Notre Musique is the latest, but scarcely the least, of Jean-Luc Godard’s elegies for 20th-century Europe, the cinema, and himself. Olympian in its detachment, the movie is heartfelt in a desire to acknowledge the Other—as its guardian angel, the benign philosophe Emmanuel Levinas, might put it.
Unlike Godard’s last film, In Praise of Love, Notre Musique—which had its local premiere at the last New York Film Festival—searches, if not for cosmic harmony, then for some sort of secular redemption. Has our irascible JLG been reconciled? The 73-year-old director’s serene meditation on Europe’s landscape after battle has an unusually obvious triptych structure, with each panel (or act) named for one of Dante’s three “kingdoms.” The central, hour-long “Purgatory” of a writers’ conference in Sarajevo bridges the opening 10-minute “Hell” and a concluding 10-minute “Heaven.”
“Hell” is a sensationally edited found-footage montage that yokes together clips from newsreels and all manner of movies (Alexander Nevsky, Fort Apache, and Kiss Me Deadly). Are these images real? Drawing on the video layering techniques developed in his magisterial Histoire(s) du Cinéma, this distressed, bleeding assemblage is something like Godard’s bid for a Guernica—a visceral and formally brilliant evocation of total war.
As in Dante, Hell is a tough act to follow. “Reporters always visit the hells, and tourists the paradises! One seldom goes to purgatory,” Godard told a French journalist at Cannes. But Sarajevo is a former hell that attracts a particular kind of tourist. JLG appears as his rumpled self to give a talk at a French-sponsored literary conference; other participants include Spanish novelist Juan Goytisolo, Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, and a fictional Israeli journalist (Sarah Adler) carrying a copy of Levinas’s Entre Nous. Like him, she’s concerned with building bridges. So is Godard, although his mainly have to do with metaphor and montage.
Despite the absence of Bosnian-speaking subjects, Notre Musique takes as its ruling metaphor Mostar’s Stari Most, the stone bridge that outlived the Ottomans and withstood two world wars until it was pulverized by Croatian artillery in 1993. But Bosnia mostly serves as a backdrop for the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, or Jews and themselves. Godard’s translator (Rony Kramer), the son of a Jewish-Egyptian Communist, has come to Sarajevo to meet his Israeli niece Olga (Nade Dieu). Not only named for but sounding like a 19th-century Russian heroine, she tells him (in French) that she’s contemplating a form of suicide to protest the Israeli occupation of Gaza and the West Bank.
The heart of the movie is Godard’s lecture (a disquisition on the ethics of montage) and its failure: Hilariously uncertain that he has made his point regarding the (mis-)recognition of the Other, he orchestrates a pan across his expressionless audience. Olga, offscreen, asks how DV mini-cameras might affect the future of cinema. Godard stares impassively for a long minute. The oracle is speechless, although Notre Musique, it should be noted, is shot largely in 35mm and characterized by an austere, Calvinist beauty. The colors are saturated and the contrast pronounced, with figures typically silhouetted against a bright background. The editing is dense. A second viewing shows Olga repeatedly glimpsed on the streets of Sarajevo.
However madly aphoristic, filled with close-ups, and populated by serious young women, this is one of Godard’s more documentary films; given his programmatic perversity, he keeps stressing the importance of fiction, fable, and icon. The haunting final movement takes self-martyred Olga to a paradise that, despite the presence of U.S. Marines, strongly resembles the same Swiss landscape where Godard shot his last meditation on the Balkan wars, For Ever Mozart.
Too touchy-feely for some hardcore Godardians, Notre Musique is the most lucid of the master’s recent films. More gnarly Godard may be found in Moments Choisis des Histoire(s) du Cinéma, showing twice more as part of MOMA’s opening extravaganza. An 85-minute distillation of his fin de siècle magnum opus, the five-hour, eight-part video Histoire(s) du Cinéma, the heavily encoded Moments is another installation in Godard’s long goodbye. The artist merges film and video as well as painting and cinema. Earnest stars rush the camera amid a flickering thaumascope effect. Moments might be an Oscar-night clip-fest doc transmitted from an unknown galaxy. “Not half a dozen men have ever been able to keep the whole equation of pictures in their heads,” Fitzgerald wrote in The Last Tycoon. Godard is one of them.