If Godard’s multi-part “Histoire(s) du Cinema” unfolds like a sleepwalk through cinema’s collective unconscious, his drastically shortened, 35mm reworking of that video opus feels more like a personalized guided tour. As in the parent work, cinematic and painterly images — divorced from context, strobed, slowed down, reworked and abstracted — follow one another through dense matrices of written and spoken texts. As usual, the maestro’s ways with montage and music overtake his crotchety doomsaying about the death of cinema. A welcome addition to Godard’s canon, pic will sweetly sing to the choir.
Before commencing the barrage/montage of torn-out images, Godard glides the viewer into the film on a long lyrical stretch of intermingled Baudelaire, an adolescent Julie Delpy and vintage “Night of the Hunter,” an evocative childhood landscape of equal parts beauty and terror. But soon beauty and terror cease to share the frame and exist instead in violent juxtaposition, as Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron’s romantic shoulder-to-shoulder pas de deux by the Seine is intercut with slo-mo documentary footage of the execution of a prisoner by the Nazis.
The free-form association of imagery and non-stop voiced-over expression of ideas march sometimes in tandem, sometimes in counterpoint. Many of the more outrageous of Godard’s theories are saved by poetic license and superbly seductive imagery.
How George Stevens’ use of the first 16mm color film at Auschwitz gave Elizabeth Taylor her black-and-white “A Place in the Sun,” for instance, remains nebulous, though Taylor’s assigned place in Godard’s endless parade of painted goddesses and shapely celluloid muses can readily be appreciated.
Death, generally male-dominated, unfurls in excerpts from such grim masterpieces as “Germany Year Zero,” “Que Viva Mexico” and “Open City” while salvation and transfiguration, usually in female form, pass by in fragments and stills — a stone statue of a Greek goddess alternates with a slow pan down a frozen frame of Cyd Charisse flung back in Fred Astaire’s arms.
The divergent plural histories in the eight-part video clusters of the original “Histoires” are here regrouped in a somewhat more linear fashion. The WW II triumvirate of Nazism, the Holocaust and Vichy, for instance, though still darting in and out at odd moments, now map out a more cinematic theater of operation linking Joan of Arc, the Bicycle Thief, Snow White, Nanook of the North and Frankenstein in an extended docudramatic family.
One of the strongest sections of “Histoires,” Godard’s expansive, glowingly left-handed tribute to Hitchcock as the only man capable of taking control of the universe, takes on a different coloration as the ambivalent centerpiece of “Moments.” Pic’s section on the New Wave gains incredible poignancy with Godard’s admission “our mistake was to think it was a beginning.” “Moments” joins the series of films since “JLG by JLG” whose first-person musings constitute less an intellectual stance than an interior autobiography, one that in this case ends on a grace note: “If a man passed through paradise in his dreams and received a flower as proof of passage and, upon waking, found that flower in his hands, what is there to say? I was that man.”