DIRECTED BY: Jean-Luc Godard
FEATURING: Marine Battaggia, Catherine Tanvier, Christian Sinniger, Gulliver Hecq, Eye Haidara, Élisabeth Vitali
PLOT: Snippets of scenes involving passengers on a cruise ship are followed by a long segment exploring a rural French family who run a gas station; it’s topped off with impressionistic travelogues to Egypt, Palestine, and other locales.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s weird—by way of being random and impenetrable—but it’s also boring. Really boring. Had Jean-Luc Godard’s name not been attached, this movie would remain happily unseen by all but a handful of unlucky film festival attendees.
COMMENTS: Jean-Luc Godard has been telling French magazines that “cinema is dead” (though he would say “le cinéma est mort” and translate it as “film dead.”) Film Socialisme is the work of an auteur who truly believes that sentiment: it’s a dispassionate, bloodless dissection of moving images. It offers us actors but no characters, situations but no drama, incidents but no story, ideas but no argument, and challenges but no rewards. Deliberately obtuse, Film Socialisme sets out to frustrate: the first thing English speakers will notice is that Godard chooses not to fully translate the French dialogue, opting instead to tell the story through what he calls “Navajo English.” Large portions of the French dialogue are left untranslated, and when the viewer does see subtitles he reads only snatches like “watch notell time” and “itshim wariswar.” Sometimes the language will switch from French to English or German or Russian, sometimes in the middle of a conversation; one presumes that this provides brief opportunities for Francophones to enjoy “Navajo French.” Structurally, Film Socialisme is divided into three chapters. The first, titled “Des choses comme ça,” takes place aboard a cruise liner and explores fragments of stories from various travelers that don’t appear to add up to anything: a woman is trying to learn to speak cat by watching kitties on her laptop, a couple have a conversation about the Allied landing in North Africa while ignoring an apparently drunk woman careening into the window behind them, Yank chanteuse Patti Smith plays a few lines of a new song and wanders around the poop deck with her guitar, and so on. The “action” is frequently broken up by intertitles reading “Des choses” and/or “comme ça.” There are also (randomly inserted but) lovely images of choppy waves, schools of fish shot from below, and sunset seascapes. Experimental photography is sometimes used for the ship’s interior; supersaturation and odd filters turn the casinos and bars into drunken, blurry riots of primary colors. (Cinematography is the one area where Film Socialisme occasionally shines). After forty-five minutes on this ship to nowhere we arrive at our next destination—“Quo vadis Europa”—and the pace slows as we observe the lives of a couple running a gas station in rural France. A pesky film crew shows up to interview them. They have a llama, a burro, a kid, and a pretty teenage daughter, and that’s as interesting as their lives get. Wikipedia suggests this segment involves the kids “summoning their parents to appear before the ‘tribunal of their childhood,’ demanding serious answers on the themes of liberty, equality, and fraternity.” With only a smattering of French and no assistance from the subtitles, it’s impossible for me to judge whether this is accurate or not (the reporters seem more focused on the upcoming elections). I describe the segment by saying that nothing happens for thirty five minutes; possibly in an attempt by Godard to make us long to get aboard that cruise ship and sail from inconsequentiality into incomprehensibility. We finally reach the last section, “Nos humanités,” which an impressionistic tour of Egypt, Palestine, Odessa, Hellas, Napoli, and Barcelona. Most of these locales were mentioned in passing by people on the cruise ship; all of them are Mediterranean ports the vessel might have visited, with the exception of Odessa, which Godard threw in so he could insert his re-edit of Eisenstein’s famous “Odessa steps” montage. Hellas is represented by some washed-out scenes from old sword and sandal features, and Barcelona by brief shots of a bullfight. This segment is exciting only because we know we’re getting to the end of this massively self-indulgent cinematic essay on—well, Godard only knows what. I’ve heard theories that it’s a depiction of the fragmented state of modern Europe, or a mediation on the fragility of film, or even that it’s about Godard’s feelings about copyright law (!) The problem is that no insight we could glean from a close study of the film could compensate us for the frustration and boredom of watching it. Postmodern past the point of self-parody, this is the kind of movie only Jacques Derrida could love. You may be sick to death of the shallowness, predictability and bourgeois sensibilities of “film capitalisme,” but Film Socialisme should convince you that the situation could be much, much worse.
Godard was the leading light of the French New Wave, creating the experimental hits Breathless (1960), Alphaville (1965), and Week End (1967). His output sharply declined after the 1970s as he focused on shorts and documentaries (including Histoire(s) du cinéma, a 266-minute free-associative survey of film history). Film Socialisme was his first new feature in six years, but at 82 years old he is reported to have a new project in mind: titled A Farewell to Language, it would feature a talking dog.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY: