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Sean Gittins has a different view of film, courtesy of Jean-Luc Godard.
Many philosophers of the twentieth century phrased questions of philosophy as if they were questions of language. This practice began in the analytic (Anglo-Saxon) tradition late in the nineteenth century, with the ‘linguistic turn’ initiated by Frege; whereas the continental approach was heavily influenced by Peirce and Saussure’s semiotics and Roman Jakobson’s and Claude Levi-Strauss’s structuralism. Of the two, the continental approach proved the most keen to ask thoughtful questions in and of the arts. It thus formed the background thinking which many of the most philosophical artists, filmmakers and writers of the twentieth century drew on in their works.
Nietzsche, Freud, and Marx, three of the key thinkers informing continental philosophy, ushered in questions about subjectivity, and at its core language itself. Their influence on the continental tradition never diminished, and the repercussions of their ideas inevitably bled into the arts during a twentieth century that came to doubt the Romantic notion that art was the creation of personal genius, instead seeing it as the product of the social, psychological, political and economic conditions in which it is made. More than any other filmmaker, Jean-Luc Godard applied a similar scepticism to the practice of cinema and the language of that medium. This is a habit that has run throughout his career, and is still visible in his latest offering.
Challenging Words & Expectations
Film Socialisme (2010) is an abstract and difficult film to engage with and understand. It has all the hallmarks of a director known for challenging his audience. The film sporadically flings at the viewer questions of politics, individuality, rights, language, and above all, the nature of cinematic reality itself. But for me, viewing the film provoked questions above and beyond what was on the screen.
While I was watching the movie at the French Institute in South Kensington, London, over the course of the showing a third of the audience walked out. Whilst some may view this as a clear sign of an awful film, I believe there to be a more informed explanation: such an outcome is a logical consequence of the type of cinema that Godard wants to make, and of the cinematic language he wants to use. It is a clash between theory and practice – manifesting itself as a clash between a film which seeks to challenge, and its audience’s expectations.
Chief amongst the difficulties of a Godard film for an audience brought up on mainly on a diet of Hollywood movies is the lack of conventional narrative and plot. In this, Film Socialisme is no different to its director’s previous movies.
Structurally, it’s anchored around a triptych. The first part, Des choses comme ça [‘Things like that’] is set on a cruise ship sailing around the Mediterranean (it was filmed on the Costa Concordia). This part prominently features an assortment of multi-lingual conversations between vaguely-related people. Beautiful camera shots from above deck mix with scrappy footage taken in the restaurants and casinos below. The second part, Notre Europe, is set at a petrol station, and features a small group of adults and children. This section of the film most closely resembles character-based cinema. Amongst other things, the group discusses questions about the nature of liberty, equality and fraternity. The third part, based around documentary –style montages of images and sounds, is entitled Nos humanités. Through techniques such as newsreel and archive footage, it shows the viewer locations including Barcelona, Egypt, Palestine, Odessa and Naples, accompanied by organ music.
Writing that description of the film makes me further aware of how inept words are for describing a film of Godard’s. This problem has only increased as his career has progressed. Whilst his films from the 60s (including Alphaville, Two or Three Things I Know About Her, La Chinoise and Pierrot Le Fou) exhibited above all Godard’s emphasis on sound and image, they still retained enough elements that words could in places capture their meaning and content. But some of Godard’s later movies, such as his Histoire(s) du Cinéma, the Dziga-Vertov period films, and, now, Film Socialisme, escape description by words. But we shouldn’t be surprised at this. For Godard, cinema has always been about sound and image rather than narrative.
Over fifty years ago Godard was part of a group of revolutionary film-makers and critics based around the Paris magazine Cahiers du Cinéma [Cinema Notebooks]. Many of its members, including Francois Truffaut, Claude Chabrol and Jacques Rivette, comprised what became known as the French New Wave. At the core of the Cahiers’ goals lay an ambition to reinvent cinema. One aim of this project was to confer upon cinema the status of an art. Another was to ask questions about the nature of cinematic reality – for example, is film a simple recording of reality, or does the camera somehow mediate reality between the film and the audience? There was disagreement over this between the Cahiers members, not least between its founder André Bazin and Godard. It was Godard’s contention that the camera depicted reality whilst at the same time forming part of that reality. Cinema is a subjective art infused with an objective reality. It was this crucial philosophical position which paved the way for Godard to follow in the tradition of Marx, Freud and Nietzsche in questioning the nature and role of the subject. In Godard’s work, however, the doubt would be switched from the nature of subjectivity, to questioning the role of the camera, and with it the whole nature of cinema.
Godard’s films show his concern about the status of the camera in two related ways: first, through doubting the role that spoken world plays in movies; and second, by redefining the language of cinema. The first of these two interests has manifested in various ways throughout Godard’s career, most famously perhaps at the end of A Bout de Souffle (1960) when Patricia (Jean Seberg), asks what were the last words of the recently shot Michel (Jean-Paul Belmondo). It is a theme still evident in Film Socialisme. Throughout, the words spoken on screen share almost no association with the subtitles supposed to represent them. In more theoretical terms, the link between signifier and signified is broken. Additionally, during the first part of the movie, even when in apparent conversation, many of the characters are speaking different languages from each other. They seem more absorbed in what they themselves are saying rather than in communicating – with another character or, for that matter, the audience.
The film also continues Godard’s other central preoccupation – his engagement with an alternative politics – clearly apparent since 1968’s La Chinoise. It’s a complex subject, Godard’s politics; with its focus on commodity fetishism, alienation, and consumerism, it can at the very least be basically interpreted as a form of Marxism.
Whilst overt Marxist tendencies have diminished in his recent work, Godard is still concerned with many of the political issues he has raised since the 1960s. The first part of Film Socialisme, with its cruise ship setting and constant cuts to the casinos below deck, is particularly concerned with the idea of consumption. The setting of a cruise boat – a craft designed, by definition, for leisure and luxury – brings this meaning out at a powerful level because these people on holiday are never truly resting. In reality they are still partaking in the capitalist cycle of production and consumption. In this, Godard echoes the work of Situationist artists in the 1960s. They too were concerned about the notion of leisure time becoming nothing other than consumption time, and free time being defined only in relation to work time.
Godard’s concern with politics beyond Marxism is also present in his latest movie. The most abstract piece in the film, part three, shows the audience Barcelona, Egypt, Palestine, Odessa, and Naples, via historical footage, news clips and similar images, and against a varied palette of sounds. These are places of ideas and of conflict, of the ancient world and of the present. Alongside this, if one combines concepts from part one of the movie, where the possibility of communication between speakers of various nationalities is breaking down, with aspects of part two, in which the concepts of liberty, fraternity and equality are discussed and dissected between children and adults, a case can be made that Film Socialisme is an attempt by Godard to depict the breakdown of the widespread acceptance of great ideas, and with them grand narratives. This idea is further supported by footage in part three of Nazis marching through various locations, and ultimately, scenes of their crimes against the Jews. The Holocaust is still for many the defining event where the optimism and hope of modernism – the belief in progress and grand narratives – was forever destroyed. For Godard, as for many others, the break with that hope in postmodernism is essential in understanding the societies and cultures in which we now find ourselves.
However, Godard is not just concerned with the politics surrounding the history of ideas and the production and consumption of commodities. Linking back to the second major question raised by Godard, about the role of the camera, he is concerned with how we partake, produce and consume the medium of sound and images, ie, with the language of cinema.
It is now a cliché to say that Godard, and with him the French New Wave, ripped up the conventional rules of cinema. However, their unpredictable use of montage, lack of conventional narrative and story, and unconventional mise-en-scène tells only part of the story. Just as important was the Cahiers’ emphasis on small production teams which allowed the director as much control as possible over what was being filmed. But as the New Wave directors, and Godard in particular, sought to alter the language of cinema by challenging people’s preconceptions of what a film should be, they encountered a major problem – people didn’t come to see their films. Watching over a third of the (mainly French) audience walk out during the film, I saw this problem first-hand. No doubt this also demonstrates why Film Socialisme gathered such polar reviews: you either engage with Godard’s type of cinema, or you don’t.
Engaging with Godard on his own terms and ambitions, I still believe that despite its positive aspects, Film Socialisme is disappointing for one particular reason – its lack of progression for Godard as a filmmaker. As I said earlier, almost all of the topics in the movie – language, the nature of cinema, and politics – touch on themes that Godard first raised in the 1960s. Additionally, the only truly new aspect of the film – that it is Godard’s first to be filmed completely digitally – is not elaborated upon. Techniques made possible by digital cameras are present in some scenes in the film. For example, the shots of partying and gambling deep inside the cruise ship are filmed with what seem like poor quality camera phones. But given Godard’s obsession with the nature of cinematic reality, there is a surprising lack of engagement with the questions raised by digital cinema.
Just one of these questions concerns the democratic nature of digital film technology. Large portions of the population now carry a video camera in their pocket and can upload footage easily to sites such as YouTube. Such ability seems to blend well with the ideas of the Cahiers group, with their emphasis on small crews and sets, and quick filming, enabling directors to retain as much personal control of films as possible. But whilst the Cahiers advocated these techniques in the 1950s as part of their project to confer upon cinema the status of an art (and thus make film creators artists), in the digital age we instead face the problem of an overabundance of the image. There are now so many cameras in the world that if the notion of the Director is to retain any artistic merit, it requires going beyond retaining control over what is filmed.
One would have thought that Godard’s views, and his cinematic attempts to engage with such issues, would have naturally arisen in his first all-digital movie. But perhaps these are not Godard’s questions to answer, as revolutionary as he was to film. Perhaps the digital era needs to produce its own Godard, to answer, and more crucially, to pose, such vital questions.
© Sean Gittins 2012
Sean Gittins is a broadcaster and engineer at resonancefm.com, and also writes for the New Statesman. Visit seangittins.co.uk.