In Notre Musique, Jean-Luc Godard’s Dante-inspired cinematic tone poem, the great French director takes his audience on a journey from heaven to hell, from image to imagination. Godard divides his film into three stanzas—“Hell”, “Purgatory”, and “Heaven”—and acts as our guide (our Virgil) through numerous levels of existence. “Hell” is a furious montage of existing texts (cinematic warfare both fiction and fact). Godard takes dreams realized on film and filters them through his video sensibility, degrading and manipulating the images so that they’re familiar only in the way of ghostly memories. He sweeps us along the downward spiral’s many torrents, fact (the German oppressors) mingled with fiction (a Griffith battlefield), the end nowhere in sight. Godard forces us to see the recognizable anew, opening our minds (our music) with these juxtapositions of history.
Godard begins “Purgatory” on a forceful intertitle (“Do you remember Sarajevo?”), then segues into present-day, post-war Sarajevo where the director himself has arrived to talk to university students about text and image. Unfamiliar faces inhabit this war-ravaged metropolis—politicians and poets, idealists and cynics, vanishing races and budding revolutionaries—and Godard’s every composition evokes an earthbound waiting room meant to be filled with the idle chatter of millions. Of course, it’s little surprise that the director’s voice tends to come through more forcefully than those surrounding him—“Godard likes to hear himself talk,” observed a colleague, not too incorrectly—yet Notre Musique doesn’t replay the crotchety condescension of the director’s previous feature In Praise of Love.
Indeed, when faced with a question from one of his students (“Will the little digital cameras save cinema?”), the usually verbose Godard—backlit into shadow—is struck unnervingly silent, a poetic prelude to Notre Musique’s most beautiful moment: the director quietly contemplating a DVD given to him by the young filmmaker and revolutionary Olga (Nade Dieu). Olga figures in the film’s final section “Heaven”, which begins in a peaceful glade and climaxes at an ocean on the edge of eternity. Here Godard blesses Olga (and his audience) with a Falconetti-sublime close-up—the key to heaven’s gate—an image that collapses cinema’s past, present, and future into a glorious whole, expressing through spiritual silence what words could never hope to answer.