In this inaugural Socialist Film Review, Sarah Hurd examines the Jean-Luc Godard political drama “Tout Va Bien,” a film which centers on a strike, and compares Godard’s depiction of class contradictions in 1972 France to our own conditions today, half a century later.
Watching Tout Va Bien 50 years after its 1972 release is striking because it serves as a time capsule, expertly capturing the energy and contradictions of the era in which it was released, but also remains surprisingly and sadly relevant as the challenges the left faced in Jean-Luc Godard’s time haunt us to this day. The film contains a powerful critique of the dominant culture, left movements and the creative class of the time.
A striking early scene features a manager, held hostage in his office by a group of his factory’s employees, explaining (fairly convincingly) why these workers will not succeed in their lofty goals. He lays out what we would think of today as an “end of history” case against revolutionary action based on the then-fresh historical examples of the failures and excesses of the Soviet project. As viewers in 2022, we know that his predictions will hold true. The workers will be limited by both the conservative tendencies of their union’s bureaucracy (which Godard illustrates with a union steward reading a long statement denouncing the workers who have taken control of their factory) and their inability to unite with the other movements of the time in a cohesive enough way to take real power. The workers will raise hell for a while but will eventually be mollified by the technology and consumer choices capitalism has developed to provide them.
In a later scene a group of student activists gather in protest as a socialist partisan denounces their action, reading at the top of his lungs from the party newspaper why they will be unsuccessful. The socialist activist is, in a way, proven correct as the students are outnumbered by police and driven away from the site with their hands above their heads– but his failure to reach them shows a disturbing lack of cohesion and communication. We never get to see what it would look like for the socialist agitators, the students and the factory workers to all join forces in one shared struggle. In a scene towards the end of the film, the student organizers descend upon a supermarket. They harangue a fellow left agitator trying to sell communist tracts while ignoring the check out workers entirely. They then agitate the shoppers into collective action, shouting “It is free! It is free!” and physically pushing their carts into a big mass. Their hope is to move enough people into struggle that they all get their groceries for free but the result is the (predominantly black) shoppers being herded directly into a police barricade. The police attack the shoppers and suddenly the white students are nowhere to be found. There is a lesson here that we could all stand to learn or re-learn. The romance of struggle can animate a group of people and pull them into action but it is only the solidarity of real relationships and shared material interests that hold movements together in the long run. And of course, those who are most vulnerable will be most hurt while those with privilege will instinctively use that privilege as a shield.
This is a sad state of affairs for an artist to witness and the film explores that feeling of frustration at the inability for the efficacy of the movement to reach the heights of its rhetoric and ideals. Godard must also wrestle with his own complicity with the state of affairs as someone who has taken on the role of documentarian rather than movement leader. In the same office that the factory manager is held hostage, there are also a pair of would-be journalists (Jane Fonda and Yves Montand) attempting to report on the factory. Fonda’s Suzanne is an American radio journalist trying to fit the complex story of the worker revolt into the 30 second segment she is tasked to produce. Montand’s Jacques is a filmmaker reduced to shooting commercials because he has convinced himself that it is more honest to make media just for pay rather than produce entertainment trying to pass itself off as art. The two are sympathetic to the workers and genuinely interested in supporting their cause, but are severely limited by the corporate chokehold over the media landscape of their time. They are also in a contradictory class position. In 1972 these two creative types have the ability to support themselves quite comfortably and though they have sympathy for the workers, they have a choice about how much to struggle and sacrifice before going home to a cushy apartment, paid for with Jacques’ corporate cash.
For better or for worse, the students and media class of 2022 are much closer to the factory workers now than we were in 1972. Students are weighed down with debt and often work underpaid part time jobs all the way through school. In an effort to prevent students from having the time to read dangerous books and discuss dangerous ideas, the ruling class pushed them into a much more effective education in class struggle. Journalists of today benefit from the ability to self produce but now that everyone is a producer the supply is considerably larger than the demand. In 2022, not only would Suzanne have the ability to distribute a podcast of her story on the factory that was long enough to include all the nuance she felt it deserved, but beyond that, the factory workers themselves could tell their own stories and make a call directly to their fellow workers to join their fight. We see this and (speaking as a media creator) it is exciting and overwhelming. We are hearing voices from every direction and there is a constant competition for the public’s attention. If we believe at all that consumer choice determines value, this should mean that the best stories will get shared most, but we all have many reasons to doubt that whole model of distribution.
Upon the passing of both Godard and Barbara Ehrenreich we have the opportunity to revisit these essential discussions of the internal contradictions of leftists, workers and movements. If we have the patience to study works like this and engage with them in nuance instead of looking for easy answers we can gain many insights on what our movement needs to be resilient and life-giving rather than demoralizing and draining. Though we must admit that the ruling class has spent the last 50 years consolidating power, they also have sown many seeds of their own destruction in the process. They can co-opt and distract but they cannot make us all unlearn the lessons that we were taught through our experiences being exploited by their system. The key will be learning how to unite across our varied class positions in real solidarity and be fully and consistently aware that our fates are tied to each other.