indieWIRE REVIEW: The Old Man’s Back Again
by Jeff Reichert (with responses from Michael Koresky and Neal Block)
[indieWIRE weekly reviews are written by critics from Reverse Shot. Founded by four friends in the winter of 2003, Reverse Shot is a new kind of online and print community aimed at the next generation of film lovers. Reverse Shot’s unique symposium format allows writers an unprecedented flexibility in choosing the films they get to write about which leads to better, more exciting articles. Irreverent, intelligent, rigorous, not rigor-mortised.]
Any consideration of new work by a filmmaker with as lengthy and storied a history as Jean-Luc Godard must necessarily begin with a question: after so many films and videos and so much writing about them, what does Godard still have to offer us, and what can we give him in return? At 74 years, isn’t our Jeannot well past the point beyond which lauded artists cease to innovate and amaze, where response is merely token, always diminishing and more predicated on admiration for the creator’s oeuvre than the work at hand? Perhaps then what’s most important to say about ‘Notre Musique’ is that it bests by a fair margin Godard’s feature film output over the past 15 years. Indeed, functioning as a synthesis of the concerns and aesthetic strategies played out in films like “Nouvelle vague,” “JLG/JLG,” “Forever Mozart,” and “In Praise of Love,” “Notre Musique” may well be remembered as one of the most prophetic and profound works of Godard’s career.
Structured in three parts after Dante’s “Divine Comedy,” “Notre Musique” devotes the bulk of its 80 minutes to its second section, entitled “Purgatory,” which finds Godard himself, Judith Lerner (Sarah Adler), a young French-Jewish journalist, and Olga (Nade Dieu), a film student, crossing paths during a brief literary conference in Sarajevo. Godard is to lecture on “le texte et l’image” (what else?), and Olga attends his seminar, but Judith’s mission is less clear. She conducts interviews and wanders a grey, ruined Sarajevo, still healing from its decade-old wounds, with a hopeful eye — she sees here the successful resolution of an ethnic conflict not far removed in substance from the one plaguing her homeland.
As with much of Godard’s recent output, the individual sequences in “Purgatory” work less towards the advance of narrative than as staging grounds for Godard’s philosophical musings on war, cinema, and history. The filmmaker’s mid-film lecture on Howard Hawks and shot/reverse shot patterning in Hollywood filmmaking seems familiar, until a member of the audience (Olga perhaps — the voice comes from offscreen) asks, “Mr. Godard, do you think the little digital cameras will save cinema?” After a beat, the film cuts abruptly away. The wry, resigned geniality of the gesture seems surprising coming from the man who once opened a film by stridently proclaiming “Fin du Cinema.”
If “Purgatory” is recognizable, more poignant territory for JLG, it’s the opening and closing segments, “Hell” and “Paradise,” that raise Notre musique to the level of the sublime. “Hell” is a Marker-esque video catalog of war imagery backed by a rueful, plinking piano score. Look closely and you might catch a glimpse of Kurosawa‘s “Ran,” Eisenstein‘s “Alexander Nevsky,” or Louis Feuillade‘s “Les Vampires” in amongst the more generic newsreel material. The sequence is a terrifying, impressionistic glimpse into the always-pending apocalypse we call Western civilization, constructed from pieces of the very stuff its subject uses to imagine itself. Is “our music” death? “Paradise” is the perfect negative-image, tranquil and simple where “Hell” is violent and layered. The sequence follows Olga as she rambles through a preternaturally green, Edenic forest and stumbles onto a small clearing filled with people reading and frolicking. She walks further, towards the water, and the film ends as she shares an apple with a man sitting on a low-hanging tree branch. It’s the opposite of the woodland communal experience documented in 1967’s “Weekend” — there’s nary a Marxist cannibal in sight. Without explaining the narrative turn that brings Olga to this “paradise,” it’s difficult to fully capture the resonance of the sequence, but suffice it to say that the bookend effect of “Hell” and “Paradise” only makes revisiting the weary, autumnal “Purgatory” all the more worthwhile. Maybe “our music” then, is the struggle of life in the face of death.
Where “In Praise of Love” felt like the film of an old man in all the worst ways, “Notre Musique” is a career benchmark and summation. Love’s cranky nattering about Steven Spielberg and Holocaust films (correct or not) sounded a note he’s been on for years, and its immense beauty and lyricism, while welcome, belied the film’s obtuseness. Watching it, I felt that my days of loving Godard’s work were long past, which makes the emergence of “Notre Musique” miraculous. In a time when the political in film seems to be carried out solely in the realm of tossed-together shaky-camera agit-prop documentary, Godard, working in a medium that’s probably long past his own modest projections for its life span, returns to show us another path marked by grace, wisdom, and a still-burning desire to penetrate to the very roots of how cinema works its magic effects upon us.
[Jeff Reichert is co-founder and editor of Reverse Shot. He is currently employed as Director of Marketing and Publicity for Magnolia Pictures and co-director of the Providence French Film Festival.]
by Michael Koresky
In David O. Russell‘s “I ♥ Huckabees” Mark Wahlberg incredulously asks: “Why is it that people only ask themselves deep questions when something really bad happens?” Well, Godard’s been asking these questions for years… so why are people just now listening? “Notre Musique’s” blitzkrieg of pop and doc war imagery and theoretical direct address might suddenly appeal to a wider demographic, and that connection between viewer and artist has brought forth quite an astonishing change. We can now connect ourselves to Godard’s damned souls, as they wander through the remnants of the Sarajevo Public Library and the European Literary Encounters conference in the film’s “Purgatory” section; here, the concept becomes flesh. “Notre Musique” demolishes the ivory tower in which “In Praise of Love” threatened to hermeticize itself.
If the approach here isn’t quite what we could term “accessible,” it is refreshingly dialectical, and not just in the panoply of voices and ghosts we see and hear as they mourn for the world’s mass graves and political strife. When Godard, playing himself, hears of the fate of one-time student Olga, shot down by Israeli police upon entering a movie house and threatening to blow it up in the name of “peace” (as it turns out, her bag was filled with books rather than explosives), Godard is seen tending to his garden. Once again, a life is needlessly lost, and Godard is helpless. He can only counter with art; as news of Olga’s death drifts over the soundtrack, the camera floats over the vibrant reds, yellows, and greens of his flowers, a splendid expression of the push-and-pull that informs every inch of the film — death and beauty, political action and solemn helplessness, all existing side by side.
After November 2nd proved that the majority of America seems to have willingly relinquished itself to political self-defeat, “Notre Musique’s” quandaries seem stringent and yet almost… humbled. Yes, a strange word in Godard’s case, but he charts our continued path towards self-destruction with a more tremulous touch than before. While recent world debacles have incited Michael Moore to action, they seem to have incited Godard to resignation. The final “Kingdom” of “Notre Musique,” titled “Heaven,” a sun-dappled epilogue depicting an afterlife in which rifle-wielding U.S. Marines patrol the fenced-in perimeters, shows that not only has imperialism overtaken every inch of Godard’s conscious world, it has also co-opted his dreamscape.
Why does Godard describe this X-ray of the human conscience, this burnt-out shell of a film, as optimistic? Perhaps because of its very universality: through its visual tapestry, Palestine is equated with Sarajevo is equated with Dresden is equated with Richmond, Virginia circa 1865. Imbued with an aching grasp at fraternity, “Notre Musique” relies on its audience to make that final connection with its art, as much as “Fahrenheit 9/11” implored its viewers to get out and vote. There’s only one sad way to rationalize the sheer guttural and intellectual impact of “Notre Musique,” and why it seems so much more cogent than his recent batch of films: Godard hasn’t caught up with the world, the world’s finally caught up with Godard.
[Michael Koresky is co-founder and editor of Reverse Shot, as well as the assistant editor and frequent contributor of Film Comment. He has also written for Cinemascope, Filmmaker, Rescue, and Westchester Journal News.]
by Neal Block
Perhaps the most illuminating moment in “Notre Musique” comes during a scene in which the elderly Godard delivers a lecture on “Text and the Image” to a group of disinterested students. A slow pan back and forth of faces simultaneously bored and straining for comprehension elucidates the dilemma at the heart of Godard’s newest treatise; that is, “Notre Musique’s” central message about exploring history for solutions to contemporary problems is at once important and inapproachable. The film feels cobbled together from ripped-out and reassembled pages of a Philosophy 301 textbook, a collection of thoughts about war and humanity that does not show very much concern at all for its supposed subjects. Godard mixes his lofty speeches with images of Bosnian children; the juxtaposition feels like a put-on in a film so seemingly detached from the reality of suffering, where scholars meet to discuss war and art from within classrooms and well-appointed hotels. Even Godard’s discussion in the film’s second act about this very problem of communication fails to make the film feel any less stolid and staged.
Maybe it’s telling that the only parts I found enlightening were those having to do overtly with America and its problems; I am perhaps the myopic student Godard rolls his eyes at in the second act, after being asked if “little digital cameras” will save cinema. Or maybe I’m the U.S. Marine guarding the gates of Heaven in the film’s last act, a brute with a rifle whose imperialism threatens European intellectualism. But I’m more likely just another of the slack-jawed attendees of Godard’s lecture, trying to pull something more than mere surface-level meaning from the words and images in front of me, trying to connect with the images despite the text, then the text despite the images, but ultimately finding myself, to my admitted disappointment, unable to do so.
[Neal Block is a co-founder of Reverse Shot, and a contributing editor of neumu.com. He currently works as Director of Distribution at Palm Pictures.]