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Film as battleground: Love, hate, indifference...

A Jean-Luc Godard movie is required to bewilder, astonish, bore and infuriate its film festival audience -- especially the critical contingent. That's why it's there. JLG's "Film Socialisme," which may or may not be his last directorial effort, premiered at Cannes to a cacophony of criticism, rapturous and contemptuous. Some of it has also been exceptionally entertaining -- almost as much fun to read as the reviews for "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen" last summer. In the case of Godard, however, the critical debates take on a nearly religious dimension as believers and debunkers argue over whether there's meaning to be found in the sacred text or whether it's all just an inconsequential, obfuscatory fraud.

Barbara Scharres, Director of Programming for the Gene Siskel Film Center, sets things up nicely:

... Godard remains one of the grand tricksters of world cinema. With his French dialogue, minimal and cryptic subtitles in so-called "Navajo English" (this in itself seems a tongue-in-cheek fiction on his part), and bits of a few other languages thrown in, he creates a Babel that I believe was made to baffle and intrigue one and all, no matter what your native tongue. It's a kind of rarefied fun to try to decipher, and maddening at the same time. Meanwhile, Godard the magician, like the wizard in "The Wizard of Oz," gets to hide behind his screen, sending out big ideas and big images.

Todd McCarthy at IndieWIRE doesn't find the images or the ideas particularly big -- just cryptic and insular -- and sees no good reason to pay any more attention to the man behind the curtain:

This is a film to which I had absolutely no reaction--it didn't provoke, amuse, stimulate, intrigue, infuriate or challenge me. What we have here is failure to communicate. Had this three-part video essay taken the form of a newspaper or magazine article, I would have tossed it aside and quickly moved on to other things.... When I pressed some die-hard Godardians to defend the film or explicate its potential meanings, no one could do a very good job of it, and the most common and ominous remark I heard among them was, "I really need to see it again." I don't. There are absolutely many difficult and dense works that require repeated viewings or readings to reveal their true and full meanings, but even the most daunting of them at least suggest their stature at first exposure and should presumably inspire, rather than intimidate, one to make return visits.

Manohla Dargis at the New York Times, on the other hand, thinks Godard is still worth puzzling over:

Obviously, it will take many more viewings of "Film Socialism," an improvement in my French and many more fully translated subtitles before I can begin to get a tentative grasp on it. Such are the complicated pleasures of Mr. Godard's work: however private, even hermetic, his film language can be, these are works that by virtue of that language's density, as well as the films' visual beauty and intellectual riddles, invite you in (or turn you off).

For Roger Ebert ("Waiting for Godard") "Film Socialisme" provided an opportunity to ponder... well, just about anything and everything, including the significance of Godard:

When I began as a film critic, Jean-Luc Godard was widely thought to have reinvented the cinema with "Breathless" (1960). Now he is almost 80 and has made what is said to be his last film, and he's still at the job, reinventing. If only he had stopped while he was ahead. That would have been sometime in the 1970s. Maybe the 1980s. For sure, the 1990s. Without a doubt, before he made his Cannes entry, "Film Socialisme."

The thousands of seats in the Auditorium Debussy were jammed, and many were turned away. We lucky ones sat in devout attention to this film, such is the spell Godard still casts. There is an abiding belief that he has something radical and new to tell us. It is doubtful that anyone else could have made this film and found an audience for it.

Back to McCarthy, who quotes Godard saying that at the time of "Breathless" in 1960 he could count on 100,000 paid admissions to his films in Paris, but that now "there's that many in the entire world. At most you can reach 10% of them." McCarthy wonders if that might be a generous figure, and describes Godard as one of an

ivory tower group whose work regularly turns up at festivals, is received with enthusiasm by the usual suspects and then is promptly ignored by everyone other than an easily identifiable inner circle of European and American acolytes. [...]

I can argue either side when it comes to Godard. Intellectually, I can extol him as a cinematic James Joyce, as they both playfully expanded the language, structure and form of their chosen arts and achieved sublime works until, increasingly, flying off into rarified realms into which few could accompany them; the proper view, I think, would be that Godard has been in his inscrutable "Finnegan's Wake" period for some time now. More personally, I have become increasingly convinced that this is not a man whose views on anything do I want to take seriously.

Ebert again:

The words and images add up to an incoherent mosaic involving socialism, gambling, nationalism, Hitler, Stalin, art, Islam, women, Jews, Hollywood, war and other large topics. I confess I have no idea what meaning they're intended to convey. I have not the slightest doubt it will all be explained by some of his defenders, or should I say disciples.

Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian found dreamlike resonance, if not quite coherence:

It's a complex fragmented poem of a movie, flashing up on to the screen images, sequences, archive-reel material and, as ever with this film-maker, gnomic slogans and phrases, here in bold, sans-serif capitals, white on black. Flouting the traditional conventions of character and storytelling more thoroughly than in recent work such as "Our Music" or "In Praise of Love," Godard was more than ever concerned with ideas. Perhaps it is absurd to demand of him a moral, or a guiding aesthetic, but as far as one could be divined, it came down to one idealistic statement: "Les idées nous séparent; les rêves nous rapprochent (Ideas divide us; dreams bring us together)".

... On paper, these elements sound exasperating, baffling and banal - and that's certainly how they were received by some. But I found their confrontational quality, and the bold juxtapositions, very resonant. Godard himself did not appear, having sent his apologies from his Swiss home. We have to hope that the 79-year-old is not very sick. Cannes, and cinema, would be duller and dumber without him.

Although Godard withdrew from a scheduled Cannes press conference (where some had expected him to explain himself), he has had something to say about "Film Socialisme" in this fascinating recent interview, translated by Craig Keller at Cinemasparagus:

At first I was thinking of a story that would take place in Serbia, but it didn't work. So I had the idea of a family in a garage, the Martin family. But it didn't work for a feature-length film, because then the people would turn into characters, and whatever took place would turn into a narrative. The story of a mother and her children, a film that's able to get made in France, with lines of dialogue, and 'moods'. [...]

There aren't any rules. The same applies to poetry, or to painting, or to mathematics. Especially to ancient geometry. The urge to compose figures, to put a circle around a square, to plot a tangent. It's elementary geometry. If it's elementary, there are elements. So I show the sea... Voilà, it can't really be described -- it's associations. And if we're saying "association," we might be saying "socialism." If we're saying "socialism," we might be speaking about politics.

UPDATE (05/20/2010): Well, while I was compiling the above, Glenn Kenny went and posted his own response to the critics at Cannes, which has sparked another excellent discussion at Some Came Running. Kenny writes:

Just once. Really. Just once I'd like to see one of the Twitterific Kidcrits,™ or even one or two of their venerated elders, file a review that reads something like this: "I didn't really like [Film X], I didn't find it engaging on the levels I'm accustomed to, but then again, I also really didn't understand a lot of the allusions in the film and I'm not particularly well-versed in the philosophical precepts that the movie seems to be extrapolating from. So while I didn't like it, I also have to admit that I didn't get it, and that at some level, I'm really underqualified to deliver an entirely reliable assessment of it."

An excerpt from a comment by James Keepnews that I wish I'd written, regarding the idea of films that draw you back to them and films that don't:

I also find this whole "gee, art with footnotes sucks" argument to be utterly played/tedious, given that it's one that's hounded modernism into its post-position, as it were, since at least The Waste Land. Unlike TR, I got FACES and may never sit through much else Cassavettes subsequently made because I find them graceless, undramatic, willfully "improvised", monstrously pretentious and, for someone so putatively dedicated to "truth," utterly phony. BUT...I know why he's important, as I suspect many of you do when Godard is concerned, while admitting there's no accounting for taste(s).

Added at the suggestion of Some Came Running readers: Matt Noller's notes from The House Next Door:

Is Jean-Luc Godard's "Film Socialism" art, a film, a video installation, or just posturing pseudo-philosophical claptrap? I have no idea. It's not often that I leave a film having been completely unable to engage with what I saw, but that's where I find myself now. Rumored to be Godard's last film, "Film Socialism" adheres to the general style of contemporary Godard (an essay film with aggressive dialectical montage, a complete disregard for narrative, "characters" who speak "dialogue" consisting solely of Godardian aphorisms) but is 10 times as abstruse as previous efforts like "In Praise of Love" and "Notre Musique."

I'm not going to actually review "Film Socialisme," as any type of critique I could make would be fundamentally worthless. To praise it would be to pretend to understand something I did not; to attack it would amount to no more than a superficial dismissal. Neither of those options is acceptable to me. What I will do instead is simply describe, as best I can, what few surface details I was able to ascertain on one viewing.

... It's virtually incomprehensible if you don't speak French, and I have no idea if this technique is a commentary on modern international communication, a linguistic expression of his dialectical philosophy (word fragments clashing and relating), or just a petulant baise-toi to unilingual Anglophones.

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