There’s a comforting feel to Jean-Luc’s Godard’s “In Praise of Love,” like an old bottle of wine one discovers by chance that still surprisingly retains its familiar bouquet. After a decade in which the unrepentant nouvelle vaguer has become progressively more marginal in his feature outings (though not in his nonfiction work), “Love” finds the now 70-year-old helmer rediscovering much of the visual rigor and intellectual elan of his most fruitful periods, the ’60s and ’80s. The film offers a frequently obscure but (for fans) always watchable look at history, memory and — in the most rarefied sense — love. Outside the festival circuit, however, pic will still remain a thinly distributed curio item, especially in North America, where Godard’s movies have enjoyed no major dissemination for over a decade.
Godard’s seemingly perverse decision to shoot the first hour (set in the present) in B&W 35mm and the final third (set two years earlier) in color DV actually pays major dividends. The monochrome section recalls the timeless, abstract look of his great movies of the ’60s (especially “Alphaville,” “Vivre sa vie” and “Masculin-Feminin”) and the video portion, with its frequently rich, vibrant hues, has a warmer palette suited to its content.
In a movie that is more concerned with the past’s value to the present, Godard’s gambit successfully plays against the accepted convention of relegating memories and history to cold monochrome.
First hour is a familiar barrage of intellectual jesting, punctuated by repeated intertitles (“Of Something,” “Of Love”), against the background of a production being planned by a director, Edgar (Bruno Putzulu), and some wealthy producers. In the course of casting sessions, which are more like metaphysical interviews, Edgar comes across a shadowy young woman (Cecile Camp) whom he realizes he met earlier and who seems perfect for his leading role. However, when Edgar is finally ready to offer her the role, he hears she has died.
With a shock effect similar to the final reel of Tarkovsky’s “Andrei Rublev,” pic switches abruptly to color with a lush, fully-saturated sunset that prepares the viewer for the emotional meat of the picture. It’s two years earlier, and Edgar is present by chance at the house of an old couple (Jean Davy, Francoise Verney) whose true-life story of love and heroism during the Nazi Occupation is being bought by a Hollywood studio, here repped by an official from the U.S. embassy in Paris. Edgar is there to meet a historian friend (Jean Lacouture) of the old couple, who have asked their granddaughter, a lawyer in training, to check the contract. She’s the woman Edgar is to meet again in the future.
Whereas the first section is thick with the usual Godardian undergrowth of literary and philosophical references, intellectual pranksterism and sloganeering (e.g. “There can be no resistance without memory or universalization.”), the final half-hour shows the feisty old codger giving free rein to his long-running love-hate affair with Hollywood and the U.S.
In one particularly witty sequence, the young woman questions the very meaning of the names “the United States” and “America,” calling into question the right of the U.S. to hijack a simple descriptive phrase and a whole continent’s name purely for itself. More apposite to the film is a separate discussion over the country (as repped by Hollywood in popular culture) to “buy up” other country’s histories and cultures and possess them for itself, to fill a void in its own makeup.
As usual, Godard simply throws out ideas for discussion rather than actually resolving them or providing solutions. Like a monkey tweaking a tiger, he knows he can always scamper to the higher branches of cultural superiority for safety. But it’s good to see him at least spending some time fighting familiar battles down on the ground — and in a lively, entertaining way.
Performances are largely at the service of the writer-director, though both Davy and especially Verney bring a genuine melancholy to their quieter scenes of memory. Putzulu, a fine actor in his own right, is OK, within the limited freedom allowed. Biggest kudos, however, go to lensers Christophe Pollock and Julien Hirsch, whose work (not separately identified) shows none of the patchwork way in which the film was put together over a lengthy period last year.