Jean-Luc Godard tells story of Europe in decline
Jean-Luc Godard’s Film Socialisme is about as difficult a film as you’ll see this or any other year, but if some will conclude the film is unwatchable, it might be useful to say why that is so, why it may even be partly intentional on Godard’s part. Film semiotician Christian Metz one said that film was an easy art that constantly gave way to that easiness. There were a couple of good reasons for this: one is that film as a recording art readily imitates reality; the other is that cinema quickly established tropes allowing the viewer a certain set of assumptions in the viewing experience as genres were set up and character types delineated.
Heck, even Godard in his early films wasn’t averse to genres and types: Breathless drew from the ‘gangster’ film, A Woman is a Woman the musical, and Alphaville was a sci-fi. Breathless had a femme fatale and in Alphaville Anna Karina put the love into love interest. The films pushed the boundaries of cinema but were also drawing upon that history: Breathless was an openly acknowledged homage to B Movies.
Much of Godard’s recent work has been as much concerned with social history as film history, yet his latest also includes plenty footage from cinema classics: including Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin and Strike. But now it seems film is absorbed into history, and one of Godard’s abiding interests at least since Histoire(s) Du Cinema is how film captured so many trivial images yet all but missed the Holocaust. Film didn’t only give way to the ease of the visual in trope and character type; it was also derelict in its documentary duty: to record history as it is happening.
A film in three parts, Film Socialisme looks at the bored luxury of a cruise liner in the first section; dulled out French life around a filling station in the second, and focuses chiefly on archival and narrative film images in the third, as if looking to tell a story of Europe’s decline within the context of its pathetic luxuries. At one moment in the third section Godard cuts between people getting off a cruise ship, a Minervan owl and footage from Battleship Potemkin. In Eisenstein’s film the sailors have revolted; in Godard’s footage the passengers shuffle off the boat and into yet another country for a whistle stop tour of local culture. Can the tourists look back and see like the Minervan owl that they are part of history, or can they only see themselves as part of the tourist industry; their purpose in helping various countries lying in no more than propping up the local economy with consumerism?
Godard’s is not an easy art on any level here: not only in what Nabokov once called ‘referential mania’ as Godard juxtaposes elements whose connective meaning we constantly have to work out and work with, but also even down to the very subtitling. Instead of the usual more or less complete translation into English we expect from most foreign films, Godard’s offers instead only gnomic hints at the original through the subtitles, and yet it is in keeping with the inter-titling of odd phrases, puns and stray words in many of his earlier films. Film may be an easy art indeed, yet Godard is one its most difficult practitioners. He never allows it to become a ‘Saturday night art’ in the words of one of France’s most famous contemporary Left-Wing philosophers, Alain Badiou, a thinker whose film articles have mused over the ease and difficulty available in the art form. He aptly turns up in the film himself.
Out now on selected release.