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Friday, Dec. 10, 2010
Cinema's crankiest philosopher and his abstract new film refuse to entertain
By KAORI SHOJI
Jean-Luc Godard once said in an interview in the magazine Cahiers du Cinema during the 1980s that 1960's "A Bout de Souffle (Breathless)" was his least favorite of his own films. The interviewer responded that he understood, and that the problem with Godard's first, most watched and most commercially acclaimed feature was that he'd made it "too entertaining."
Despite what the pair agreed, for many, "Breathless" remains among the most watchable of Godard's works. It had romance to burn, oodles of style, and it featured two of the most memorable faces in the film industry of the era: Jean Seberg and Jean-Paul Belmondo.
Fast-forward half a century and the latest in an incredible lineage of films from the house of Godard is "Film Socialisme." Romance? None. Style? Not anything recognizable as such. Memorable faces? Godard actually refuses to show most of his actors' faces upfront. "Film Socialisme" is his 90th title since "Breathless" and, if nothing else, it comes off as a manifesto of his staunch refusal to entertain the audience, ever. In fact, anyone coming to this film after a steady diet of blockbusters is likely to break a tooth or two on its rock-hard texture and run screaming from the theater.
"Film Socialisme" is a sublime spit in the face of multiplexes and blog culture. It rages (albeit subtly) against the 21st-century tendency to simplify, downsize and delete much of life's mystery. In many ways, it comes off like one long rant from cinema's crankiest philosopher — but even then, he's careful not to overdo it, maybe for fear the audience may understand him and start getting a little comfortable. That would never do.
During the 1960s and much of the '70s, Godard showed us a certain way of looking at women: His gaze was always charged with rampant sexuality but very seldom with raw lust; his women often posed as sex kittens but always on their own accord, and were empowered with the will to be themselves — fiercely individual. Now at the age of 80, in "Film Socialisme" Godard has stopped pondering women, but his gaze on them shows up lingering traces of his fascination.
It shows up in the way a young woman takes off a necklace made of heavy, round beads — a second ago they had been resting on her chest, accentuating a cleavage that speaks not of mere sex but youth, and the inner turmoil that comes with it. Or in the way an African woman stands on the deck of a ship, looking out over the choppy ocean as her perfect profile is enhanced by the scarf she wears, and the coat that outlines her sculpted figure. These are the kind of scenes that today's film world has less and less tolerance for — devoid of dialogue, soundtrack or even of context, it's difficult to pinpoint the brilliance of those slices of visual wonder, and they remain in the memory as vivid but altogether elusive experiences, a small reservoir of thought provocation and questions that defy attempts to answer.
So what exactly is "Film Socialisme" about? According to the production notes, it's "a symphony in three movements" that play out aboard a European cruise ship filled to the gills with vacationing people from all over the EU. But on the screen, such a description cowers and fades before the huge, slithering animal that's "Film Socialisme."
Extremely loosely structured, time flows much as it would on a cruise — and there's little or no action apart from people walking up and down on the deck or splashing about in the pool. A wild, unexpected moment is created by Patti Smith, whose punk-rock charisma literally leaks out over the edges as she does . . . nothing, really. She's in her cabin, and then she's out for a walk, and that's about it.
Fragments of conversation are heard among the so-called characters — mostly reflecting Godard's notorious anti-Semitism. (The French-Swiss director also has it in for America, and has described the American release subtitles as "Navajo dialect.")
And then the story shifts to a gas station on the French coast, where the family who own it are being interviewed by a TV crew. The mother (former Olympic tennis player Catherine Tanvier) has announced her intention to run in a local election, but despite her seeming willingness to give an interview, she's utterly reticent and aloof.
In one of his most recent interviews, Godard said that cinema is dead, and that he's given up trying to resurrect it. No wonder a slight hint of necrophilia wafts from the story — perhaps best explained as one long buffet party among 20th-century ghosts, peering disdainfully into the lens of a 21st-century high-def camera.