From what I've been able to divine Cournot wrote criticism throughout the 60s (Thanks to the inestimable David Ehrenstein for his correction on this matter!), but then, what important French director of that age didn't? He apparently had a beautiful voice as a writer. In '67 Godard put him in Weekend, and he liked so much of what he saw on set that he vowed to do that again sometime. To make his first and only film he snagged Annie Girardot, a young Bruno Cremer, and Jean-Pierre Kalfon, all fresh from the Jacques Brel film Bonnot's Gang, and most tellingly Anne Wiazemsky, lately Godard's girlfriend. He once more retreated to a remote countryside location with a camera crew and just like last time Godard was calling the shots. Ok, perhaps that's unfair. Les Gauloises Bleues, the resultant film, is only available in a poorly transferred TV-to-VHS-to-AVI rip and no one's taken the time to translate it into English. Cournot himself said that the script "bears the same relation to the film as a catalogue of plane parts does to a trans-Atlantic flight." Vincent Canby opined that this particular flight was missing a set of functioning wings. My remedial french isn't quite enough to help me sort out what goes on so there's a chance that the film is a completely distinct statement from Weekend and all the rest of le cinema du Godard and a profound statement about the Holocaust to boot (images of bleak railways and a few choice words on walls say he was at least gesturing in that direction).........but there's an equally good chance this is just microwaved New Wave leftovers.
Instead of the bright primary colours of Pierrot and Weekend, Cournot shoots in muted pastels, but his model is unmistakable (even the fake blood, right out of Weekend, seems a duller shade). There are many long takes broken up by soundless inserted clarifying scenes, instead of being thrust into those scenes as we surely would in Godard's hands. There are pointless images shoved in our faces as if to provoke with their having nothing to do with each other. This doesn't really work. Putting an illustration from a Babar The Elephant book after photographs of dead bodies mostly just highlights how much better the trick's been pulled off before. Continuity is routinely flaunted, time is jumped like a velvet rope, and Cournot presents his actors and their emotions with complete irreverence. Cournot also borrows HEAVILY (ok he just fucking steals) from Antonioni's Red Desert and L'Ecclise. I don't want to write off the possibility that in missing out on whatever the plot linking this dour game of pantomimes I'm missing a masterpiece of French deconstructionism, but there just might be a reason Cournot's the one New Wave Director no one's ever heard of. I realize this entry's heavy on hypotheticals which is appropriate even if it can't be all that satisfying to read, so, my apologies.
There are a few ironies at work. Godard's output lately (since 1973 really) has been mostly inscrutable or too oblique for me, but at least they come with subtitles. Les Gauloises Bleues does not because it's never made it past French TV. Why? Very probably because Godard himself (with Gauloises co-writer Claude Lelouch in tow) shut the festival down before it could play. Or maybe Lelouch knew he had co-signed a dreary bit of word-vomit and could have cared less if it ever screened. Conjecture, I know, I know, but the point is we can only point a finger at so many people and Godard's definitely got silver halide on his hands. Les Gauloises Bleues is now just as unreadable and confusing as anything Godard attempted following his post-cinema conversion. Stranger still, not only did Godard cut Cournot's directing career short, he also in essence kept making films with what looks an awful lot like Cournot's softer, still very-compelling image, and too-excitable, too-easy approach to montage. Cournot was doing his best Godard imitation in Les Gauloises Bleues, but all Godard wanted to do was make films that looked and acted like Les Gauloises Bleues. Over and over again. Words, irreverent presentation of people, contempt for coherence and an elastic sense of time, place and genre. It's tempting to think of Gauloises as the missing link between late narrative work like La Chinoise & Weekend and conversational theorems like Un Film Comme Les Autres & Le Gai Savoir (it's not a million miles away from One PM or Tout Va Bien either).
There isn't an awful lot that I can say beyond my half-guesses and hypothesizing except to say that even denied his words Bruno Cremer is a commanding screen presence. He's one of my favourite actors and he does great work just existing in that anguished, angry way he does. I detect him doing a dry-run for his tough-parent act in Un Jeu Brutal. And there's something everyone can appreciate nestled in here: a mesmerizing score by Krzysztof Penderecki. Penderecki could also be heard amplifying the weird in Je T'aime Je t'aime across the coissette, which weirdly this also kinda resembles. If the film works for me at all, it's his doing. He ignites Cournot's best images and makes you forget they've been cribbed. Those moments, when the image and music work together in a haunting harmony, almost make you wish he'd tried again.