"In Praise of Love" (Jean-Luc Godard, 2001; France)

"In Praise of Love."
"In Praise of Love."

Jean-Luc Godard’s "In Praise of Love" is tactile yet elusive—its tragic grandeur is as graspable as running water and as shifty as smoke. Like the earliest motion pictures, Godard’s new feature appears like a fact of nature. There’s a narrative—and an argument—but what’s initially moving, and ultimately as well, is the movie’s mournful celebration of its sensuous being.

The images are punctuated by bits of black leader and gnomic interti- tles, the action propelled by sweetly pulverized music and an effortlessly layered soundtrack of enigmatic conversations. Poetry is really the only word for it: "When I think about something, I’m really thinking about something else," Godard’s protagonist Edgar (Bruno Putzulu) says twice in a film that is forever talking about itself (or its audience).

Not quite a filmmaker, Edgar is auditioning actors for a project that will, he explains, trace the four phases of love (meeting, passion, loss, and recovery) as played by three couples of various ages. This “trinity of stories” may also have something to do with the romance of the French resistance during World War II. There’s a shadowy young woman (Cécile Camp), typically seen with her back to the camera but recognizable by her voice and long hair, to whom Edgar is attracted and whom he seems interested in casting, but when he gets around to asking "her" (as she is known in the credits), he discovers that she is dead. Indeed, the movie’s French title translates as "Elegy for Love."

There are many things that "In Praise of Love" laments and a few in which it rejoices. The motion picture medium is associated with history and historical memory. Edgar’s associates are concerned that their movie on the French resistance will become a Hollywood substitute for history. The movie itself is in part a sustained immersion in street photography and casual portraiture. It’s been over three decades since Godard last shot a movie on the streets of Paris, and doing so seems to provide him with an elemental pleasure. (According to Godard’s biographer Richard Brody, the filmmaker selected locations for their personal significance but did not personally supervise the shooting; the crew was sent to film without him.) Studied as they are, these unprepossessing, sometimes harsh images of the city and its inhabitants—many of them dispossessed —feel as newly minted as the earliest Lumière brothers’ views; they evoke the thrill of light becoming emulsion. Much of the movie is a voluptuous urban nocturne with particular emphasis on the transitory sensations that were the essence of the first motion pictures.

More specifically, the coordinates of Godard’s free-ranging cinephilia are mapped by his allusions to such modest and personal statements as teenage Samira Makhmalbaf’s docudrama "The Apple," a movie about twin girls who spent their first eleven years confined to their house, and recently deceased Robert Bresson’s "Pickpocket," which people trip over a beggar to line up for and which was shot on location in Paris the same summer that Godard made Breathless. At the same time, the industrial simulations of "The Matrix" and particularly "Schindler’s List"—which, in its totalizing re-creation of World War II and the Holocaust—serve as Godard’s prime negative object. America, it’s several times maintained, has no history of its own and hence must appropriate history from others. Europe—visualized as Paris’s timeless "there," but really a stand-in for Godard’s own cinema—is nearly helpless before this voracious totalitarian appetite. "The Americans are everywhere, aren’t they, sir?" a Vietnamese chambermaid asks Edgar, adding, "Who remembers Vietnam’s resistance?" Resistance, for Godard, is a factor of memory.

Edgar’s project remains unmade; Godard’s is a-chronological (and indeed, having been planned for over four years, required the longest shoot of Godard’s career). The first two-thirds is filmed in an achingly rich black-and-white; then Godard rescues Edgar from his sorrowful stupidity by going back in time for a lengthy coda shot, in luridly over- saturated video, on the Brittany coast. (Reversing the logic of Schindler’s List, Godard represents the past in color and the present in shades of gray.) Edgar, in the midst of composing a cantata for Resistance heroine Simone Weil, pays a visit to a celebrated old Resistance couple who are themselves negotiating to sell their story to the Hollywood company Spielberg Associates. There, by chance, he meets their granddaughter. It is “Her,” encountered for the first time. Or is it again?

I can’t recall another flashback in a Godard feature—his movies have all been resolutely present-tense, and with good reason. The first filmmaker to recognize that cinema’s classic period was over, Godard took film history as a text. But the liberating energy with which his early movies mixed genres and collaged the old has long since been co-opted. The Spielberg Associates scenario has something to do with engaging William Styron to rewrite the Resistance romance as a Tristan and Isolde vehicle for Juliette Binoche. Godard bases his own resistance on another sort of memory. One way to look at In Praise of Love would be as a frag- mentary remake of Jean Cocteau’s "Orphée"—a movie about the attempt to retrieve a lost love that haunts Alphaville and is itself haunted by France’s German occupation. Another way is as a loop or even a film installa- tion—a paradox in that the movie demands to be projected as film.

A movie with a circular structure, "In Praise of Love" is designed so that a memory of the future guides us through the past. Toward the end, events start to decompose into flaming pools of color—an electric blue haze, a golden smear of sun, a blur of traffic—and then pure jumbled light. Since he embarked on his late, painterly period some twenty years ago, Godard has made physically beautiful movies—"Passion" and "Nouvelle Vague" in particular presented themselves as substantial celluloid rivals to the canvases of the old masters. "In Praise of Love" is something else. The old masters here are the impressionists. The image feels as fragile and fleeting as a reverie. This is a movie that disappears before your eyes— leaving only an elegy for itself.

All excerpts used with permission of the publisher. Taken from "FILM AFTER FILM: Or, What Became of 21st Century Cinema?", published by Verso Books. Copyright 2012.