Jean-Luc Godard

SYMPATHY FOR THE DEVIL is Godard at his worst—full of fumbled “experiments,” pompous pseudo-militancy, and flat, failed, cryptic jokes. I love it. Made in collaboration with the Rolling Stones and originally titled One Plus One, it serves as a kind of stool sample of 1968—the year of the Paris insurrection, the year of the Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy assassinations, the year that brought the student movement in advanced capitalist countries to a screeching ideological climax that must have looked, at the time, like revolution.

And what role was culture supposed to play in the coming clash? Films, books, universities, rock—was this all a mere ripple in the superstructure or a site of struggle? A bourgeois amusement or a war waged within consciousness? “Please allow me to introduce myself,” Mick Jagger sang mockingly on Beggars Banquet. “I’m a man of wealth and taste.” That “I” is Satan, and the song, of course, is “Sympathy for the Devil”—a song Godard’s film shows us being rehearsed, embellished, stripped down, and finally recorded at the Stones’ London studio in, yes, 1968.

Jean-Luc Godard, Sympathy for the Devil, 1968.
Jean-Luc Godard, Sympathy for the Devil, 1968.

It’s a Brechtian tic: The pop song, that varnished article of cultural capital, is stripped of its precious enigma and revealed to be an aesthetic confection. Look how it’s forced through the machine of pop production; watch how it’s tinkered with in the laboratory of contemporary taste. But this is a song about history, chaos, death, rebellion. It lurches at the world outside the studio, a world driven by violent catharsis and anarchic betrayal: “I was ’round when Jesus Christ / Had his moment of doubt and pain . . . stuck around St. Petersburg / When I saw it was a time for a change.” The words are drawled and wheezed, made ragged and voluptuous by Jagger’s vocal style.

That style, of course, is “black.” And blackness, in this film, marks the blurred conjunction of vernacular and avant-garde, aesthetics and politics, culture and revolution. Sympathy for the Devil is broken into scenes, all of which are drawn from a single long take, and the shots of the Stones in the studio are interleaved with little skits. Anne Wiazemsky plays a willowy angel of history named Eve Democracy, a velour-clad neo-Nazi holds Maoist students hostage, and a recurring interlude takes place in a junkyard, where Black Power militants tote rifles while (with Godardian flatness) they belt out militant rhetoric from Eldridge Cleaver and Stokely Carmichael, and Amiri Baraka’s Blues People.

Baraka’s book, published when he was still LeRoi Jones, is a history and a polemic; it bristles at the seizure of black cool by white youth. Its presence in the film is a kind of winking critique—sloppily executed and poorly conceived—of the rock-song-as-revolution, making Jagger’s bluesy antics, his “mm yeah” and “tell me baaaaaaby,” wither into radical charade. (Not far, perhaps, from the spectacle of Godard hanging from the theater curtains as he shut down the 1968 Cannes Film Festival.) Sympathy for the Devil was Godard’s last work before he pledged himself to the Dziga Vertov Group, a Maoist film collective he formed with Jean-Pierre Gorin, and whose aesthetic vision was marked by a taste for didactic tautness and arid disjunction. But in this film, white sidles up to black; Marxist discipline melts into “soul.” And Godard strains to touch a new style, a different people, and therefore the throbbing and erratic spirit of the age. “This is the work of cretins,” said Guy Debord of the film, “and Godard is the most cretinous of them all.”

Tobi Haslett’s work has appeared in n+1, the New Yorker, Artforum, and elsewhere.