Friday, September 2, 2011

Film Socialisme

Indicting World History And Assailing European Empire

A scene from Jean-Luc Godard's "Film Socialisme". 
Kino Lorber Films

Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW                                           
Friday, September 2, 2011

In "Film Socialisme" Jean-Luc Godard delights in breaking film's rules, not his own.  Strangely dated and discordant, Mr. Godard's latest film is an entirely disengaging but not disarming experience.  Somehow I got with its program of disengagement-through-engagement. 

"Film Socialisme" is a didactic partly about mocking the image, and mocking the conventions and pretensions of film and filmmaking.  To do this Mr. Godard orchestrates pretentiousness, with exaggerated music that you'd expect in thrillers or otherwise melodramatic moments.  He throws perception askance with free-associational imagery, grainy, oversaturated video, loud screechy noises and idle but pointed comments about the injustices perpetrated by Europe and in world history, doled out at no more than five (subtitled and spaced) words at any time. 

The French director is understandably angry about Europe and its exploits and criminality towards Africa and many of the world's peoples and he wants his audience to feel angry too.  He decries the apathy and complicity of his own nation and uses literature (from the French writer Balzac, the British economist Malthus) to indict, comment on and decry economics, politics and other nations.  "Film Socialisme" is obviously very personal to its director, who speaks of Barcelona, Greece, Napoli among others as possible forerunning culprits in what he sees as human civilization's demise and lack of decency and overall humanity.  He weaves mythology then appears to attack or mock it.

Mr. Godard's characters deride Hollywood and "the Jews" who "invented" it.  For the filmmaker Hollywood is an empire that's just as destructive as some fallen empires.  (Is this why Mr. Godard declined to come to Hollywood to accept the honorary Oscar awarded to him this year?)  Mr. Godard seems to view Hollywood as a lurid, sickly, romanticized paradise in which everything is okay and love is alive, a mass distraction from the abhorrent realities staring us in the face.  What, however, is Hollywood -- apart from its money-making -- if not the personification of escapism and entertainment? 

In "Film Socialisme" characters sneer and sarcastically deliver lines about observance and existence.  Existentialism has been a continuous theme in Mr. Godard's work.  There's a banality and indifference about the characters and philosophies of "Film Socialisme", and Mr. Godard's onscreen vessels are at their most conscious in their mundane state of being.  Titles are subverted as is minimalism.  Stock footage of wars, movies and television flash by furiously.  It's all a droning noise for the director and a distraction, which is what "Film Socialisme" is.  Yet it was oddly addicting for me.

I was never made to feel comfortable with the film's rhythm or the collage it tosses at us, and I believe that's what Mr. Godard intended, among other things.  Similarly, he isn't comfortable with the real world as it is constructed through history, with its victors that he views as villains.  He's none-too-cozy with the European Union, either.  He references Simone Veil, the French politician and, if I remember correctly, Simone Weil, the French philosopher.

In a rambling tone Mr. Godard argues that laws are unfair, unjust and artificial and implies that they are so since they came from corrupt, criminal and unworthy conquerors.  He wants justice to prevail, not confederations.  The film's crescendo is the director's most forceful ally and advocate but also his biggest propagandist.  Mr. Godard isn't a capitalist's friend, nor do aspects of his film necessarily look to make friends with America.  Still, Mr. Godard advocates a utopia but all he gets -- make that all he conjures -- is chaos.  He may be pessimistic but it is a conundrum, a pessimism wrapped in hope for the future, through its young actors.

Mr. Godard celebrates freedom's weaklings and indicts liberation's musclemen.  He wants truth, direct truth, not its comfortable, candied reality.  He champions Orwell.  (Are the cameras in "Film Socialisme" a weapon of fascism in ways that guns also are?)

Nadège Beausson-Diagne in Jean-Luc Godard's "Film Socialisme".  Kino Lorber Films

There's a heavy-handed sense of artifice and illusion to "Film Socialisme", and Mr. Godard uses imagery completely dissonant with much of the story he's telling (or the view he's selling.)  The message is the message, and the medium to the director, is trivial, which is why Mr. Godard subverts and plays with it as much as he does in "Film Socialisme".  Cameras are constantly seen, filmmaking references and dimensions are tossed around dismissively.  The film's dispassionate tone is impassioned.  Mr. Godard has consistently kept things on edge in his illustrious body of work, whether in "Pierrot Le Fou", "La Chinoise", "Alphaville", "Contempt" or others.  There's always a larger voice lurking around the corner, just waiting to interrupt a narrative sense of normalcy.

Speaking of which, is there a narrative in "Film Socialisme"?  Absolutely.  Mr. Godard's inquiry centers on a young woman on a cruise ship, seen taking photos early on.  She converses about history with an older man and later embarks on a journey with several other characters who also comment on history.  The director hopes that these young people will continue talking about history and its place in everything.  By extension Mr. Godard hopes young people in the film's audience will too.  Stylistically, the film's frequent edits suit the short-attention span demographic to a tee.  Characters, some cameo, others less ephemeral, grace this unpredictable stage. 

"Film Socialisme" is often bloated, droll, self-congratulatory and repetitive, but interesting enough to stir thought and debate afterward about both Mr. Godard and the ideas he presents.  The film is more an effect and an expression than a truly linear story.

The film constantly upends, disrupts itself to make a point, even if the points made are occasionally incoherent.  Disconnected voices are heard outside the film's frame.  Only two images in the entire film are conventional close ups of a solo actor speaking, and just one of those looks directly at us.  There's faux-Norman Rockwell staging in several scenes.  Characters speak in fragments and disconnected verbs and nouns.  Speech is expressed as blips of thought rather than coherent sentences. 

Mr. Godard avoids subtitles in many scenes.  This will heighten the frustrations of some English-speaking audiences.  Maybe that's the director's intent.  Maybe that's Mr. Godard's indictment of such audiences, a number of whom don't like to read subtitles to begin with.  Perhaps Mr. Godard pities them and wants to explode or offend their expectations and sensibilities, or at least test their patience, for his film surely will.  Among other things, there's even a spliced slow-motion clip of the 2009 Champions League Final match between football superpowers Manchester United and Barcelona, used to make a definitive metaphorical point about games, history, empire and the fanaticism of a city the director suggests has blood on its hands.  The clip is an oddly powerful one, juxtaposed against Spain's Queen Isabella.

Having said all of this, I don't think "Film Socialisme" intentionally frustrates, but it is a curious, somewhat maddening experience.  If some thought "The Tree Of Life" was pretentious and overblown and walked out of the theater on it, I shudder to think how soon those same people would exit Mr. Godard's latest.  I managed to stay, and this anarchistic film more than merits a look.  The director hammers points home and doesn't stop until your attention is gained.

Confession: I remember a very embarrassing day years ago when I actually thought that Mr. Godard was dead.  I almost verbalized my belief to someone.  I hid my ignorance by asking people how old Mr. Godard was.  Thankfully he wasn't gone.  Some may think Mr. Godard is figuratively gone with "Film Socialisme".  The ending of the film didn't make me angry but snuck up on me in a snide, naughty way.  The ending of "Film Socialisme" will make some angry, not necessarily for its content as much as for other reasons. 

The film's final seven minutes play as an epilogue, an editorial for those who don't leave the theater.  It's by far the strongest part of a film which by Mr. Godard's high standards probably isn't potent enough.  On his most mediocre days however, Mr. Godard's work is stronger and more persuasive than most, and that's ultimately how I felt about "Film Socialisme" and its often stream-of-conscious meditation on its liberal anti-imperialist politics.  I think the film is valuable enough to stand on its own as a sufficiently astute work.  "Film Socialisme" should be seen in a movie theater but it's the kind of work that would be more at home in a museum as an exhibit or a wild, bizarre but intriguing time capsule.

With: Nadège Beausson-Diagne, Jean-Marc Stehlé, Catherine Tanvier, Patti Smith.

"Film Socialisme" is not rated by the Motion Picture Association Of America, though there are fleeting moments of violence and disturbing images.  In French, German, Spanish and English languages, with English subtitles and French, Greek and Spanish titles.  The film's running time is one hour and 37 minutes.

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