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When Jean-Luc Godard's In Praise of Love closed out the 2001 New York Film Festival, many in Lincoln Centers sold-out Alice Tully Hall must have anticipated a return to form from the playful postmodernist of Breathless, A Woman Is a Woman, and Band of Outsiders. What they actually saw from the then-70-year-old filmmaker was a formally audacious, historically aggrieved, stubbornly digressive poetic provocation. In other words, exactly the sort of film Godard had been making for years. Nevertheless, by the time the films etched black-and-white cinematography had given way to final-act explosions of fauvist DV color, and long before the maestros most incendiary anti-imperialist sentiments could rile freshly hatched post-9/11 sensibilities, at least a third of the audience had fled into the October night. I sat in the back row, an ecstatic young cinephile privileged with a rush ticket, eyeballing the exodus and enthralled by whatever it was I was watching.
With Film Socialisme set to be the 25th Godard film to screen in the 48-year history of the festival, 2010 patrons might have a better idea of what to expect. If they dontif their Godard literacy really does stop after that oft-cited dividing line, 1967s Week Endperhaps I can help.
Lets start with that false threshold, which has more to do with external eventsspecifically, May 68than any drastic formal transformation in Godards work. Even as his art has evolved over the past half-centuryyoking it to Maoist ideology; pursuing groundbreaking experiments in video and television; exploring classicism, nationalism, and digital editingsome preoccupations have long remained. The filmmakers uniquely radical historical-political obsessions motivate Film Socialisme, as they did Notre musique (NYFF 2004), In Praise of Love, and most of his work since the late 1980s. But so did they inform his Algerian war thriller, Le petit soldat (1961), and the allegorical Les carabiniers (1963), his second and fifth films, respectively. And despite their reputation for being ponderous and pessimistic, the recent films are still the work of a wry, frisky mind, as bounteous as Breathless with visual and verbal puns. Far from having abandoned his aesthetic gifts, his later films, including Film Socialisme, are as visually accomplished as anything hes ever made. And most importantly, even as he enters his sixth decade behind the camera, Godard still shapes films as inquiries: Words say one thing, yet his pictures keep intimating something else. If anyone understands me, a character says in Notre musique, then I wasnt clear.
While Godards three 21st-century features carry the DNA of his 60s work, they also retain strands of his fragmentary, non-narrative 70s projects and especially his eight-part fin de siècle opus, an idiosyncratic essay for French television called Histoire(s) du Cinema, completed from 1988 to 1998. A history of cinema thats also a history of the 20th centuryso personal that it verges on the confessionalthe series started conversations that have continued right on through Film Socialisme: about the moral failure and cultural decline of Europe, the smothering dominance of the United States, the retreat of history, the problem with the Jews. Poor Europe, one character says to another in his latest triptych. Conquered by suffering. Humiliated by liberty. As tiresome as his aphoristic, gnomic proclamations can be, Godards conflation of history, cinema, and the self gives each new film the feel of a strange new chapter in a personal memoir.
You dont have to understand all of his allusions, you dont have to buy the arguments hes selling, you dont even have to get beyond thinking that hes an egotistical, incontrovertible, willfully obtuse anti-Semite. No other filmmaker has so consistently made me feel like a stupid ass, wrote critic Manny Farber in 1968, and likely many felt the same as they exited Alice Tully in October of 2001, and will again after experiencing Film Socialismes cacophonous sound edits, baffling narrative break, and sporadic, intentionally simplistic English translation (JLG fiendishly calls them Navajo subtitles). Except Farber kept wrestling with Godard, kept running toward what repelled him, and at NYFF the following year, he marveled at Le gai savoir. Enough of 1968 and the endless hosannas for Breathlessif you care about a living cinema, a cinema that asserts a blistering, confounding present even as it freights the past, then you should not be walking out on Jean-Luc Godard.
Film Socialisme plays at Alice Tully Hall September 29 and October 8
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