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Film Socialisme
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by Peter Sobczynski

"The Godfather Is Still The Punk"
4 stars

At an age when most filmmakers are either dead or worse, depending on your perspective, trapped on a never-ending awards circuit receiving Lifetime Achievement awards from industry colleagues who are perfectly content to offer up empty platitudes about past achievements but who would most likely blanch and the thought of helping to put together a new project, 80-year-old Jean-Luc Godard doggedly continues his reign as the world's oldest enfant terrible by continuing to put films that continue to test the boundaries of what can be said and done with the tools of the craft and continue to test the patience of even his most loyal supporters by challenging and provoking them and their ideas about cinema at every turn. Even so, when his latest work, "Film Socialisme," premiered at last year's Cannes Film Festival amidst rumors that it might mark his final cinematic statement, the screenings were filled with people expecting a film that would serve as some kind of grand artistic summation along the lines of Ingmar Bergman's "Fanny & Alexander" and the like. In a move that, in hindsight, probably should have shocked absolutely no one, he presented them with an odd meditation of the current state of the world utilizing a free-wheeling blend of digital video ranging from the gorgeous to the grungy, film clips ranging from the historical to the hysterical and a near-total disdain for even the most basic conventions of cinematic storytelling. The end result is a flawed but strangely fascinating work that is nowhere near Godard's greatest works but nevertheless demonstrates that the artistic fire that has driven him for the past half-century is still blazing away after all these years.

This time around, the film is divided roughly into three separate sections that deal more or less with Europe's dark war-driven past and uncertain unification-driven future. The first and longest section takes place on a Mediterranean cruise filled with a cross-section of passengers--ranging from philosopher Alain Badiou (who delivers a shipboard lecture that is attended by absolutely no one) to rock icon Patti Smith (who serves as a sort of wandering troubadour who never actually gets around to singing a song) to a young woman who is virtually the spitting image of Anna Karina (Godard's former wife and star of some of his most iconic early films, including "Band of Outsiders," "Vivre Sa Vie" and "Pierrot le Fou")--representing all of Europe (at least the Caucasian parts) blithely indulge in all the ship's comforts while the more ethnically diverse members of the crew quietly keep things moving along. The joke, of course, is that the passengers rubbing shoulders at the exercise classes and buffets are the descendants of ancestors who used to be at each others throats and every once in a while, that history bubbles to the surface in the form of old World War II newsreel footage and the like that comes out of nowhere like a bad memory.

The second part of the film, which arrives about 50 minutes or so in, is a more conventionally structured episode set in and around a remote gas station in the south of France run by a once-progressive, now-conservative couple, their two increasingly radical children and a pet llama of indeterminate political leanings. Throughout this comparatively static section, the parents are questioned by their children about their history in a manner meant to suggest that they represent all of Europe's political and historical failings as they stagnate while living off of the fruits of Third World resources. Eventually, they are visited by an African woman, possibly a news reporter or possibly just a crank, who appears out of nowhere to help raise the family's collective political consciousness, if such a thing is possible. In the final movement, Godard returns to the more free-form approach of the first segment in which he briefly chronicles some of the grim failings of the West (slavery, war and democracy) via newly-shot footage juxtaposed with clips from films ranging from "The Battleship Potemkin" to the Steve Reeves version of "Hercules" before enigmatically concluding with a title card reading "NO COMMENT."

For most viewers, even those few who have kept up with Godard's output in the years since his initial artistic heyday in the Sixties, the mere experience of "Film Socialisme" will prove to be strange and frustrating. Visually, the look of the film, the first feature that Godard has shot entirely on digital video, veers wildly between lushly beautiful images featuring colors fairly ripe to bursting to shabby, artifact-riddled bits that appear to have cobbled from deteriorated VHS tapes or defective cell phones. Having flirted with a return to straightforward storytelling (at least by his standards) with his last two features, "In Praise of Love" and "Notre Musique," Godard has returned to the frankly experimental narrative approach that has marked much of his work over the last couple of decades. To make things even more perplexing, the dialogue is spoken in a number of different languages and while there are subtitles to be had, they serve as yet another form of commentary by coming across as abstract condensations of what is actually being said and unless one actually speaks all of the languages, it is impossible to fully determine what is being said and further underlines Godard's uncertainty about how unity can occur between people who are set apart by the very languages they speak--in his eyes, even the seemingly universal language of art can separate more than unite. Of course, this is merely a guess on my part because at no point does Godard actually come out and plainly state what he is trying to say this time around--if you go online, however, you will no doubt find any number of academic articles/reviews that will a.) confidently state without hesitation what points he is trying to get across and b.) no doubt contradict each other. (The closest thing the film comes to a non-enigmatic statement occurs when the first section concludes with the rueful statement "Poor Europe. Corrupted by suffering. Humiliated by liberty.")

I must confess that "Film Socialisme" is not one of the great Godard film--it isn't a patch on those brilliant early works in which he managed to simultaneously rewrite the long-established rules of the cinema and tell engaging stories that embraced politics, popular culture and genuine human emotion in dazzling and unexpected ways and it doesn't match up to later efforts like "First Name Carmen" or "In Praise of Love" that managed to more effectively deploy his more experimental aesthetic sense in stories that were still reasonably coherent and captivating. And yet, even though I can't say with any certainty that I understand this particular film--a feeling tempered only slightly by the fact that I am not sure that Godard himself could pass a pop quiz on it either--I still found myself admiring it in a perverse way (and at this point, that may be the only way to admire Godard at this point). From an aesthetic standpoint, Godard once again demonstrates his ability to create rapturous symphonies of sound and vision--the visuals are often beautiful to behold (even the deliberately degraded elements have a strange and forlorn beauty to them) and the sound design is equally impressive to boot. In addition, there are numerous individual moments that are striking to behold as well--a young girl swimming in the shipboard pool while Madonna's "Material Girl" ethereally appears in the background and the young son from the gas station family cheerfully goofing off in the kitchen while his mother does the dishes are among the most touching on display. There are even occasional bits of levity as well, such as the cuts to the eternally deadpan llama that almost suggest a strange homage to the blind camel in the immortal "Ishtar." (This, I should stress, is something that I mean to be a compliment.)

However, what I admire most about "Film Socialisme," and the reason why I have chosen to spend so much time writing about a movie that 95% of those reading this will never get a chance to see in the first place, much less like, is the fact that it shows that even at his advanced age, Jean-Luc Godard has chosen to create art meant to prod and provoke people, even his fans, instead of simply resting on his considerable laurels. No, he is somehow still making the films of a young man--works that are by turn energetic, earnest, pretentious and borderline silly--and even if they don't always work, there is still something about them that makes them more fundamentally interesting and intriguing than the efforts of a more mature talent whose sense of daring has dulled over the years. Godard may be one of the last living godfathers of the French New Wave but based on his work here, he is still a punk through and through and while they may not always appreciate that, the film world is all the better for it.

link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=20659&reviewer=389
originally posted: 06/10/11 06:22:51
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2010 Festival de Cannes For more in the 2010 Festival de Cannes series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2010 New York Film Festival For more in the 2010 New York Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2010 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.

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USA
  03-Jun-2011
  DVD: 10-Jan-2012

UK
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Australia
  03-Jun-2011
  DVD: 10-Jan-2012




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