I had planned to hold off on seeing Jean-Luc Godard's latest feature until I had caught up with the director's filmography. However, my Godard retrospective got incredibly side-tracked, and my impatience got the better of me, even as I knew I should have waited. Having stalled out in Godard's mid-'70s period, I am unfamiliar with his subsequent "return" to cinema and the more poetic and autobiographical tone his work from the '90s-on purportedly evokes. As such, I was unprepared for the sheer beauty of Film Socialisme, as well as some of its more obscure touches, some of which, I'm told, have roots in the filmmaker's epic Histoire(s) du Cinéma while others appear to be things one simply must know about the director and the philosophies and personal information he's parsed out over the decades in interviews.
Ergo, this will be merely a preliminary assortment of thoughts, largely aided by the invaluable annotations of David Phelps, whose relatively brief but dense article is a necessary acknowledgment of the film's rich tapestry of allusions, which are impossible to sort out even with the fully translated subtitles. I know some will instantly reject the notion of having to read notes on a film to understand it, but I have no issue asking for help. I could not read Ulysses without the help of three consistent sources and scattered support for certain sections, so why should I be so arrogant as to dismiss Film Socialisme for not being "gettable" enough for me? (People can be quick to assert superiority over anything that exists outside their reach.) Phelps' annotations were a fantastic launchpad to figuring out some of the film's stranger moments, yet even without the benefit of Spark Notes—hell, even without the benefit of understood language—Godard's most recent feature is such a work of art that it mesmerized me from the start.
Split into three sections, Film Socialisme begins and ends with a tour of Mediterranean hotspots aboard a tacky cruise liner (is there any other kind?). Shot with breathtaking HD digital, the first section vividly captures the yellow, blue and occasionally red hues of the ship's deck, recalling the pop art infusions of Godard's mid-'60s color films. The people who roam the decks and cabins come from all over Europe, resulting in a dizzying collage of languages with nary but a broken, pidgin subtitling called "Navajo English" to help the audience. But then, the full translation doesn't help much more, as Godard clearly uses his non-actors as mouthpieces to voice his political and aesthetic concerns; besides, the use of other languages allows the filmmaker to engage in multilingual puns on the level of Joyce (at all times, this film offers reminders that Godard is to cinema what Joyce is to literature). Godard knows translation can never capture the textures and nuances of the original language, and the filmmaker's unsympathetic treatment of those confused enough without the Navajo impediment should recall Vladimir's warning to the audience in Pravda: "If you don't know Czech, you better learn it fast."
But if the first section casts the cruise ship as a microcosm of Europe, it also presents the setting as a parody of the continent's present and past: characters speak of great historical failings while Godard films the asinine activities the tourists use to amuse themselves. He especially likes to film scenes in the dance hall with something approximating a cell phone camera, resulting in heavily pixellated image that sounds like hell opening up as dance music blasts into a low-grade microphone. It looks, and sounds, like every quick bootleg on YouTube, and Godard holds these unbearably cacophonous shots so long that I began not only to process the commentary of bourgeois Europeans drowning out reality with white noise but simply to wonder if contemporary dance music is made intentionally abrasive to be accurately reflected by phone recordings.
The characters who do focus on serious matters, at least beyond merely namechecking past atrocities, search for the truth of the Moscow Gold, which Godard has re-imagined into a symbol of Europe's history from colonialism to the present. The gold is the closest thing the film has to a narrative motivation, with Palestinians, Russians, Mossad agents and others trying to uncover what happened to the Spanish reserves. The many ways in which that wealth has passed hands is manifested in the character of Goldberg, who has many names and alliances. Goldberg's Jewish name and clear association with money raises questions of anti-Semitism, but Godard's backstory for the man casts him first as a Nazi and later as a supporter of Algeria's FLN movement. Besides, I don't think I caught a single reference to Judaism or even Israel that wasn't matched with another visual or spoken comment on Palestine. One title card lays Hebrew over Arabic, and when Godard says Jews invented Hollywood, his preceding statement of Hollywood being the "Mecca of cinema" turns a casual piece of anti-Semitism into a juxtaposition he finds ironic. Likewise, given Godard's cinephilia, albeit a lapsed one, to say that the legendary producers and studio heads who built the town were Jewish does not inherently strike me as an insult. Goldberg himself certainly doesn't seem to be a bad man in any way, and his potential ethnic identity seems to speak more to the links of venality and betrayal that connect all peoples.
So, the opening third uses this constant overlap of nationalities, loyalties, languages, and past and present to stress, above all, the separations between the peoples of Europe. The second section, titled "Quo Vadis Europa," moves the "action" to a gas station in rural France, populated only by the Martin family and a handful of people who unsuccessfully attempt to interact with them. Yet the isolation proves ironic, the family, and particularly its children, resembling the tiny seed that may one day germinate into a mighty plant. Well, maybe not the whole family. One of the parents (or maybe both, or maybe neither) seems to be running for office, but it is the children who seem most poised for change. Then again, maybe they are the ones running for election.
The adolescent son, Lucien, is cantankerous and unformed: he violently conducts an imaginary orchestra while wearing an old CCCP T-shirt, mixing a vague understanding of art with a disastrous example of misapplied socialism but nevertheless a starting point away from the capitalism Godard hates. The teenage daughter, Florine, is more developed, and it is through her that Godard lays out a radical, confrontational, yet strangely poignant and hopeful view of the future. Flo haughtily commands chastises potentially paying customers who use the verb être ("to be"), admonishing them to use avoir ("to have") instead, believing the more active verb to be "better for France." She challenges her parents' views and asserts the need for more youth involvement. Asked what it is she wants, she responds with characteristically Godardian fragments that are nevertheless evocative and powerful: "To be 20 years old. To have reason. To maintain hope. To have rights where governments only have wrongs." This message is even more resonant upon reading Phelps' notes, which explain that the French New Wave was kicked off by a similar pronouncement by Charles Péguy in 1957.
Needless to say, this section is borderline infuriating with the Navajo titles, and I had to switch over full-time to a proper translation. Nevertheless, the section remains visually transgressive, with that saturated color more consistently calm than the use of multiple image qualities. Yet Godard still toys with the look, in one shot altering the color balance to such a radical degree that a banal shot of Lucien sitting on some stairs drawing becomes a painting of exploded yellows, turquoises and neon greens.
That shot reveals Lucien to be drawing on a Renoir painting, suggesting a liberation and redistribution of art itself that will be more forcibly referenced in the penultimate shot of the film, where an FBI anti-piracy warning fades to reveal a quote: "When the law is unjust, justice bypasses the law." The documentation of everything by people in this film, whether touristy snapshots or the TV crew frantically trying to interview the Martins, points to a world where everything is recorded (surveillance cameras and Google appear in the first section to also stress this), and Godard believes that the old forms of recording should be made equally accessible. This very film seems to have been uploaded to torrents almost immediately, if not with the director's consent then at least without his open disapproval. Godard actually donated €1,000 to the case of an alleged music thief recently, suggesting his support for the "liberation" of copyright.
By titling the work Film Socialisme, Godard seems to be mourning the passing of both, the former replaced by digital video of varying quality, the latter never having truly blossomed to deal with a world that still revolves around money. The apocalyptic howl of wind and waves on the cheap recording mics and the concluding montage of Europe's failings is expressly pessimistic, although, amusingly, the greatest tragedy may be the comparison of the Odessa steps sequence of Potemkin with a group of children standing on those same steps in the present saying they've never even heard of that film. The ignorance of artistic history thus joins with that of sociopolitical change. But to dismiss the film as some kind of old man's rant—which so many have done even as they obliviously cite the film's intoxicating visual beauty—is to misunderstand or outright ignore the clear display of fairness and even hope. The oblique approach to the movie, located somewhere in the nebula between essay and narrative film, may seem removed, even elegiac, but socialism, through the medium of film, can still right the wrongs, if both are applied correctly.
In separating out the stereo tracks into an aural dialectic, Godard returns to some of the more challenging aspects of the DVG, but his juxtapositions here make analytical debates out of rhetorical flourishes, and his willingness to leave in the mistakes (the jump cuts of yore now appear to be the buffering of today) and to even hand off his camera to others opens up untold possibilities I have only begun to examine. Godard's hyperintellectual, referential modernism is still on display, but the old-fashioned octogenarian nevertheless shows a curiosity for new technologies and means of communication. Hell, he even demonstrates his understanding of the Internet by making his very own cat video, one of many moments in the film so disarmingly funny that even the densest segments don't feel so self-serious. The endless punning in particular shall take me eons to sort through.
I will need to return again and again to Film Socialisme to truly unpack it, and I dare not write about it again until I've filled the gaps of knowledge in his filmography. But I was as excited and enthralled by Film Socialisme as any other masterpiece I saw this year, and its ability to make dialectic of the emotional states of weary surrender and renewed, more-powerful-than-ever optimism is one of the most intriguing, complex, potentially rewarding arguments Godard has ever mounted for art, politics, and the union of both.