Jean-Luc Godard's entire career can seem like an endless attempt to top himself. "Film Socialism," which finally receives a U.S. theatrical release this week, has much in common with the 80-year-old French director's other essay films, including the sprawling "Histoire(s) du cinéma" and "Notre Musique," but it's a thing of strange wonder that stands alone.
With a ruminative approach to memory and nationality has no specific parallel in contemporary cinema, Godard breaks the boundaries of film language by simply ignoring them. Blending multiple forms of visual presentation, from hi-def video to archival footage and enigmatic title cards, it's a more textured type of new media than most new media.
That alone, of course, doesn't make it worth checking out. Godard lays out the puzzle pieces, but they're attractive only to those interested in trying to put them together. "Film Socialism" is a weighty, intentionally cryptic product that's easy on the eyes and heavy on the mind. At the time of this writing, the movie has a 50% rating on Rotten Tomatoes (update: it has since inched up a few notches) and while that figure can never accurately sum up a movie's quality, in this case it does point to the clean nature of its divisiveness. You either go with the rhythms of this free-ranging non-narrative or reject it outright.
"Film Socialism" has a sort-of plot: After an extensive opening on a cruise ship, Godard presents the troubled Martin family, a group that includes two children putting their parents on trial "before the court of their childhood." The parents, one of whom harbors political aspirations, face questions about "Liberty, Equality and Fraternity." But then Godard cuts away again, exploring famous images of wars and great moments in film history, expanding his philosophical outlook to the impact of American governance and media across modern industries. His disdain extends to the movie's infamously incoherent "American Navajo" subtitles, which make an already dense and bewildering experience even more muddled. Its baffling qualities either enhance its appeal or deepen its frustrations, depending on your perspective.
The reaction to "Film Socialism" after its Cannes Film Festival premiere last year was not unlike that evenly split Tomatometer. Godard's failure to show up at the festival faced far greater scrutiny than the reclusive Terrence Malick at this year's edition (and the movie presents a much more fragmented family drama than "The Tree of Life," which is saying something). Needless to say, Godard's 50 years of filmmaking have not brought him respite from finicky viewers. He's a terminal provocateur whose provocations keep getting stronger, or at least harder to explain.
As a result, Godard's career is the rare case where an accomplished artist occupies an increasingly marginal role in mainstream awareness. Even today, it's the chic, slyly referential Godard films of the sixties that the American public can easily access on DVD and even faster on Hulu, while the surge of political activism and narrative experimentation that defined his work in subsequent decades remains largely hard to find. YouTube clips are actually the best de facto Godard archive currently available (and also a legitimate archive for Godard in "Film Socialism," which includes a snippet of adorable kittens taken from the site in one of the early scenes).
As a filmmaker, Godard continues to try new things. As an icon, however, his stature is always uncertain. Pop culture, when it does acknowledge him, regards his creativity as a prototypical artsy pose. Then again, Godard regards pop culture as an insult. While his brand has been institutionalized by Hollywood (the Academy gave him an honorary Oscar last year despite misguided accusations that the director is an anti-Semite), Godard has no use for Hollywood. Conventional narrative storytelling was a conceit he rejected decades ago as a bourgeois invention and "Film Socialism" clearly exists outside it. Whether it holds up depends on a willingness to go with the flow. Most people will resist it and declare that the movie exists solely for Godard apologists.
In truth, Godard's name gets the movie noticed, but it's not the sole reason it deserves recognition. I have seen it twice in full and examined individual scenes on DVD. Each encounter has been distinctly paradoxical: There's a freshness to its inertia, the feeling that Godard's ideological and formalist tendencies insist on scrutiny while continually rejecting any semblance of a solution. And for this "Breathless" fanatic, that's oddly comforting: There's something comforting and even serene about the unending challenges of appreciating Godard in all his mysterious glory.
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Released stateside by Kino Lorber this weekend, "Film Socialism" is unlikely to do much business after its opening weekend, although Godard's name should make the movie popular on DVD.
criticWIRE grade: A-