Her first profile of Jean-Luc Godard is like a staring contest between two master aphorists, in their interactions and then in her interpretation of his films. Three-Quarter Face features three pieces on Godard, and they are possibly less helpful than more straightforward stories; you don’t learn anything about the brand of socks Godard wears, or what he thinks about his leading ladies. Rather than presenting her own impression of Godard, Gilliatt seems to try very hard to capture Godard’s impression of himself. This makes for a piece that is at once instinctual and collaborative; a wholly accurate portrait of an elusive subject. Gilliatt doesn’t simply tell us that Godard is mysterious, or show that he is. She creates an air of mystery around him:
[Godard] has a cleft chin, good hands, and a wary look of being about to spring away from dangerous situations. His expression is less implacable than he probably imagines, this peculiarly convivial and questing hermit. His friends (“I have very few friends,” he asserts firmly, in a typical style of testing intimacy by keeping it at bay) tend to say of him fondly that he is impossible. His medium is not violence, and they know it.
Gilliatt may understand Godard, but she has no interest in unpacking his riddles. Instead, she responds in kind, offering up journalism that makes no effort at what she might derisively refer to as “translation.” After being reminded that Gilliatt is profiling one of the day’s most celebrated filmmakers, the piece again retreats:
He seems to despair of himself daily. He presents himself as being severe. But he will make dead-eyed concessions to funny truths, as his friends and allies find. He tries very hard to laugh, but he has a sense of the ludicrous which equals his capacity for being bored. He also owns up to the pressure of feelings which is characteristic of his piercing company.
Gilliatt has pulled from their encounter enough material to masterfully evoke the enigmatic filmmaker. She would argue that the creative world does not reveal itself in an orderly fashion, nor does life unfold this way. Prose like hers, then, is both more alive and truer to life.
The net effect, though, depends on her subject. Vladimir Nabokov is at once insistent and peripatetic, another mood that Gilliatt conveys with ease. When she spends time with Nabokov, the resulting piece is unsettled, a rattling chain of details that complement the author’s cranky, somewhat florid, personality. The on-set moments with Buñuel capture both the director’s meditative air and the flurry of activity around the shoot. She is more neutral when profiling Henri Langlois, the director of the Cinémathèque Française, a figure she admires but whose life’s work—obsessively collecting, preserving, and archiving film—depends on a kind of forthright wonder that Gilliatt can observe but never quite muster herself. Gilliatt worked best with characters whom she might have created on her own; characters who came from the world she inhabited, and thus could sufficiently understand. These are the limits of a journalism based on the author’s imagination.