Saturday 2 October 2010

Film Socialisme - Jean-Luc Godard

In the films of Jean-Luc Godard, the visual and the verbal are rarely married. By that I mean that people are more mouthpieces and personae (from the Latin for mouthpiece) than characters. In a film about money, power, grand civilisations on the slide, ownership, the individual and society, it is as if old cultures are speaking through these men and women. They are conduits and curators ("I do not have my heart in my mouth" "Exactly 400 years ago her heart is not in her mouth") for past movements and revolutions and standard-bearers of a hope groping for a future. Film Socialisme is not, primarily, about their narrative but about a narrative, the narrative. It is about ideas and expressions embodied and posed.

The scenes get interrupted before anyone turns into characters. Instead they are statues Statues that speak. If one speaks of statues, it's said that 'it comes from another time' and if one says 'another time' then one takes off on a voyage; one sets off upon the Mediterranean. That's where the cruise comes in
                                                  Jean-Luc Godard
It is two separate films. It is a tender silent film about a cruise and about a family on top of which is laid a complex, abstract and obtuse politico-philosophical essay. Watch it without sound and you lose nothing of the people, their relationships, their dreams, their fears, their thousand insignificant thoughts. Godard prevents them from becoming characters but, much as Robert Bresson and his 'models', he doesn't, and cannot, stop them from being human. In fact their actors are more human than anyone else's. Godard is indeed capable of a probing intimacy as demonstrated in his interviews with a young girl in France Tour Retour Deux Enfants.
Godard has an eye for an image unparalleled in Cinema. In luminous close ups and tableaux a deux he does not merely capture a face but the soul that lies behind. Every composition is striking in colour and line.

One of the great joys of a Godard film is that there is always something to admire, to reflect on or simply to be wowed by.

Critics are wrong when they say his films have become intellectual exercises. They inspire contemplation, yes, but they remain visceral experiences through and through. Here, one aspect doesn't go without the other. If, as some do, you treat the film as a puzzle to decipher, a lecture to understand, then you will dismiss it, like those critics, when it goes over your head. There is no reason why you can't think the visceral and feel the intellectual. When something goes over your head, it should make you want to stand taller.

Far from being hectoring prescriptions, Godard's aphorisms and allusions are rather inciting and insightful opening gambits meant to be digested half-baked - to allow other thoughts to appear after the fact. They are suggestive suggestions if you will. Lines like "In Russian steps are feminine" are only the beginning. It is not a puzzle. No, Film Socialisme is different from other films in that it is not a place but a map for the place. You come back to it and explore a little more each time.

Godard has freed himself (although Film Socialisme is an accretion of a style which he began in the Seventies). When he wants to show a painting to make a point he shows it. He doesn't need a character to walk into a museum. This freedom, taken to an extreme, can mean that the pieces of this mosaic (a cruise, a portrait of a family involved in an election campaign and a montage about war, suffering and life) become detached and ill-fitting. But do they need to be neatly arranged?

There is no doubt that Godard's musings can be irritating, empty and insufferable -  especially in Meetin' WA, On S'est Tous Defile or Soigne Ta Droite. There is always pretentiousness in his films yet he has the intellect and the wit to justify it.

One never knows whether he really believes in what he is saying. He tests the waters and provokes reactions. The aloofness of hifalutin' bons mots is tempered by humour and farce: the boy miming to a saxophone with his drinking straw, a woman blown against a window, the exaggerated shouting, the honking of a llama. Ach Deutschland, it's fun.

 He is always mocking himself (his films are self-aware rather than self-indulgent: remember how he hired a blind editor in JLG / JLG). We overhear a character, bewildered, say of the cruise "Alexandria, Haifa, get from Algiers to Barcelona?!". Godard unapologetically takes a detour to squeeze his pet thoughts (especially on Israel and Palestine) and betes noires into the pot. Film Socialisme is not dry. A man lectures on Geometry to an empty auditorium and Godard is able to criticise the banality of the people gyrating on the dance floors (filmed as an "agitation of pixels" as Maurice Darmon says) and the arrogant pomposity of the Professor all in the same shot.

In narrow corridors and bulb-bedaubed halls  people eat quietly, serve drinks, exercise, and even go to Mass as the roulette wheel spins. It could make a wonderful documentary and indeed it does. Godard observes the ordinary people as well as he does his actors. Few of them are seen without cameras, taking photos and recording video.

With incomplete 'Navajo' English subtitles, a mixture of languages and distorted sound, there is a failure of communication. Those who are recording are not interacting closely with each other. If the ship is a microcosm of the world and all its peoples, the question is : is it Babel or is it Noah's Ark? Arriving at a particular destination, the camera angle gives the illusion of a collision about to happen at any moment.

 There is friction between stasis and restlessness. Many scenes in Film Socialisme involve one person sitting down and the other walking around them. This lends the film a nervous edge and fits in with its themes and concerns; thinking clashing with doing, tradition battling with change. Again car doors are opened and slammed and we don't if they're coming or going.

Godard is restless too. You can never predict when a scene will be cut short or its silence interrupted with a loud bang or the call of a gull.

 The middle section at a garage owned by La Famille Martin is full of discussion about the understanding of one's own being. The mother recounts that her mother was "never, not for a single moment, separated from her role". The father ponders how we can't be we until we are comfortable with I. In the meantime, brushing her teeth for bed, their daughter proclaims her hypothetical political manifesto: "To be 20 years be right". This ties in with a later comment in voiceover on the crucial differences between the verbs "to be" and "to have" and the way the sound of words influences their meaning (and vice versa).

 The final part of Film Socialisme is a montage much as the one that begins Notre Musique. Its rhythms, though, are more freeform and more satisfying. Sound, voice-over, stills, intertitles and moving images cover the stopping points of the cruise and give a bewitching overview of Europe's past whilst wondering openly about its future ('Quo Vadis Europa?').

It seems to address the crises of now (showing them to be created by history and repeating history) - monetary crashes ('Hell as' for Greece), crumbling nations, greed (Gold (a girl wears a necklace of gold coins) and stolen heritage), fights for independence (Catalunya) and individual freedom (the struggles of women). Again the film mentions Israel and Palestine (Hebrew written in red over Arabic in White) but this hard line is mollified by an outstandingly beautiful image of hope and peace - of trapeze artists throwing and catching each other across the waters.

 Film Socialisme enchants the mind and the heart. The moment it compares worshippers facing Mecca with cinema-goers facing the screen, as a glittering spume of water slides out from under the ship's deck, is magic. Marvel at the fish that swim like coffee leaves. Or a ghostly hand pressed against the glass. Film Socialisme is full of the things that make cinema great, full of art and thought that go far beyond the walls of the theatre, full of gazes and smiles and vistas that hold the essences of life and beauty.

Sometimes Jean-Luc Godard doesn't half go on, and his puckish style can grate, but without artists like him Cinema would be simple stories and simple allegories that cultivate simple-mindedness. Godard is not a popular revolutionary any more. He is an underground revolutionary. It is a shame that there aren't enough people receptive to experimentation and to putting as much effort into experiencing film as is put into making them. Beauty doesn't need subtitles. It doesn't need to appear at press conferences.

Film Socialisme leaves in its wake an ever-churning sea of  questions.


  1. I am not able to edit the piece so I am leaving corrections here:

    "from the Latin for mouthpiece" (not 'Lation')

    "its rhythms" (not 'it's rhythms'

  2. This is exquisite, Steven, and you and I seem to be on pretty much the same wavelength with respect to this picture, which I was blown away by. Many of the negative reviews I don't even understand, like they saw a different movie - you say it perfectly when you say that people treat Godard's films as puzzles, and then they blame him for not putting the pieces together in a more cohesive manner. Though a lot of people dislike his newer work in contrast to his '60s period, people have been making the same exact criticisms of his films for half a century now. They've always found him incendiary, opaque, pretentious... so this says that Godard's career has been more unified than his detractors suggest.

    I agree that the film "enchants the mind and the heart" - after hearing what a nasty, cynical movie this was, I was surprised to see a warm, playful, and benevolent film - even the montage at the end doesn't indict humanity like the one that opens Notre Musique does. Other than the fact that is' unconventional, I don't understand why it's frustrated people so much.

    Great piece.

  3. Thank you very much, Ryan.

    I'm really glad you liked the film. I share your frustrations at the reception it has received.

    "Though a lot of people dislike his newer work in contrast to his '60s period, people have been making the same exact criticisms of his films for half a century now. They've always found him incendiary, opaque, pretentious... so this says that Godard's career has been more unified than his detractors suggest."

    That's a very good point. The effect his films have on an audience, and his approach to film-making hasn't changed that much even if the style has.

  4. I'm not reading this, Stephen, until I see the film. But you tempt me like anything! Soon my friend.

  5. Haha! I look forward to seeing what you think. There's a lot in it to ponder, a lot that people have loved and hated.

    Thanks, JAFB.

  6. Stephen, I saw this one the big screen over the weekend, and was really, really blown away by it (as is kind of normal for Godard). I don't really know what to say after only seeing it once, but, his use of video is incredible, and I certainly think it's one of his most moving pictures, and not at all like an intellectual exercise (as you point out very well here).

  7. Peter,

    I'm very happy to hear that it made that kind of impact on you. It was the same for me, really, and I think it's my favourite of all of his films - the last couple of decades have been his Golden Age.

    I've got the French DVD and it's a joy to behold at one's leisure.


  8. Stephen, as I promised, I've finished my review of the film. You can find it here, and I promise it's in a form I doubt you've ever encountered before:

  9. Great.

    I'll look at it soon, Bob. Thanks.

  10. A sweeping, mind-bending and viscerally affecting film. Everything else seems so ordinary and insipid now. Even the radical ones. Few films have done that to me. Yet I hardly understood this film.

    A super review, Stephen. I love the last two paragraphs and I thought of exactly the same thing as I watched the film.

    "There is no reason why you can't think the visceral and feel the intellectual?" - Applause!

  11. "Everything else seems so ordinary and insipid now"

    Well said, JAFB. There are films that do that.

    "Yet I hardly understood this film."

    It would be interesting to see if you would think the film better or worse once you have grasped all it's trying to say (I haven't either). Is it the language barrier or the allusions or just the free nature of the narrative that stopped you from understanding it fully?


    Thanks very much (*bows*). Will you be writing anything on it?

  12. Me? I don't know. But if I do, it'll be a long-winded post about the film's effect rather than the film itself, I think...


  13. Very good movie. The implied message is very clear. *SPOILER* the first part is used to show everybody are "aboard the same ship". the second part shows a family completely misplaced both geographically as socially (Balzac's Illusions perdues and the family surname are hints). the third part shows historical examples of his message. Happy birthday JLG.

  14. That's a very good precis of the film Henry.

    What's great about Godard's films is how much you are left with after the film has ended - thoughts, images to be explored, decoded, seduced by.

  15. Besides that, there are further messages and views, including technology "advances", communication issues, critics of journalism, society blindness, etc Each image and places were carefully chosen with a specific purpose.

  16. Indeed. Some people seem to think Godard is just throwing out insubstantial pretentious musings. He has a lot to say and says it in a complex, yes, but beautiful way.

  17. mano!!!
    tienes razón cuando dices que no es un ejercicio intelectual
    la peli es de una gan fuerza visual
    de una gran belleza


  18. Jean-Luc Godard’s “Film Socialisme” (2010) is not about “socialism” but - the direction of Western civilization obsessed with “technological and material progress” towards more wealth and power. The film consists of three parts – the luxury liner’s cruise towards a “promising future”, life in a French provincial city symbolizing the “backward” back-yard of our civilization, and a poetic representation of the repressed and the pauperized people’s struggle for human dignity in various parts of the world. If the first two parts are fictional, the third consists of Godard’s montage of clips and stills from fictional and documentary films that were shot at different times by filmmakers of various nationalities.
    The plot of the film is dominated by the description of the destiny of two families – a previous high SS-rank Otto Goldberg, big scale thief of public money, and his two grandchildren (corrupted by consumerism and amorously fixated on each other as a psychological compensation), and the garage owners in rural France and their two children (searching for meaning of life and oriented on psychological growth).
    Each part is constructed in a different stylistic paradigm. Life of the passengers on the “ship of progress” moving towards a more technological and financial power, is depicted by a combination of two clashing ideas – that of the social/financial elite and that of the crowd of demos. By this paradoxical blend: by showing the rich as the crowd, Godard is making a point about the spiritual emptiness and psychological impoverishment of many in today’s Western population where poor are prone to be idolatrous of the rich and dream to belong to the financial elites. Godard shows the wealthy as spiritual bums and psychologically homeless. The small business people of the second part of the film, on the other hand, are sensitive and existentially intelligent, not with calculating but with human minds, and psychologically whole – their depiction is not “generalized”, Godard addresses them with an inexhaustible curiosity and compassion. It is here that Godard creates the most startling images of the film, like an incredible pantomime of mutual beyond-bodily recognition between a son and his mother.
    The third part of the film is visually musical and emotionally tormenting. We see the cruelty of power, lust of wealth, indifference of prosperity, the bleeding public realm, emotional violence and absence of grace. And we see human suffering and human heroism of continuous fight for justice, equality and humanity. The film establishes the film director as a visionary spokesman for the human destiny in 21st century.
    By Victor Enyutin