The imposing filmography of Jean-Luc Godard is dotted with many remarkable anomalies and one-offs, including television commercials and music videos. “The Rise and Fall of a Small Film Company,” a shot-on-video picture made in 1986 and having its official New York premiere in a new restoration, is one of the most diverting and substantial of these.
Commissioned by, yes, a small film company to produce an installment of a French TV channel’s series of crime novel adaptations, Mr. Godard instead created something almost wholly other. This one was to be based on “The Soft Centre,” a book by James Hadley Chase (who wrote the lurid and scandalous “No Orchids for Miss Blandish” in 1939, as well as “Eva,” which was made into a notable film by Joseph Losey in 1962). Drawing on his own frustrations in a new era of film production, Mr. Godard concocted a narrative that, like his movies “Contempt” (1963) and “Passion” (1982), chronicles a film that doesn’t get made.
Jean-Pierre Léaud, reunited with Mr. Godard for the first time since “Le Gai Savoir” in 1969, plays Gaspard Bazin, a frenetic, declaiming figure driven to distraction by, well, it’s hard to say what — although the implication is strong that he’s been broken by filmmaking itself. Mr. Léaud’s performance here is a marvel, both manic and meticulously controlled.
Making a film of “The Soft Centre,” he uses the small offices of his producer, Jean Almereyda (Jean-Pierre Mocky, an actor and director who was a contemporary of Mr. Godard’s), to conduct elaborately ritualized auditions, creating assembly lines of emoting. He approaches women in bistros and requests that they come to his place for private auditions and that they bring their bathing suits. When they tell him that sounds shady, he responds, “That’s not our style.” (Sure enough, when they do show up, Bazin is sufficiently scattered and passive that you think maybe he wasn’t lying.) He does take a genuine interest in working with Almereyda’s wife, Eurydice (Marie Valera). Almereyda is too caught up in financing concerns to take much notice.
The allusive character names and the absurdist spectacles of the depicted auditions suggest that the proceedings constitute an elaborate inside joke, which they do. (Bazin of course refers to the groundbreaking French film critic, mentor to François Truffaut and, to a lesser extent, Mr. Godard and several other critics turned filmmakers; Almereyda was the assumed name of the filmmaker Jean Vigo’s father; and you hopefully know who Eurydice was.) The effect is heightened when Mr. Godard himself shows up, playing the director Jean-Luc Godard. But his work never operates on just one level. Beneath the playfulness, there’s both genuine melancholy and anger; as ridiculous as the characters here can seem, the movie attaches them all to a palpable thread of anguish.
“Mais c’est Godard!” Almereyda exclaims when the filmmaker materializes, an unlit cheroot in his mouth. The two get in the fictional producer’s car and discuss recent real-life events in the film world, including the 1985 drug overdose of the producer Jean-Pierre Rassam and the 1982 death of the actor Romy Schneider.
As funny as Mr. Godard’s claim that he’s recently moved to Reykjavik, Iceland, to be closer to great chess is, his near prediction of what would become, in his own life and practice, a larger isolation from the ostensible center of French filmmaking here speaks to a disillusionment that has a genuine poignancy. In the most piquant of the film’s dozens of allusions, one of the central characters of “Rise and Fall” emerges from the inevitable shipwreck of the Hadley project to present himself for employment at another company, this one called Albatross Films. Cinema: Can’t live with it, can’t live without it.
The Rise and Fall of a Small Film Company
Not rated. In French, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 32 minutes.