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Film Socialisme & Jean-Luc Godard’s Career

Godard may have been marginalized by the larger cinematic community, but that hasn't stopped him from continually pushing the artform forward.

Godard: Film Socialisme


“Poor Europe,” decrees one of the characters in Film Socialisme, Jean-Luc Godard’s latest. “Conquered by suffering. Humiliated by liberty.” It’s the kind of line that drives Godard detractors nuts—his films are filled with empty aphorisms! Pretensions to meaning that bask in their difficulty!—at the same time that they delight his fans. Godard’s body of work is nothing if not aphoristic, and the axioms he seems to spit out with the speed of a tennis feeder are hardly lacking here.


However, after making one of his most accessible—and greatest—films in 2004’s Notre Musique, Godard has decided to return to feature filmmaking (after a six-year hiatus [the film premiered at Cannes in 2010], an eternity in Godard-years) with a pointed twist: the subtitles to his latest film are not subtitles in the traditional sense. Rather, they are elliptical, abstract subtitles, subtitles with whole chunks of dialogue un-translated. Godard referred to them as “Navajo subtitles,” for the way in which they approximate how Native Americans spoke in old Hollywood westerns. For example, the line (spoken in French) “Money was invented so man would not have to look God in the eye” is translated as “Money     invented     in the eye” [spacing sic].


Godard: Film Socialisme


As the film’s dialogue comes in many languages—not only French but German, Italian, Arabic, and Russian, amongst others—the point is made rather clear: Americans—notorious for their lack of command of other languages, relative to their European counterparts—are now in charge of a world that they cannot fully comprehend. They can grasp at its meaning, and deduce some tidbits here and there, but ultimately their interactions with the rest of the world are impeded by the predominance of blanks that comprise so much of the film’s ostensible subtitles. The theme is hardly shocking, when one considers Godard’s previous two films, which also deal most explicitly with international relations amongst Western powers.


To be clear: the experience of viewing Film Socialisme will be markedly different for those who are fluent in French, as opposed to those who speak none of it, or are, like myself, conversational at best. This critic caught just enough of the film’s actual dialogue to know that he was hardly getting the full picture, and, contrary to those who might assert that Godard’s nonsensical dialogue is unhindered by abbreviated subtitles, in fact much is lost in translation. Nevertheless, the film, like practically everything else Godard has made, must be watched by everyone who considers themselves to be serious cinephiles, and in this iteration, seriously interested in contemporary Europe as well.


One of the marks of Godard’s work—and perhaps the truest testament to his status as genius, and greatest practitioner of this art form—is that even his bad films are still fascinating. Film Socialisme, however, by refusing to provide a full translation, is too removed to be judged as either bad or good; it’s merely fascinating, forcing you to work harder than you’ve ever worked before for a film.


Godard: Film Socialisme


The film’s incentives for the audience to do work are clear: it is swimming with Godard’s ideas. Subtitles aside, a cruise ship that occupies Act One provides a setting by which Godard clearly skewers the cultural larceny of contemporary Europe, a continent whose desire to preserve its traditions and legacies has led to the evisceration thereof (try to defend “liberty, equality, fraternity” to a French Muslim). “Liberty for whom?,” of course, being the correct response. Alain Badiou, one of the great living philosophers, gives a lecture in the ship’s auditorium—to an audience of exactly no one. A young woman watches videos of cats on YouTube in her cabin while another espouses to her grandfather, who may be a war criminal, “I don’t want to die before I see a happy Europe, before I see the words ‘Russia’ and ‘happiness.’” “Ideas separate us; dreams bring us closer together,” quips another passenger. The implicit response being, “Yes, but dreams of what?,” as we watch the cruise passengers dance to an exercise video as a group, mindlessly.


The film’s second act—much more difficult to understand—features a family in France whose mother is running for political office; her children want to put her and their father on “trial” for the crimes of their childhood (there are metaphors here that this critic did not grasp). The third section harkens back to Godard’s found-footage opening of Notre Musique (as well as Histoire(s) du Cinema) as he takes us to six European cities of importance.


Godard: Film Socialisme


Brimming with ideas and commentary on Europe past and present, as well as a whole slew of formalist devices that demonstrate Godard still understands the medium better than anyone else, ever, Film Socialisme is the most thought-provoking film you will see in 2011, and, in all honesty, probably the most thought provoking film made since the last Godard film. (And while I’m at it, the next film as intelligent as this one will probably be whatever film Godard makes next.)


With the possible exception of Chris Marker, Godard’s understanding of the medium, and his combination of cinematic formalism with good old-fashioned intellectual inquiry, is unequaled in the history of cinema. He is our Picasso, our Mozart, our Dostoyevsky. The film’s gas station-set second act, with its eye-popping pastels, recalls nothing so much as the gas station in Week End, the film that ended Godard’s first—and perhaps greatest—period of work. Since 1968, Godard’s films have become increasingly relegated to the margins of the art form he helped build: as too intellectual, too difficult, too bizarre. As a result, the new direction his own cinema has gone in—a kind of cine-essay realm that only Marker engages in with comparative mastery—has for the most part held little influence on contemporary filmmaking, unlike his first period works, which birthed modern cinema as we know it.


Godard: Film Socialisme


It’s easy to toss aside brilliant works like Comment Ça Va? (1978), Soft and Hard (1986), JLG/JLG (1994), and Notre Musique, works that are as strong as anything Godard did in the 60s, because these films demand so much more from their audience. With Film Socialisme, Godard almost seems to be shrugging his shoulders and giving up, intoning to us: You want me to be difficult? You want me to be impenetrable? Fair enough.


The fact that the film community has relegated Godard’s work to the status it now holds—he once referred to himself as a “footnote” in contemporary cinema—is shameful. The fact that Godard’s contemporary subject of interest—Europe—has been relegated to a similar position in the geopolitical matrix is, for him, artistically fortuitous.


But like Europe and European history, Godard will remain relevant, fiercely relevant, acknowledged or not.


Film Socialisme opens on Friday, June 3 at IFC Center. Find tickets.


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