by Tony Dayoub
Full disclosure: I'm the last one you want to ask about either Jean-Luc Godard (of his films, I've seen a sum total of 2 full-length features and one short, all pre-1990) or avant-garde film. I know much about the pionering French director from books and my studies in college almost 20 years back. But his films, indeed all films, are to be experienced. As for the avant-garde, it is a type of cinema I have always had trouble appreciating. I'm not judging it, mind you. If anything, it is my limited ability to comprehend them that I blame. So if this review is somewhat vague, or I sound out of my depth, please forgive me. What I can say is that the somewhat mystifying Film Socialisme is oddly enthralling even to an ignorant fellow like myself.
Like in his later films, Godard is provocative with his coded statements here. Film Socialisme is divided into three movements, for lack of a better word. The first takes place on a cruise ship populated by people of different races, speaking different languages, a microcosmic Babylon where each person seems to be reaching out plaintively, as they don't seem to receive any response from the others due to a lack of understanding. The second appears deceptively more straightforward; it follows the Martin family and their activities at the gas station they own; an attractive French-African woman keeps popping in and out of this one (dressed in a uniform which evokes that of a Marxist soldier) mostly arguing with the puckish young Martin boy, who seems to represent the contradictions inherent in Communism (the Russian kind in particular). The third segment is the most baffling, revisiting some of the themes he's touched upon in the earlier two segments and placing them in a sociohistorical context analogous to the information the cruise passengers receive when they take a tour at one of the many ports they visit.
Godard's film strikes me as a kind of doodle, similar to David Lynch's most recent film, Inland Empire (2006). Just like Lynch, Godard seems to be covering familiar territory in order to more fully concentrate on his technique, honing his skills shooting in digital video. Much of the aesthetic seems less to do with supporting his ideas and more with testing the medium's flexibility and boundaries. Which isn't to say there are no big ideas here.
One of the most confounding aspects of Film Socialisme is Godard's decision to subtitle the film in a sort of sketchy English he jokingly calls Navajo. This places the viewer in the same position as the film's characters, facing a dissonance of communication where one can't understand others because each is caught up in an echo chamber of sorts, making pronouncements and declarations which seem impassioned enough to be important, if only anyone would get it. Godard intimates this is a result of shutting out the world in favor of connecting to our technological networks today. It is this personal disconnectedness, he hints, which drives such conflicts as the Israeli-Palestinian one.
In some ways, it makes for a great double bill with the film I reviewed just before this, The Social Network (they were both paired together for press screenings); The Social Network shows a world on the verge of interpersonal fragmentation, while Film Socialisme proposes a world already broken. At least that's what I gather from one viewing. It is a challenging film to be sure. But to its credit, it never feels self-indulgent.
Film Socialisme is playing at the 48th New York Film Festival at 6 p.m. Wednesday, September 29th, and 3 p.m. Friday, October 8th, at the Lincoln Center's Alice Tully Hall, 1941 Broadway (at 65th Street), New York, NY 10023. For more ticket information go online here, or call (212) 875-5050