest in superhuman energies is equally noticeable in different social strata (a literature professor is fixated on the finding in the poetic texts taste for super-human perfection, as Rachel Donnadieu, a parishioner and wife of the garage-owner/businessman tries to find the superhuman aura in her prosaic husband Simon). People’s fixation on technological toys helps the growth of their new pseudo-theological sensitivity.

Rachel’s husband Simon also cannot resist, around his business trip to Far East, this new self-aggrandizing feeling. Is Simon starting to feel himself as Zeus and then decided to surprise his wife by suddenly returning to her as God (feeling himself as if he is god), or is Zeus incarnated Himself into poor Simon to spend the night with Simon’s loyal wife? We are not suppose to expect any quick help from Godard on the level of plot – “objective” realities are always ambiguous since they are partially produced by human feelings and human perceptions: we unconsciously participate in creating phenomena we perceive as belonging to external world.

It looks that gods are always too human, while humans are always fascinated with their god-likeness. Humans and gods are so psychologically entangled that it is their oneness the problem. You never can say who is who. It’s bad for gods but even more so for people who are prone to act like gods forgetting about their fragility.

Godard’s unbelievable film is like life itself, at once impossible and natural, pathos-stricken and humorous. “Woe is Me” helps us not only to understand better our own complexes (and be astonished by another side of our everyday feelings) but also to get a new picture of our epoch that is changing in a direction nobody knows, when worshipping technological and financial power is our Woe.

The Return of Ancient Pagan Gods into Today’s World and into Godard’s Cinema.

“Woe…” is the third film of Godard’s mytho-religious trilogy: “Contempt” (1964), “Hail Mary” (1985), and “Oh, Woe is me” (1993). And it is the second film of the trilogy that deals with pagan imagery – the middle film: “Hail Mary”, is analyzing the Christian belief.

In “Contempt” Godard uses Homer’s “Odysseus” as a precious springboard in an attempt to imagine Odysseus/Ulysses’ destiny in the West of the 60s. Godard stylizes the movie-camera and projection machine as mythological monsters, and personifies the god Poseidon/Neptune as an American film-producer vis-à-vis the main character as modern Odyssey/Ulysses overburdened by the necessity to keep Gods by psychology (including his own wife) on his shoulders.

In “..Woe…” we are dealing with Zeus/Jupiter as the image of unconscious megalomaniacal identification on part of a small businessman. Godard takes us to the heart of people’s psychology that they blindly project outside them by forming today’s cultural trends. We are overwhelmed with Godard’s endless witty and funny examples of the growing taste for association with and closeness to super-human powers masked as human, and of superstitious reverie of technology among today’s population. We observe on the screen people’s irradiating irrationality and how it triggers our prejudices and makes us in 20th – 21st centuries psychologically very close to the ancient creators of Olympus. Godard shows that we react on technological power as ancient Greeks perceived Dragons, Cyclops, Hydras or Centaurs, and that like them, but much less metaphorically and for this reason much more violently we want and are trying to be as powerful as Gods.

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Zeus incarnated by Godard’s will into a garage owner, Simon (or Simon playing Zeus – feeling that he is like Zeus, in order to impress and subdue his wife) knows that earthly women melt in front of a gentleman – Zeus/Simon‘s ephemeral gesture of taking off his hat from this knowledge. Oh, these earthly women who like to pretend that they are the grand ladies and to see men bowing in front of them. Even Zeus tries to follow their expectation and bow in front of them in order to be loved as “only an earthly women can”.

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But what Zeus is really interested in are not ladies, but human nature of passionate – demanding but self-sacrificial womanhood. Here we see him searching for it. Women are those who accept that they are second after Zeus (or Simon playing Zeus). They are satisfied with possessing the absolute (be it Zeus or Simon/Zeus), not to be that themselves.

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Zeus tries to experience how much Zeusy the man, husband, the head of the family and respectable community member can feel (or Simon playing Zeus with his wife tries to find how much Zeusiness he can allow himself to feel in front of his wife). It seems, the both poles of the incarnation into maleness – the husband and the god can find similar satisfaction, be it achieved in heavenly and in earthly conditions.

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The members of Zeus’ entourage (his advisers and bodyguards) entertain themselves with teenage girls, when they are passing them on the street. That’s what pagan godly creatures are – indifferent and cruel to mortals and are prone to have bets with one another by the price of humiliating humans.

Posted on Aug, 18 2010 –   Jean-Luc Godard’s “Oh, Woe Is Me” (1993) – New Paganism of Worshipping Technology Intensifies Human Superstitions by Acting-Out Politics