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<i>Film Socialisme</i>

An amnesiac plumbs the depths of European ennui, in Jean Luc-Godard’s Film Socialisme. (Photo courtesy Lorber Films)

Godard’s Oblique Socialism

The French director has never been dogmatic—he’d rather ask questions.

BY Michael Atkinson

The film is either thornily personal or a gob of spit meant for your eye.

To grab hold of the angry snake that is Jean-Luc Godard’s new film, Film Socialisme, let’s consider one more time the sum of the French director’s revolutionary half-century intercourse with cinema.

Godard himself couldn’t care less, of course–always the most recalcitrant of world-class auteurs, he has stood outside of fashion for so long he comes close to defining a separate outlaw idea of what movies are. That’s only been the story after the ’60s, when Godard owned the era’s generational mojo as no other international filmmaker did and had a run of some 15 masterpieces in that span, from Breathless (1960) to Le Gai Savoir (1968), that is unparalleled in the medium’s history.

From the very first, Godard has been a rule-breaker to whom some audiences intuitively respond and others find maddening. Because Godard requires active filmwatching–the left side of your brain cannot doze–he has acquired a reputation as a cold, intellectually forbidding filmmaker. This notion is decimated by a second look at his ’60s movies, which are quintessentially spontaneous, intimate, heartfelt and sometimes as messy as a lover’s morning bed. These movies don’t merely depict things or tell neatly conceived and performed stories. They throb with life.

But Godard is now 80, and the ’60s are long gone. In the decades since, his films have dealt capriciously with narrative, and morphed testily into feature-length film essays that pick at anti-imperialist politics even as they still sigh in awe at the sight of sunlight in a girl’s hair. His films have aged as he has, and Film Socialisme (invading U.S. theaters this summer) is just as filled with ambivalence, bitterness, longing and bemusement as your average octogenarian. It’s also, by a notable stretch, Godard’s most irascible film ever, a defiantly incohesive rumination on … everything?

What it isn’t is a film “about” socialism per se: Political principle hums in the film’s corners, but obliquely, unless you decide, as Godard has suggested, that his free-flowing assemblage of new, old and borrowed footage is essentially socialist–egalitarian–in practice. It doesn’t feel that way, though–the film is either thornily personal or a gob of spit meant for your eye. One major departure from even Godard’s measure of orthodoxy is the refusal to subtitle the film clearly–Godard mandated that truncated, elliptical “Navajo English” titles be used, two or three disconnected words at a time, so the unlucky monolingual viewers among us can get only the scantest ideas of what’s being said. Not that it matters–the floating monologues and exchanges often don’t match with the images at any rate, and are often obscured by the pervasive, menacingly sad score.

Divided into three sections but insistently troubled by Palestine, Egypt and the legacy of Soviet rule in Odessa (glimpsed in Eisenstein’s Potemkin and in new footage), the movie first prowls the decks and belly of a particularly garish Mediterranean luxury cruise ship–a free-floating metaphor for the amnesiac soul-sickness of Europe, where a nightclub doubles as a chapel and the only nonwhite denizens are the cleaning staff. Aboard is Patti Smith, who strums her guitar idly while seeming fiercely out of place, and philosopher Alain Badiou, who gives a lecture on Husserl that Godard sponsored himself (no one attended).

In the film’s second section, a rural French gas station-owning family suffers generational squabbles and tenderness, and the intrusion of a testy African cinematographer. (The ghosts of colonialism and atrocity are never far from Godard’s mind, and creep into the film like neuroses.) The third section is full-on impressionistic collage, obtusely glancing at imperialist history via film clips and stills, John Ford’s Indians to dead Palestinians to gladiator epics to Chaplin.

Even back when art film was young, Godard knew better than to assert dogmatisms–rather, he asked questions, not only with his dialogue but also with his images, ellipses and allusions. Like all of his films, Film Socialisme is a conversation Godard has with us: inconclusive, bristling with half-thoughts, jokes and sudden revelations. Perhaps it’s not even a “movie,” as even Godard redefined it 50 years ago, but a serene and strange open-ended confab between the filmmaker, the present moment, history as it’s been largely forgotten, and ourselves. 

Michael Atkinson has written or edited many books, including Exile Cinema: Filmmakers at Work Beyond Hollywood (2008) and the mystery novels Hemingway Deadlights (2009) and Hemingway Cutthroat (2010). He blogs at Zero For Conduct.

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