Saturday 2 July 2011

Film Socialisme: Jean-Luc Godard and the YouTube cats

Jean-Luc Godard has had such an intriguing post New wave career. In the 80's he became a familiar face in French television talk shows, trying the subvert the medium with his presence. He also toyed with the mainstream, hiring big stars in France such as singer Johnny Halliday and Nathalie Baye for Detective (1985). He even cast Gerard Depardieu in Helas pour moi (1993). This last one was an unhappy experience, which prompted the French actor to declare: "In 1993, I have made two adverts, one for Barilla pastas, and one for Jean-Luc Godard". I take it the two men did not see eye to eye.

And then the grand master of cinema got bored of the media circus, and embarked in the third phase of his career from the 90's onwards, one that has been more experimental and offered him more artistic freedom. His latest, Film Socialisme, was shown at the Cannes at Un certain regard last year, and is finally being released in the UK on the 8th of July.

It has been described as a symphony in three movements. The first and most succesful part is set in a cruise ship sailing around Europe. While there are no clearly defined characters as such, we follow some of the occupants during short shots in gorgeous HD, as they come up with relevant aphorisms and quotations about Europe's history and present situation. Even without a clear narrative thread, these are compelling scenes, enhanced with the rather incredible use of the colour blue in various hues, in the sky, in the sea...

The dialogue is not actually fully translated in English in the subtitles, which are truncated and only contain important words. I am not sure what the effect must be for a non French speaker, and it is slightly disappointing that Godard, like so many French thinkers, still feels the need to express his resistance against the USA, and by association the English language, in a rather puerile fashion, but this is the only sour note.

Intertwined with these scenes are crude, 90's home videos look-a-like shots of the of the cruise passengers as they go about with their holidaying activities. The contrast between the HD shots and those can be seen a thinly disguised swipe at modern holiday packages and their lack of interest in the culture that surrounds them. Interestingly, this reminded me of Michel Houellebeck's own film adaptation of his novel, The Possibility of an Island (2008), whether this was intentional or not, which took a more direct swipe at the package holidays of the Canaries Islands where the film was set, within its sci-fi storyline.

The second part is set in a garage in the South of France, as a local television crew is following an event that we are given very little clues about, except that it concerns a local family (who owns a lama). And while this comes as close to a traditional narration as it can get, the director stops short of allowing the actors to create proper characters as such. We are given a few precious clues as to what is going on, while still being kept guessing. There is a generational conflict at play, with the children's idealism at odd with their parent's pragmatism.

The third and shorter part, is a montage of various pictures and archive footage concerning itself with the past and present fate of some of the countries which were the craddle of civilisation and philosophy in Europe and the Middle East, such as Egypt and Greece. I have to admit I struggled a little with this part. Not that is it without merit, far from it, but it is too dense to be enjoyed at a screening. The richness of the themes involved and bombardment of images is probably more suited to an analysis at a film school.

Ultimately, with these three different segments, this is nothing less than a portrait of the state of civilisation in Europe than Jean-Luc Godard is presenting. There might be too much to take on in one sitting, yet we are giving enough to enjoy and even want to come back for more later.

Even within film critics and the arthouse crowd, Godard does not only have fans, and you just have to read the vitriolic review from critic Mark Kermode when the film was shown at Cannes last year to realise that, as he incorrectly predicted the film would never get a release in the UK on the account of its obscure and pretentious nature.

Yet you cannot help but being in awe of a man past his 80th birthday, with absolutely nothing left to prove and who still have the curiosity and youthful mind to concern himself with the world around him, the politics, and even new technology, as demonstrated by the HD shots. The film even features a YouTube clip featuring cute cats. I had never thought I would see the day when a Godard film would feature some cute YouTube cats.

For anybody with a bit of interest in experimental, independent and French cinema, you could do worse than give this one a try, even, and especially if you have never seen any of his film.

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