Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.
The only time I went to the Cannes Film Festival, in 2001, I found myself standing in the packed lobby of a movie theater (this was not a red-carpet screening, but one of the many “industry screenings” at Cannes), waiting to get into the new film by Jean-Luc Godard, Éloge de l’amour (In Praise of Love). People were feverish about jostling their way to the front of the crowd—it was practically a frenzy—and I looked around and wondered how many of these people would bother to see a Godard film if one played at a regular theater in their town. Who knows, maybe they would. In any case, there was something thrilling about being in Cannes and gathering with a passionate group of people for the new Godard. We all got in the theater anyway, it turned out (small lobby, big theater) and the film unfolded fairly rapturously.
Godard died this week; and so we need a new “greatest living film director.” In the meantime, I have here a couple of reviews of late-ish Godard, Notre Musique (2004) and Film Socialisme (2010), both written for the Daily Herald in Everett, Washington. The reviews are not adequate ways to grapple with Godard, merely brief stabs at trying to get people interested. Which reminds me of how amazed I am to have gotten away with writing so many reviews on diverse subjects for all those years.
Now in his mid-seventies, director Jean-Luc Godard has not softened his edges or made things easier for his audience. In fact, his whole career has been against softness and ease.
Once the iconoclast of the French New Wave, Godard for some years now has been turning out personal projects that fall somewhere between essays and abstract art. His latest is Notre Musique, a completely characteristic musing on war.
The movie begins with a ten-minute, near-wordless montage of images of war, something of them horrifying—both newsreel footage of the real thing, and scenes from Hollywood movies. You begin to wonder whether the title refers to war itself—is the waging of war “our music”? Godard then shift gears, to something vaguely like a story. People arrive in Sarajevo for a literary conference; one of the people, in fact, is Jean-Luc Godard, invited to give a lecture. (It must be said that the white-haired director, puckishly puffing on a fat cigar, plays himself with great relish.)
His own comments, strewn throughout the movie, are often penetrating, sometimes mysterious. That’s Godard. When someone wonders why humane people are never the ones starting revolutions, he says, “Humane people don’t start revolutions. They start libraries.”
We spend most of the time following a young Israeli journalist (Nade Dieu) as she ponders issues about the Middle East: suicide bombings, the contentious war between Israelis and Palestinians. Godard creates free-floating scenes within this framework, including interviews with philosophers and writers. The attendees at the conference include a couple of American Indians, and Godard draws links between post-Columbus America, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East, stirring together a political brew that the viewer can sample as he likes.
As usual, Godard uses quotations, musical snippets, and photographs to punctuate his discourse (including one startling photo that looks like Hiroshima but is actually Civil War-era Richmond, Virginia).
Notre Musique ends with a surprising coda, a very poetic section that balances the strident opening. It has a punch to it, but it also has a lyrical quality (and after all these years, Godard still has an unerring eye for a great shot). It’s the quality that makes Godard a great filmmaker, as opposed to someone like Michael Moore, who is a political pugilist.
By setting the film in Sarajevo, Godard provides a constant question. We see the elegant city, with its bullet-marked buildings, and must grapple with the reality of how such a civilized place could erupt in utter barbarism at this point in human history. Godard can still make you think.
Not that there aren’t many more important things to do with your life, but if you are inclined to sit around and argue about who the greatest living film director is, 80-year-old Jean-Luc Godard would have to be near the top of the list. Earlier this year, Godard was even awarded an honorary lifetime Oscar. He didn’t show up to collect it.
Once the most revolutionary member of the French New Wave in the 1960s, and the creator of groundbreaking classics such as Breathless, Contempt, and Masculin Feminin, Godard has in recent years retreated into a chamber of personal musings. His main works of the last decade, In Praise of Love and Notre Musique, were essay movies that could almost be followed in a linear way.
That’s all definitively left behind in Film Socialisme, his latest piece. Godard doesn’t seem to want the audience to “understand” this movie in any regular way, so the viewer better be ready for a non-traditional experience.
Totally experimental, in fact. Film Socialisme is a collage, fast-moving and nimble, that arranges itself around a few settings: the first is a cruise ship in the Mediterranean, the second a rural gas station. Finally the movie gives way entirely to free-flowing montage.
If I had to describe the film in general, I’d say it’s Godard’s Odyssey: a journey around Europe, weighing in at different ports and finding strange alien visions at each. The floating European Union of the cruise ship offers a garish progress report for the state of things today, while Godard includes images of classical antiquities and classic movies as measuring points for what he doubtless sees as a decline. Godard completely embraces the tools of the digital age, and “Film Socialisme” looks as though it’s shot partly with handheld devices and edited on the kind of program that allows for elaborate, quick-darting cuts. Still, Godard has a great eye—whether staring at the churning sea, or finding rapturous angles on the ship at night.
It’s a film of startling comparisons: a priest delivering a sermon beneath a mirror-ball more suited for a disco, or a shot down a row of shipboard slot machines with the eternal sea passing implacably by in a window in the background. Godard links Indochina with the Spanish Civil War with present-day Palestine, in a tumbling litany of the world’s sore points. Now, what he means us to conclude from that is entirely up to the viewer, except that it will likely send people scurrying to investigate the various subjects on the filmmaker’s mind.
The English subtitles aren’t of much help in that regard—they consist of broken English, sometimes just one or two words to convey a few sentences of spoken French (much of the dialogue is quoting other sources anyway).
In general, I wouldn’t mind if Godard wanted to make himself a little more comprehensible. But Film Socialisme is where this director is at right now, and for his fans and for cinematic explorers, it’s a trippy experience.
September 16, 2022
Robert Horton is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.