After In Praise of Love’s screening at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, someone asked Jean-Luc Godard his opinion of Steven Spielberg. Godard, puffing on a cigar, replied: “I don’t know him personally. I don’t think his films are very good.” Godard’s opinion was brash but not at all surprising. This is Godard on Spielberg’s Schindler’s List: “It is strange, he had no idea about the Holocaust so he went and looked elsewhere for inspiration. When we don’t have an idea about something, we look first of all within ourselves.” This presumptuous statement came on the heels of a recent lawsuit that pitted Spielberg against the late Oskar Schindler’s wife, Emile. At 94, the woman lay dying in a German hospital, having lived an entire lifetime under the shadow of her great husband. Spielberg and Schindler’s List’s screenwriter, Thomas Keneally, were accused of making millions off of Schindler’s legacy while Emile received next to nothing. Godard’s gripes against Spielberg are personal and they pervade In Praise of Love.
There is a story to be found somewhere in the film though I’m willing to admit my ignorance to it—and repulsion to it. The Film Society of Lincoln Center says this is “a work of great intellectual freedom, elusive meanings, and overwhelming visual beauty.” This is a very nice way of selling the film without drawing attention to the flatulence of Godard’s whine. A director named Edgar (Bruno Putzulu) wants to make a film about the four stages of love: “the meeting, the physical passion, the quarrels and separation, the reconciliation” (according to the film’s distributor, Manhattan Pictures). The first hour of the film takes place in present-day Paris and is shot in startling black and white. Edgar auditions couples for the roles in his film. In Praise of Love’s philosophical stream of consciousness can be moving (a man says this of the shadowy figures at a train station: “The strangest thing is the living dead of this world are modeled on the world as it was”) and dreamily loopy, and though signature Godard flourishes abound (lengthy cuts to black, the use of inter-titles), the oppressive nature of the images wears on the nerves.
This is the essence of In Praise of Love, an inscrutable rumination on memory and history that only Godard is meant to fully grasp. Actors become unwitting dupes to Edgar’s contemptuous casting process while classical paintings are modeled before a stoic older man (“In ancient times they emphasized relationships—that’s the fundamental question”). What with all the books with blank pages inside, an overwrought Godard conveys the idea that history needs to be rewritten, and if he had his way, perhaps under his own terms. Godard is a signature radical, doing the opposite of what other directors might do: When the film shifts color schemes halfway through its running time, the monochromatic glory of the present gives way to the muddy watercolors of the past, and Godard’s curious obsession with aging turns into a simpleminded and wearisome rant on American filmmaking (“Washington is the director of the ship, Hollywood the steward”).
Edgar and a group of Hollywood producers gather together at the home of an old couple that fought in the Resistance. The production company (Spielberg Associates—ha!) looks to option the couple’s story but not before America and Tinseltown come under attack by the old woman’s abrasive granddaughter. How ridiculous is Godard’s attack? One of the producers—an African-American woman—steps out of her luxurious car and Edgar inexplicably asks her if she knows the story behind her car’s inception. She doesn’t care (she shouldn’t, of course—it’s a fucking car for christsake), leaving Edgar to ponder, “No wonder they need other people’s stories.” Godard touches on the commercial pervasiveness of American pop filmmaking: Two girls hope that the family will sign a petition that will hopefully have The Matrix dubbed into Breton. Here, though, his Eurocentric beef positions Spielberg as prime suspect. “The real question in fact is to know if an American superproduction today has the right to dramatize all the great hopes that came out of the end of World War II,” the film’s production notes read.
At Cannes, Godard told reporters: “I thought that cinema was made to show things in large, in an original fashion, but it…soon fell under the influence of California and very quickly became a commodity.” But the kicking-and-screaming Godard’s problem isn’t with American filmmaking as much as it is with our country as a whole and In Praise of Love is a nasty and facile anti-American rant. According to the film, Americans have no “memory of themselves.” Spielberg’s superior A.I. Artificial Intelligence, which is anything but artificial, would suggest otherwise; it’s the director’s most reflective work in years, a heartbreaking rumination on love, family, and memory. Though flawed, the film is preferable to In Praise of Love, a sniveling diatribe from a great director beginning to resemble someone’s senile grandfather.