On the eve of Cannes, I sat with some colleagues around a dinner table overlooking the sea and the hulking Palais des Festivals beside it. The topic was the upcoming program and its potential for controversy. When movies screen under these grandiose conditions, they tend to meet wildly polarized reactions — but only the most audacious, challenging or subversive works rise to the top of Cannes history and stay there.
The chaotic world of the Croisette is in constant flux: Last year, the nightmarish images of Lars Von Trier's "Antichrist" stoked the fires of many impassioned critics, but Gaspar Noe's similarly weird, violent and formally ambitious "Enter the Void" swept into town and nearly stole the show a few days later. "Brown Bunny" did it in 2003, as did "Fahrenheit 9/11" while still nabbing the Palme D'or in 2004. The intangible forces through which a movie spurns critical consensus often means that it comes out of nowhere, but a few usual suspects take the lead as candidates for the proverbial role of scandale du festival each year.
As my colleagues worked through contenders for the 2010 festival, a few of them suggested that Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu could have some contentious tricks in store with his latest melodramatic excursion, "Biutiful." Others figured Doug Liman's "Fair Game" or Ken Loach's "Route Irish" would instigate lively political debate. (No such luck.) Nobody, however, guessed that Jean-Luc Godard would bypass all of them.
It seems fitting to bestow the honor on a man whose career has been staked on divisiveness for half a century. Godard's latest feature-length essay, "Film Socialisme," premiered in the Un Certain Regard sidebar to an instantly mixed reaction. The 79-year-old legend's oeuvre has different connotations for various audiences, and so does his recent experimental work, a murky collage of sights and sounds unquestionably hard to figure out because Godard insists on its difficulty.
"Film Socialisme" is a highly fragmented piece that moves between several locales and situations with no easy guide to help sort through the mess. American viewers are abruptly distanced from the movie because Godard chose to subtitle the movie in "American Navajo," a made-up lyrical abstraction of the French dialogue ("blackbox hollywood/jews invented it" pops up during an unquestionably longer discourse on the Golden Age of the studio system, for example). Godard either has contempt for non-French speakers or prefers that they encounter his filmic essay on as a fundamentally different level of comprehension. For me, it certainly deepened the mystery.
But "Film Socialisme" still makes little sense when nobody says anything at all. In the first few minutes, the director introduces a cruise ship where some undefined group of characters stare out to sea, then cuts to the scene of a woman watching a pair of cats on her portable DVD player, imitating the feline noises in an act of apparent boredom. Pixilated images of the boat's interior display raucous parties. At one point, Patti Smith walks around with a guitar. Later, Godard abandons ship and embarks on a travelogue of sorts, drifting to exotic locales ranging from Napoli to Barcelona, as abstract title cards comment on the geographical shifts ("ACCESS DENIED," he announces after a brief shot of Palestine).
All this wandering, and yet Godard still introduces some tidbits of a fictional setting. A child plays with his pet donkey at a gas station, then later sits on the steps of his home and paints a near-perfect replica of a Renoir. An elderly man stands in his shed and swats away a cameraman as he attempts to stick his lens through the window. It's easy to see this last snapshot as a personification of Godard himself, considering his notorious inhospitality to interviewers — and that he was the only filmmaker to abruptly cancel his attendance at Cannes on the day he was due to arrive.
There must be some semblance of a logic to the madness. "Film Socialisme" may fulfill the promise of its title, presenting a view of film language that's equally inaccessible to everyone. But innumerable Cannes audiences, ticked at the impenetrable nature of its design, have suggested that the movie means nothing at all except that a master auteur is in visible decline. Such a rash conclusion strikes me as highly suspect, given the sheer audacity of "Film Socialisme" as a kind of cinematic patchwork, not to mention one entirely consistent with his other recent essay films (1998’s “Histoire(s) du cinema” and 2004’s "Notre Musique"). Film semioticans will have a lovely time breaking it down.
The ripple effect that followed the premiere of "Film Socialisme" last week didn't parallel the utter pandemonium that met "Antichrist" or other scandale du festival's of Cannes yore, but the mixture of reactions to the Godard film — ranging from bafflement and disregard to unadulterated curiosity — was unmatched by anything else at the festival.
The movie’s multilayered complexity caused grousing from many prominent American film critics, one of whom was heard repeatedly muttering "Really?" while storming out of the theater in confusion. Later, an indie distributor told me that the prospects of an American release for "Film Socialisme" were virtually non-existent. If that's the case, Godard has most of the recent scandals beat because he truly managed to buck the system.
In any case, "Film Socialisme" deserves to be seen by those with even mild curiosity about its contents. I go back and forth on its merits, but there's no denying that it has them. My mind wandered a lot during both times I watched it over the past week, maybe because Godard's lack of focus is indeed his main focus. Any attempt on my part to unravel his vast philosophical motives would likely fall flat, but I’ll give Godard credit for attempting to force virtually every category of moving image experience, from the format of early travelogues to YouTube virals, into a single 100-minute spectacle.
The endless stream of signifiers opens up to many meanings in precisely the ways they strike some viewers as devoid of them. I was intrigued by an excerpt from Sergei Eisenstein's famous Odessa steps sequence in "Battleship Potempkin," particularly since the subtitle during this sequence reads, "russian language staircase." Somewhere deep within in his standoffish approach, Godard could very well be offering a sly (albeit roundabout) mini-lesson in film history.
In the wake of its initial press screening, "Film Socialisme" appeared to alienate American and French press alike, as did the director's absence, which meant nobody would get a justification from the horse's mouth. But, its inexplicability remains potent. It reveals an illustrious artist nearing the end of his career, possibly aiming for a grandly enigmatic finale not unlike the abrupt cut to black at the end of "The Sopranos" that had fans essentially pleading for a rationale.
Most critics who covered Cannes noted the appropriateness of the "No Comment" credit at the end "Film Socialism" in place of "The End," but they didn't point out the preceding FBI warning discouraging piracy. Maybe that’s just a random insert, but consider the more provocative option: Perhaps Godard has concluded that his ideas will continue to fester in obscurity, woefully censored by a mob mentality of unwillingness to grapple with his message.