At sea with JLG.
At sea with JLG.

A symphony in three movements, Jean-Luc Godard’s latest film meditates on the sweeping mutations wrought by new digital technologies, globalization, and the monetization of more and more aspects of human life. A reflection on Europe’s past, present, and future, it’s a compendium of familiar Godardian tropes and themes. Astonishingly, for a filmmaker who just turned 80, Godard also explores new ground. Though he was one of the first major directors to work on video, Film Socialisme marks Godard’s first film shot entirely in digital video in the 16 by 9 aspect ratio, which he cynically compares to the dimensions of a dollar bill.

The first movement takes place aboard a vast ocean liner touring the Mediterranean, with ports of call at the mythic foundational sites of Western civilization: Egypt, Palestine, Odessa, Hellas (Greece), Naples, and Barcelona. The mostly white, middle-class pleasure-seekers aboard the S.S. Concordia play bingo and slot machines, swim in the pool, attend mass in a chapel that doubles as a bar, and do aerobics before large, ubiquitous screens. Impossibly sharp high definition images of the deck and the churning sea jut up against lower resolution images shot in an array of video formats. At times, Godard saturates the colors and cranks up the volume, so that the pixelated images and distorted sounds become both terrifying and strangely beautiful. A shot of revelers in the ship’s discotheque comes to feel like an air raid. Wind buffets the passengers and Godard transforms the noise of wind against microphones into a recurring motif.

However, despite the vessel’s name, which evokes the goddess of harmony and peace, the notion of a unified Europe emerges as an unattainable dream. The passengers include an old war criminal—possibly a former Nazi—his daughter, a lovely Russian detective, a former UN official on the trail of the war criminal, and an ambassador to Palestine. Conversations abound, or rather fragments of quotations in a babel of tongues, mostly about the crimes and atrocities committed by Europe’s cultural elite during the 20th century. There are numerous references to a conspiracy involving gold stolen from the Bank of Spain after the Spanish Civil War; to the exodus and crusades; to AIDS as a strategy to kill black Africans. However, these fragments of dialogue become mere “things like this.” Mere noise. No Noah’s ark, the Concordia harbors online animals. As Amy Taubin has suggested, a YouTube clip of a pair of uncannily expressive cats suggests a level of communication lacking among the passengers.

The disenfranchised—a lonely troubadour, an African woman, a Palestinian intellectual—roam the decks like lost souls, reciting gnomic phrases: “Poor Europe,” the woman exclaims, leaning on the rail as she gazes off at the horizon. The ship is a floating hell masquerading as a postmodern utopia. Money and gold coins constantly exchange hands: “Money was invented so that people wouldn’t have to look each other in the eye,” a character declares. Perhaps cameras as well, we wonder. The retired tourists and vacationers constantly, mindlessly, snap photographs of one another, yet take little notice of the war images from Afghanistan on TV. The French philosopher, Alain Badiou, delivers a lecture on the origins of geometry to an empty auditorium, literally speaking into the void. At the New York Film Festival screenings last fall, Godard included the already notorious “Navajo” subtitles, in which entire stretches of dialogue are condensed into several words suitable for imperialist American consumption: “AIDS tool to kill blacks,” etc. Portmanteau words (“nocrimes noblood”) evoke Joyce and Beckett, yet the sparse subtitles comment on the impoverishment of language in the age of Twitter.

“QUO VADIS EUROPA,” reads the intertitle at the beginning of the second movement. The tempo slows down and the mood lightens. We find ourselves in the French countryside, bathed in incandescent sunshine. From the global we turn to the local, to a gas station and adjoining house, where the Martin family resides. Florine and her younger brother Lucien have summoned their parents before the “tribunal of their childhood” to interrogate them about liberté, egalité, and fraternité. Their mother has decided to run for local office, yet Flo and Lucien wonder whether they themselves should run, since they will ultimately end up paying 30 percent of France’s debt. A TV camera team harasses the Martins; they need to have their piece ready for the evening news. The father swats one of them away with a rolled up newspaper like a fly. With its saturated primary colors and bits of slapstick, this section calls to mind Godard’s early films. Yet he intentionally nips any semblance of a narrative in the bud. The actors remain mouthpieces rather than three-dimensional characters, resulting in an off-putting viewing experience. Interviewed by one of the reporters, Flo discuses the need to redistribute the family’s property, quoting the French revolutionary Saint-Just (one of the film’s numerous references to revolution). The children evoke the early French New Wave: Flo reads Balzac as did Antoine Doinel in The 400 Blows; Lucien ogles women’s asses and paints Renoirs from memory. Numerous hints suggest that Godard views the mischievous, classical music-loving boy as an alter-ego. He’s also the only character to utter the film’s final intertitle: “No Comment.”

The short coda returns to the ports of call of the Part One’s odyssey, birthplace of our humanities, using mostly pilfered footage from films and newsreels. Reminiscent of Godard’s magnum opus, Histoire(s) du Cinéma, we revisit the wars and atrocities of the 20th century, but also its revolutionary upheavals. Significantly, Godard presents cities that were sites of spontaneous uprisings: Odessa, Barcelona, and most recently, Athens. In the Odessa section Godard intercuts images of contemporary tourists with footage from Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin. An owl in front of the famous steps references Hegel’s owl of Minerva, “which only spreads its wings once dusk starts to fall.” This allegory implies that philosophy comes to understand a historical condition only in retrospect.

Llama on a short leash.
Llama on a short leash.

Yet Godard has always maintained that cinema, unlike philosophy, has the power to foretell historical events. Godard demonstrates this in Film Socialisme by anticipating the civil unrest in Greece, which reached a flashpoint only after Godard began shooting. He reminds us that tragedy and democracy were both born in Athens. Throughout the film, Godard returns to his often-expressed notion that America liberated Europe only to make her more dependent, economically and culturally. He has referred to the landing on the beaches of Normandy as a second invasion, which led to the American “occupation” of cinema, to a uniform way of making films and the rise of television. Godard’s practice, especially his use of montage, offers a “resistance” to this occupation. The Martin family’s refusal to be captured by television proves significant. An intertitle later informs us that “Famille Martin” was the name of a group that formed part of the French Resistance during World War II, and that their motto was “liberate and federate.”

Towards the end of the film, we see an image of the FBI warning against copyright infringement, over which Godard superimposes an intertitle purloined from Pascal: “If the law is unjust, justice must bypass the law.” The socialism invoked is primarily the undermining of intellectual property. Godard has spoken about how the artist “doesn’t have rights but only obligations.” And, indeed, in Film Socialisme he freely appropriates images from John Ford’s Cheyenne Autumn, Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, Jean-Daniel Pollet’s Méditerranée, and even recycles sections of his own Histoire(s) Du Cinéma. Yet, amid the stream of secondhand images of war, Godard also offers us a startling vision of peace. Over images borrowed from Agnès Varda of trapeze artists performing on a beach, we hear the voice of a girl reading the Torah in Hebrew merge with the voice of a girl reading the Koran in Arabic. Here Godard, alluding to Walter Benjamin’s “angel of history,” presents history not as it was, but as it could have been, or might still yet be.

According to Godard, the history of cinema is thoroughly intertwined with what he calls “big history.” It’s the only art form, which in recounting its own stories, also tells us something about history itself. Profoundly tied to documentation, cinema forms a material archive of the 20th century. Therefore, to manipulate fragments of film is to manipulate history itself. Godard creates a surface where images, texts, and sounds coexist without hierarchy. Liberated from their original contexts, these elements freely enter what he calls “the fraternity of metaphors.” Images and sounds condense meaning, become emblematic, or form complex associative clusters.

In the last movement the images are no longer mere “things like this.” Godard invokes the possibility of redemption of the image through the power of montage to make us see the invisible: what lies between two images. The epilogue affirms that cultural history is alive, that through montage, we can tap into its unfulfilled potentials and abandoned dreams.


Ethan Spigland

ETHAN SPIGLAND likes to hide in broad daylight.


FEB 2011

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