Friday, December 31, 2010

Movie Review: Film Socialism

Film Socialism no stars
Directed by:
Jean-Luc Godard.
Written By: Jean-Luc Godard.
Starring: Catherine Tanvier (La mere), Christian Sinniger (Le père), Jean-Marc Stehlé (Otto Goldberg), Patti Smith (La chanteuse), Robert Maloubier (Personne de la vraie vie), Alain Badiou (Le philosophe), Nadège Beausson-Diagne (Constance), Élisabeth Vitali (La journaliste FR3 Regio), Eye Haidara (La cameraman FR3 Regio), Quentin Grosset (Lucien), Olga Riazanova (Agent secret russe).

Jean-Luc Godard is one of the towering figures in cinema. His films of the 1960s – starting with Breathless, which remains his best film – took film to an entirely different level. Without Godard, I wonder what film would look like now – because it would be remarkably different. Yet even in those films from the ‘60s, some of them masterpieces, others not – there was a healthy dose of pretentiousness. I’ve always got the impression from Godard’s films that he thinks he’s smarter than the rest of us – and likes to rub in our faces. In the 40 years since the 1960s ended, Godard has moved further and further away from narrative filmmaking – and now comes to what he has said will be his final film – Film Socialism. The film really doesn’t say anything meaningful about socialism – it doesn’t really say anything meaningful about anything. It seems to me that Godard has made a film that is impossible to understand. Perhaps that’s the joke – perhaps somewhere Godard is sitting and laughing at all of us who went to see his film and tried to assign some meaning to it.

The film is told in three parts – the first part takes place on a cruise ship going through the Mediterranean. The second part takes place entirely at the house, and gas station next door, of a family in the South of France. The third segment heads out to the “birthplace of our humanities” around the world, but is really just a jumble of images.

I suppose that the critics who have said that Film Socialism is about the death of language may have a point. Godard has certainly made a film where the dialogue is pretty much incomprehensible and doesn’t really matter. It’s more about how the people on the cruise ship do not communicate with each other more than that they do. We see familiar Godardian characters – the Nazi hunter, the Jewish banker, the beautiful young woman with a powerful older man, the thoughtful African woman, etc. They talk a lot, but we don’t understand what they are saying. The sound of the film is deliberately crude, and any scene film on the ship’s deck results in us only hearing the sound of the wind ripping past the microphone. Most of the dialogue is in French – and Godard has provided us with deliberately useless subtitles in what he describes as “Navajo English” – which is essentially broken phrases pieced together, so we understand the jist of what people are saying, but not the actual words used. What does become clear is that Godard holds most of these characters in contempt – he sees them as shallow and superficial (which is why apparently no one showed up at a philosophy lecture Godard announced on the ship – but allow me to suggest that people on a vacation may not want to hear a philosophy lecture, and may just want to relax – which I suppose according to Godard is a sin). The second section to me remains incomprehensible – I have no idea what Godard is trying to say, although it’s obviously something about the evil of oil companies since he has a llama tied to a gas pump for the entire segment. The family, it seems, is more successful at communicating with each other than the people on the boat – but not by much. An election is coming, a reporter shows up because the parents are involved in it, but ultimately, this segment felt pointless. I’m sure someone can explain it to me. The third section of the movie calls to mind Godard’s Notre Musique – in fact it almost plays like an outtake reel from that movie as Godard “visits” the birthplace of our humanities – Egypt, Palestine, Helas, etc – and assembles a group of images that recalls the horrors of the 20th Century (Hitler and Stalin can be both be seen at various points), and of course Hollywood (why Charlie Chaplin rates a notice, I have no idea). The film ends with a final title card that simply says “No Comment”. Perhaps this is Godard’s way of saying he will not explain his film – but I almost think it describes the film as well. Godard has not really made a comment on anything in this film – at least not one that is decipherable.

Perhaps I simply do not get Film Socialism, and so like Glenn Kenny suggests, I am not really qualified to give an appraisal of it. I admit that, but I will also say that I think if that is true, then there are very few people in the world that would be qualified to give an assessment if that is the criteria. I cannot think of a single person I know who would actually get something out of Film Socialism. Now, it is not Godard’s job to make a film those appeals to the masses if he doesn’t want to – but both he and Kenny have to admit that there are few people who want to watch this film.

The bottom line on Film Socialism for me is that it never engaged me in any real way. It didn’t inspire me to go out and learn more about what Godard is trying to say, because he has made a film that is deliberately indecipherable – that deliberately holds everyone at arm’s length. Who is the audience for this film? Perhaps only Godard himself. I hope he enjoyed it more than I did.

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