TIFF 2023 | Trailer of a Film That Will Never Exist: Phony Wars (Jean-Luc Godard, Switzerland/ France) — Wavelengths

By Michael Sicinski

Godard’s first posthumous work could be taken as a suicide note for cinema itself. Throughout his career, Godard repeatedly aimed to “return to zero,” to unlearn the discipline of filmmaking and begin again. But certain axioms always persisted, such as images, motion, and temporal progression. Phony Wars goes back before zero, before there was such a thing as cinema. Its first five minutes are presented in absolute silence. (No sound.) It is composed of a series of still images, collages that resemble Cy Twombly or Robert Motherwell. (No representation.) Several of its numbered parts are blank white pages, on which the Canon copier paper watermark is the only visible trace. (No image.) About six minutes in, we hear the dense swelling of Shostakovich. (No words.) Then we see exactly one passage of moving images, while Godard describes the film he had planned but was unable to complete.

Trailers precede their films, but a trailer that takes the place of a film doesn’t just become the film itself. It is a retroactive gesture, one that treats the sounds and images we are witnessing into something resolutely anterior. Like Lacan’s concept of the Imaginary, Phony Wars only exists once we recognize that it does not exist, that its unavoidable absence posits it as something that did exist but can never be seen or heard. The trailer for Phony Wars not only stands in for the nonexistent film. It serves as a retroactive trailer for cinema itself, a real-time evolution of the medium (silence + sound + colour + motion) that heralds the medium to come, thereby positing that cinema, as Godard understood it, never really happened, and can only be conceived as a future medium, a coming attraction.

Phony Wars was intended to be Godard’s adaptation of the 1937 novel False Passports by Belgian writer Charles Plisnier. As Godard mentions twice, Plisnier was a Trotskyite who was thrown out of the Communist Party. He was a Catholic, and an anti-Stalinist Marxist. In other words, he occupied simultaneous, incompatible beliefs, and so strictly speaking, Plisnier’s ideology does not exist. Godard described Plisnier’s writing as visual art, more focused on portraiture than plot. Plisnier was a storyteller without stories, a painter without a brush. Across the running time of the trailer, Godard presents us with fragments, shards of a work that cannot cohere. There’s a relationship between this material and Godard’s Scenario videos, in that the trailer shows us the work of thought, the work behind the work. But in this case, the work is not there.

Godard cites Albert Camus: “There is only one really serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide.” There was every reason to suspect that this final film would be a sort of cinematic suicide note, a gesture with which Godard would bid adieu to existence. Of course he did not do that. That would be intolerably sentimental, no matter how obliquely he chose to construct it. Instead, the trailer is a specific kind of suicide note for the cinema. It says goodbye to a medium that for Godard never really came to fruition. It suggests that all the parts are there, all the components for a radical, philosophical medium. But someone else will have to find their way to put it together. Here, Godard presents the cinema as a series of mistakes and half-gestures, piled up before the viewer as if we were the backwards-facing spectator in Klee’s Angelus Novus. The trailer for Phony Wars is that most unexpected thing, the suicide note as a promise for a different, better future.