Has Jean-Luc Godard lost it – again?
He’s never exactly been Spielberg. But with a new film subtitled in ‘Navajo English’ and a head-scratching cameo from Patti Smith, is Godard further from his audience than ever, asks Wally Hammond
Jean-Luc Godard’s latest film, ‘Film Socialisme’, four years in the making and which premiered last year to a mixed response, is released this week. Shot on DV and split into three sections, it’s a lamentation for ‘poor, humiliated’ Europe. And like every new film from the 80-year-old Franco-Swiss filmmaker – at least since his alienating ‘King Lear’ in 1987, in which he himself appeared in dreadlocks – it provokes the same questions and doubts. Has the great movie provocateur finally lost it?
‘Lear’ lost Godard his audience in the UK, and distributors wouldn’t touch him for more than a decade. The celebrated ’50s Cahiers critic, king of the nouvelle vague, crypto-Maoist agitator, gnomic essayist and inveterate polemicist’s pronouncements on the ‘death of cinema’ may have been a self-fulfilling prophecy. Whereas the jazzy jump-cuts and playful high-jinks of his 1959 debut ‘Breathless’ were the height of chic, by 1968 audiences merely salvaged celebrity from the provocative monotony of his Rolling Stones film ‘Sympathy for the Devil’. His later experimental collaborations with partner Anne-Marie Miéville proved only marginally less audience-paring than his previous excursions in utopian collectivism with the Dziga-Vertov group.
By the end of the 1990s, it looked like the great man may have tied himself so tightly in his own knot of philosophical contradictions, audio-visual experiments, inexplicable self-denying ordinances and exasperating non-appearances as to have performed a form of cinematic hara-kiri. The sages were saying that Saint Jean-Luc had disappeared up his own fundamental enquiries. Had the cigar-smoking tyro, who started on such a high in 1960s Paris and now lives in his Swiss retreat of Rolle, lost his mojo?
The new century suggested a new start. In June 2001, the National Film Theatre asked the same question by means of a retrospective, while Tate Modern launched a conference to highlight Godard’s neglected recent advances. Together, they helped refresh the appetite for ‘Éloge de l’Amour’, his first British release in 14 years.
The first half of ‘Éloge’ covers a young director’s difficulties in getting a project off the ground, while the second observes a Hollywood producer’s encounters with a couple whose Resistance story he wants to film. Though far from conventional, it helped that Godard showed a desire to meet the audience half way. It is a film with heart, a desire to communicate and – God, forbid! – identifiable characters. In it, the efforts of the years Godard spent in Rolle researching ‘all the histories’ of cinema for his millennial docu-essay ‘Histoire(s) du Cinema’ (1998), seemed to bear fruit in episodes of visual and aural beauty, elegiac pathos and direct emotional appeal.
‘Éloge’ exhibits a vitality that may have constituted a new start for the 70-year-old director had not its poor reception stung him deeply. That may explain his retreat into the relative obscurity of both ‘Notre Musique’ (2004), his Dante-esque meditation on war and man’s inhumanity to man, and his new work, ‘Film Socialisme’, which explicitly asks the question, ‘Quo Vadis, Europa?’.
Passages of ‘Film Socialisme’ are spectacular, while others are often funny, apt or strangely moving . His portrait of passenger life on a luxury liner – on a literal or metaphorical Mediterranean cruise from Algeria to Alexandria, Haifa, Odessa, Athens, Naples and Barcelona – speaks for itself: it’s a surreal or farcical vision of self-deluded, culturally denuded consumers of bourgeois leisure, as self-obsessed as they are ignorant of their own and their neighbours’ history. It’s just as persuasive as the similar traffic-jam madhouse he created in ‘Weekend’ 45 years ago.
Texturally, too, the film is impressive – with its weird, wind-distorted soundtrack and meshing of colour-saturated video and blown-up camera-phone footage. There’s an elegant, concise and wistful quality to its semi-abandoned petrol-station-set second section – neatly contrasting differing generational aspirations. All of which make ‘Film Socialisme’ well worth a visit.
But there’s no mistaking that the ghosts are back. They take the form of barely identified characters – a pop singer (Patti Smith, no less), a self-occupied Russian spy, an elderly German Jew, a girl with nice cleavage – all of whom, muttering in cabins or walking the decks, relate in some way, no doubt, to Godard’s private back pages and 50-film catalogue, but none of whom say much to us, save in obfuscating, isolated word captions, which Godard calls ‘Navajo-English translations’.
With this new film, Godard told co-conspirator Daniel Cohn-Bendit in a recent interview, he will close his production company and rid himself of his archive. That’s worrying and more than a little sad. Let’s hope, at least, dear old JLG can dispatch his ghosts too. And that our greatest living modernist director makes his next films free of them at last.
Read our review of 'Film Socialisme'
Author: Wally Hammond
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