The Egyptian watch that has passed from wrist to wrist—both wearers that we see are black women—contains the universe in a grain of mechanism. And contains history. In the middle of Film Socialisme, Jean-Luc Godard’s first theatrical film shot exclusively in high-definition video, the gold watch stands—hangs, like a star?—alone, a figure against an illimitable black ground. It has no face; it tells no time but, instead, seems to encapsulate the mystery (or mysteries) of time. So vast, so deep—and yet, when worn, it is “property,” in a film where someone notes, “There must be a redistribution of property.” The shifting ownership perhaps reflects what is also noted: “Money is a public good.” (To the disembodied male voice uttering this against the nighttime sky—Ferdinand’s, in Pierrot le fou?—a disembodied female voice—Marianne’s?—adds, “Like water.”) However, it also reminds us of what it cannot fail to remind Godard: the earrings that pass through different hands in Max Ophüls’s Madame de . . . (1952). Their loss, and the loss of the beloved who gifted her with them, cost the heroine her life; this nourishes the tragic undertow of the watch’s employment by Godard, a symbol conjoining his adoration of cinema and his disdain for the property ownership fueling the expansive inequities generated by the god of globalization.
The initial setting of the tripartite Film Socialisme is a cruise ship proceeding from one port of call to another on the Mediterranean. Post-opening credits, the first shots are of the sea below—in a work in rich color, haunting imagery tending towards black and white. One sublimely mysterious shot penetrates the sea, showing a school of small fish circulating amidst seaweed: a premonition of the watch that will harden it, giving it a mechanized form: timelessness = time = timelessness; the flitting, glittering fish encapsulate our vulnerability, and Godard’s; somehow looking into a kind of mirror, we and Godard are the sole witnesses.
The vulnerability of youth accounts for another incomparably beautiful image: in silence, Ludovic, a young boy, and Alissa, the older girl he has befriended onboard, descending at night in the transparent cruise ship elevator, both facing away from the camera at an angle and toward the dark eternity surrounding them; their bare necks seem especially vulnerable. Eighty-year-old Godard invests this image with his own sense of vulnerability, his sense not only of time’s dwindling for him but also of his and others’ failure to achieve, politically, a more equitable world. We feel his feeling in the grip of history that has failed to deliver on the promise of liberty, equality and fraternity—an issue with which a pair of young siblings confronts their parents later in the film.
The three sections of Film Socialisme are titled “Des choses comme ça” (“Things Like That”), “Quo vadis Europa” (“Where Is Europe Going?”) and “Nos humanités” (“Our Humanities”). A plot element in the first section involves intrigue surrounding pilfered Spanish gold; gold coins drop onto a dark surface, evoking an image from Sergei M. Eisenstein’s never completed ¡Qué viva México! (1932), where a necklace of gold coins is the dowry necessary for a girl to buy her way into what is ultimately exposed as (because of gender inequality) merely the illusion of wedded bliss. (Godard’s pair of affectionate parrots right before his film’s opening credits also alludes to a bit from Eisenstein’s Mexican footage.) The gold necklace that Alissa wears telescopes her end; a curse governs the fate of those who implicate themselves with the stolen gold. Alissa may pay for the sins of her grandfather, a Nazi war criminal who likely gifted her with the necklace from the looted treasure. Will the curse also take away Ludo, who briefly delves into her cleavage to finger the necklace while she is wearing it? Young Europe is shadowed indeed by the sins of Europe’s past.
Whither does the cruise ship go? Five ancient ports are on its itinerary on its return trip to Barcelona: Cairo, Palestine, Odessa, Hellas and Naples. Although three Palestinians are among the passengers onboard ship, “ACCESS DENIED” flashes across the screen to indicate arrival at—where? There is no sovereign Palestine to correlate to ancient Palestine, and Israel has no interest in admitting sightseers onto what it regards as its own beleaguered territory. Apparently, therefore, Odessa has been hastily added to the ship’s scheduled dockings (a passenger voices surprise that the ship is stopping there), perhaps compensatorily for legal reasons. After all, bought and paid for, the cruise must “deliver” to passengers at least the number of places it advertised! It, too, is “market property.”
Among the mysteries punctuating the ship’s voyage are shots of animals, although at this point I cannot recall which is where. My favorite is the spooky shot at night of a European barn owl which seems as intrigued by the camera as we are with it (the owl). (Its round face, again, visually plays off the faceless watch; so, it also seems to encapsulate the cosmos.) The “curious” owl seems surprised by “us,” if we take the camera to be our representative, and if we aren’t anthropomorphizing what is the owl’s perpetual appearance. Surprising us, though, are another pair of animals, two YouTube LOLcats (possibly a transmutation of the paired parrots at the beginning of the film) that require a pull-back of the camera for their consignment to a screen-within-the-screen, certifying them as a fabrication.
There is, in fact, a pattern of surprises that the film delivers to us as a protest against history, specifically, European history, where past too often has proven prologue and created a pall and a hangman’s noose of predictability. And what is Godard without his playfulness? Thus we come to hear and observe the ship’s banner whipped by the wind, only to be surprised when the same furious sound accompanies the wind’s work on the necktie a man is wearing. The color of the tie—red—suggests, in context, spilt European blood; the color red is a recurrent tinge that highlights the film’s otherwise largely muted and neutral color scheme. In the final, documentary section of the film, which provides mini-essays of each of the stops along the ship’s route, voiceover notes in Hellas that the union of ancient democracy and ancient tragedy produced, for Europe, a single offspring: civil war.
Barcelona is introduced twice with the same image: a snippet of a matador in the bullring. Needless to say, memory of the Spanish Civil War hangs heavily over the Barcelona material, and what initially seems a banal touristy bullfight image becomes upon its repetition, in the context that the film provides, a reminder of the nationalists’ conversion of “the bullring” into scenes of mass executions of republicans. Spain, alas, was the scene of fascist victory, and the outcome of the Spanish Civil War is one of the two signature tragedies of the twentieth century. In present day Barcelona, Godard’s most haunting image in Film Socialisme takes center screen, achieving a depth and power of poetry unsurpassed in his staggering œuvre. A woman reporter stands against a wall (courtesy of Sartre, itself an evocation of the Spanish Civil War and of Franco’s mass executions), interviewing, and jotting notes. To us, she appears at the radial center of the slowly turning, grayly out-of-focus fan of the shadow of such a windmill as Don Quixote once tilted a lance at. (Incidentally, Godard elsewhere in this film includes a bit of Orson Welles’s film of Don Quixote.) There are other famous windmills in cinema, for instance, in Vsevolod I. Pudovkin’s The End of St. Petersburg (1927), “towards the camera in closeup, the scythe-like rotation of a windmill’s stark fan on the farm: persistent, sharp motions that unsettle the frames, within the implied symbolism of life’s tragic round”—“an image that conveys both the harsh entrapment of poverty and signals the future growth of the peasant[-protagonist]’s political consciousness.” In Ingmar Bergman’s comedy Smiles of a Summer Night (1955), the “radial vanes [of windmills] in motion suffuse life’s sexual fortunes with a clock’s mortal indication.” (I am quoting myself.) But what strikes us in the Godard is the reporter’s obliviousness to, or ignorance of, the shadow she is in. If we interpret this shadow as the dogging shadow of European politics and history, we may say that this ignorance or obliviousness of hers undercuts her effectiveness as a reporter of either the moment or the context to which it belongs, no matter the diligence of her note-taking, making her the mere shadow of a reporter, no matter the clarity of her image to the eye. In failing to appreciate “the whole picture,” she is spiritual kin to the reporter that Jack Nicholson plays in Michelangelo Antonioni’s The Passenger (1975). We may also say she is outgunned by Ludo, the boy onboard the cruise ship, who when he is shadow-boxing on deck at least knows he is shadow-boxing.
Whereas the history of the Spanish Civil War helps transform the scenes in Barcelona into contemporary tragedy, the middle section, centered on a single family, the Martins, finds in its confrontation of the couple by their children the shadow of other failures, including the politicizing motto and myth of the 1789 French Revolution, and the failed revolution of 1968. Although essential for the unity of the whole, this section, for me, is not as compelling as the other two sections. Perhaps the most interesting character here is the silent llama that haunts the grounds of the service station that the Martins run: a symbol, perhaps, of the dislocations that pockmark the “globalized village.”
The final section revisits the ports of call that the cruise visited in the first segment, but without the benefit of narrative or characters. This documentary conclusion is rich in “our humanities”: history, literature, music, painting, sculpture, cinema. Perhaps its most phenomenal passage integrates shots from Eisenstein’s October (1927) and, especially, Battleship Potemkin (1925) into a sweeping, rapid rightward tracking shot—you may recall that the Odessa Steps passage moves screen-left—through an Odessa forest. Past and present, myth and reality, humanity and Nature, formalism and spontaneity, black and white and color, film and video: what an apotheosis of association and integration, ultimately, a fragment of the dream to make whole—I am not so naïve as to add “again”—the broken nature of our world and our lives: as moving as anything anywhere in Godard.
A disorganized soul, I fear I have scarcely been coherent about this wonderful piece of work. Let me hasten to add, therefore, that it is the most relaxed, most assured thing that Godard has done. It is the best “film” of 2010, Godard the best “filmmaker.”
With this work, dear Jean-Luc has set aside his anti-Zionism long enough to have someone ask, “To be or not to be a Jew . . .” and has opened his heart for the first time in cinema to children, bringing to fruition the course that partner Anne-Marie Miéville set him on with France/tour/detour/deux/enfants (1977-78). The world’s greatest living filmmaker has said that Film Socialisme is his last film. For the time being, let us call it instead his latest. Regardless, it is a summary work full of glints and glimmers of past work, and rounding out with a reminder, especially, of his tremendous Histoires du cinéma (1988-89; 1998), as well as a resounding hommage to Chris Marker’s style of documentary filmmaking. His last work? Even so, we have this film and all the others to go back to and go back to as though our lives depended on our doing this—as perhaps they do.
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