By Robert Koehler
Jean-Luc Godard (and his Les Inrocks interview) marked the starting point for this year’s Cannes blogging, partly because I anticipated that his Film Socialisme would certainly be one of the major films at the festival. It is that, and more, since the film’s impact will long outlast the mere week and a half of Cannes. Godard retains his tendency to upset conservative-minded critics, such as the army of Anglo-Saxon writers (with the anticipated exceptions like the New York Times‘ Manohla Dargis) who continue to refuse to allow that the movies can be anything more than be based in narratives with cause and effect. The simple fact, and seldom acknowledged, is that for the vast majority of critics attending Cannes, a frankly experimental film which happens to find its way into the official selection (itself pretty rare) will be about the only time during a year’s span when they’ll be forced to confront non- or anti-narrative. Because he retains a large personality, with an equally large and calculated propensity to stir controversy, Godard’s actual position as an experimental filmmaker tends to get lost in the discussion. But Film Socialisme is a work that can’t be properly assessed without identifying it, first, as militantly experimental.
Although broken into three roughly identifiable sections–the longest, opening section dwelling on a cruise liner in the Mediterranean (which is the ideal vehicle to launch a discussion on the sources and ramifications of European history, and which makes Film Socialisme the child of Oliveira’s similarly discursive movie-on-a-cruise-ship A Talking Picture); the second around a family and a gas station, featuring a France 3 journalist, a donkey and a fabulous llama; and a brilliant montage climax generated by a re-visit to Odessa and the steps made famous in Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin—Film Socialisme is a sustained essay, delivered as a text composed largely of citations from a vast range of sources. The past and future of Europe is the central subject; the perception of image with text is the experiment.
This is managed in several ways. First, in a different manner than Kirby Dick did in Chain Camera but with the same democratic attitude, Godard arranged for a group armed with cameras to shoot around the ship, and with various media, ranging from cell phone cameras to high-end HD. The variation in image quality (and sound quality, which Godard heightens for distortion at points, and crystal-clarity at others) is his most extensive exploration to date of the nature of the video image. It represents a kind of culmination of his three-decades-long experiments with video, Godard being the first major director of his era (along with Antonioni) to treat video as a legitimate alternative to film stock. The ship itself is Europe, with one identifiable American–Patti Smith–strolling through the corridors like a minstrel.
On a single viewing, the text is as usual with Godard (though not more so than usual) only partly penetrable, and the comprehension is further altered by Godard’s other major experiment here: The English-language subtitles are abstracted, with complete sentences compressed to their key words. French-speaking viewers have said that the subtitles augment the spoken text, which is too much for the ear to absorb; Les Inrock critic-writer Serge Kagansky, who co-interviewed Godard and viewed the film beforehand, saw it naturally without subtitles and was interested to learn that Film Socialisme is perhaps not fully complete until the subtitles were added. With the subtitles, Godard not only plays a game of selecting words, but duplicating the wordplay he frequently enjoys doing with his on-screen graphics and titles, including jamming two words together. (If I’m able to see it again before leaving Cannes, I’ll provide examples–impossible on a single viewing.)
This all creates a fascinating reading-watching-listening experience that expands cinematic spectatorship far more than any 3D innovations, even if, like adjusting to iambic pentameter in the first minutes of a Shakespeare performance, your motor functions aren’t ready for it. But it also underscores how Godard’s films are designed to be seen more than once, not as a failing of the work itself, but by design. This alone makes them truly annoying to conservative critics, who more and more require that an entire film be instantly consumable and comprehensible on a single viewing. If the film fails this test, it’s by definition a failure in toto.
The formal experiments don’t stop there, but what struck me watching Film Socialisme after recently watching Godard’s 1980 Every Man For Himself as part of IndieLisboa’s survey of the Berlinale Forum 40th anniversary was how Godard is now thoroughly immersed in his second round of a radical, non-narrative phase following a narrative phase. In other words, we’ve been living for the past decade-plus (including such masterpieces as Histoire(s) du cinema and Eloge de l’amour) through a new variation on his Dziga Vertov period with Jean-Pierre Gorin.
The politics are, of course, different now: No less radical, yet independent, untethered to any party or ideological line, equally critical of every phase of contemporary European life. My colleague Larry Gross has aptly noted that Film Socialisme contains no caustic words against the U.S. or U.S. culture, though I suppose it could be argued that the lavish displays of conspicuous consumption on the cruise ship are at least partly an American creation, an American thing. Godard’s attention is trained on Europe and the Levant, with a kind of geographic tour guide list posted on screen that includes Egypt, Palestine, Hellas (Greece) and Barcelona. This is more or less Oliveira’s focus in A Talking Picture; the difference is one of a sense of history, with Oliveira concerned for the impact that contemporary terror may have on certain cultural traditions and continuities and its own additions to the historical record, while Godard is more combative, against what he perceives as a Germanic domination of the idea of “Europe.” I don’t read this as Godard taking a stance as a man of Switzerland against Germany, since he also tosses verbal scuds against his own country. (Besides, he readily celebrates Germany on the soundtrack, from several Beethoven cues to his habitual use of music from the catalog of Manfred Eicher’s ECM Records, based in Bavaria.) Instead, the laments that pepper the audio text in Film Socialisme seem to derive from a sadness for what Godard perceives as the small place which Europe has become, its rapid irrelevancy in the face of world historical movements. An American may easily counter that Europe is destined by geography to always be at the center of world history, and though it has become in Thomas Friedman’s phrase a “flatter” place, its range of cultural and linguistic diversity remains impressive and really pretty wonderful.
What is certain is that a second viewing of Film Socialisme will evoke a completely different set of responses than the first, virginal viewing, and that ideas and issues that passed me by at first will stand if full foreground the second time around. (I’m wondering, for example, what bits about socialism that I didn’t perceive this time may hit me the next time.) What won’t go away regardless of how many times one views the film is Godard’s opposition to artists rights and intellectual property, which ends “Film Socialisme” on the kind of note that would make visitors to Pirate Bay smile. It’s actually here where the irascible J-L G finally points his guns at (corporate) Hollywood, with a display of the FBI warning against unauthorized copying. During the course of Film Socialisme (as he’s done countless times, most lavishly in Histoire(s)), Godard thieves from all sorts of movies, from John Ford’s Cheyenne Autumn to Potemkin. Is he a pirate? Godard answers, in the film’s final and already-classic graphic title: NO COMMENT.