Le Grand Escroc is part of the Godard Forever retrospective at the Bell Lightbox in Toronto
Godard’s little-seen short film Le Grand Escroc began as part of a larger anthology project involving Ugo Gregoretti, Hiromichi Horikawa, Claude Chabrol, and Roman Polanski titled The World’s Most Beautiful Swindlers – each segment set in a different country starring different actors. Jean-Luc’s wonderful contribution was eventually excised from the film as a standalone short, which, four years later, picks up on Patricia Leacock—Jean Seberg‘s character from Breathless—as a WXYZ reporter for San Francisco working in Marrakesh, Morrocco.
As the film opens, Patricia is in the midst of reading Herman Melville’s final novel The Confidence Man (“Le Grand Escroc” in French) while arranging a lunch date on the phone with her friends. After heading out for her meeting, however, she is picked up by a nervy police officer who suspects she is spreading counterfeit money around Madagascar. Seberg’s character is not the perpetrator, and she insists that she is only a reporter trying to capture truth through her camera—cinéma vérité, like Mr. Rouch. After arranging an 11 o’clock road trip with the detective for the next day, Patricia is dropped off at her lunch date, only to hail down a taxi and follow a strange man she suspects may be behind the crime. Godard uses this breezy structure to explicate the nature of subjectivity within cinema, and if it is possible to reach truth when all the world’s inhabitants are playing characters on a grand stage. The lowly criminal Seberg’s character trails informs her that he works as a thief who affords the money to beggars in order to advance his vision of a world where a “benevolence tax” is imposed on all of humanity. The next day, Patricia recounts the story to the detective, saying she wishes she had more time with the man in order to decipher whether he was being honest or playing for her camera. Godard’s observations on the duality of man, and whether cinema aids in this duality, are traced through several of his other films, but Le Grand Escroc acts as a pronounced distillation of these ideas.
If you’re in Toronto on February 1, you can catch Le Grand Escroc at the TIFF Bell Lightbox theater.