Perhaps it is the controversy that came with its release or perhaps it was Godard’s own troubled production, but for whatever reason, Hail Mary is more infamous than it is famous. Sure, little of his post-1968 work is as iconic and ingrained in popular culture, but Hail Mary in particular seems like nothing more than a curiosity. Even those who do praise it, do so with some restraint. It seems that the context of the film’s inception has become a bigger story than the film itself. Yet, here we find Godard at his most compassionate, although his constant refusal to distance himself from his own work has never been more palpable. The result is something truly frustrating and off-putting, but for the engaged viewer who gives him a chance, they may find one of cinema’s most celebrated figures at his most daring and confrontational.
A despondent Joseph sits across from Mary Magdalen in a cafe. She’s pleading with him to marry his girlfriend, Mary. He refuses, but his mind appears to be somewhere far away from the conversation at hand. Meanwhile, the angel Gabriel arrives at the airport. He gives Joseph, who is a taxi driver, five hundred dollars and commands him to drive to the service station run by Mary’s father. There, Gabriel confronts Mary and tells her that she is pregnant, but the father is not Joseph. The implication is that it is not any other human in a corporeal. Joseph is overcome with jealously. For the two years he’s dated Mary, he has not touched or even kissed her. Refusing to believe in the immaculate conception, he accuses her of cheating.
While anyone vaguely familiar with the birth of Christ can follow the general idea of Godard’s story, the narrative’s first sharp deviation from its source text is Joseph’s response to the news of Mary’s pregnancy. Godard’s track record with women is well, let’s just say the fact that I have to construct a sentence with the phrase “track record with women” is a problem. Many might call this a simplistic assessment, but a recent revisit of a one-time favorite, Masculin feminin depressed me greatly. What I once saw as a natural observation on young people and their romantic relationships seemed a lot more hollow. Women are sexualized for the benfit of capitalism and consumerism, in particular, sure. However, throughout the 1960s, Godard’s critique fails to see the forest for the trees, women are shamed for being not just complicit in this manipulation, but responsible for it. In other words, he creates a more rarefied way of repeating the rather banal stereotype that women are superficial and dull, but ties it to a critique of capitalism.
Godard himself later remarked his displeasure with how he treated his characters, particularly the women of Masculin feminin. The film seeks to make them not just apolitical, but perhaps too vapid to even comprehend politics in the first place. Unlike the work that followed Masculin feminin, Hail Mary is less straightforward about its ideological intentions. There is no quoting of Marx, no pictures of Mao, no static shots of individuals throwing their fists in the air for revolt. Yet, this might be one of his deeply political films, and the fact that its politics are interconnected with something personal may have led to a critical evaluation that seemed disinterested in probing deeper into the cinematic fabric. I hesitate to call this film feminist, but its undoubtedly concerned with a woman’s agency and control of her body.
It might be of interest to point that Godard frequently considered pulling the plug on Hail Mary, but continued to power on because of his collaborator, Anne-Marie Mieville. Mieville’s short, The Book of Mary, was and still is shown before Hail Mary. Godard felt he may have owed her something, in this case maybe the film’s existence is only because of and for a woman. The film is about Mary and her bodily autonomy, sure, but in addition, it is about Joseph and his unflinching desire to own her, perhaps dominate her with his own affection and love. The latter rhetoric sounds complicated and unfair on Joseph’s part, yet his manipulation of Mary’s feelings makes up the bulk of the film. The reverse tends to be the norm in fiction, that women are needlessly cruel and coldhearted to men who want to do nothing but love them. The reality is that such a line of thought is possessive and abusive.
Joseph is played by Thierry Rode, a first time actor, who was even more inexperienced than the film’s lead, Myriem Roussel. While Roussel (who had worked with Godard before in First Name Carmen) plays thing in an almost aloof and distant manner, Rode is awkwardly imposing. His movements feel strict, almost forced. Many have watched this film and never even had the slightest idea that he would be “abusive boyfriend” material and yet, the evidence is there on the film. He is not so different from Godard, he sports a similar pair of sunglasses if that means anything, nor is he that different from the typical male viewer that would watch the film. Some might feel that jealousy and anger is completely justified. He’s dated Mary for two years, he deserves something, right?
Well, no, that’s wrong. The film, with the most extreme of circumstances, gives a male audience a pill still difficult to swallow: that romantic relationships don’t equal possession. Joseph feels like he deserves Mary’s love, which in some cases might just mean love in that indescribable way but here it most likely means sex. His desire to see Mary naked sends him to his knees, akin to some untamed animal. The most striking thing here is that all of this, which is familiar and still authentic in many heterosexual relationships, is the context of the birth of Christ. So much of Christ’s life was imposed forces that depicted all the ugly potential of man. How revolutionary, then, for Godard to suggest that the birth of Christ came in the context of something still found and often unrecognized in male ego: the desire to possess women. Throughout the film, Mary does not waver. She calls the shots and controls her body. If Joseph feels like Mary owes him something, he is more than welcome to leave her.