Jean-Luc Godard’s “Film Socialisme” is likely to be an unbearable experience for anyone other than for Godard himself and his most hardcore adherents. The veteran filmmaker has pieced together a prohibitively obscure, free-association polemic on his pet theme of politics– the politics of nations, races, religion, relationships, communication, gender, essentially the entire fabric of post-colonial civilization – and how it’s processed through the meat grinder of post-modern pop culture.
The first half of “Film Socialisme” takes place on a Mediterranean cruise ship and the second in and around what is presumably a family-run gas station. The visual texture of the first half ranges from the clean, crisp high-def views of sea, sky, the ship’s decks and cabins to the degraded surveillance-camera images found, for example, in a striking image of disco-dancing guests. Godard returns frequently to a collection of mysterious characters, young and old including a musician played by Patti Smith, a photographer, his companion and a number of suspicious men (the press notes suggests various identities for them, including war criminals and detectives).
On the ship, Godard alternates between vignettes of his characters and of the ship’s passengers, depicted as a piggish, unthinking herd of hedonists – stand-ins for Godard larger vision of our consumerist society. Intertitles with different place names: Barcelona, Naples, Egypt, Palestine, Odessa signal montage sequences in which Godard mixes archival newsreel clips, excerpts from sword-and-sandal epics and original footage in poetic statements about oppression, injustice (Godard’s sympathy for the Palestinian struggle is obvious, especially in an intertitle in which white Arabic letters are superimposed by blood-red Hebrew letters) and historical revisionism.
The dialogue consists largely of disconnected observations. The accompanying subtitles do not aid our understanding. Instead, the subtitles offer another layer of Godardian agitprop as they simply abbreviate snippets of what’s being said into semi-intelligible, political garble: “space is dying,” “governments wrong,” “see before read,” “bygone landscapes,” etc.
The land-based half of “Film Socialisme,” set at the country gas-station, continues the visual style and graffiti-like use of subtitles as a father, mother, son and daughter exist in a state of ennui and communication breakdown while a pair of female TV journalists, a llama and a donkey linger on the property. The color-coding, the stylized gestures, the selection of musical choices on the soundtrack all recall Godard’s 60’s era experimentalism (think “Weekend” or “Pierrot le Fou”), but stripped of playfulness and vitality. What lingers now is the feeling that, with age, Godard’s cynicism has hardened and his vision turned inward. “Film Socialisme” shows no interest in connecting with an audience; it exists impassively as something to be observed more than experienced.
Godard’s cinema can be rigorous and galvanizing as anyone familiar with his 1960s output would agree. Forty years on, he’s as troubled as ever with our subservience to the world’s military-industrial-corporate nexus. And he’s still the same cinematic prankster that he was in the 1960s – toying with the clichés of genre and shattering formal expectations. But there’s a stark difference between “Vivre Sa Vie” (1962) and “Masculin Féminin” (1966) and something like “Film Socialisme”: The crucial element of exuberance that charged the early films is gone, replaced by a bitter, reactionary aloofness. It’s as if Godard took to heart his own declaration of the “End of Cinema” in his pseudo-Apocalyptic “Weekend” (1967) and retreated deeper and deeper into his own one-man bunker.
Directed by: Jean-Luc Godard
Written by: Jean-Luc Godard
Starring: Catherine Tanvier, Christian Sinniger, Jean-Marc Stehlé, Patti Smith, Robert Maloubier, Alaim Badiou, Nadège Beausson-Diagne, Élisabeth Vitali