I don’t think anyone can credibly pinpoint the moment when it happened, but based on the evidence presented in Film Socialisme, it appears that Jean-Luc Godard has given up on humanity. I don’t mean just the unfeeling European capitalists or the American filmmakers and studio executives who impose Hollywood’s vision upon the world (Steven Spielberg being an example upon which Godard has fixated in the past) or the Israeli politicians who impose martial law on Gaza or the imperialist bastards among us Americans who buy into all of it without exposing our thinking to a reasonable critique; no, I mean humanity, everyone, the whole. Having sat through Film Socialisme with an open heart and mind, I was left with a profound sadness for Godard, and while I am sure the last thing on earth he cares about is my pity, still, I couldn’t help but feel his contempt, the creeping realization that the director has abandoned those for whom his revolution once stood, instead favoring a cloistered life where the world can be reduced into a simplistic, metaphoric Tower of Babel, and where real political concern, that is, a belief in the possibility of human action, has been replaced by a reduction of Godard’s humanism into incoherent disengagement.
Divided into three sections, Film Socialisme focuses its attention on the juxtaposition between empires and revolutions, between art and commerce, between language and understanding*. The first section takes place aboard a cruise ship, which seems to be the preferred mode of transportation for smug Europeans (as well as the American singer Patti Smith and guitarist Lenny Kaye, who I am sure jumped at the chance to work with Godard); the ship operates as a floating metaphor for a fragmented Europe, a multi-lingual petri dish full of characters whose lives are built around the unnamed, conspiratorial intrigue of collective identity. If only they could understand one another; as the ship docks in various cities (again, each serving as a representation of the European legacy of empire, colonialism and state-sponsored oppression), Godard hints at the almost viral spread of a bankrupt social order, built upon gluttony and luxury (the pigs at the trough of a cruise ship buffet, the dumb “sincere bastards” unwilling to show up for a lecture on geometry, presented to an empty theater) and fueled by what Godard implies is a secret Jewish conspiracy. Once the film leaves the ship, we’re with a family, owners of a gas station and, surprisingly, a llama, as they confront the grand themes of freedom, brotherhood and equality (the tenants of the French social contract). The mother is running for local office, which brings politics (and a TV crew) directly into family life; through a series of conversations, the children taking their parents to task for their abandonment of their shared social ideals. The film’s final sequence, and the most meaningful for me personally, is a brief cinematic essay that re-examines revolutionary mythology and classical culture, juxtaposing them with images of state violence and cruelty, from Hellas (Greece, cradle of democracy and civilization and home of the collapsing European economy) to Egypt, another ancient civilization now fueled by political upheaval, to Basque Barcelona (represented, in part, by a hard tackle-or is it a dive?– on Andrés Iniesta: even the thought of beautiful, honest soccer is exposed as being problematic which, to be fair, it most certainly is) to the Odessa uprising of Eisentstein’s Battleship Potemkin to Napoli, the crossroads of Western civilization and the city that was the most frequently bombed in World War II to Palestine/Gaza, an ancient place that remains torn apart by politics and history. Godard seems to be fascinated by the story of civilization without seeming that interested in human beings themselves.
Nowhere does the problem of the director’s approach to history express itself more profoundly than in Godard’s casual antisemitism, which points to everything from an unnamed Jewish conspiracy (embodied by the shadowy figure of Goldberg, a passenger on the cruise ship who oozes menace and sexual perversity) to the inclusion of a sequence in the final segment that articulates once again how it is that the film business was founded and run by Jews, down to a reductive reading of the situation on Israel/ Palestine that should make a reasonable person blush with outrage. Yes, Godard does include some finger wagging at the German state and the Nazi war machine that it spawned (what of Germany today?), but the director’s politics have become conspiratorial and empty, without hope or a dramatic articulation of real human struggle or political action. Godard’s descent into antisemitism is at once heartbreaking and unforgivably lazy (never mind racist); looking at Godard’s indefensible opinion of Judaism, one can hardly examine his other ideas without a strong sense of distrust and a hearty skepticism.
Not that an analysis of his antisemitism is required to find much of Film Socialisme problematic; to kick off the middle third of the film, Godard throws up a title card that reads Quo Vadis?, followed by another that adds the word Europe, and while the question is certainly meaningful, set against the specifics of Godard’s vision, it also seems hypocritical; where is Godard going? The framework of his examination is strong (a polyglot continent with a history of ripping itself apart must understand its own past,) his essay format, so powerful in Histoire(s) du cinéma remains compelling, but where is the humanism? Actors stare at the floor while muttering loaded snippets of dialogue that only make reference to other meanings, other texts, external ideas are folded into the film like a stream of consciousness (once again, Godard’s fascination with text and books is translated to the fabric of his filmmaking); it all has the feeling of someone alone with their thoughts. Ultimately, the film is, well, something private; a notebook filled with impressions, a personal monologue into a lonely tape recorder. Instead of human situations, we get the filmic equivalent of sculpture, with actors not much more than the embodiment of their words, with title cards and archival images in place of visual storytelling. The film seems to carry the weight of an historical interpretation that forgoes concern for actual people.
So how can this dense film, rich with complex ideas, possibly be seen as an act of disengagement? There are many beautiful images, quotations, and juxtapositions that speak to Godard’s personal understanding of history, but they are never made explicit enough to be powerful. Certainly, there is no doubting the man’s deep commitment to the world of ideas, but in a film about ideas, the value of the work is tied irrevocably to the ability of the ideas to interact, to tell a story, to grow in power by being placed in a dialectical relationship with one another. Ideas abound in Film Socialisme, but how powerful can they be when they are merely a string of references which, once (and if) recognized seem isolated in the film, unable to be connected to other ideas? Godard’s work here resembles that of an older jazz musician playing the early show in a small town on a weeknight; he has his bag of tricks, he trots them out again, he quotes familiar themes, patterns, refrains, but seems to have long ago given up on pushing any boundaries and asking any real questions of himself. The work feels exhausted, with Godard having spent the better part of three decades now railing against the politics (and thus, the cinema) of his age. There is no question that the man is a true giant of an artist, one of the great thinkers of our time, but I think that his best moments are reserved for those instances when he found a true intimacy and empathy with his subjects; the dancing Anna Karina in Vivre Sa Vie or the closeups of Myriem Roussel in Hail Mary. But to build upon those films or continue to forge a responsible role in politics and art would require Godard to engage with the world, to remove himself from his self-imposed isolation and dive back into life among others, to stop railing against everyone else and begin to ask questions of himself again. One gets the sense watching Film Socialisme that Godard sees himself as removed from all of it, as someone living outside and above the society he critiques, making abstract pronouncements about the state of a world he neither understands nor cares to.
Godard has earned the right to be cantankerous, to stand above the fray; his career has been one that has essentially defined cinema for generations of filmgoers. I do think that Film Socialisme has some moments of real interest, but I couldn’t help but wonder if a 25 year old unknown filmmaker from Switzerland submitted this exact film, frame for frame, to the New York Film Festival, would it ever have been screened? Not a chance. The reason it is being seen and being talked about is because of the legacy of its maker and not the ideas and images presented in the film itself. And while the right has been earned, and while there will always be interest in a film by Godard (which certainly legitimizes its inclusion in any festival), still, you can’t help but chuckle at all of the pieces being written about the film that talk about the use of color and the mastery of video as a texture but who scratch their heads in wonder as to what the fuck the movie is actually saying. Beauty without meaning is fashion; add meaning, you have art. Film Socialisme ends with another text, a title card, in English, which allows the director to have the final say by refusing to even engage in a dialogue about his own work; after an hour-and-a-half of bombast and beauty, of political ranting and complex historical analysis, up pops the last image in Godard’s film. White letters against a black background. It reads, simply, “No Comment.” Which says it all, really.
*Because the film was not subtitled with literal translations of the dialogue (it instead featured a sly, pun-filled text that carries only pieces of what is being said), I feel a little uneasy offering too strong of an interpretation of the film’s dialogue (my French is, um, not good), but still, it is the text with which I was presented and the purposeful exclusion of full English subtitles actually enhances the attention that I was able to pay the film; because of Godard’s constant use of title cards and multiple languages, the subtitles simply became an added layer of text with which to engage on Godard’s terms. So, fair enough, I have put my reservations aside and feel as though I should be able to fairly comment upon the film I was presented.