Film Socialisme, the latest work from inimitable master Jean-Luc Godard, did not get its U.S. release until June, 2011, more than a year after it launched in Europe at the Cannes Film Festival. Already by then (May, 2010) the streets of Athens, amid a national and global debt crisis, were responding to austerity cuts dictated by state and financial centers of power with the largest public protests that country has seen in decades. Before the year was out, Tunisia rose en masse against authoritarianism and an equally hopeless future as prescribed from above, and touched off the Arab Spring.
Film Socialisme seemed to explicate and anticipate just such historic developments—even as it elaborated politico-aesthetic concerns Godard has been exploring for decades with uncompromising originality. In a canny, insouciant work that sets a good deal of the action aboard a Mediterranean cruise liner—a ready metaphor for European civilization’s floundering course through centuries of laden history—Godard had launched a poetic rumination on our world that, for all its longue durée outlook, felt immediate and urgent. Indeed, as the film made slow passage across the Atlantic, masses of ordinary people across the United States were themselves on the verge of coalescing into a major tributary of worldwide dissent and popular action. With the January 2012 release of the DVD and Blu-ray editions (from Kino Lorber, and streaming here on Fandor) our second viewing of Godard’s film is all the more stimulating and brilliant for coming in the afterglow of the Occupy Wall Street protests.
Godard is operating at the height of his powers here. There is still no filmmaker who takes the role of cinema more seriously; few who raise it as high aesthetically or demand more of it as the ultimate in social media.
The impenetrable surface of the water in the opening shot should not, therefore, discourage. What follows, while dense and idiosyncratic, is hardly opaque. Rather, this at times playful, at times somber meditation on where history has brought us is brimming with ideas and aesthetic pleasures. The two are always joined, of course. Film Socialisme, which perhaps bears closest resemblance to the preoccupations and strategies of Godard’s Notre musique (2004) and his Histoire(s) de cinema (1998), is (as its title suggests) as much an intervention in, as reflection on, the deeply embedded place of cinema in modern history.
Like much of Godard’s work, the film functions in part as an invigorating master class in how to watch a film and, by extension, to read the world at large. English-speaking audiences, moreover, get a deliberately partial subtitling of the film’s polyglot dialogue, a form Godard called “Navajo English.” Not only select words, but unique groupings of words too, Godard’s “Navajo” is more than succinct; it’s slyly interpretive and quasi-poetical, conveying more with less, and aiming its meaning back at the “native” speaker. (Kino’s DVD and Blu-ray editions also offer subtitles in “full English.”)
The first of the film’s three sections, set aboard the aforementioned Mediterranean cruise liner, spins a loose espionage narrative about a certain shady war profiteer named Goldberg, accompanied by a young woman and trailed by an investigator, as well as a Russian secret agent. This narrative points back to World War II, some stolen gold, and even further back to an obscure Egyptian pharaoh—such details emerge from a wealth of references and signs scattered throughout the mise-en-scène, as well as from some more or less straightforward dialogue.
Moving at something like right angles to the stream of imagery and sound, the Goldberg narrative and its references to a certain priceless watch, a string of antique gold coins, and an Egyptian connection may be a red herring—a copy of Naguib Mahfouz’s deliberately ambiguous novel Akhenaten, Dweller in Truth, just visible in the corner of one shot, could be there to remind us that the interpretation is partly up to us. The Goldberg plot, albeit suggestive of certain underlying realities, is merely one of a set of fractured narratives on display as the ship makes its tour of history: Greece (“Hell As” in the punning inter-title), Odessa, Palestine (“Access Denied”), Spain, Egypt—places all politically aflame at this very moment.
If aboard that cruise liner we recognize the postmodern age in all its indolent yet manic aimlessness, Godard also shows us cinema’s unstable place in it all, as the integral technology and art form in the continually contested construction of reality.
The real motive forces of history remain submerged in the general detritus of a culture adrift, captured by tides it only dimly perceives for all the cameras it has trained on everything—and there are cameras in almost everybody’s hands. These people float on a sea of images. Passengers are more likely to be transfixed by a projection of people like themselves, exercising in a swimming pool, than they are by the great sea outside. Cameras, video recorders, computer laptops, cell phones—the devices and their screens proliferate across the desultory action, which seems both listless and frantic under the polyglot leisure-time regime. (What might it mean that a banal shot of the cruise liner’s nightclub dance floor, as recorded on a cell phone, sounds like nothing so much as an ongoing atomic explosion with a backbeat?) Meanwhile, in a relatively straightforward irony, troubadour-poet Patti Smith wanders the deck with her guitar, barely noticed, and leftist philosopher Alain Badiou lectures to an empty hall or writes at the computer in his solitary cabin.
In a second section, the film moves to the French countryside: a family-owned gas station along a noisy highway. There the Martin family, a couple and their two children, debate politics, elections, and the French Revolution, while a television news crew made up of a white female reporter and her French African camerawoman pesters them like flies (and are swatted away more than once). Saddled with debt, their way of life embattled by forces beyond their control (linked neatly to the family coffers by a worldwide network of oil and oil wars), the father and mother are running for public office. Their precocious and outspoken children, meanwhile, debate them at home. They’re in rebellion against this world. They hold their parents and their generation responsible, rightly, for an inheritance of debt and decay. The parents defend the political establishment, justifying it in terms of service to the people, of reason and maturity. The argument does not fly with the children.
The boy, Lucien, asks why he and his sister can’t run for office instead. His father—perpetually chagrined at what he sees as a lack of filial love—responds bluntly. “He’s dreaming, kids can’t run for election.” To which his older sister, Florine, responds with a serene logic that anticipates the plainspoken eloquence of Occupy voices.
“Yes, but kids are part of the people. And the people’s will exists. Besides, we’ll end up paying 30 percent of France’s debt because you’re getting old. The exact profit the insurance companies make off the debt.” The TV camerawoman then asks if she can film Florine’s pretty dress. “Yes, why not,” says Florine, giving into the infantilized and infantilizing whims of the media machine with something like parental indulgence.
Over a close-up of Florine’s radiantly youthful face, captured pensively in the sunlight from the window, we hear her mother’s voice ask her, “You want more power?” Florine’s voice counters, “No power. A society, not a state.” Her mother doesn’t understand. Florine elaborates: “The state dreams of being alone. Individuals dream of pairing up.”
In another moment, Florine’s mother challenges her to state whether she has a plan to go with this political rebellion of hers. (Again, the exchange recalls nothing so much as the challenge leveled at Occupy protesters by the media and political establishment to reduce their rebellion to a single issue or demand.) Florine responds with a resolve that digs deeper than a position or a political plank. She’s says her plan is “to be 20. To be right. To keep hoping. To be right when your government’s wrong. To learn to see before learning to read.”
Musing thus on liberté, egalité, and fraternité, as well as the nature of the state, the Martin family’s radical-provincial lineage comes to the fore—flagged for tradition’s sake by a donkey and a llama (the latter a South American animal perhaps suggestive of a larger federation of people’s movements). Both animals are now merely pets tied uselessly to the gas pumps or the house (though in a standard Godard palette choice, the donkey’s red and blue harness and the llama’s white coat together evoke the French tricolor).
The somewhat flat tone and unhurried pacing of this segment stands in contrast to the urgency of the subject matter under discussion, as well as the false urgency of the parasitic news crew (who nonetheless become somewhat friendly with the family, and are themselves not above a serious political discussion) chasing their deadline. In fact, the languid domestic action holds many tantalizing scenes and moments, as the film—with self-conscious reference to cinematic portraiture and a larger and degraded aesthetic tradition—puts empire, oil wars, colonialism, electoral politics, and generational angst among the other offerings at the family table.
From there, we head back to the ship, and a final tour of the seemingly contracting Mediterranean pond, where the great conflicts of the 20th century, the socialist rising against the Tsarist regime in Russia or the fratricidal bloodshed on the left in 1937 Barcelona, seem to all point back to Greece. “Democracy and tragedy were married in Athens under Pericles and Sophocles,” intones the narrative. “A single child: civil war.”
Godard is operating at the height of his powers here. There is still no filmmaker who takes the role of cinema more seriously; few who raise it as high aesthetically or demand more of it as the ultimate in social media. If aboard that cruise liner we recognize the postmodern age in all its indolent yet manic aimlessness, Godard also shows us cinema’s unstable place in it all, as the integral technology and art form in the continually contested construction of reality. Among so much else, Film Socialisme reminds us that whoever sets the course for our collective future reckons with cinema in its broadest sense.
Robert Avila is a film and theater critic living in San Francisco.