15 Mar 2017

Fifty greatest films: Histoire(s) du cinéma

From Widescreen, 12:53 pm on 15 March 2017

Tantalisingly rare, Godard’s challenging documentary is said to be the high point of the great director’s “late period”.

Jean-Luc Godard at 85

Jean-Luc Godard at 85 Photo: Desistfilm

#48= Histoire(s) du cinéma (1988-98)

Now we are in a pickle.

This is a project designed to celebrate (and encourage the watching of) films that the world’s best critics have decided are the best ever made but we are only five episodes along and we have already come across a film that nobody is able to watch.

Godard’s Histoire(s) du cinéma may be the orneriest project of this famously ornery director’s career. First of all, it’s not even really a film – it’s a television series in eight episodes but because not all episodes were released simultaneously (it took ten years) it wasn’t really considered as such. But eight episodes adding up to a significant 266 minutes it evidently is.

Histoire(s) du cinéma is also an early example of mash-up or compilation filmmaking. It’s for the most part composed of clips from other films (a fact which may explain its rarity, rights for every single clip – plus period music – often proving difficult to secure). Some consider it to be the crowning achievement of Godard’s late-period (although considering he is still making films at 86, his late period has lasted a heck of a lot longer than his early one).

And I’d love to be able to either prove these critics right or wrong but I can’t. Because Histoire(s) du cinéma is all but impossible to see today. The Sight & Sound list that inspired this project hasn’t even bothered to illustrate it with a still or provide a link to more information. Alongside easily accessible classics like Some Like It Hot and La dolce vita, it appears to be a non-film, a ghost of a film.

Aro St Video have a copy but have withdrawn it because the costs of classification were too high. There is a pirate copy (rough, with unsynchronised sound and Spanish subtitles) on Vimeo. A Region 1 DVD is available (for a price) on Amazon. But for most of us, it is tantalisingly out of reach.

Which begs the question, how did enough critics see it to be able to vote for it in the Sight & Sound poll? Were they all at the Un Certain Regard screening in 1997? Have they been passing bootlegs around among themselves? Or are they just being film wankers, claiming to have seen a film that no one can contradict them about (we all know those people, don’t we?)?

Anyway, it is by many accounts an epic achievement, a typically Godard-ian puzzle to compare with Mark Cousins’ idiosyncratic The Story of Film which takes a more traditional approach to the order of events at least.

Anyway, back in 2012 Richard Corliss in Time magazine named it the DVD of the year:

Both a work of criticism and the creative capstone of Godard’s career, Histoire(s) crams the grand, sordid spectacle of American and European cinema into a 4 hour and 24 minute-long love letter, an eloquent rant, a majestic atonal symphony. Godard scholar Jonathan Rosenbaum compares this towering triumph to James Joyce’s last novel, Finnegans Wake. Maybe, but Histoire(s) is a lot more fun — and, hands down, the year’s most enthralling, infuriating, must-have DVD.

Clip from Histoire(s) du cinéma


The Sight & Sound Top 50 project is intended to encourage more attention to the greatest films of the past – in the same way we still read old books and listen to old music we should be appreciating old movies.


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