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CANNES – It’s a truism that one doesn’t really “review” a film by the venerable French director Jean-Luc Godard, who turns 80 this year, and whose first, game-changing film, Breathless, came out exactly a half-century ago. Merely describing a new Godard offering is in itself a triumph.
Film Socialisme, like most of his other essay films, is all over the place and (purposely) impossible to follow, but the master is adept at making you feel that if you don’t understand it, it’s your fault, not his. In any case it’s true that he tosses out more ideas in five minutes than most directors manage to come up with in two hours or in whole careers.
RELEASE DATE Nov 30, 1999
But it’s also true that Godard films are much less fun to actually watch than they are to argue about afterward. Hence, theatrical possibilities seem limited, outside of Godard’s home territory of intellectual Europe, but ancillary sales could be robust. He is, after all, Jean-Luc Godard. He is iconic.
Film Socialisme is being touted as a “symphony in three movements,” which accords well with Godard’s continuing interest in the expressive, non-linguistic power of music, and in the complex relations between sound and image. The first section-which is by far the best-is set mostly on a cruise ship, by means of which JLG gets to indulge in his favorite activity, attacking the clueless bourgeoisie. The juxtaposition of gorgeous images of the sea with the banalities of life on the ship (e.g., the mass that is being celebrated for the Italian Catholics on board) is priceless and takes little ingenuity to comprehend.
The second part concerns Our Europe, in which some children pose impossible-to-answer, non-sequitur questions to their parents. It is much less coherent and even, at times, rather simple-minded. The final section revisits the places of Our Humanities, including Egypt, Palestine, Odessa, Hellas (Greece), Naples, and Barcelona. Here the method is that of the felicitous juxtaposition of sound and image that occupied part one.
Throughout, JLG employs the startling capitals, in a variety of striking colors, that have become his trademark way of mixing the written text with the visual image, thereby confounding the two. These take on a rhythmic life of their own, as when multiple visual changes are rung upon the phrases Les Choses (the things) and Comme ca (like that). By far the most fascinating novelty, however, is Godard’s decision to employ two and three word summaries of various lines of the French dialogue in the English subtitles rather than trying to faithfully capture the entirety of each and every gnomic utterance. This is a brilliant technique that actually focuses us on the essentials and is a lot easier for overwhelmed viewers to negotiate.
Languages are piled on top of each other, tricks are played with multiple soundtracks that vie for supremacy (a technique that goes back at least to A Woman Is a Woman, made in 1961), clips from classic movies flash by to briefly illuminate obscure points of an unspoken argument, the digital image threatens at times to break down into illegible pixels (whether by accident or design is anyone’s guess), discourses are purposely confused (as when Godard points out that Hollywood is the “Mecca” of cinema and founded by Jews), the off-screen space is brilliantly used to comment on what we do see, quotations from thinkers as disparate as La Rochefoucauld and Jacques Derrida are invoked, and so on.
In short, another film experience by Jean-Luc Godard.
Venue: Festival de Cannes (Un Certain Regard)
Production companies: Vega Film
Cast: Catherine Tanvier, Patti Smith (non-professional actor), Robert Maloubier (non-professional actor)
Director: Jean-Luc Godard
Screenwriter: Jean-Luc Godard
Sales: Wild Bunch
No rating, 101 minutes
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