Godard Continues Beguiling Ways With 'Film Socialisme'
Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
"The party's over," Vincent Canby lamented, all the way back in 1990, apropos the films of director Jean-Luc Godard and the international excitement they once could generate. For Canby, who would retire from his film critic position at the New York Times by the mid-'90s (he died in 2000), the new radicalism of the film he was discussing, "Nouvelle Vague," Godard's stately, narratively oblique collaboration with French screen icon Alain Delon, was saddening and cinematically perfunctory. Canby's plaint was but one that has echoed around Godard's work for much of his career: While the question is never phrased as "Why can't you make normal radical movies?" that, essentially, is what the question is, with the "normal" radical movies under Godard's belt being the likes of "Breathless" and "Contempt" and such. Woody Allen has "Tell funnier jokes"; Godard has "Make movies we can vaguely follow, as if they're stories." Or something.
Whatever it is, it ain't gonna happen, just like Martin Scorsese isn't gonna strap a RED camera on his shoulder and go down into the streets of Manhattan and shoot a verite narrative on the fly or something. Godard does what he does: discursive, thickly textured, densely allusive quasi-essay films filled with trenchant observations, plangent complaints, and the torturing of thematic bedbugs and dropping of at least borderline outrageous and/or deeply objectionable comments and characterizations. That's what the viewer gets in "Film Socialisme," and for a bonus, as far as I'm aware at the moment, the U.S. arthouse viewer doesn't even get traditional English subtitles, either. For the English-language distribution versions of this film, Godard has put on the film subtitles that he's referred to as "Navajo" English. Instead of providing whole literal translations of entire patches of dialogue -- and the dialogue is, in descending order of prevalence, in French, German, Russian, and English, and maybe one or two other tongues I'm not remembering (and the soundtrack is layered in such a way that it will not be unfamiliar to lovers of the aforementioned "Nouvelle Vague" and the even more controversial "King Lear," which means, in effect, a very deliberate and artfully contrived babel: He'll put up a series of key words, mostly nouns, and sometimes invented compound words such as "nocrime" followed by "noblood").
It doesn't take very long for the effect to stop feeling like subtitles at all, and to play like a sort of running discrete text of its own, one made up in large part of what could be Twitter hashtags. In a sense this makes the film even more social-media-up-to-the-minute than the "The Social Network," which it played alongside at 2010's New York Film Festival. Not bad for a nearly 80-year-old crank largely sequestered in a hamlet near Lake Geneva in Switzerland, which ain't exactly a finger-on-the-pulse-of-anything-much spot these days. Certainly adds more than just a particular flavor to the experience, and made me feel a little proud that my overall grasp of spoken French is better than I thought it would be.
The film's first section is set on a cruise ship, which could here be some allegorical vessel representing late late capitalism, or not. On the ship there's this old guy, dressed kind of like a gangster, hanging out on deck. The narrator, such as he is, informs us that his name is "Goldberg" and that this translates into "Gold mountain." Yeah, Jean-Luc, we get it. There's another bit later on with a reflection that Hollywood was "started by Jews," but this point, too, drifts off, as the focus turns more ostensibly anti-Zionist than anti-Semitic (I do believe there is a difference, and also, it should go without saying, that these are not two stances that work well together), but it doesn't matter because we're all kind of irritated now anyway. Incidental, non-programmatic, I-dare-you-to-call-this-anti-Semitism seems to have become a feature, not a bug, of late late Godard, and it's tiresome. As manifested here, the effect is as if he's cocked an eyebrow and made you think he's about to drop a definitively offensive and/or indefensible characterization, and then veered off from it. It's almost as if he's toying with us, and why would he want to do that?
I'm beginning to think with late-period Godard, it's not really a full experience without at least a little serious viewer irritation. People talk admiringly sometimes of flies in the ointment, but a real fly in the ointment isn't particularly ingratiating. For all the moments of quicksilver wit and genuine playfulness in this picture, there's a certain pissy maliciousness as well. Does that particular quality invalidate the film? Before we cross that bridge, we have to make some conventional sense of the film itself.
Or do we? The deeper into "Film Socialisme" I got, the more I was reminded of Jaspar Johns' "target" paintings, art from which no one expects a traditional linear narrative. Johns' paintings are repetitions of the same thing -- that is, an archery target. Always the same, only the dimensions, the colors, the thickness of the paint on the board, and so on, vary. In "Film Socialisme" what's crucial is less the words -- printed, spoken, sung -- and the images themselves, than the way they're layered, juxtaposed, delivered. The images that appear to be in ultra-bright 35 mm, and the images in smeary digital video, and the images in pixelated digital, or analog, video. The freezes, the glitches. The gorgeousness of the light and the light's inevitable technological distortion. There's the usual Godardian polemics and punning, the obsessive sifting through the ash heap of 20th century (and further back than that) history, the attitudinizing, the cameos by philosophers and artists (nice to see Patti Smith and Lenny Kaye pitching in). But then there are the various textures of conveyance, which go back to, and take in, imagery and grain from Eisenstein's "Potemkin" and Ford's "Cheyenne Autumn," among others. It is this quality, rather than, (to cite the classically funny Nabokovian formulation) "what [...] the guy [is] trying to say," finally, that makes Godard's film remarkable and beautiful and challenging. Still, this ain't no party.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.