Jean-Luc Godard’s Film Socialisme is unlike Keaton’s Sherlock Jr. in most every way, but they share with one another an interest in the power of the moving image: how it works, what it’s saying, what it may be hiding. They make an interesting contrast. Keaton saw film as a way of becoming. For Godard, looking back at over a century of cinema, he sees a lot of waste and disappointment, but also possibility – if not outright hope.
I’m not going to try to rehash what the film is about, because to a large extent I don’t know. That’s not meant to be cheeky; I find much of the movie captivating, intriguing, even moving, though I’m still sorting out how all the pieces fit together or even if they’re supposed to. Jim Emerson summed it up best when he said, regarding the film’s reception at Cannes, that:
…the initial reviews from Cannes are, incredibly, the same ones he’s been getting his entire career — based in part on assumptions that Godard means to communicate something but is either too damned perverse or inept to do so. Instead, the guy keeps making making these crazy, confounded, chopped-up, mixed-up, indecipherable movies! Possibly just to torture us. Many approach the films themselves as though they are puzzles designed to frustrate (and to eventually be “solved”), then they blame Godard for not doing a better job of solving them himself because they’re too hard.
Frankly, it’s rather clear what the movie is about: it’s about European history, how the promises of the late 20th-century have largely failed to deliver, how the legacy of war is always present, how modernity has fractured relationships and made communication difficult, and how film (or video, or digital, or whatever comes next) might still offer a useful way of organizing, thinking about, and relating to the world and people around us.
See? That wasn’t so hard. What makes the film fascinating (or infuriating, depending on your take) is how Godard refuses to present any sort of “thesis” and “statement” about these things. Some things are clear: Godard is certainly appalled by the situation in Israel/Palestine, for example. But, overall, his approach is to watch, to string together sounds and images, to act more as a collector of media than as a crafter of it.
The video and digital cinematography is, apart from everything else, quite lovely. There are some really striking passages of visual poetry in this film, particularly during the first portion on the cruise ship (my favorite section). The splotchiness of the many of the interiors is actually anachronistic, feeling more like a home movie shot on analog video in the 90s than the high-def digital available today.
Godard used a variety of cameras, so I’m sure that’s intentional, but it’s a bit odd to feel nostalgic when these aesthetic qualities appear onscreen. All of my family’s own home movies have this same visual quality, since they were indeed shot on magnetic tape on a consumer camera in less-than-ideal lighting conditions some twenty years ago. And yet we’re constantly hearing that video is the “new” technology replacing film, even though this elides the quite long history of video images in our culture.
All this is to mean that Godard is not setting up some sort of binary where video stands in for the muddy, ever-so-banal present and film for the lost, glorious past. Perhaps video is a more interrogatory medium, which would explain the reporters in the middle section or the use of video in the final essay portion, but that also means it can be more intimate. The collection and interaction of passengers aboard the cruise ship feels almost Tati-esque at times, loose and lightweight but framed so lovingly, the camera a tool for letting people act out their inner humanity toward one another (or cruelty or stupidity, as the case may be).
As for the “Navajo” subtitles, the cryptic little poems which “translate” the dialogue for us, I personally loved them. It means I saw a movie much different than the one I would have if my French was better. There are surely details and important points I missed without the full dialogue, though enough is communicated visually that the complete meaning of the words was largely beside the point.
So what does the movie have to say about socialism? Or film? I don’t know. Nothing, really. It’s more meditative than argumentative. Those concepts, whatever they are and whatever they mean, still have a place in the (more multicultural) future of Europe, but I wouldn’t look to Godard to find out what that is. He’s more content with being an enigmatic poet, or, if you’re less charitable, your crazy, nonsense-spouting uncle. It’s a film well worth your time, either way.
One final point: the opening shot of the waves breaking behind the ship? What are the chances Paul Thomas Anderson lifted this for the opening of last year’s The Master, also a film featuring boats, secretive characters with a need to communicate, and an obsession with film history? I hardly feel that it’s an accident.