In the late '60s, when Jean-Luc Godard was at the acme of his influence, Manny Farber concluded an enthusiastic if grudging appreciation with a litany of Godard's faults ("I think that I shall never see scenes with more sleep-provoking powers, or hear so many big words that tell me nothing") and the confession that "no other filmmaker has so consistently made me feel like a stupid ass." Ditto that, I thought while grappling with Film Socialisme, the gnarliest of the master's recent works.
Godard's title evokes and yokes two anachronistic pillars of modernity, photographic motion pictures, and the notion of a political order founded on mutual cooperation. The term socialisme was first used in France in the 1830s, the same decade that saw the development of photography; Godard has also suggested that his movie's guiding principle — "associative montage" — is an intrinsically socialist practice. Yet socialism and film exist here mainly as outmoded ideas, or perhaps as specters still haunting Europe.
The first half of Film Socialisme, an almost-documentary shot almost entirely on video, provides a dense, highly fragmented, and visually ravishing metaphor for Western civilization: Europe is allegorized as a Mediterranean luxury cruise ship in which the casino doubles as a chapel and philosopher Alain Badiou lectures on Husserl to an empty auditorium. (This part is staged: Godard advertised the event but no one came.) Everyone is in the same boat, if not of the same class. Though the passengers are almost all white, the help is mainly African or Asian. The phrase Quo vadis europa? appears, asking not only where the continent might be going but also who is going there.
After 40 minutes, Film Socialisme lands with a thud in the South of France. The second movement is edited more like a conventional narrative and, set in a gas station — reification of First-World dependence on Third-World resources? — has to do with the political conflict between the station's now-conservative owners and their more radical children. More generally, the point of this static, sound-driven episode seems to be that Europeans have ceded their role as historical subjects and become petrified in their own ruins. ("The scenes stop before the people become characters," Godard explained. "They are more like statues — statues that speak.")
Film Socialisme is both timeless and timely. (Seen last year at Cannes, it seemed to anticipate the Greek crisis; today it presages the Arab Spring.) Nor is that its only paradox. This is at once the most essayistic of 21st-century Godards and the least interested in conventional communication, cinematic as well as linguistic. Sensitive to the expressive possibilities of low-grade video and crude sound, the footage (shot by Godard and three others) combines all manner of photographic, digital, and online material; the dialogue mixes French with Russian, Arabic, and German and is subtitled with agrammatical phrases in what Godard termed "Navajo English."
These titles might invite us to "compare incomparable" and engage in "dialectical thinking," but Godard's basic mode is nonstop non sequitur. The filmmaker can be counted on to quote, name-check, and even cast prominent intellectuals, but he's most at home remaking or criticizing other movies. Thus Film Socialisme draws heavily on Jean Pollet's discontinuous montage film Méditéranée (1963), while playing off Manoel de Oliveira's A Talking Picture, a more recent and straightforward riff on a Mediterranean cruise as history lesson. And Battleship Potemkin, the supreme example of instrumentalized, revolutionary montage, floats throughout, re-edited into Godard's mix.
The movie's third section recapitulates the density of the first, providing something like an achronological 20-minute history of the West. Godard evokes the invention of democracy, the slave trade, and the Spanish Civil War, among other events, while providing his own idiosyncratic Baedeker. (Film Socialisme is mainly concerned with five Mediterranean territories — Egypt, Palestine, Greece, Naples, and Barcelona — plus Odessa.) The layered juxtapositions can be wondrous: Trapeze artists cavort over the blue ocean (a scene lifted from Agnès Varda's The Beaches of Agnès) while Joan Baez sings "Where Have All the Flowers Gone" in French and the phrase kiss me stupid flashes on the screen. It's when Godard's ideas — particularly his political ones — must be parsed that Film Socialisme turns bafflingly arid or glib.
Could this gnomic, impacted film-object be the 80-year-old artist's last testament? As if anticipating the possibility, Godard signs off with the words no comment. Film Socialisme deflects interpretation, but so long as one subscribes to the William Carlos Williams injunction that "no ideas but in things," it's filled with sensuous pleasures.