Film Review #71: Hail Mary
1985; DVD 2006
Director: Jean-Luc Godard
Cast: Myriem Roussel, Thierry Rode, Philippe Lacoste, Juliette Binoche
Even with its holiday season release, The Nativity Story is faltering at multiplex box offices. What is has going for it is Keisha Castle-Hughes as Mary (she debuted in the New Zealand film Whale Rider) and director Catherine Hardwicke, whose sharp eye for contemporary young people brought us Thirteen and Lords of Dogtown. But you have to go back twenty-one years for most bracingly modern Holy Family.
In Hail Mary, Jean-Luc Godard’s 1985 take on the Nativity, Joseph drives a night-shift cab from the airport. Marie, whom we first see during her high school basketball team’s game, works nights in her father’s gas station on the airport road. After two years at arm’s length, Joseph is desperate and confused. One day he flings at her, “You don’t even care if we’re together! You don’t care if I’m sick or I die!”
In the age-old way of young men in love, Joseph (Thierry Rode) is by turns tender, demanding, pleading, petulant and accusing, all to get in Marie’s pants. Then he threatens to drown himself. Marie (Myriem Roussel) is unperturbed, answers with a gentle smile that she doesn’t think he will really jump in the lake.
Part of Joseph’s confusion is that he has no model to understand Marie’s seeming lack of desire, except his own indifference to another young woman. A luminous young Juliette Binoche, not quite believable here as spurned, plays Juliette, whose fervent pursuit of Joseph mirrors his pursuit of Marie. He does not want sex with Juliette because he does not love her, so he decides that Marie does not love him. Joseph’s insecure panic over rivals surges when the stranger Gabriel (Philippe Lacoste) arrives by night plane – Marie hears his jetliner passing overhead and pauses mid-motion – to announce Marie’s pregnancy. Rough as a Dutch uncle, swarthy Gabriel materializes suddenly in rooms and yells at pouting Joseph about having trust. “And some love, you jerk!” he adds, shoving Joseph and slapping him in the back of the head. Godard also injects a parallel story about a professor’s doomed affair with his student that comments on how inadequately intellect alone explains our origins and satisfies our longings.
Hail Mary was modern in more than its dress and setting. Godard spear-headed the French New Wave in the 60’s with films like Weekend and Breathless; two years ago he directed his eighty-ninth movie. He made Hail Mary in an era when interest in psychology made possible this kind of exploration of Joseph and Marie’s inner turmoil with their destiny and one another – complete with symbolic trappings of radiant sunrises, the moon and wind rippling the marshes. Godard frankly drew on the writings of Francoişe Dolto’s 1977 book, The Gospel is Confronted by Psychoanalysis.
He also looked to the past, basing some views of Mary on Michelangelo’s Pieta and drenching the story with Bach’s and Dvorak’s soaring music. For all its neon and rain-soaked asphalt, Hail Mary contains surprisingly few trendy fashion details that would frankly date it as mid-80’s. With the hindsight of two decades now, Godard’s use of some modern components has had the reverse effect of creating a certain timelessness.
Pope John-Paul II condemned Hail Mary as blasphemous. Besides subtler subversions, the film contains scenes in which Mary is naked or close to it, including her crucial exchange with Joseph about love’s meaning in which she teaches him to pay attention, her gynecological examination by her doctor – accenting her youth, Godard has Mary keep on her school-girl knee-socks while in the stirrups – and a late scene in which Mary, her mother and her new baby swim naked together. The Boston Roman Catholic Diocese made sure the film didn’t play there. Like Scorcese’s Last Temptation of Christ, made three years later, Hail Mary often faced pickets and protests at theaters.
In October, New Yorker Films issued Hail Mary on a new DVD that also contains an interview with Godard about his aims and sources and some clips from the filming, plus another short film. Avoid the multiplexes and head for the rental shops, where you can get the real deal on faith’s demands and pitfalls.
This review was written for Make it Snappy, a weekly DVD column reviewing films that never opened theatrically in Syracuse and older films of enduring worth, in the 12/21/06 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly.