Jean-Luc Godard made "Detective" to raise the money he needed to complete "Hail, Mary" (which, inexplicably, has yet to be booked here), and the movie has the pleasures of a lark, of a busman's holiday. Explicitly, it's an attempt to make an American-style action picture. Of course, what comes out is Godard.
The narrative, such as it is, involves a murder that took place two years before, which has obsessed the hotel dick, one Prospero (Laurent Terzieff). With his caved-in face, he broods in his room over a video camera that records the scene below; an adorable 18-year-old girl, Ariel (Aurele Doazan), accompanies him; her fiance' (and Prospero's nephew), Inspector Neveu (Jean-Pierre Leaud), shuttles in and out of the room, hot on the case.
Moving inside and around this story is another plot, involving the theft of 40 million francs by a fight promoter; Jim Fox Warner (Johnny Hallyday), manager of a boxer named Tiger Jones (Stephane Ferrara), butts heads with an ancient mafioso addressed as "Prince" (Alain Cuny). And in between that, there's a love story involving Franc,oise (Nathalie Baye), who leaves her husband (Claude Brasseur) for Warner.
The plot sounds impenetrable; don't worry -- it's utterly tangential. (When a character says, "Something's sure to happen," it's meant as a laugh line.) Godard doesn't develop the plot -- he throws it in as a sort of metaphor, for the resonances it has with all the gangster movies, fight movies, murder mysteries and love triangles he grew up on in the '50s. Narrative here is merely a frame, an easel supporting the true Godardian business of jokes, essays, visual meditations and, of course, epigrams.
We learn that the X in "X-rated" is also the X from algebra, meaning "the unknown"; that "catastrophe" is "the first strophe of a love poem"; that "seeing is deceiving." The movie consists, in part, of small essays on the state of France and the alienations of modern technology (Warner asks a computer, "How many women have I held in my arms?"). And visually, "Detective" is another of Godard's essays on the female form -- in his framing, his lighting, lies an uncanny ability to isolate a leg, a breast, to hold it up like a Ming vase.
Godard builds the rhythms of "Detective" with reiterated scenes of people taking off clothes, and putting them on, in a style reminiscent of Bresson. But most of all, "Detective" is a funny movie, funny in that peculiarly Godardian way -- a mixture of puns, inside jokes, visual gags, touches of absurdity and traditional French farce. Much of the comedy is concentrated in Leaud, who, darting around in high Inspector Clouseau style, reveals himself to be an elegant farceur. And while Baye has told stories of her somewhat testy relations on the set with Godard, the director responds by having Prince call her "the French chick who looks like a fake Botticelli."
Prospero is, of course, Godard, very much like the character Godard himself played in his "First Name: Carmen." Again, he's peering through a camera but seeing nothing, lost in a world that riddles around him, recklessly obscure. Detective, opening today at the Key Theatre, is rated R and contains nudity, sexual situations, profanity and some violence.