A friend recently asked what the point of Film Socialisme was. The answer, if there was one, seemed buried pretty deep. The film, which unfolds variously on a cruise ship, on Mediterranean terrain, at the present moment, and at the dawn of human history, seems designed to confound the viewer. A black woman stands at the ship’s prow and says, “Poor Europe”; a boy sits painting a Renoir from memory while his pet llama stands tied up nearby. My friend’s position seemed reasonable.
Still, it was tempting to resist him, especially knowing that Film Socialisme is a Jean-Luc Godard movie, and potentially his last. Susan Sontag wrote as early as 1967 that Godard’s films “retain their youthful power to offend, to appear ‘ugly,’ irresponsible, frivolous, pretentious, empty.” This was back when he had made Breathless and Weekend, films that became established masterpieces; his work has grown more and more inscrutable in the years since, and his defenders have both grown fewer and fought harder on his behalf.
The film, Godard’s first full feature on video, looks gorgeous, though its thrust often seems obscure. When the philosopher Alain Badiou appears, lecturing to an empty hall, the meaning to be immediately discerned from it—that the average middle-to-upper-class French person doesn’t care about Marxism—feels either deep or idiotic, depending on one’s point of view.
That said, it does seem like the film has a design to it, especially when seen in the context of Godard’s entire career. Sontag in fact argued that you could only discuss a Godard film as one part of a larger body of work; though the approach feels like a retreat from specificity and an act of critical cowardice, in the case of Film Socialisme, I can’t think of any other to take.
I wouldn’t dare recommend this film to someone who doesn’t know Godard’s films, because Film Socialisme seems useful primarily as an illustration of the beliefs that Godard’s 90-plus films have collectively expressed. The subsequent paragraphs will form less a review than a sampling of how this movie showcases attitudes that Godard’s work has expressed for the past half-century, from his first shorts up to now. Whether this film works depends upon one whether one thinks Godard a genius or a crackpot jackass; personally, I think he’s both.
Godard has always used clips from and references to other movies in his work, and here he goes further to use other forms of media. The cruise ship’s interior is sometimes captured with high-quality DV, sometimes with lower-grade stock, at other times in pixilated, splotchy, bright fashion probably filmed with cellphone cameras. Clips from Italian neorealist films and Hollywood classics also sneak into the film, calling attention to themselves to varying degrees (for example, we see the DVD menu for Howard Hawks’s Scarface, but no actual scenes). The film cuts back and forth between scenes from The Battleship Potemkin and the present-day Odessa Steps, between shots of present-day Greece and a shot from a gladiator film. And it seems like all these different kinds of images—the ones that Godard co-opts from other peoples’ films, and the ones that showcase all the different kinds of video technology with which he’s photographed the world—are being regarded with equal value. Fiction or documentary, cellphone or DV, the whole damn thing’s a movie, and it’s never going to break through the screen and reach the viewer to become anything else.
Godard used to be frustrated by what he saw as film’s ineffectuality; his 1976 film about the Israel-Palestine conflict was called Ici et Ailleurs (Here and There) because of his belief that he would always stay distant from his subjects, no matter how close the camera got to them. A decade later, though, he was confessing in the video Soft and Hard that movies were the means through which he understood the world. His subsequent works grew increasingly gnomic because they grew more allusive. It became harder and harder to dig through all his references, until one could believe that nothing lay beneath them at all.
This belief doesn’t hold water, though. Godard was obsessed beyond the point of reason with cinema, but he was also trying to show how other people processed the world through filmed images too. There’s a moment in Film Socialisme where a group of people work out beneath a giant video screen, imitating the aerobics class that they’re watching projected. This moment is every bit as self-reflexive as Jean-Paul Belmondo encircling his thumb around his mouth like Humphrey Bogart in Breathless was. We model ourselves after images of other people—again, either a brilliant point, or a stupid one.
When a woman imitates the meow of a cat she sees on YouTube, it may be tempting to flip Godard the bird. Yet this film also contains French, German, proper English, and English rendered through ludicrous subtitles (“Money public water”), usually not spoken for more than a few sentences, sometimes even in fragments. The cat’s meow simply seems to be one form of language. The film’s last shots are of Hellas, Barcelona, Palestine, and other places where human culture ostensibly originated, as though to say that present European culture learned how to make both art and language by studying its ancestors. The socialism of the title refers to shared intellectual currency, rather than to money. The film’s first shot is of two parrots; one could say (again, brilliant or stupid) that people learn not just to speak, but to think, by parroting each other.
When discussing movies, one sometimes talks about visual language. The word “language” in both cases refers to the tools a person uses to express themselves. A child learns to speak by imitating the sounds their mother makes, just as the boy in this film learns to paint by imitating Renoir—and just as Godard did, 50 years ago, when he attached a Renoir print to the wall of Jean Seberg’s bedroom. This is a film obsessed with texts; the words “des choses” (“of things”) and “comme ça” (“like this”) often appear on screen in title cards, as though suggesting that we should treat every sound and image in the film alike. “Not a just image, just an image,” Godard once said. If the different kinds of visual and verbal language in this film ultimately and collectively fail, as Amy Taubin has persuasively claimed, it’s because they fail to express meaning beyond themselves. The film ultimately doesn’t break out of itself; it stays there, and we stay here.
If a work of art fails intentionally, does that make it a success? One could sit, ponder, and watch the question grow larger, or simply say yes or no and get on with one’s life. That seems to more or less encapsulate the possible reactions that one could have to Film Socialisme, with me undergoing the first reaction and my friend experiencing the second. No matter how much we tell each other, I know that neither of us will ultimately understand what the other thinks of the film—nor, for that matter, what Godard wants us to understand. In the end, language fails us.