JLG is back to his impenetrable best with Film Socialisme, a cascading multi-lingual mosaic of ideas and comment presented as a symphony in three reassuringly dense movements.
Ship of Fools by Laura Bennett
His first film in six years, the God(ard)father of French cinema is back with a bang. Shown as part of the Un Certain Regard section at Cannes last year, Film Socialisme is a heady mix of theories, ideas, side-swipes and musings. Having completely abandoned any pretence at narrative, clarity or consistency, Godard revels in making the audience work as hard as possible to piece the ideas together to make a jagged whole.
Accompanied by brief, staccato, frown-inducing subtitles, described by the director as “Navajo” thanks to their artfully measured self-restraint, Film Socialisme is split into three distinct sections. The first and longest section is concerned with the goings-on on a modern-day cruise ship as it makes its tour of the principal ports of the Mediterranean. Its international cast, including a brief cameo by American singer-songwriter Patti Smith, wander around the ship interacting with one another but also telling their own stories. These are interspersed with the commanding, yet movable, slogan “Des Choses Comme Ça” (Things Like That) and swirling images of the nouvelles waves below the ship, waiting threateningly and inhabited by encircling sharks.
If this were not Godard, it would be an easy leap to make from seeing the ship founder amid stormy seas as European civilisation may be about to, without a captain with a firm hand at the wheel. But this is Godard and such links are never made explicitly, but confounded relentlessly as dialogue is drowned out by the noise of the wind, and the soundtrack purposefully jumps at seemingly significant moments.
The second movement, “Notre Europe” is jarringly more focused. After the disorientation of the first third, the comparatively slow exploration of a statuesque rural French family of petrol station owners, the Martins, takes more than a little while to take shape through the hazy mist. A teenage girl and her younger brother question the way that their parents have chosen to bring them up, exploring themes of Liberté, Fraternité and Egalité, with the odd llama and some Balzac thrown in there for good measure.
Finally, “Nos Humanités” brings everything to an arching, discordant crescendo. This marks a return to some of the historically iconic ports visited during the odyssey of the first section – Egypt, Palestine, Odessa, Hellas, Naples and Barcelona, concentrating on true or false myths in these six sites. Historical images are interspersed with messy library footage, borrowed recreations and the acrobatics of a group of trapeze artists, combining to hint at a message….whatever that might be. Finally, the cruise ship’s eclectic mish-mash of passengers reluctantly disembark at their final port of call, accompanied by a clarion call played by an enthusiastic trumpeter.
Structurally baffling to the last, Film Socialisme can only be seen as a visual poem, a kind of splintered dream during which the dreamer is plagued by a nagging doubt that perhaps the whole might point towards the resolution of humanity’s every unanswered question, while this answer remains fleetingly just out of reach. However confusing Film Socialisme may be it is classic Godard nonetheless. As with all his films, he claims to have started with the title and worked backwards. In the great tradition of his once contemporary and fellow visionary, artist Pablo Picasso, it is from this confusion that Godard’s greatness emerges. Picasso poured scorn on the simplicity of painting a figurative, life-like face when there are so many other angles to explore, as does Jean-Luc Godard, still pushing the boundaries well into his late 70s. Breathless, to the last.
Film Socialisme is released in the UK on July 8th 2011