Earlier this week, the Cohen Film Collection simultaneously debuted two of French New Wave icon Jean-Luc Godard’s films on Blu-ray as part of their Classics of French Cinema line of home video releases: Hail Mary (Je vous salue, Marie, 1985) and For Ever Mozart (1996). Although beautiful and complex, the highly academic For Ever Mozart often borders on inaccessible, but does, I should, offer great philosophical rewards to those who stick it out. By contrast, Hail Mary is as straightforward a film as I’ve ever seen from Godard, but one that, due to its religious subject matter, sparked great controversy. Pope John Paul II himself even spoke out against the film, declaring that with it Godard “deeply wounds the religious sentiments of believers.” Some folks might interpret that as a warning to stay away, but to me the Pope’s words came as praise, for no film is truly worth your time if it isn’t at least challenging.
And ultimately, Hail Mary proves to be every bit as irresistible a picture in practice as it is in theory. In it, Godard tackles the story of Mary’s virgin birth, casting Mary as a modern day teenager struggling to accept God’s plan for her and to cope with her fiancé Joseph’s bitterness and disbelief. Of course, simply transposing the virgin birth temporally is hardly enough to “deeply wound” one’s religious sentiments. Instead, it’s the honesty with which Godard approaches the characters, presenting them as deeply flawed individuals with wavering convictions, that is like to upset some viewers.
The irony of that is that I’m not convinced what Godard accomplished with Hail Mary can be classified as iconoclastic in the least. After all, if you are a believer, how can exploring the spiritual and emotional turmoil Mary must have endured on her journey to accept God’s will be a bad thing? Maybe I’m wrong, but wouldn’t understanding her journey allow you yourself to become closer to your God? Thanks to Godard’s psychological exploration of Mary and Joseph here, I’ll concede that I for one am far more invested in their story now having seen Hail Mary than I ever was before. To imagine that Joseph would have taken Mary’s charge in stride from the get-go or that Mary wouldn’t have had her misgivings and occasionally regret not choosing her own path is ludicrous. They would have been people like any others only with greater challenges to face than the rest of us, and for Godard to illuminate that so masterfully as he does in Hail Mary shows great reverence for these figures, not contempt.
In this, it’s a film I contend really must be seen by believers in Mary and nonbelievers alike, and there is no better way to do that than by picking up Cohen’s Blu-ray release of the film, which boasts a rich visual transfer and a host of special features. In fact, to my mind, Hail Mary may be the single most indispensable of Cohen’s Classics of French Cinema releases, which is saying a lot for a home video line already boasting Luis Buñuel’s Tristana (1970) and René Clément’s The Damned (1947).
Foremost among the bonus material here is “The Book of Mary,” Anne-Marie Miéville’s short film that was released theatrical as a companion piece to Hail Mary, but bears no direct relation to the narrative of Godard’s picture per se. “The Book of Mary” opens the disc’s main program and is well worth your time, presenting the story of a couple’s divorce as observed by their daughter. Boasting the same Director of Photography as Hail Mary—Jean-Bernard Menoud—the cinematography in “The Book of Mary,” if not the specific content, certainly speaks to Hail Mary. The release also includes three featurettes; Godard’s video notebook, “Notes on Hail Mary”; trailers; audio commentary by director Hal Hartley and Museum of the Moving Image Curator, David Schwartz; and a 16-page booklet that features essays by critic David Sterritt and Boston University Lecturer Charles Warren.