By Marc Glassman
Jean-Luc Godard, director and writer
With: Catherine Tanvier (the mother), Christian Sinniger (the father), Jean-Marc Stehle (Otto Goldberg), Patti Smith (the singer), Alain Badiou (the philosopher), Robert Maloubier (an “honest” person)
Jean-Luc Godard has been confounding critics and the public since the release of his first masterpiece, the existential thriller Breathless (A bout de souffle) in 1959. During his peak period from ’59 to 1968, Godard redefined cinema, playfully using genres like the musical (Une Femme est une femme), melodrama (Le mépris) and film noir (Pierrot le fou) to comment on politics, culture, society and filmmaking itself. Since then, his career has veered into the creation of radical film and video essays and neo-narratives, which often seem willfully obscure.
Such is the case with Film Socialisme, Godard’s latest, which premiered to respectful reviews at Cannes and had its North American debut at TIFF this September. The film is divided into three sections. In the first entitled Des choses comme ça (Such Things), the locale is a cruise ship, the Costa Serena, which is sailing around the Mediterranean Sea. All is not serene on the ship, which hosts a motley crew including an aging philosopher, a war criminal, a former United Nations official, a brother and sister and a Palestinian ambassador.
Godard’s restless scenario catches parts of conversations between a number of these people. The scenes are well shot and the cruise ship is nicely evoked. Unfortunately, unless you’ve read this review or Godard’s press notes (which I did), you would not know who these people are or what they represent. Godard has moved so far away from the constraints of narrative that he provides few clues as to what “things” are being discussed on the ship.
In the second section, Notre Europe (Our Europe), the setting is at a gas station run by the Martin family. Two kids, a boy and girl, ask long, complicated questions of their parents, for which they can provide few answers. According to the invaluable press notes, which should be issued before each screening, the children want to know about the famous French tenets “liberty, equality, fraternity.” I have seen the film twice and this was not obvious to me.
On the other hand, Godard is still capable of producing wonderfully affecting scenes. In one, the little boy slowly crawls up his mother’s back, touching her body in an innocent but sensual manner while she is washing dishes. She turns to hold him as he asks her a question about space–which, in fact, is being illustrated by the sequence.
Much stronger is the final movement of the film entitled Nos humanites (Our humanities). Godard takes us on a journey to historic sites in Odessa, Hellas, Naples, Barcelona, Palestine and Egypt. Moving between archival and contemporary footage, the director recalls revolutionary times in those places: the Russian Revolution, the Spanish Civil War and the current Isareli/Palestinian crisis, to name three. He asks where the justice exists–or existed—at any of those famous junctures. And leaves us with this: “No Comment.”
Nearly 80, Jean-Luc Godard is still a great artist. So much of Film Socialisme works that you wish the old master would dispense with his obfuscating tactics. Even Schoenberg began to reconsider the use of melody towards the end of his life. Whether Godard will do so won’t be answered for at least another year. For Godardians and true lovers of the avant-garde, there’s Film Socialisme now. It will intrigue the cognoscenti and frustrate everyone else.