Godard: Film Socialisme

For a time, the '60s iconoclast who made Breathless signed his name "Jean-Luc Cinema Godard." These days, a more fitting signature would be "Jean-Luc Glitch Godard." Film Socialisme, his latest intellectual assault, includes grating noise, scruffy camera-phone video and subtitles in fractured "Navajo English."

Yet Film Socialisme is often visually lovely — it wasn't all shot with a camera phone — and it's uncharacteristically cohesive. Structured primarily as a cruise through the Mediterranean and adjacent seas, the film has more forward momentum than any Godard feature of the last two decades.

That momentum propels it into the past; Godard was once a bleeding-edge guy, but his work always owed as much to 19th-century music and painting as to movies. And the director, now 80, has been meditating on history for years. In part, these musings are motivated by his sense that cinema itself is archaic.

This new film is billed as "a symphony in three movements," and it does take a musical approach. Never much of a storyteller, Godard now composes with sound and image, developing motifs and delighting in counterpoint that sometimes seems grave, sometimes flippant. The first and third movements dovetail, but the second part is in a different key entirely.

In the opening and longest section, a group of emblematic characters wander a gaudy cruise ship, sometimes photographing and sometimes chattering. The conversation is wide-ranging but cryptic — especially for those relying on the English subtitles, which reduce wordy multi-lingual exchanges about imperialism and genocide into such slogans as "AIDS tool for killing blacks."

As has long been typical of Godard, much of the dialogue consists of direct quotations from texts. (This use of communal wisdom is one reason the director considers the film socialistic.) Poking fun at cruise-line educational offerings, the movie briefly depicts a lecture on geometry, delivered to an empty ballroom by French philosopher Alain Badiou. And when a teenage girl watches YouTube clips of meowing kitties, the moment is linked to the ancient status of cats in Egypt, one of the journey's six stops.

A passenger — punk doyenne and token "good American" Patti Smith — breaks into song. Others dance in the ship's disco to techno, heavily distorted by low-fi microphones. (The clamor suggests the harsh, jittery dance music called "glitch.")

The middle section goes ashore to a provincial gas station, where it considers politics, TV journalism and children's skepticism about their parents. This is the most confounding part of the movie for those of us who are not fluent in French, and yet its essential conflicts are understandable. And the elegant compositions, pop-art primary colors and absurdist touches — the family has a pet llama — keep things interesting even when the words go by too fast.

The concluding chapter returns to the voyage, but with the quick-cut, free-associating montages Godard introduced in Histoire(s) du Cinema. A landing in Odessa incorporates bits of Sergei Eisenstein's Potemkin amid scattershot reflections on war, imperialism and liberation. (Hitler's conquest of France is remembered as "a great day for Indochina.")

Film Socialisme won't win back any former Godard fans who've been exasperated by his latter-day style. The filmmaker continues to preach and provoke — and to flirt with anti-Semitism in his twinned opposition to "Jewish" Hollywood and Israel's treatment of the Palestinians.

Yet the movie makes extraordinary use of music — Beethoven, Part, Schnittke, Chet Baker — and ideas, and its shots of the ship's glistening decks are stunning. Cranky old Godard can be tiresome, but his reactionary radicalism is still illuminated by flashes of brilliance.

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