Written and Directed by: Jean-Luc Godard
Directors of Photography: Fabrice Aragno and Paul Grivas
Rated: Not Rated, but the only offense is one of comprehensibility.
When I attended last year’s New York Film Festival public screening of Film Socialisme, Jean-Luc Godard’s latest, and perhaps final statement, on cinema, I counted about fifty walk outs. These people weren’t walking out because the violence was too graphic, or the characters too misogynistic, or its political statements. They walked because of the form. Since 1968, Mr. Godard, director of Breathless, perhaps the most important film in the second half of the medium’s history, has become increasingly more abstract, fighting against normative traditions of not only Hollywood but also all of cinema. A staunch Marxist, who rarely gives interviews (and skipped the film’s Cannes premiere in 2010, providing an ambiguous statement about the political situation in Greece), Mr. Godard has gone from riding the top of the new wave and landed somewhere in land so far that no one is sure where he is.
Certainly, one can’t even begin to describe Film Socialisme, which has no narrative to even begin to speak of, and instead is a collection of scenes, footage, sounds, ideas, and themes that are simply clashed onto each other. To add to that difficulty, the film’s characters speak mostly in French (though there is some German, Russian, Yiddish, and Arabic), and the subtitles are not translations, but a few chosen words used to represent the possible meaning, or as Mr. Godard has stated, “Navajo English,” a reference to the poor English spoken by Native Americans in Hollywood Westerns (film critic Glen Kenny pointed out they resemble Twitter hashtags).
Now it would be easy—quite easy—to have joined those walk outs. The film isn’t fun per say, it’s an academic experience, where one must be constantly interpreting image and sound placement in order to create ideas. So when I sat down (pen and paper ready), I took on Mr. Godard’s challenge, to understand what he was trying to say—about politics, cinema, history, philosophy, you name it. To create my enjoyment, I wrote down a number of observations on what was going on, and then looked over those notes to try and create meaning. Film Socialisme is full of academic references that will go over even the most astute viewers’ heads, and thus a full explanation could only be made by Mr. Godard. So in my own “fuck you” to Film Socialisme (as Mr. Godard has no plans on making anyone actually enjoy watching his films), I present THE interpretation of the film. It’s not the right one, but it’s the only one that matters to me, because Mr. Godard has created this film and wants me to respond. So if I am wrong, he can make another film telling me how I am wrong.
Film Socialisme is an attempt to follow in the theoretical writings of the famed silent Russian director Sergei Eisenstein, who wrote about an idea called intellectual montage. Eisenstein wrote about editing, and how the clashing of images could create a new idea, and continued to push more and more that as one let go of all narrative traditions and played with sound, image, and pace, one could create meaning and ideologies out of simply by this editing. I am sure Mr. Godard is aware of this idea—footage from Mr. Eisenstein’s Battleship Potkemin appears in the film, along with a tour group of children learning the history at the Odessa Steps site, where the film’s most famous sequence takes place.
In doing so, Mr. Godard is attempting to use Film Socialisme for its titular purpose: create an aesthetics in which film breaks from all traditions and the style itself is a Marxist practice. The film thus divides itself into three major parts; call it three acts as a joke toward narrative structure. The first takes place on a luxury cruise—a symbol of capitalist imperialism as it travels around the world. The second takes place with a small family in Southern France, and deals with the transference of dominant ideology through the patriarchal formation of society. The final part is an abstract recollection of dialectics along the Mediterranean, following Greece, Rome, Egypt, and other major societies that clashed through war, and asserts that the dialectic between these Northern and Southern societies is where the Hegelian tradition will lead to a perfect socialist society, which Mr. Godard believes Barcelona is the most probable location for that.
Let’s start with the images that are important on the cruise. Recurring images include the crashing of waves on the water, photography or the act of taking pictures, self-reflexivity, and the battle between the real and the distorted world. In this part, Mr. Godard basically takes aim that the advent technology in capitalist society has distanced human relations. There are many ways that he asserts this. Many times when characters speak, we do not even hear their voices, but instead hear an off screen voice speaking about something cryptic. Characters that do speak to each other, and seem to never face each other, and even when they do, they do not discuss the same topic. In possibly the same tradition as Jean-Paul Belmondo imitating Humphrey Bogart in Breathless, Mr. Godard shows the devolution of cinephelia, as a woman watches a YouTube video of cats and then attempts to meow like them. The countless photographs represent the idea of documenting without experiencing—we want to relive the experience, but in doing so we do not experience it in the first place. The philosopher Alain Baidou gives a lecture to an empty lecture hall about geometry, a sign of the loss of important intellectual theory, and Patty Smith shows up at one point as a sign of hope in America. Throughout this third, Mr. Godard shows the two phrases “Des Choses” (things) and “Comme ça” (like that) alternatively on screen, before crashing them together, forming “things like that,” suggesting that this is only the beginning of what imperial capitalism will bring on our society. The boat itself occasionally stops, spreading its influence of technology and capitalist dominance wherever it lands.
The first third ends and the second third ends with a question written on screen “Quo Vadis Europe?” (What next Europe?), and then moves to a single location for the second half, which even might one suggest uses characters (though like everything in Film Socialisme, is simply an ideological delivery device). The first image that we see of the family that runs the gas station is of a llama tied to a gas station. This is a reminder of where Europe gets its money from—South America—and the Orientalist traditions we view the people, only concerned with the commodity (oil) they happen to have. During this sequence, Mr. Godard shows a bullfighter leading a bull around playfully. This is the suggestion that the governments that run Europe, and specifically France, are simply toying with their people, only making them believe that change may be coming. This is again asserted that the family involved here is highly invested in an upcoming election in France, though between whom and for what position is never told. In the patriarchal family, the young attempt to resist by indoctrinating themselves through Marxist and realist practices, but it is futile. The teenage girl reads Balzac, but is derided by her parents. The young boy, wearing a Chinese Communist t-shirt, is deceived through his love of classic music, a strictly Western tradition. He pretends to perform as the conductor for an empty orchestra, and yells at them after the performance and gives them notes, as if he is already learning how to control the masses. An African woman with a video camera also hangs around the family, attempting to shoot some film. Her role is important for the children in the fight against Western capitalism, which the woman asserts by suggesting the need for a Third World Cinema. In the end though, Mr. Godard suggests that the patriarchal society is too strong—the young boy paints a perfect copy of a Renoir, and objectifies the African woman. When she asks him about this, he simply responds, “No Comment” in English.
The third part tracts the origins of the humanities and the arts, the one place for hope against the resistance. He names six locations of major evolution in the humanities—Egypt, Palestine, Odessa, Naples, Barcelona, and Hellas, though it is written as “Hell As,” suggesting the chaos that has plagued the current economic catastrophe in that country. The film then suggests what has been important is the dialectical chaos that has politically linked these countries. Yiddish and Arabic writing in different colors are smashed on top of each other. A voice cites a theory of Roman Jakobson, in the re-interpretation of symbols and semiotics by other countries, an essential model for dialectical art. Mr. Godard cites the major costs of art—the images of war from Greece to modern days, and the images of Battleship Potkemin serve as a reminder of the art that comes out of it (Mr. Godard also shows images of Egyptian, Greek, and other Mediterranean art). The film finally ends on some quiet images of Barcelona in peace, where Mr. Godard asserts that due to Catalonia’s major contact with so many different eras, and its own fight for independence that was never asserted by Western imperialism, it is a possible site for new socialism to emerge. Only by our free range to both art and ideas—Mr. Godard shows the FBI warning label and has a character speak “laws unfair, justice first”—can this be possible. In the end, he leaves us with the words “NO COMMENT,” filling the screen.
Still with me?
Is Film Socialisme a good film? I think that’s an unanswerable question. Its certainly not entertaining or stimulating in the same way early films of Mr. Godard like Pierret Le Fou and Band of Outsiders both could be considered enjoyable. But what the film does do is extraordinary in its own unique way. The interpretation of only a handful of the ideas and images presented, and it starts to get at the major elements that Mr. Godard has attempted to say in his 50-year career. It could mean everything, or as Mr. Godard suggests in the final shot, he doesn’t really have any sort of a comment, and realizes the futility of his filmmaking, which is not about to play in 3000 screens any time soon. Make of it what you will; that’s the way Mr. Godard would prefer.