Grandpere terrible Jean-Luc Godard continues to flip the bird at cinematic convention in “Film Socialisme,” one of the 79-year-old auteur’s more challenging works, and one that carries his experiments in sound, image, narrative and montage all the way to the subtitles themselves. Combining archive and live-action footage (shot mostly on a Mediterranean cruise in colorful HD or with a cruddy camera phone), the film delves into WWII’s horrors, the Israel-Palestine conflict, geometry’s origins and the sustainability of modern Europe, among other socio-political themes. Only ardent followers will gravitate to this enigmatic work, released on VOD immediately following its Cannes screening.
The inclusion of the ever-provocative director’s latest opus in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard section was mired by at least two controversies, compounded by the fact that Godard didn’t show up to present his own movie. First was French distrib Wild Bunch’s decision to offer the film for download just prior to its official premiere (later postponed till just after). Second was Godard’s decision a few months back to offer an accelerated 4-minute version on YouTube that, for some viewers, may seem as comprehensible as watching the film in real time. (In classic fashion, he answered such charges in a recent interview with the aphorism, “There’s no such thing as intellectual property, there’s only intellectual responsibility.”)
To add fuel to the fire, the English subtitles of “Film Socialisme” do not perform their normal duties: Rather than translating the dialogue, they’re works of art in themselves, truncating or abstracting what’s spoken onscreen into the helmer’s infamous word assemblies (for example, “Do you want my opinion?” becomes “Aids Tools,” while a discussion about history and race is transformed into “German Jew Black”).
Less a semi-succinct narrative than such recent works as “In Praise of Love” and “Notre Musique,” pic spends a good hour aboard a Mediterranean cruise ship as it visits ports in Egypt, Hellas, Odessa, Naples and Barcelona, allowing Godard and his passengers (including post-Communist thinker Alain Badiou, rocker Patti Smith and a teenage girl who looks like she could be Anna Karina’s daughter) to ruminate on Europe’s troubled past and questionable future.
These sequences, captured in crystalline HD or docu-style via highly pixelated cell-phone footage, juxtapose the gaudy casinos, buffets and night clubs of the ship with conversations and commentary about world history, focusing often on the massacres (the Holocaust, the Inquisition) committed by the ancestors of passengers who seem to be obliviously enjoying their bargain vacations.
The Godardian sarcasm carries on to the pic’s second section, set in a rural gas station whose owners seem to be in the midst a family crisis, the children calling for an election to determine who runs what. Also involved are two journalists, as well as a donkey and a llama, in scenes that distinguish themselves from others in their use of extended takes, lengthy recitations of text and a few light bits of slapstick.
Things head toward pure montage in the closing reels, including a tourist’s visit to the Odessa Steps that’s cross-cut with the famous scene in Eisenstein’s “Battleship Potemkin.” Like the rest of the film, the sound work here is incredibly rich and complex, switching between raw location recordings, complete silence and stirring orchestral compositions that give the movie a sudden and tragic swell.
Although pic was rumored to be a joint project with three other filmmakers (credited as cinematographers), it’s now apparently a work by Godard alone. Such confusion was not resolved by the end credits, which throw up a title card that simply says, “No Comment.”