More than a storyteller, always a poet, Jean-Luc Godard continues to challenge how movies function and how we look at them. Godard made Film Socialisme last year to premiere at Cannes, and it’s only now getting its American theatrical release through Don Krim’s company Kino Lorber International (how perfect). But it’s already ahead of The Tree of Life’s fairly banal notions of cinematic poetry. Godard invokes the millennial history of artistic representation and related issues of economics, leisure, war and the sovereignty of ideas through a series of overarching, poetic reflections on our modern condition.
Using the situations of shipboard travelers drifting between video images and the natural elements, then a suburban clash between a bourgeois family and media workers, Godard ruminates in elliptical scene-fragments. Inspired by the color-correction image and soundcheck tone of a digital-video broadcast, he conscientiously weaves together the fumbling of corporate spies hounding Mr. Goldberg, a post-WWII financial criminal, and shifts to a three-female news team interviewing a French garage owner, J.J. Martin, about the impact of oil (pricing, war, social confidence) on his family’s lifestyle.
Godard treats each rhythmic, visually striking episode like a canto, similar to the styles of Detective (1985) and In Praise of Love (2000). Officially divided into episodes—“Things,” “Our Europe” and “Our Humanities”—I spotted a fourth, climactic episode: “Quo Vadis Europa?” This is a high-flying television montage about antiquity (mixing doc and fiction footage) that portrays the twin births of democracy and tragic drama in Greece, while alluding to its recent occurrence throughout, especially 20th-century warfare. In poetic terms: the world seen as a floating or suburban stage where people drift between various ideational conflicts.
The key to Godard’s poetic language is in his visual strategy. The title Film Socialisme refers to the recently abandoned ideas of Film and European Socialism. Godard now shoots in digital video, and his two videographers Fabrice Aragno and Paul Grivas compose the first half as a survey of various technologies, from camcorders, cell phones and surveillance cameras, to new high-definition video. These scenes are dizzyingly kaleidoscopic: black satin shots of the ocean at night; Goldberg and spies seen slo-mo in corridors; singer Patti Smith wandering lost, isolated and ignored on the well-focused ship deck. The images go from sharp to blurry, fuzzy to clear. Godard highlights the texture of image and sound: a shipboard disco recorded on a cell phone has the ballistic cacophony of a battle scene; a tranquil exterior where the wind whips through a microphone like a gale.
These tropes best Terrence Malick’s conventional filmmaking through Godard’s artful determination to provoke thinking about art and life. (A second computer image or wall-screen often crowds the frame and our consciousness.) Clearing away the media fog that enveloped global consciousness after the collapse of Communism and the rise of Capitalism, Godard implies that we don’t realize the new way we see (or hear) things in the 21st century. He locates spiritual bewilderment in a ship’s casino resembling an onboard Mass ceremony. It correlates to the historical shock and awe of the Goldberg spies who forget how the spoils of war linger into greedy peacetime; how ongoing battles for nationhood are distracted by changeable forms of entertainment—TV or cinema.
This communications chaos— the exchange of ideas controlled by unquestioned authorities—is symbolized by the viral joke of a young girl watching two cats converse on YouTube: We’re in the joke, then out of it. Godard realizes the media confusion that De Palma was after in Redacted, before botching it. It is conveyed even more elegantly and wittily in the “Quo Vadis Europa?” domestic downtime sequence: rare parent-andchild drama for Godard comparing a mother’s classical music chores to a father’s jazz routines.
Also brilliant is the child’s paint-bynumbers copying of a Renoir landscape that Godard shoots as an electronic paintbox special effect, further complicating the reproduction of images and the haphazard transmission of art and history. Godard’s mastery of poetic allusion finds philosophy in images, making this film a deliberate lesson in aesthetics, not just political history. Even Godard’s subtitles— shortening dialogue and narration into poetic memes—push our perceptions forward, keeping viewers cognizant of artand meaning-making.
When concepts of both Film and Social Idealism are abandoned, it doesn’t help us to indulge in Tree of Life escapism. It is crucial that we appreciate today’s expanded, “democratized,” commercialized overload of image-making and image-capturing. Godard’s ingenious media mash-up creates a spell when it suggests the countless private, secret histories to be found in subjective video imagery. This puts new responsibility on our citizenship, consumerism and humanity. For all its complexity, Film Socialism has a bracing, cleansing, penetrating simplicity. Godard’s distillation of narrative becomes a necessary astringent to false beauty.
Directed by Jean-Luc Godard
At the IFC Center
Runtime: 101 min.