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Jean-Luc Godard's In Praise of Love is tactile yet elusive—its tragic grandeur is as graspable as running water and as shifty as smoke. Like the earliest motion pictures, Godard's new feature appears like a fact of nature or a great, unselfconscious beauty. There's a narrative—and an argument—here, but what's moving first, and also finally, is the movie's mournful celebration of its sensuous being.

Before anything else, In Praise of Love is a sustained immersion in gorgeously austere street photography and casual portraiture, the images punctuated by bits of black leader and gnomic intertitles, the action propelled by sweetly pulverized music and an effortlessly layered soundtrack of enigmatic conversations. Poetry is really the only word for it: "When I think about something, I'm really thinking about something else," Godard's protagonist Edgar (Bruno Putzulu) twice says.

Not quite a filmmaker, Edgar is casting a project that will, he explains, trace the four phases of love (meeting, passion, loss, and recovery) as played by three couples of various ages. This "trinity of stories" may also have something to do with the romance of the French resistance during World War II. There's a shadowy young woman (Cécile Camp), typically seen with her back to the camera but recognizable by her voice and long hair, to whom Edgar is attracted and seems interested in casting, but when he gets around to asking "her" (as she is known in the credits), he discovers that she is dead. Indeed, the movie's French title translates as Elegy for Love.

Resistance as a factor of memory: Putzulu in In Praise of Love
photo: Manhattan Pictures International
Resistance as a factor of memory: Putzulu in In Praise of Love

Details

In Praise of Love
Written and directed by Jean-Luc Godard
Manhattan Pictures
Opens September 6, at Lincoln Plaza

Circling Zero: We See Absence
A videotape by Ken Jacobs
September 7 and 8, at the American Museum of the Moving Image

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There are many things that In Praise of Love laments and a few in which it rejoices. It's been over three decades since Godard last shot a movie on the streets of Paris, and doing so seems to provide him with an elemental pleasure. Studied as they are, these unprepossessing images of the city and its inhabitants (many of them dispossessed) feel as newly minted as the earliest Lumière brothers' views; they evoke the thrill of light becoming emulsion. Much of the movie is a voluptuous urban nocturne with particular emphasis on the transitory sensations that were the essence of the first motion pictures. More specifically, the coordinates of Godard's free-ranging cinephilia are mapped by his allusions to such modest and personal statements as Robert Bresson's Pickpocket and teenage Samira Makhmalbaf's docudrama The Apple, along with the industrial simulations of The Matrix and particularly Schindler's List—which, in its totalizing re-creation of World War II and the Holocaust, serves as Godard's prime negative object.

Edgar's associates are concerned that their movie on the French resistance—a subject that Godard himself has only now been able, with the utmost gingerliness, to touch—will become a Hollywood substitute for history. America, it's several times maintained, has no history of its own and hence must appropriate history from others. Europe—visualized as Paris's timeless "there," but really a stand-in for Godard's own cinema—is nearly helpless before this voracious totalitarian appetite. "The Americans are everywhere, aren't they, sir?" a Vietnamese chambermaid asks Edgar, adding, "Who remembers Vietnam's resistance?" Resistance, for Godard, is a factor of memory.

Edgar's project remains unmade; Godard's is achronological (and indeed evidently took some years to complete). The first two-thirds is filmed in an achingly rich black-and-white; then Godard rescues Edgar from his sorrowful stupidity by going back in time for a lengthy coda shot, in luridly oversaturated video, on the Brittany coast. (Reversing the logic of Schindler's List, Godard represents the past in color and the present in shades of gray.) Edgar, in the midst of composing a cantata for Resistance heroine Simone Weil, pays a visit to a celebrated old Resistance couple who are themselves negotiating to sell their story to the Hollywood company Spielberg Associates. There, by chance, he meets their granddaughter. It is "her," encountered for the first time. Or is it again?

I can't recall another flashback in a Godard feature—his movies have all been resolutely present-tense, and with good reason. The first filmmaker to recognize that cinema's classic period was over, Godard took film history as a text. But the liberating energy with which his early movies mixed genres and collaged the old has long since been co-opted. The Spielberg Associates' scenario has something to do with engaging William Styron to rewrite the Resistance romance as a Tristan and Isolde vehicle for Juliette Binoche. Godard bases his own resistance on another sort of memory. One way to look at In Praise of Love would be as a fragmentary remake of Jean Cocteau's Orphée—a movie about the attempt to retrieve a lost love that haunts Alphaville and is itself haunted by France's German occupation.

In Praise of Love is structured so that a memory of the future guides us through the past. Toward the end, events start to decompose into flaming pools of color—an electric blue haze, a golden smear of sun, a blur of traffic—and then pure jumbled light. Since he embarked on his late, painterly period some 20 years ago, Godard has made physically beautiful movies—Passion and Nouvelle Vague in particular presented themselves as substantial celluloid rivals to the canvases of the old masters. In Praise of Love is something else. The old masters here are the impressionists. The image feels as fragile and fleeting as a reverie. This is a movie that disappears before your eyes—leaving only an elegy for itself.

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