Jean-Luc Godard is one of those rare filmmakers who can exist as a genre unto himself. His oeuvre has helped partially define the French New Wave, and his 1960 feature film, Breathless (Support the Independent Ethos, buy the blu-ray on Amazon.com), will forever exist as a film studies touchstone while continuing to influence and inspire filmmakers working today. One of the last survivors of the French New Wave, last year he directed his first feature film since 2004’s Notre Musique (Support the Independent Ethos, buy the DVD on Amazon.com): Film Socialisme, which has landed in that wonderful middle spot among film critics (see its current 50 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes and 6.0 rating on the Internet Movie Database). When critics divide like this over a movie, it more often than not means something exciting and evolutionary is happening in the movie, pushing boundaries of the medium and asking the viewer to put some effort into the viewing experience.
Those who want pat answers to plot conflicts will not enjoy Film Socialisme. Heck, even those who want a plot with their movie will come away from Film Socialisme frustrated and disappointed. To top it off, non-French speaking viewers will find the English subtitles are only ever two to three spaced out words that seem to catch a few words in the speech of the characters, so do not expect to understand everything on a literal level. Plus, more often than not, line to line, the connections between the words seem incongruous. Adding another layer of obscurity to the narrative, Godard cuts from one left-field-leaning scene to another. The film jumps time and even splices in other films. One of the more famously spliced-in works is Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, the movie often credited by film academics for taking film editing to another level in the silent era. The quality of the image in Film Socialisme also varies from one cut to anther, which can be sharp or out of focus or pixilated. The color palate is also contrasted in extremes. This is one of those avant-garde films more comfortable in a room at an art museum than a movie theater. If it had a musical equivalent, this movie feels like listening to a record from Sun Ra, Faust or Melt Banana (all greats in the varied genre of “noise”).
The “music” of Film Socialisme is one of the wonderful things about Godard’s obscuring of narrative in the movie that seems to bring out a rhythm inherent to the medium of cinema. It is as if JLG is exploring cinema in its purist form. As such, it seems to have more in common with a symphony rather than a book, as movies are so often compared or associated with. Film Socialisme begins with a frantic pace, cutting between a variety of characters on a cruise ship. At times the sound is terribly distorted with the ocean wind banging on a microphone or the throb of music at a discotheque overwhelming the recording process with distortion. Occasionally, a symphonic piece of music creeps up ominously, but mismatched with the scene, of course. Toward the end of the film’s focus on the cruise ship’s denizens, two people are shown in a library, and the movie seems to malfunction as if the DVD is skipping, but this is apparently not the case, as a subtitle appears smoothly while the movie seems to skip. It reminded me of Tortoise’s epic 20-minute-plus instrumental piece “Djed,” from their career-defining post rock album Millions Now Living Will Never Die, and how it incorporated the sound of a skipping CD into its jazz-inspired music (I recently acquired a copy of that album on vinyl and wrote this review of it: Albums that have stood the test of time: Tortoise – ‘Millions Now Living Will Never Die’).
The film continues on land in three more distinct “movements.” The second involving a media crew in an around a gas station. The third is the mundane life of a family inside their home. Both of these “sections” progressively slow down the pace of the movie in their own ways. However, the fourth, brief but expansive part of Film Socialisme seems to offer a sort of history lesson with voice overs, offering a return to the kinetic energy of the first part of the film.
As with all great art, be it paintings, poetry, sculpture or music, you will get as much out of Film Socialisme as you put into it. It begs for a knowledge of world history, art, literature and philosophy, as it makes lots of sly references to the past, but still can be enjoyed without encyclopedic knowledge. Some subtitles appear as important dates from history. For instance, “1789, August 4”, marks a particular date of the French Revolution, as the title of this book points out.
But far be it for Godard not to interject commentary into his movie. Though it is still obscure, one heavy-handed line is delivered by Constance, (Nadège Beausson-Diagne) when she recites something that is translated in the subtitles as: “Poor Europe/Corrupted by suffering/Humiliated by Liberty.” Between Godard’s references to France’s colonial efforts is his inclusion of a woman joining meowing to a YouTube video of cats “talking” with each other…
… make of Constance’s “speech” what you will, but I, for one, do not think Godard shows an contentment with today’s culture and where it has gone from the 20th century and into the 21st. But then, I would never be so bold as to attempt to decipher a specific message from Godard via this opaque movie. As lose as it is in its associative construction, this is one of those magic movies where the “medium is the message,” as Marshall McLuhan would have said. As little as the film seems to communicate, it is also about a desire to communicate. Film Socialisme is a movie made of associations, no matter how random the images and words may seem.
At one point, a girl tells her father something that is subtitled, “no talk/about invisible/show it.” This bit of dialogue is highly open to interpretation, and again, like all great works or art, Film Socialisme will invite a variation of interpretation from one viewer to the next. The girl actually “says” this during the film’s slowest section, a part of the movie where I felt myself lulled into a hypnotic trance. At the same time, it also began to make “sense” to me, as it seemed to tap into my subconscious, allowing me to read into the subtitles a semblance of a story, which I know I projected into the film from a very personal place, almost like experiencing a waking dream. Can your regular Hollywood movie do that?
Film Socialisme opens 9 p.m. Friday night (June 10) and plays through June 15 exclusively at the Miami Beach Cinematheque, who loaned me a preview screener for the purposes of this review.