Michel Hazanavicius rode a wave of Cannes acclaim to Oscar glory with 2011’s silent charmer “The Artist,” but his 2014 stab at the middlebrow “The Search” played to middling reviews and remains as of yet unreleased stateside. He need not fear a similar fate for latest film, the ultra-referential Jean-Luc Godard relationship dramedy “Redoubtable.”
Because at least some knowledge of the cranky French New Wave auteur is essential for enjoyment here, the film probably won’t find “The Artist”-level success. But it might be the filmmaker’s most ambitious work to date, and that’s got to count for something.
Divided into nine chapters and an epilogue, “Redoubtable” follows the vanguard of the Nouvelle Vague (Louis Garrel) and his teenage muse Anne Wiazemsky (Stacey Martin) from the filming of 1967’s “Le Chinois” through their marriage to their breakup a few years later.
Hazanavicius worked in sketch TV before breaking into mainstream filmmaking, and with its episodic structure and absurdist set-ups, “Redoubtable” often feels like a product of that training. Like Mel Brooks before him, Hazanavicius makes loving genre riffs that painstakingly recreate the aesthetics of the films they parody.
In its funniest moments, “Redoubtable” works in unison between star Garrel’s approximation of Godard’s unique speaking patterns and Hazanavicius’ approximations of the older director’s shooting style. He’ll often have his leads break the fourth wall, calling attention to the whole ridiculous enterprise, or shoot his actors in the nude while they complain — in character as actress and director — that filmmakers always want to strip their actors bare.
But there’s more to the film than knowing winks. The title is in reference to a nuclear submarine that the couple hears a radio report about, and the script takes that on as a central metaphor for their relationship. Both Godard and Wiazemsky are trapped in a pressurized bubble together and unable to escape. While the early chapters are rich with film references and sly jokes, the later ones give Martin a more assertive role as a young bride who realizes she no longer needs to define herself via her more domineering husband.
To be fair, not everything works. For all his sentimental ambitions, Hazanavicius is a better genre-prankster than he is a dramatist. But the fact that he plays to his strengths here instead of trying to work in a foreign register (as in “The Search”) shows that he recognizes that.
“Redoubtable” isn’t the best movie playing in competition this year, but it is the only film-literate sketch comedy about a failing relationship, and that alone makes it a worthy addition in already stellar lineup.