Video Essay: Jean-Luc Godard’s FILM SOCIALISME, with Navajo Chinese Subtitles

Film Socialisme, the latest feature by Jean-Luc Godard, makes its U.S. video debut today on Kino Lorber DVD/Blu-ray and here on Fandor. I produced the following video essay to celebrate the release of one of my favorite theatrical releases of 2011.

One immediately striking quality of Film Socialisme is its visual splendor, a bracingly chaotic mix of images that suggests a primordial soup of cinema. Godard brings us back to the building blocks of film art: Images and sounds are liberated from convention and free to redefine themselves in the mind of the viewer. That freedom is something I wanted to preserve in producing this video homage; to overtly “explain” this film would betray it. Instead, in this short piece I re-enact the experience of pleasurable disorientation I got watching Film Socialisme and uncover a sense of playfulness in it as well.

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Key to both the film and this video is the issue of language—the aesthetic, cultural and political conflicts that we take for granted in our everyday interactions, including watching movies. I took excerpts from five of the best writings on Film Socialisme as the basis for the narration, and then translated those excerpts into Chinese, with only snatches of words from each essay left in the subtitles. This is obviously meant to mimic Godard’s notorious use of “Navajo English” subtitles for the film’s premiere at Cannes and its theatrical run (from what I understand, the DVD and Blu-ray have both the Navajo and a fully translated English set of subtitles).

Senses of Cinema offers an essay illuminating the “Navajo English” subtitles, but here I’ll remark that the broken subtitles are one of the most brilliant facets of Film Socialisme. Not only do they reinvent the subtitle as an abstract, haiku-like poetic commentary, they also call up how Godard first watched Hollywood movies at the storied Cinematheque Francaise in post-war Paris. Without the benefit of French subtitles, Godard trained his focus away from dialogue and script-based storytelling; as a result he developed a rare appreciation for the pure audio-visual properties of film art, which he later applied to revolutionize cinema.

But why Chinese, do you ask? Aside from it being my ancestral tongue (albeit one I can barely manage to speak proficiently, though recording the voiceover certainly offered a healthy if painful opportunity to practice), Chinese has the most native speakers in the world by population. And as media outlets repeatedly remind us, China is poised to dominate the world economy in the 21st century; by extension, its impact on world culture will be no less significant. The movies will be a critical flashpoint in this shift in global culture; a new Zhang Yimou-directed Chinese blockbuster starring Christian Bale is but a sign of things to come. So I made this video partly with the intention of turning the world’s billion-plus Chinese-speaking population into Jean-Luc Godard fans, in the hope that this may continue his indelible influence on the future of world cinema. As mind-crushing blockbuster filmmaking is becoming the lingua franca of global popular cinema, Godard’s iconoclastic spirit is needed more than ever.

Below is transcript of the video in both Chinese and the original English versions of the excerpted texts used in the video, with links to the source articles. Many thanks to Andrea Picard, Robert Koehler, Amy Taubin, Ed Howard and David Phelps for their invaluable insights into this challenging film. And very special thanks to Yuqian Yan for her translation, narration and unending support.

Also be sure to watch Michael Baute’s Godardloop, which is as dazzling an introduction to the films and artistry of Jean-Luc Godard as one could hope for.



The first section of Film Socialisme, or “movement” (as this film, also, is about notre musique, our harmonies and disharmonies), takes place on a cruise ship touring the Mediterranean; the second follows the French family Martin who run a garage and are hounded by a camera crew after one of its members announces a candidacy for the local elections; and the third is a coda collage which ranks as some of the most inspired passages in Godard’s late period, perhaps of his entire career.

– Andrea Picard, Cinema Scope


Godard arranged for a group armed with cameras to shoot around the ship, and with various media, ranging from cell phone cameras to high-end HD. The variation in image quality is his most extensive exploration to date of the nature of the video image.

– Robert Koehler,

杂乱跳动的像素和低技术图像过度饱和的,混杂的色彩导致了忙乱、炫目的近似抽象。当他们与高技术图像相撞击 - 高度现实的,扁平的野兽派黄蓝色块,像在几何课中被等分或三等分,或是在拍摄海面的俯视镜头中,整个荧幕被蓝色和白色的潮水和波浪所充斥,这样所产生的视觉戏剧性是不同凡响的。这部电影对于视觉美感的慷慨程度等同于其对语言意义的克扣程度。如果你说一口流利的法语,你或许会以为自己占据优势。其实并非如此,因为这是一部关于语言和意义挫败的电影。

The chaotically pulsing pixels and overly saturated, smeared colors of the low-tech images result in busy, garish near-abstractions, and when they collide with the high-tech images—hyperreal, flattened fields of fauve blues and yellows, bisected and trisected like lessons in geometry or, in the case of the overhead shots of the sea, filling the entire screen with eddies and waves of blues and whites—the visual drama is extraordinary. Generous as the movie is with visual beauty, it is equally withholding of linguistic meaning. If you are fluent in French, you may think you have an advantage, but you don’t because this is a film about the failure of language and meaning.

– Amy Taubin, Film Comment


Photographs are important in this film, as Godard examines the relationship between reality and the document of reality. The implication is that a photo is not just a document, not just a representation of what is seen. There is a story behind each photo. Just as a photo of a cruise ship passenger tells a story about luxury and privilege, a photo of a Middle Eastern location, from the vantage point of arriving imperialists, tells a story about a history of conquest and exploitation. That’s why so many shots in this film show people using cameras, taking photos, documenting their surroundings and documenting, in the process and perhaps unconsciously, their relationship to those surroundings.

– Ed Howard, Only the Cinema


Film Socialisme is built out of the scraps of real life and real texts, whatever that means, edited to parallel the circulation of money and a flattened world, but in its Dadaist and socialist layering of a diegesis that spans the earth and puts it into a dialogue with itself against the official interests of gold, it’s not just a modern elegy but some form of utopia floorplan, 2010.

– David Phelps, Bomblog

Kevin B. Lee is a film critic and video essayist who contributes to Roger and IndieWire’s PressPlay Video Blog. Follow him on Twitter.

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