NYFF Review: In Praise of Godard
by Stan Schwartz
(indieWIRE/10.15.01) -- Closing night of the 39th New York Film Festival was Jean-Luc Godard's latest effort, "In Praise of Love," and if the choice comprised a deliberate scheme on the part of festival planners to get film-goers arguing, then they couldn't have picked a better way to go about it. Over the years, it's become increasingly difficult to be neutral about the work of France's all-important and often maddening iconoclast, and "In Praise of Love" will simply add fuel to the fire.
Depending on whom you talk to, Godard's work has been called difficult, pretentious, and incomprehensible. Dense, at the very least. As far as late Godard is concerned, i.e., the late1970s onward, I still consider "Sauve qui peut/La Vie" (1979) to be the best example of a perfect balance between commercial accessibility and Godard's more discursive formal concerns. Still, advance word had it that "Praise" was one of Godard's more accessible efforts in years, and many of us were hopeful. And I am happy to report that yes, it is relatively accessible. But here's the rub: that does not automatically make it interesting. Alas, much of the film -- though certainly not all of it -- seems to be covering old territory in a way that seems hastily thought-out. What's incontestable is the film's visual beauty, and that's one of the more contradictory aspects of late Godard: he may have lost some intellectual rigor, but his understanding of film craft is as consummate as ever.
Not surprisingly, it's nearly impossible to state simply what "Praise" is about. In its typically self-reflexive way, the film is mostly about asking itself what it's about, and believe me, a little of that goes a long way. There is a young man named Edgar who is embarking on some sort of project -- he doesn't know yet whether it will be a film, a play, an opera, whatever. He does know that it will be about love, which he proceeds to subdivide into four phases -- meeting, physical passion, breaking-up, and reconciliation. Then, there's the search for a lead actress. The young women who Edgar finds and with whom he becomes increasingly fascinated is another typically Godardian creature -- beautiful and enigmatic.
That's pretty much the set up for "Praises"'s first section, which is shot in gorgeous, hi-contrast black and white, and mostly at night. For the first time in awhile, Godard has returned to Paris for his film, and the mysterious, poetic and menacing quality he captures in his nocturnal Parisian visions are truly ravishing. But then there's that pesky problem of Edgar and his so-called project. It ultimately reveals itself to be no more than a lame overlay which enables the director, through a series brief, black out scenes (made literal by Godard's use of black leader punctuating the film's rhythmic flow) to muse endlessly about his favorite subjects. The nature of narrative, the process of naming, the difficulties of achieving love in all its manifold expressions, and of course, the inter-relation of culture and politics: No matter how gorgeous it looks, and no matter how musical the editing strategies are (and they are), we've none-the-less heard it all before.
What is somewhat new, and to that extent, it comprises the film's true interest, is Godard's attention to the matter of age and aging (he is getting up there these days, after all.). The film makes a point of contrasting youth and the elderly, a contrast, which comes into particular focus during the film's second section, when the film abruptly changes into bright, color video. In this section, we go back in time a few years only to learn that Edgar had already met the young woman by chance in connection with her grandparents. Seems the elderly couple was Resistance fighters in World War II, and they're now selling their story to Hollywood.
This narrative shard allows Godard to take a few standard jabs at the commercial Hollywood system, said stabs being as cliched as they are tiresome. On the positive side, however, the grandparents' past being linked to a would-be film furnishes Godard with a potentially interesting thematic spine for his film. This spine has to do with the double meaning of the French word "histoire" which in English means both "story" and "history." As you can imagine, the French word pops up constantly in "Praise," and one easily understands how Godard would take great intellectual and aesthetic relish in its double meaning. Unfortunately, and this is really no one's fault, that relish is all but lost for non-French speaking viewers.
A final note on matters of translation. The "eloge" of the film's French title "Eloge de l'amour" can be more accurately translated as "eulogy," not "praise." It's a subtle, but important distinction because eulogy carries with it notions of mourning and melancholy. And the fact is, there is a genuine mournful quality to Godard's film which is quite touching. And it comes through not nearly as much in Godard's text, but rather, through his images and rhythms of images. So even if Godard has become infuriatingly stuck on outdated intellectual conceits, he nonetheless remains a master painter with light. Which is good and bad. Slightly sad, poignant. Frustrating. Kind of like his film.