Published Dec 23, 2010On the cruise ship that's the backdrop for the first third of Jean-Luc Godard's Film Socialisme ("a symphony in three movements"), nobody is interested in a lecture about geometry. The professor sits at a desk, surrounded by a small stadium of empty seats, delivering his talk to no one. The ship's pleasure seekers, many of them retired, are more interested in dancing in the nightclub, wading in the pool or (and this is the image directly following the lecture) watching the TV monitors in the casino, where they see a glamorous commercial for the very cruise they're on. Geometry, it seems, is a little heavy for a luxury vacation, and the cruise ship is a space where one escapes reality, but the sad irony is even this voyage can't measure up to the escape provided by our manufactured images.
Godard regards these European vacations as taking a hot bath to fix a broken heater. Interspersed throughout are images of fallen kingdoms, which Godard sees as parallels to the modern-day Europe the retirees are escaping: Egypt, Odessa, Naples, Hellas, Barcelona and, briefly, Palestine ("No Entry," says the caption). Between newsreels and atrocity footage, we see clips of old Hollywood movies, and it must be said that Hollywood's fighting centurions and ghettoized Europeans look suspiciously glamorous.
"A bitter old bastard" is what I labelled Godard on the way out of Film Socialisme's TIFF premiere. In my defence, I had just seen an extremely difficult foreign language art film projected without subtitles, but this scorn might have been directed more at the off-screen Godard of recent years. The Godard who occasionally gives interviews saying America "has no history," that Israel is a "cancer" on the Middle East and that, no, that Lifetime Achievement Oscar doesn't mean a damn thing to him and you know where you can stick it.
Of course, it's easy to resist Godard's late period works. Breathless, Vivre sa vie, Alphaville and his other '60s masterpieces were exhilaratingly innovative entertainment, but In Praise of Love, Notre Musique and, especially, Film Socialisme are more like art installations: their narratives are fragmented. They make comments about the world that can be challenging, sometimes even petty and cruel, but occasionally possessing the unpleasant ring of truth. And they must be seen more than once (preferably in a theatre that can best showcase their complex experimentation with sound and image), debated, and then maybe seen again. Godard is still redefining cinema, but not in a way most are comfortable with.
I have seen Film Socialisme a second time, this time with subtitles – or at least "Navajo American" subtitles, which Godard has created for English-speaking territories. Sample conversation: "spanish civilwar komntem"/"goldout spain bank"/"Odessa athird disappeared"/"only athird moscow"/"digdeep communist archives." This may be another manifestation of Godard's legendary anti-Americanism. There's poetic beauty to this abbreviated text, but these subtitles make the film needlessly, unfairly opaque.
Godard once again has much to say about the world and some of it's just nasty. The film isn't pro-Israel (subtitles: "british left israel, goldbank of palestine"/"arabs dont get royalties"), which is one thing, but what about this odd subtitle: "Strange thing, Hollywood – Jews invented it." Excuse me, Jean-Luc?
But is "bitter old bastard" fair? Clearer on a second viewing is the enthusiasm with which he embraces new modes of film production. The cruise ship scenes alternate between super-sharp hi-def video (oh how the ocean matches the ship's blue paint) and low-grade, YouTube-quality recordings that are vividly, kaleidoscopically colourful. Technically, Film Socialisme is exciting and never less than gorgeous. I was also surprised to find that, yes, Godard still has his humanity. In the second "movement," when French children ask their father about "liberty, fraternity and equality" in a tribunal setting, and the father reluctantly admits that we're all really just looking inward, I sense from Godard not bitterness so much as sadness. He's not the escapist luxury cruise type.
Film Socialisme falls apart when it turns into the Found Footage Film Festival during its last third: a long montage intermingling bombardiers, Hitler, ancient art, protests, Nazis and, um, Charlie Chaplin. Will all become clearer after a third viewing? Will I still agree with anything I've written? Hell, will I even figure out who half these characters are? One thing I do know is you have to hand it to the guy: at age 80, Jean-Luc Godard is still one of the most fiercely independent, radically experimental major film artists, and Film Socialisme is every inch a Godard film. I'm glad the bitter old bastard is still making movies worth arguing over. (Mongrel Media)