‘Tout va Bien’ (1972) or — What If Jean-Luc Godard Directed ‘Carry On at Your Convenience’?

I was talking with someone yesterday about moments in Godard in which you “click” with him, where you get him and you simply go with his movie… and if that happens at all. There’s a big one for me in ‘Tout va Bien’ and it comes only ten minutes into the film. It goes something like this –

Yves Montand and Jane Fonda play, respectively, a film/advert director and a radio journalist both visiting a sausage factory. Once they arrive they discover the factory manager (played by Vittorio Caprioli) is under siege by his workers and has taken refuge in his office. They arrive and as the manager ushers them into his safe-space the workers jeer, shout and cause something of a ruckus.

Things have got pretty chaotic and Yves Montand looks up at Caprioli and Fonda with an almost helpless look, almost asking his fellows actors for guidance. Yet Fonda, and especially, Caprioli, are running with the scene and energy and it is very funny. Caprioli takes what is going on and just runs with it, big time. Montand, finding that his fellow actors are of no help to him, looks off camera to, presumably, Godard and/or Morin with an almost pleading look that says “I am going to completely lose it here and I am letting you know that. What do I do? Can I walk off camera and laugh my ass off?”

He appears to get the signal to do so, so he gently glides off camera with a massive smirk escaping his face at all the pantomime insanity. It was at that precise moment that the film had me; there is a definite comedic energy always simmering under the surface here. It’s less revolution that is bubbling up than silliness and, dear god, this film can be very silly (and extremely funny) at times.

So on the face of it ‘Tout va Bien’ seems like a dry, political polemic as this privileged married couple (that cool judging eye of the media) visit a sausage factory where the workers are attacking the managerial system and it’s pretty obvious that Godard and Gorin are on the side of the workers. This means that, what with the film’s comedic elements, ‘Tout va Bien’ plays out like a politically inverted version of ‘Carry On at Your Convenience’ (1971) — the filmmakers glorify rather than demonise the unions and workers here. But there is a big difference between ‘Tout va Bien’ and ‘Carry On at Your Convenience’ — ‘Tout va Bien’ is genuinely funny.

I was stunned at how much I laughed during this one. Firstly, there are not only elements of farce and the films of Tashlin and Lewis flying about here but also humour in terms of filmic language, editing, subversion of expectations both visually and politically as well as the fact that the movie is always on the verge of undercutting or deliberately tripping itself up; of not taking itself too seriously. Much like Jerry Lewis is always on the tipping point of a prat-fall so ‘Tout va Bien’ is beautifully balanced on the point of always falling flat on its face. It’s that out of control aspect that made Montand crack up. He knew what Godard was doing.

Yet there are also moments of genuine beauty here. There is a shot (around the 52 minute mark) where Godard and Gorin simply shoot the exterior of the factory just to watch the light change. It’s really pretty and rather touching.

This film also shows Godard’s affinity with Rivette and not just in the mise en scene but also, again, that cinematic scene of humour. Gags are set up that only pay off five minutes later or after having been through a few different levels first. “Where is this going?” you could ask, but it always ends up going somewhere. There is improvisation here but not arbitrariness.

Then there’s the ten minute long tracking-shot near the end which is just mind-blowing. It’s like watching a flower unfold or a chick breaking out of its shell except it’s also like watching Romero’s ‘Dawn of The Dead’ (1978) and ‘Koyaaniqatsi’ (1982) at the same time if any of that makes sense. Either way, as a scene set in a super-market that takes a swipe at consumerism and shopping it does so more successfully in one shot than Tati’s ‘Playtime’ does during its entire run-time. Again, I also found it wittier than the latter.

I don’t know why I enjoyed ‘Tout va Bien’ so much, but I did. I was expecting something dry (it’s not) and serious (it’s incredibly funny). I mentioned to the person I was taking to yesterday that I am never sure if Godard is taking the piss or not. Considering there is a scene halfway through ‘Tout va Bien’ in which a character is desperately running around trying to find a toilet, I have the sneaking suspicion that he most certainly is.

Comedy writer, radio producer and director of large scale audio features.