Monday, May 30, 2011

Godard’s Film Socialisme

A Mediterranean cruise sounds like a pleasant indulgence, but of course, none of the standard rules apply to Jean-Luc Godard. Certainly narrative and aesthetic conventions will be flaunted, as will polite decorum. Indeed, some might argue Godard’s latest and possibly final film (he has been somewhat coy on the subject) represents the height of self-indulgence. Yet, for hardy cineastes, the arrival of Film Socialisme (trailer here), Godard’s latest cinematic-essay-provocation is as serious as a heart attack. Needless to say though, there will be plenty of shaking heads in the audience, even amongst the initiated, when Socialisme opens this Friday in New York at the IFC Center.

Dubbed “a symphony in three movements,” Socialisme is not Breathless, which proceeds along a more or less traditional narrative course, despite Godard’s periodic winking subversions. It is closer to his 1987 anti-adaptation of Shakespeare’s King Lear, but even there Godard left enough structural building block laying around for viewers to impose their own order. Rather, like his other post-2000 works, Socialisme is largely a cinematic collage providing viewers hints of narrative only for the sake of immediately snatching them back.

As Socialisme’s initial non-setting, the luxury ocean liner offers Godard a vehicle for some striking images and a frequent water motif. Just how the non-characters came to be on this cruise scarcely matters. Though a colorful assemblage, including a French philosopher, a war criminal of undisclosed nationality, a spy of some sort, and a chanteuse (played by Patti Smith), they are only here to give voice to Godard’s polemical slogans. As he segues into his second and third movements, the film becomes something of a movie mixtape, juxtaposing text and visuals for ideological purposes.

It is not snarky to question just who Socialisme is meant for, because of Godard’s signature gamesmanship. While the French dialogue is relatively conventional (if stilted), Godard’s subtitles are translated into crude Tarzan-like English, formatted in a style befitting e.e. cummings. Are English audiences seeing Socialisme as it is truly intended, or were the French, for whom it was presumably exhibited sans subs? Perhaps the film is best appreciated by those fluent in both languages, watching outside the francophone world. Is this a film primarily produced for French expats?

Naturally, Godard’s mischief is not limited to subtitles, but extends to soundtrack drop-outs and film-stock adulterations as well. As one would also expect, his extremist politics are also front-and-center, including a pre-occupation with the Arab-Israeli conflict and the rather unsettling observation: “strange thing Hollywood Jews invented it.”

It is important to understand what Socialisme is and what it is not. However, that does not mean it is not fascinating, particularly for those who have followed Godard’s work to any extent. Truly, Socialisme is a post-fin de siècle film. He is like a secular version of a fundamentalist preacher embarrassed by the rapture’s failure to come at its ordained time. As a faithful Maoist, Godard knows capitalist democracy is dead. Yet, the West persists in conducting commerce, holding elections, and engaging in all sorts of petty bourgeoisie activities. Socialisme is much like a journey into Godard’s subconscious as it struggles to reconcile an outward reality that profoundly conflicts with his own subjective world view.

A life-long student of film, Godard still has an eye for intriguing visuals. Though eclectic, the soundtrack is rather insinuatingly effective, including tracks from jazz trumpeters Chet Baker and Tomasz Stanko, as well as Middle Eastern-jazz crossover artist Anouar Brahem, and classical minimalist composer Arvo Pärt. Indeed, the film sounds great, except for Madonna’s “Material Girl,” thrown in diegetically for obvious irony. Again, the standard rules do not apply to Godard. It is hard to say what Socialisme is at its core, but is definitely the product of a singular auteur. The bold should let it wash over them just to see if anything sticks when it opens this Friday (6/3) in New York at the IFC Center.