Whether or not Film Socialisme represents the last wave of Jean-Luc Godard’s essayistic cinema, as has been rumored, it clearly epitomizes many of the director’s longstanding techniques and themes. If this winds up being Godard’s final film, its divisive critical reception will stand as a fitting testament to a relentlessly inquisitive and polarizing filmmaker. Godard has always been more of a commentator than a dramatist. Early films like Breathless and Pierrot le Fou, despite layers of pastiche and auto-critique, contain ample doses of forward momentum; with the onset of the Dziga Vertov collective, Godard’s films tend to collapse under the weight of their own annotations and marginalia. It was only after several decades experimenting with video formats and formalist principles that Godard managed to synthesize (or at least manage) these warring impulses, thus inaugurating his late period with the monumental essay-poem Histoire(s) du Cinéma.
True to this progression, Film Socialisme employs playfully inscrutable title cards (the film-ending NO COMMENT seems particularly apposite), a formalist three-part structure borrowed from classical music, and an Eisensteinian collision of images and image formats, from pristine HD to splotchy cellphone and surveillance cameras, in the service of a typically dense and allusive treatise on politics (geo- as well as personal). The first segment (“Things Like This”) takes place aboard that latter-day ship of fools, a cruise liner (the Costa Concordia, which, incidentally, recently ran aground, quite likely another instance of life imitating art), as it wends its way around the Mediterranean Sea, putting in at various ports of call selected not so much for their touristic value, as for their role in the development of Western civilization.
The dramatic linchpin of this segment concerns the purloined “Moscow gold,” the gold reserves of the Spanish Republic that went missing on the eve of the Spanish Civil War en route to supposed safekeeping in Russia. Gold in its many aspects, materialist to linguistic, is the central image-metaphor of Film Socialisme, just as a gold watch is one of the few linking devices between all three parts, and a war criminal being shadowed by various agents of fortune has taken the name Goldberg. Lest anyone mistake this concatenation of events for a plotline, Godard makes every effort to confound, cutting away to cruddy low-res shots of passengers dancing to thudding, thumping rave music, and futzing with his materials until, at one point, the image seems in danger of stuttering and freezing up entirely. (Home-video enthusiasts, be advised, it isn’t your player that’s on the fritz.)
The second part (“Quo Vadis, Europa?”) trades in multinational ersatz intrigue for domestic party politics, using fractious family squabbles as a microcosmic lens with which to examine issues of repression and liberation. That isn’t always readily apparent, what with extended shots of the Martin’s young son fitfully sleeping, or the older daughter preparing for bed, but it comes to the forefront in extended haranguing monologues where the speaker is either out of frame, or shown listening while an interlocutor responds, in a style reminiscent of Godard’s late-‘60s masterwork of Brechtian estrangement, Weekend. Another alienation effect links the first two parts: Both teenage girls (Alissa, then Florine) are clearly shown reading a novel that features a protagonist with the same name (in the first instance, André Gide’s Strait Is the Gate, Balzac’s Lost Illusions in the latter). On the other hand, Florine, in particular, seems a more or less straightforward mouthpiece for some of Godard’s politically pluralistic notions when she calls for “a society, not a state” or, as revealed in title cards that abruptly conclude the second segment, adopts as her campaign slogan the name of a French Resistance cell called “Liberate and Federate.”
The third part (“Our Humanities”) contains Film Socialisme‘s densest and most abstract passages. More or less disdaining character altogether in favor of a contemplative montage, Godard revisits the first part’s itinerary, exploring each destination through a skein of imagery largely culled from preexistent sources. Shots of a pair of seaside acrobats caught midflight, borrowed from Agnès Varda’s elegiac documentary Beaches of Agnès, daringly stand in for the Israel-Palestine conflict. In sequences like this, form and content fuse. Long an opponent of propriety and property, Godard argues persuasively for poetics as his preferred mode of praxis.
Assessing this component can get a little tricky, since Godard takes impish audiovisual liberties with even the most photogenic shots in Film Socialisme, leaving distracting background noise behind the luxuriant HD travelogue shots, when he isn't trafficking in hyper-pixilated low-res images, or tinkering outright with sound/image synchronization. That said, the image is as crisp, clean, and bright as Godard wants it, and the Master Audio 5.1 track ably manages the multilingual wordplay, occasionally phasing soundtrack, as well as the polyphonic, often contrapuntal dialogue.
A four-page booklet contains Richard Brody's essay, a helpful guide to parsing Film Socialisme's structural tectonics and delving into its nexus of historical, musical, literary, and cinematic referents. While it's nice that Kino Lorber put forth the extra effort to compile a photo gallery, comprising some 15 or 20 stills, and one publicity shot of a pensive, unshaven JLG, the photo spread adds little in the way of understanding or evaluating Godard's film.
Sail the high seas of Jean-Luc Godard's historical imagination with Kino Lorber's impeccable Blu-ray transfer of what just might be JLG's cinematic swansong, Film Socialisme.