Both poetic rumination and urgent intervention, ‘Film Socialisme’ reflects on the deeply embedded place of cinema in modern history.
Film Socialisme, the latest work from inimitable master Jean-Luc Godard, is getting its U.S. release at last, more than a year after premiering at Cannes. Slow passage across the Atlantic, but worth the wait. In a work that sets a good deal of the action aboard a Mediterranean cruise liner—a ready metaphor for European civilization’s floundering course through centuries of laden history—Godard delivers a poetic rumination on our world that, for all its longue durée outlook, feels immediate and urgent.
The impenetrable surface of the water in the opening shot should not discourage. What follows, while dense and idiosyncratic, is not opaque. Rather, this at times playful, at times somber meditation on where history has brought us is brimming with ideas and aesthetic pleasures. The two are always joined, of course. Film Socialisme, which perhaps bears closest resemblance to the concerns and strategies of Godard’s Notre musique (2004) and his Histoire(s) de cinema (1998), is (as its title suggests) as much an intervention in, as reflection on, the deeply embedded place of cinema in modern history.
The original footage is shot in HD video, but the film incorporates many still images, film clips and archival footage, variously textured and treated. The soundtrack, meanwhile, is equally complex, in the Brechtian style of other Godard films. Like much of Godard’s work, the film functions in part as an invigorating master class in how to watch a film and, by extension, to read the world at large. English-speaking audiences, moreover, get a deliberately partial subtitling of the film’s polyglot dialogue, a form Godard called “Navajo English.” Not only select words, but unique groupings of words too, Godard’s “Navajo” is more than succinct; it’s interpretive, conveying more with less, and aiming its meaning back the “native” speaker.
The first section of the film (and there are roughly three, maybe four, depending on how you interpret the use of certain intertitles), set aboard the Mediterranean cruise liner, spins a loose narrative about a certain shady war profiteer named Goldberg, accompanied by a young woman who may be a relative and trailed by an investigator. This narrative points back to World War II and some stolen gold, and even further back to an obscure Egyptian pharaoh—such details emerge from a wealth of cryptic references and signs scattered throughout the mise-en-scène, as well as from some more or less straightforward dialogue and its translation in the slyly selective, quasi-poetical subtitles.
Moving at something like right angles to the stream of imagery and sound, the Goldberg narrative with its references to a certain watch, a string of antique gold coins and an Egyptian connection may be a red herring or may not be—a copy of Naguib Mahfouz’s deliberately ambiguous novel Akhenaten, Dweller in Truth, just visible in the corner of one shot, could be there to remind us that the interpretation is partly up to us. Indeed, this Goldberg narrative, albeit suggestive of certain underlying realities, is at the same time merely one of a set of fractured narratives and freighted images on display as the ship makes its tour of history: Greece (“Hell As” in the punning inter-title), Odessa, Palestine (“Access Denied”), Spain, Egypt…
But history, its real motive forces, remains submerged in the general detritus of a culture adrift, captured by tides it only dimly perceives for all the cameras it has trained on everything—and there are cameras in almost everybody’s hands. These people float on a sea of images. Passengers are more likely to be transfixed by a projection of people like themselves, exercising in a swimming pool, than they are by the great sea outside. Cameras, video recorders, computer laptops, cell phones—the devices and their screens proliferate across the desultory action, which seems both listless and frantic under this particular leisure-time regime. (What might it mean that a banal shot of the cruise liner’s nightclub dance floor, as recorded on a cell phone, sounds like nothing so much as an ongoing atomic explosion with a backbeat?) Meanwhile, in a relatively straightforward irony, troubadour-poet Patti Smith wanders the deck with her guitar, barely noticed, and leftist philosopher Alain Badiou lectures to an empty hall or writes at the computer in his solitary cabin.
In a second section, the film moves to the French countryside: a family-owned gas station along a noisy highway. There the Martin family, a couple and their two children, discuss politics, elections and the French Revolution, while a television news crew made up of a white female reporter and her French African camerawoman pesters them like flies (and are swatted away more than once). Musing on liberté, egalité, and fraternité, as well as the nature of the state, the Martin family’s radical-provincial lineage comes flagged and expanded by a donkey and a (South American) llama, both pets tied uselessly to the gas pumps or the house. The somewhat flat tone of this segment stands in contrast to the urgency of the subject matter under discussion, as well as the false urgency of the parasitic news crew (who nonetheless become somewhat friendly with the family). In fact, the languid domestic action holds many tantalizing scenes and moments, as the film—with self-conscious reference to cinematic portraiture and a larger and degraded aesthetic tradition—puts empire, oil wars, colonialism, electoral politics, and generational angst among the other offerings at the family table.
From there, we head back to the ship, and a final tour of the seemingly contracting Mediterranean pond, where the great conflicts of the 20th century, the socialist rising against the Tsarist regime in Russia or the fratricidal bloodshed on the left in 1937 Barcelona, seem to all point back to Greece. “Democracy and tragedy were married in Athens under Pericles and Sophocles,” intones the narrative. “A single child: civil war.”
Film Socialisme christens Film Society Cinema September 2, San Francisco Film Society’s new year-round cinema in the New People building in Japantown, which is certainly apt. No filmmaker takes the role of cinema more seriously; few raise it as high aesthetically or demand more of it as the ultimate in social media. If aboard that cruise liner we recognize the postmodern age in all its indolent yet manic aimlessness, Godard also shows us cinema’s unstable place in it all, as the integral technology and art form in the continually contested construction of reality. Whoever sets the course for our future, Film Socialisme reminds us, reckons with cinema in its broadest sense.
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