Even the title is a mass of contradictions. Jean-Luc Godard's latest "film," which opens Friday at Gene Siskel Film Center, was shot in a variety of video formats, ranging from crisp HD to bleary consumer-grade digital; the action, which takes place mostly on a luxury ocean liner and around a family-run gas station, involves capitalism more than socialism. But because this is Godard, who's traded in such bold juxtapositions throughout his career, one should go into the movie expecting a few curveballs.
Inspired by the possibilities of film editing, Godard has always sought meaning by bringing together different ideas. His early features are famous for his romantic abandon in combining genres: the musical and the neorealist drama in A Woman Is a Woman (1961), mystery and sci-fi in Alphaville (1965). Godard's fundamental line of thought has never changed, even when he abandoned narrative films in the '70s for essayistic videos, doomed but heroic efforts to produce agitprop that played like associative poetry. Since his return to narrative, more or less, with Every Man for Himself (1979), Godard has developed a highly concentrated cinematic language composed primarily of paradoxes. His compositions, which resemble paintings more often than movie frames, tend toward naturalistic behavior set against symbolic arrangements of objects. His dialogue, conceived as a sonic counterpoint to the images, teems with references to politics, history, art, and philosophy. As in T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land, contemporary life seems like a cultural pile-up, stunning and inaccessible.
One specific cultural legacy is highlighted in the U.S. release of Film Socialisme: Godard has subtitled the French dialogue in what he's provocatively termed "Navajo English," reducing the dialogue to the sort of simple phrases uttered by Native Americans in old westerns. Some will find these subtitles infuriating, but they force the non-French-speaking viewer to focus on the images and draw his own conclusions from the elements. Like YouTube (one of the movie's unlikely reference points), they create the conditions for a literal "film socialism," wherein spectators can join in a community that reinterprets images together. As with so many of Eliot's late works, the best way to approach Film Socialism is to ask why Godard has erected this Tower of Babel and what we might stand to gain by staring at it. The title can be read as a lament for two utopian ideals (socialism, cinema as pure art), and in fact the movie is haunted by all sorts of lost illusions. It climaxes with various images of war-torn cities, and a recurring theme is whether one can still believe in the myth of Europe as the center of world culture.
For all its references to defeat, however, the movie still conveys a sense of rapture with the process of image-making, if not necessarily filmmaking. Godard seems genuinely enthused by all the post-film media of the new century, and Film Socialisme revels in the variety of colors, textures, and editing schemes that make up the digital landscape. Aside from experimental shorts, it's one of the first things I've seen to appropriate the freezes and skips of low-quality digital as an aesthetic device; one scene even shows a young woman enjoying a YouTube-style clip of mewing kittens. Each shot is so visually expressive that one can easily appreciate Film Socialisme without understanding the heady, heavily thematic dialogue. But that theme—that ideals can thrive in art even when political circumstances make them nearly impossible—is life-affirming.
As with his previous feature, Notre Musique (2004), Godard has organized Film Socialisme into three distinct movements. The first takes place on board a luxury cruise of the Mediterranean, where passengers are distracted from the hallowed capitals of Western civilization by the most disposable sort of pop culture. The ills of contemporary life are represented by a neon-lit disco where the tacky music is so loud it distorts on the soundtrack. Only the African refugees inexplicably on board seem to notice the implicit tragedy of the situation: the European passengers are so alienated from each other by consumer excess that they can no longer remember the cultural history that unites them.
The classical allusions in these scenes are more poignant than bitter. While the dialogue reveals how the characters have forgotten tradition, the images are vibrant and harmonious, evoking the classical ideal of transcendent beauty that connects ancient Greek philosophy to Renaissance painting to 19th-century Romantic poetry. That Godard is capable of finding this beauty in unexpected places suggests that those traditions are still with us; we just have to look for them in new places. Why would so many people watch a YouTube video of kittens if not for its beauty?
The second movement of Film Socialisme is smaller in scale: the action moves to a suburb in southern France where a family of four runs a gas station by day and enjoys simple domestic pleasures at night. This scenario may seem to invite ridicule, but it's surprisingly gentle, with some of the most serene images of Godard's career. It's complicated, however, by the arrival of a TV news crew whose on-air reporter wants to interview each of the family members about his personal philosophy and determine whether he feels happy about his position in the national culture. (Even in our age of reality TV, this would probably never happen in real life, but one should never underestimate Godard's penchant for non sequiturs. It's worth pointing out that the family gas station is home to both a donkey and a llama.)
Probing her subjects with Socratic questions, the journalist forces the parents to admit that they feel unsatisfied with their lives despite feeling satisfied with their business. The problem, it seems, is that they don't know how to connect with people outside their home. Asked whether their concerns might be resolved through political change, they can only voice resignation. "Ideas divide people," the father says sullenly. The mother confesses that she's too wrapped up in playing the "character" of a mother to think politically. Their young son and teenager daughter feel differently, though: they seem to value family life as highly as their parents do, but they regard it as a model for public life, not an escape from it. Godard illustrates these contrary outlooks in a particularly moving domestic scene: the son, pretending to be blind, runs his hands over his mother as if to rediscover her by touch, but she's too preoccupied with washing the dishes to encourage, much less notice, this flight of imagination.
When the reporter asks the children whether they'd rather live among family members or fellow citizens, both opt enthusiastically for the former. In these moments Godard uses the most straightforward language he can muster to pose some of the fundamental questions of Western civilization: How did the democratic nation-state originate, and what is its ideal form? He approaches these questions with simple, warmly lit close-ups of the kids, whose mannerisms, at once casual and dignified, become another reminder of classical beauty. Godard engaged kids in philosophic rap sessions for his landmark TV project France/tour/détour/deux/enfants (1977), and Film Socialisme arrives at a similar conclusion: that utopian notions of equality might be better explained by children than by most adults. Yet the moral seems more urgent here, amid Godard's concerns about the fate of civilization.
After this contemplation of the future, history comes crashing back into view. The final movement is a poetic montage in the style of Godard's Histoire(s) du cinéma (1988-98) or the opening of Notre Musique. Documentary footage of displaced people is intercut with fleeting clips from dramatic films about historical atrocities. (As in his great 1976 video essay Ici et Ailleurs, the documentary footage dwells on the suffering of Palestinians.) Whereas the first section stuffed all the spoils of European culture onto a cruise ship, this portion constructs a monument from myriad episodes of human suffering. It's a devastating reminder that when one culture advances, another is pushed back—and that this ongoing battle is the work not of families, but of nations.
Directed by Jean-Luc Godard