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.
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.
Having first seen In Praise of Love in Toronto last September 12, I found Godard’s rote anti-Americanism particularly tiresome. A year later, his not unwarranted grievances seem subsumed in his melancholy film’s overall sense of loss. It’s not that America appropriates the rest of humanity’s history so much as it solipsistically replaces that history with its own. The events of September 11 may well be the most extensively documented catastrophe in human history. Among the numerous anniversary series and screenings, I’d single out Ken Jacobs’s feature-length video Circling Zero: We See Absence, showing twice this weekend as part of the “Attack and Aftermath” program at the American Museum of the Moving Image.
No less than his acerbic Swiss contemporary, Jacobs is a cine-philosopher whose continually innovative and richly eccentric movies mix heady formalism with deeply intuited film-historical and social concerns. Circling Zero is less focused on the attack than its aftermath. Jacobs, who lives on Chambers Street (formerly in the shadow, literally, of the Trades), was out of town the day the buildings fell, and much of Circling Zero concerns his and his wife Flo’s attempt to slip past the police barricades that marked the militarized forbidden zone and re-enter their loft. (Amazingly, they get through. Pasted on a neighbor’s door is the scrawled note, “I Just Started Walking North.”)
Jacobs interpolates some footage of the WTC aflame that was shot by his daughter Nisi from the building’s roof. It’s striking to note how many other people are up on their roofs similarly documenting the unfolding disaster. (One result is the real-time WTC Uncut, screening at AMMI September 11.) Circling Zero is intensely personal—in visual terms, it’s totally first-person—but it’s also a portrait of the body politic. The crowds of cops, volunteers, vendors, and tourists that circle the absence are as organic as antibodies surrounding a wound. The tape’s last half explores another fact of nature: the Sargasso Sea of flowers, votive candles, and handmade placards that consumed Union Square last fall. Jacobs is fascinated by the fantastic assemblage and new public space. The impromptu performances and metaphysical debates of this spontaneous agora are, in every sense, signs of life.
Billy Wilder’s 1951 Ace in the Hole—revived this week at the Pioneer Theater in a new 35mm print (through September 10)—has its own unsettling relevance to the Events. Never more abrasive, Kirk Douglas plays a snarling newshound who, stranded in New Mexico, stumbles upon and shamelessly exploits the story of a man trapped by a cave-in to create a full-blown media circus.
A onetime reporter for a Vienna tabloid, Wilder co-wrote, produced, and directed Ace in the Hole, and Douglas’s reporter is in some ways his surrogate—not least in his juicy contempt for the boobs and knaves among whom he finds himself. (Godard’s anti-Americanism is kid stuff by comparison.) Attracting a horde of local gawkers and vacationing tourists as well as the national press, the disaster is a windfall—for the unscrupulous reporter, the trapped man’s mercenary wife (who is soon charging admission to the site), a traveling circus, a band of itinerant country singers, and inevitably opportunistic local politicians, most memorably a glad-handing sheriff with a pet rattlesnake. Wilder isn’t particularly subtle in choreographing the hoopla—the circus trucks are emblazoned, “The Great S&M Amusement Corp.”
Ace in the Hole is a movie about the fascination of disaster that is itself a fascinating disaster. (The initial response was so hostile that Paramount not only withdrew the picture from circulation but, just to be safe, gave it another title.) Ace in the Hole is by no means a great—or even a particularly good—movie, but its sustained nastiness shows a stunning disregard for box-office niceties.
“His Life to Live: Wrestling With the Legacy of Cinematic Colossus Jean-Luc Godard” by Michael Atkinson