"Hail Mary" (Je vous salue, Marie) is a modern-day retelling of the Annunciation and Incarnation by France's aging enfant terrible - Jean-Luc Godard. Despite the vociferous condemnation it garnered, it is a visually beautiful and surprisingly spiritual film. It hews closely to biblical narrative, albeit updated to modern times and laced with a wickedly bawdy sense of humour. Marie (Myriem Roussel) is a basketball-loving teenager attending high-school in Geneva. Her boyfriend Joseph (Thierry Rode) is a school-dropout who works as a Taxi driver. He is frustrated with her because unlike other girls, she insists on remaining a virgin. The archangel Gabriel (Philippe Lacoste) appears as a grumpy, unshaven man who arrives by airplane, accompanied by a cherubic sidekick. Gabriel takes Joseph's taxi to the petrol station where Marie works part-time for her dad. There he makes his momentous announcement to the consternation of everyone. The bulk of the film examines Marie's reaction to her situation. It is conceived as a "serious" film, delves into weighty topics, and would be hard to follow for most audiences, who will more likely focus on the pervasive nudity instead and declare themselves mightily offended.
"Hail Mary" is preceded by Anne-Marie Miéville's short film "The Book of Mary" (Le Livre de Marie) and both films should be viewed as a whole, in that order. They were shown as such upon original release. Miéville's "The Book of Mary" has nothing to do with religion or the Marie of Godard's film. It is a lovely 27-minute film about a young girl coming to terms with the separation of her parents. What it has in common with "Hail Mary" is the theme of life-change and the importance of accepting change. There is a particularly lovely sequence where little Marie (Rebecca Hampton) dances to her father's favourite recording of Mahler's 9th Symphony (Final Movement), her anguish mirrored in the music, spinning around the living room and patio until she finally collapses in grief and exhaustion. In the end, little Marie can only regain happiness when she learns to accept that change and loss are all inescapable parts of life. Immediately following the last frame of "The Book of Mary", we see the placard, "en ce temps là" (at this time), which then segues without preamble to the opening storm sequence of "Hail Mary" and then is used throughout the latter film to bookend its different scenes.
The major theme in "Hail Mary" is Marie's repeated question: which is pre-eminent? The soul or the body. This is crystalised in her dilemma; abjure the body and glorify the soul by remaining chaste and a fit vessel for the incarnation or satisfy the body by giving in to Joseph and thereby ensure his love. Marie's choice in putting her soul and God above her need for Joseph's love is contrasted with the other couple in the film, Eva and the Professor. Eva gives in to bodily lust and beds the Professor, who after he has had his way with her, dumps her and goes his merry way. Marie's choice of abstinence is rewarded by Joseph's continued, albeit grumbling presence and slowly dawning love. The final scene shows us Gabriel hailing her across the street with a loud "Je vous salue, Marie," whereupon she turns, puffs on a cigarette, smiles and after a moment's hesitation, puts on her lipstick; a confident young woman, happy with the choices she has made and at peace with herself, both body and soul.
The film is suffused with classical music from the likes of Bach and Dvorak. It also features some of the most beautiful photography in any Godard film. However, it also comes with Godard's often groan-inducing humour. Witness the exasperated angel Gabriel trying literally to beat some sense into a horny Joseph as he gets overly amorous with his espoused. Or the child Jésus exploring under his mother's skirt while she gives hilarious names to the various parts of her anatomy (No prizes for what "la prairie" refers to). Or Marie's tongue-in-cheek reply, in the same scene, to her irritated husband who points out that the child is too old to be seeing his mother naked. Marie's quip "Quia respexit, Joseph," is a playful reference to the old Latin text of the Magnificat (My Soul Doth Magnify the Lord), whose third line goes "Quia respexit humilitatem ancillae suae" (For He hath regarded the low estate of His handmaiden). As little Jésus scampers off to play, he officiously announces, "I must tend to My Father's affairs." And later when Joseph worries about his absconded son, Marie replies laconically, "He'll be back... at Easter... or Trinity."
It is certainly irreverent but there is never malicious intent. In fact when considered carefully, it is a tender and salutary look at a figure many simply pay lip-service to as the "Mother-of-God".
New Yorker Video provide fairly good transfers for both films, both in 1.33:1 (Full Screen). I can't vouch for the original aspect ratio but visual composition looks generally alright. There were a few instances where the framing looked as if it had been cropped but it could be just coincidence. The print is clean and undamaged. The image is sharp with light natural grain throughout. Colours are strong and natural. Sound is in the original French 2.0 Stereo. English subtitles are optional but turned on by default. Extras include a fine 20-minute featurette "Notes About Hail Mary" on Godard's making of the film. It includes several scenes of Godard directing Myriem Roussel and gives us an idea of how he wanted to portray the young Mother-of-God - a combination of "La Pieta" and "La Strada". The film's theatrical trailer completes a fine overall DVD package.
Note: Although I liked the film overall and did not find it offensive, bear in mind that most Christians, both Catholic and Protestant, would. The late Pope John Paul II is quoted as saying: "Hail Mary deeply wounds the religious sentiments of believers." The usually generous film critic Roger Ebert gave it one of his rare 1-star ratings. Although Ebert tried to defend it on theological grounds, he was scathing in demolishing it artistically. Whether you find it offensive or not depends more on your tolerance and comfort level with issues of sexuality, nudity and irreverent humour, especially in relation to religious figures.