Is there anybody out there? Godard's latest proves an indulgent bore (Film Socialisme, 2010)
Over the course of his illustrious 50-year career nouvelle vague instigator Jean-Luc Godard has been tagged with one word over and over again: pretentious. That word gets thrown around a lot, and I often think to myself that it's lost all true meaning. So let's get the facts straight. Pretentious: attempting to impress by affecting greater importance, talent, culture, etc. than is actually possessed. Kim Newman once said, referring to Don Levy's seminal 1967 obscurity Herostratus, that being pretentious is sometimes "absolutely essential. Somebody has to go too far to set the limits." I'd have to agree with him and, in some cases, go further. A film like Antichrist (von Trier, 2009), for example, is wantonly pretentious, and yet from that pretension it gives birth to ideas about grief and the nature of evil. That film provokes thought, antagonizes and sparks debate. More to the point it polarizes, and that means it's doing something. So Film Socialisme is not a bad film because it's pretentious. It's a bad film because it's pretentious and yet says nothing, provokes no thought and dulls the mind. It is a self-serving vacuum.
I'd attempt to explain the plot, but the film doesn't have one. This isn't a problem in and of itself either, as I'm not of the school of thought which dictates that narrative is the single most important aspect of a film. The aforemntioned Herostratus is a fine example, but an even better one is Herzog's Fata Morgana (1971), which is a shifting dreamscape of a movie, guided by narration, yes, but designed as an enveloping experience for the viewer; a gorgeous canvas onto which you can react and create individual meaning. That film is a sensory experience and for those who invest in it an incredibly emotional one. It doesn't have a plot because narrative isn't its purpose. Neither is it the purpose of Film Socialisme, so to scold it for not having a plot would be silly, but it does lack any kind of thesis or principle. L'age d'Or (Buñuel, 1930), as another example, is made up of a series of surreal images and has very little in the way of formal structure, but behind every frame is an idea - a metaphor; a symbol; a message or analogy. The artist is making a statement whether you understand it or not. But the images in Film Socialisme are illogical; unthreaded and meaningless.
Perhaps Godard's film is not to be taken as a whole, but even on a scene-by-scene basis it fails to engage. A photographer deconstructs and reassembles his camera with the frame rate slowed down and the editing accelerated. Is this to suggest the passage of time, or are we being asked to ponder the action? I ask: why should we care? Later in the film we watch a video of two cats sat on a white blanket. The following shot reveals a woman lying on her bed, watching the same video of the cats. Is Godard trying to make a statement here, about fakery, technology or the nature of movie-making? No to all, and this is confirmed when the woman begins imitating the cats, rolling around her bed and meowing. Film Socialisme continues along this path for 100 minutes, but never enlightens. Not once did it leave me with a question that I felt the need to answer. The film has been shot digitally by DP's Fabrice Aragno and Paul Grivas, and occasionally the visuals impress - look at the striking use of blue in the above image, for example, where the deck of the ship reflects the sky above. This reminded me of the flawless compositions in Lé mepris (1963) where colour, architecture and framing are used to give a singular location a mirror-like effect. But this also reminded me how much I love Lé mepris, and how I miss the old Godard.
I wish I could have liked Film Socialisme, but this is not the work of artist setting the limits. This is the most rigid and tired of films, assembled by an artist whose vitality has been lost with his relevance; he's bored, and so are we.