Review: Jean-Luc Godard’s ‘Film Socialisme’ Seeks to End Language

By  · Published on June 2nd, 2011

afilm a symphonie threemovements deathof language

The above “sentence” would probably be the most appropriate way to describe French filmmaking legend Jean-Luc Godard’s latest (and possibly his last) film, Film Socialisme. The fragmentary and strangely juxtaposed words above are not only an (unsuccessful) attempt to describe an incredibly abstruse film, but it is also an attempt to do so in the film’s selected stylistic “language”: rather than traditional full-sentence subtitles, these are the type of words we see at the bottom of the screen whenever a character or narrator speaks.

I can barely recognize only a few select words in French myself, but from what I can tell the characters, while often speaking esoterically in conversations motivated without typical movie-logic contextualization, rarely actually speak in fragments, but in full sentences. So the subtitles for non-French-speaking audiences are a deliberately obscuring selection of the words actually spoken, and they often arrive late in their juxtaposition of words spoken and occasionally seem to have no direct correspondence whatsoever.

This is not to suggest that the unique subtitling in the international release of Film Socialisme somehow “obscures” non-French speakers from understanding the film’s meaning. In one sense, the film is incredibly difficult to follow no matter what language(s) one knows, but in another, the film’s meaning is plainly available in this multilingual wordplay.

The film’s first “movement” or “act” takes place on a cruise ship and consists of conversations between a vast, multi-lingual cast (including, surprisingly, Patti Smith). While the particularities of their conversations aren’t exactly made ready-by-translation, the film’s critique of leisure in this act becomes clear as the cruise is situated as a daunting, imposing site of capitalist rituals rather than allowing any genuine experience of liberation from work life; in other words, the juxtaposition of leisure and work in consumerist culture does not actually warrant leisurely escape, but more consumption. This critique is not a particularly new idea, even as expressed in popular culture (Gang of Four based an entire album on it), but it’s interesting to see this idea exercised within Godard’s challenge to language and the film’s aesthetic mix of narrative and documentary styles (even though the point becomes a bit stale and belabored, in the continuing of this section, long after it’s made).

The film’s second act involves a mother, a son, an older sister, and a pair of filmmakers. This section delves more deeply into the film’s critique of language. The collection of characters (the most realized characters “as characters” available in the film, though this is still not a direct attempt at a cogent narrative) debate issues of liberty, equality, and fraternity, and as they engage in such debates the film’s intent in breaking down language becomes clear as Godard engages in the (equally not-new) disassociation of sign and signifier. What’s interesting here, though, is how this breakdown is exercised through subtitles, as if there has always been a politics of subtitling heretofore uninterrogated – a connection between supposed commonalities between languages that never actually approach “what is being said.” Instead of a breakdown between sign and signifer, Godard presents us with a more complex breakdown between various signs (one word in one language and its supposed equivalent in another), an effort concurrent with his career of breaking down another supposedly comprehensible but thoroughly constructed language: the visual language of cinema. To fail at understanding, in this case, is exactly the point.

The film’s third section, titled “Our Humanities,” is its most abstract but also its most challenging and interesting in terms of its employment of ideas and its aesthetics (and for Godard, the two are never exclusive). It’s composed mostly of previously existing footage, from film clips to news coverage to Nazi rallies, all connected by a philosophical exploration of various European cities as the birthplaces of modern ideas. Once again, the specificity of these musings are often difficult to decode because of the subtitles’ barriers, but one especially fresh idea amongst the old that I particularly appreciated consisted of a mock FBI warning at the film’s end with an intertitle that says, “Not Fair,” suggesting that, despite the many opportunities provided by digital cinema (and in line with the filmmaker’s Marxist critique), copyright law provides a barrier for cinematic expression.

I’m a big fan of Jean-Luc Godard. But like many Americans, I’m most familiar with his 1960s work. The most recent film of his that I had seen before watching is his newest was 1972’s Tout Va Bien (I’m currently working my way through his titles from the past few decades). However, while Film Socialisme is an admittedly difficult film to watch, comprehend, and (especially) put into words, there are many things about the film that are clearly working in conversation with several of Godard’s career-long obsessions.

Firstly, Film Socialisme continues Godard’s fifty-year exploration of the cinema’s artifice, which becomes especially apparent in the film’s intentionally stagy second section and the fact that all three sections of the film more or less have cinema itself as a central subject of inquiry (everything, for Godard, comes back to cinema). The fact that Film Socialisme is the director’s first work to be made on digital video begets an interesting contrast with Godard’s deconstructive efforts in his previous work: if cinema changes, then it’s artifice changes as well. That the first section of the film liberally moves between pristine high-def video and video of lesser quality (some scenes appear to have been shot with a digital home video camera or a cell phone) suggest that to explore cinema’s artifice means to explore its various roles in a digital society inundated by the moving image.

Secondly, Film Socialisme continues Godard’s Marxist political and intellectual preoccupations that manifest themselves in something of a Marxist cinematic aesthetic, especially in his revisited essayistic, semi-documentary mode. Here Godard continues his efforts from his 1967 break with the French New Wave, critiquing, among other things, consumer culture, Hollywood’s imperialist cinematic aesthetic, and Israeli-Palestinian relations in a continuation of thematic concerns that stretch back to work like Tout Va Bien, La Chinoise (1968), and 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her (1967). Finally, the digital collage style of the film’s third section is a continuation of similar efforts made through juxtaposition of existing moving image material in his more recent work, like Notre Musique (2004) and his massive Histoire(s) du Cinema project (1988–98).

In the press notes for Film Socialisme, Godard states that his final film will be called “Farewell to Language.” He might as well be describing this very film, for in Film Socialisme Godard brings a deconstructive “end” to many languages, both spoken and visual. Like the release of Alain Resnais’s equally-confounding-but-in-a-totally-different-way Wild Grass (2009), it’s refreshing to see yet another legendary and groundbreaking French filmmaker still making increasingly challenging and confrontational work into his 80s. It’d be rather appropriate if Godard chose not to make another film after this one as Film Socialisme is, aesthetically and thematically, an appropriate summation of Godard’s career-long concerns while at the same time can be read as an appropriately inconclusive “end” to progressive and increasingly complex engagements with these concerns in each subsequent work to the point of a total breakdown of meaning.

The Upside: Godard finds a way to explore familiar intellectual concepts in a cinematically compelling fashion, proving that even after fifty years of feature filmmaking he still maintains the ability to challenge both the medium and audiences to the breaking point. The film’s third section is astounding.

The Downside: While many of the ideas presented in the film work as an appropriate extension of Godard’s revisited preoccupations throughout his career, the ideas themselves aren’t nearly as groundbreaking, challenging, or new as the way that they’re presented. Until the final section, Godard doesn’t add to a conversation here as much as he simply implements a different lexicon.

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