Jean-Luc Godard's Film Socialism left me in a familiar state, or at least a state familiar from my handful of previous experiences with the French New Wave master's late work. Bafflement would be a simplistic way of describing this reaction; more precisely, it's this feeling that one has just witnessed something certainly interesting, and possibly great, yet just a bit—okay, maybe more than a bit—beyond my grasp, at least for the moment.
That, of course, is hardly meant to be a negative if one feels that the rewards, intellectual, emotional, or otherwise, were ultimately worth the confusion. And in the case of Godard's latest cinematic salvo…well, I feel like I might be onto something as to what he is up to here.
Throughout his long career, Godard has consistently been fascinated with deconstructing images: genre tropes/archetypes (think much of his early-1960s output); still photographs (e.g. Letter to Jane, he and Jean-Pierre Gorin's 1973 poison-pen letter to Jane Fonda); visual art (his 1982 Passion comes immediately to mind); and, more recently, images produced by digital media. In some ways, Film Socialism is a culmination of his purely image-based obsessions, picking up a lot of threads he first proposed in his eight-part Histoire(s) du Cinema video-essay series. Here, images have the power to obfuscate as much as they can reveal. How much of the reality of family life can the two-person camera crew in the film's second act—set within and around the home of a family with two precocious children—truly capture with their limited access? How close to historical, personal, or political truths can movie images or cultural artifacts really get?
Film Socialism is Godard's first film shot entirely on digital video, and in its first act, he alternates between high-definition footage of certain passengers aboard a cruise ship (legendary rocker Patti Smith randomly appears among the passengers) sailing along the Mediterranean, and low-resolution footage that looks like something shot on cell phones or posted on YouTube. (He even includes a lolcats joke!) Right off the bat, we witness Godard investigating the properties of this new medium in the various ways it captures images. He abandons some of that formal playfulness in the aforementioned second act, though that doesn't stop from allowing moments of visual humor: the patriarch batting away the camera crew like flies; random farm animals appearing at a gas station next to family members; an overhead shot of a boy painting that Godard color-manipulates to look like a thermal-camera shot—to peek through occasional discussions liberty and equality. But it's the relatively brief third act that may be the most tantalizing of all, in which he takes us on a tour through six legendary locations—Egypt, Palestine, Odessa, "Hellas" (Greece), Naples, and Barcelona—as depicted through art, artifacts, film, and news footage.
If Godard could (perhaps rightly) be accused of being overly aphoristic in his later films, reducing characters to mere mouthpieces for his philosophical and political views, in Film Socialism those tendencies are arguably less of an issue, at least for non-French speakers, thanks to the "Navajo English" subtitles Godard has authorized for his film—subtitles that are intended to provide only the bare minimum of translation (examples: "speak never enough," "nocrimes noblood," and so on). French speakers might be able to grasp the full intricacies of whatever arguments Godard is making. For the rest of us, though, the subtitles not only give us just enough to be able to get some kind of an idea about what his characters are saying; they also seem wholly appropriate in the context of a film that is as much about a lack of communication as it is about successful communication.
If I have come off as rather vague and cryptic, then it's probably because after just one viewing of Film Socialism (as ever with Godard's late work generally), I find it difficult to get a clear handle on what exactly he is trying to communicate to us. I mean, I think I have some ideas as to what he has in mind, but I am nowhere near sure what he intends and what I'm just inferring from the texts, sounds, and images he has put up on the screen. (And, if his final title card, "No comment," suggests anything, he flies proudly in the face of easy interpretation—certainly no bad thing, to my mind.) Maybe that sense of discomfort is exactly what Godard intends. So yes, Godard is challenging and maddening as usual, but once again, he has provided a challenge that offers rewards in the form of fresh ways of looking at the world of images, if not the world in which we all live. And for all its intellectual difficulties, Film Socialism is often simply beautiful to look at, full of inspired, elusive, and suggestive imagery. In the cinema, such beauty—hard to pin down in words, but something you feel deep inside you—is certainly worth something.
The 48th New York Film festival runs from September 24 to October 10. For a complete schedule, including ticketing information, click here.