Starring a newly radicalized Jane Fonda, Jean-Luc Godard’s masterpiece of radical cinema documented a workers strike at a French sausage factory, and revealed the stratification of the leftist movement.
Is revolution impossible? Movements like March for Our Lives and #metoo have dominated cultural conversations, and yet, politics largely continue to evade significant disruption. Frustrated progressives are aligning with political ideology outside of the norm, and democratic socialism (or outright socialism, depending on who you ask) has been endorsed by popular politicians like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
Unsurprisingly, comparisons have been drawn between left-wing American youth and the radical student activism of the late-1960s and 1970s. In May 1968, student protestors in Paris went on strike, occupying universities and factories, and almost bringing the French economy to its knees. In the 50 years since, literature and cinema have often displayed a tendency to look back on 1968 romantically, focusing less on the political reality and philosophical aims of the movement, and more on its fashionability. This rose-tinted nostalgia is questioned by New Wave icon Jean-Luc Godard and collaborator Jean-Pierre Gorin, whose 1972 film Tout Va Bien stands alone as a perceptive critique of failed revolutionary organizing. Starring Jane Fonda and Yves Montand, the film sifts through the fallout of ‘68 and underscores how—even after achieving widespread solidarity—hierarchies remained untouched. In 2019, Tout va bien serves as a profound investigation of how we engage in revolution, and whether we are really up to the task.
Between 1968 and 1972, Godard and Gorin’s radical film collective the Dziga Vertov Group had been on a crusade to reinvent cinema as a political form, and so Fonda’s casting in Tout va bien was well-timed: this was Mullet Era Jane, Mugshot Era Jane, and Controversial-Vietnam-Visit Era Jane. Here, she plays Suzanne, who (like Jean Seberg in Breathless) is an American journalist in Paris. When the film starts, Suzanne and her filmmaker husband Jacques (Montand) visit a sausage factory in the suburbs to interview the manager, but arrive in the middle of a bitter strike—the manager is held hostage and Suzanne is now tasked with covering the rapidly deteriorating resistance.
Godard and Gorin blend documentary realism with fiction by interviewing the protagonists, giving first-person accounts of division amongst the leftist organizers, and zeroing in on how gender and class differentiate their points of view. There is a major divide not only between the bosses and the employees, but also between the workers who have catalyzed the strike and their union chiefs. The female strikers are perceived to be shirking their maternal duty by staying at the factory instead of cooking dinner and they tell Suzanne about the sexual harassment they experience on the assembly lines, the distance to the nearest daycare, and the inaccessibility of birth control; even among their activist cohort, there is no recourse for gendered mistreatment.
The stratification of the leftist movement, or what embers of it remain, is an ongoing problem in today’s political organizing. In America’s Democratic Party, there is a gulf between the new class of progressive Congresspeople and the more centrist establishment; much has been made out of Ocasio-Cortez clashing with Nancy Pelosi and other senior Democrats for her ‘idealistic’ agenda. Of the 2020 Presidential candidates, Bernie Sanders has the most transformative vision for class equity, but critics point out his failure to recognize the specific role that racism plays in American poverty, and some of his supporters have been accused of online sexism. Even movements founded on progressive principles are slow to change their hierarchies; if a revolution is the goal, it has to come from within.
Suzanne observes the strike sensitively, but even as she listens to the workers’ stories, the distance between them is insurmountable. In a voiceover, an unnamed worker observes that “the poverty that the expensively dressed reporter was scribbling about wasn’t [theirs].” Ultimately, Suzanne, and the cosmopolitan public for whom she reports, will create a convenient narrative of working class struggle without ever questioning their own position in society.
To illustrate this distance, Godard borrows an expository technique from Bertolt Brecht, keeping the gaze of the camera remote and disaffected by the action, with no handheld shots and very few close-ups. Godard is remarkably self-aware of his own status as an upper class New Wave filmmaker, even one with progressive views, who can be aligned with class struggle but cannot truly represent it. After the strike, Jacques expresses similar discomfort with his position in the 1968 movement; going to meetings of activists, he would see fellow filmmakers and think, “With the films he makes, he’s got some nerve,” before realizing that they must think the same about him. Suzanne tells us that the radio station has designated her as the point person to cover leftist activism, an irony that her supervisors do not see.
From a distance, and depending on one’s identity, it is easy to see shades of a political situation, but not its full colors. The impulse to flaunt stories about struggle, to be a voyeur to them, and to benefit from being the storyteller without ever having to be its subject, exacerbates inequality. The term ‘trauma porn’—spinning disturbing events into spectacles to shock, rather than evoke understanding—might come to mind here. At the same time, these stories are discussed in the media with a measure of detachment, assuring white upper class liberals of their innocence, rather than recognize the part we all play in overall structural inequality. By keeping stories about struggle at arm’s length, their subjects seem more like fictional characters than people with political agency, or folks who we are connected to at all. In progressive circles today, are we replicating this same detached-ness, and losing the fight for equality?
“Outside the factory, it’s still like a factory,” Suzanne waxes. Inequality is manufactured, and it is also mass-produced, to the point where it is in our schools, workplaces, homes, movements, and in ourselves. Tout va bien might not be one of Godard’s most well-known films, rarely mentioned alongside Breathless or Masculin Féminin, but it is in good company among his political canon, and its themes are enduring.