FILM SOCIALISME Blu-ray Review
Legendary director Jean-Luc Godard (Breathless) returns to the screen with Film Socialisme, a magisterial essay on the decline of European Civilization. As a garish cruise ship travels the Mediterranean (with rock legend Patti Smith among its guests), Godard embarks on a state of the EU address in a vibrant collage of philosophical quotes, historical revelations and pure cinematographic beauty.I'm a tough guy. I welcome a challenge. Though many people may not realize it, Jean -Luc Godard has continued making movies for the last forty years, though, for the most part, interest has continually waned. I've heard good things about Notre Musique, but not much else. This is why I was sincerely interested when I began to hear people actually talking about Godard with the release of Film Socialisme.
I must say, Film Socialisme is quite a ride. I cannot say that my experience with avant garde film is very deep, but any film that divides critics or the general populace instantly piques my interest. I've heard everything from people mentioning among their favorites of the year to Britain's Mark Kermode naming it the worst film of 2011. I suppose that this is the power of film and perhaps even a testament to the ambition of Godard. He made his film for himself, and that is something to be admired. Certainly no one can fault him for doing things exactly as he wishes after all these years.
Film Socialisme is broken up into three distinct parts. The first part involves a cruise ship, Nazi gold, Russian spys, Patti Smith, some disco, a swimming pool, and young lovers. If I attempted to describe it beyond that my head might explode. The second part involves a news crew and a woman planning a run for the presidency of France. There is some family drama, and some goofy symbolic grasping, but strangely, it is the most focused narrative portion of the film, in spite of its nebulous form. The film concludes with visits to several stops along the cruise ship's journey, including Egypt, Palestine, Greece, Odessa, Naples, and Barcelona. This final section may be the most overtly symbolic, as Godard uses these locations as a starting point for a brief discussion on the state of Europe and the significance of these locations and their complicated histories in the current condition of the continent.
I say all that to say this: none of that matters. I didn't really understand any of the symbolism with any kind of clarity, and I was more mesmerized by the spectacle of the film than anything else, so I'll focus on that. Film Socialisme is a marvelously constructed film. The images and their juxtaposition with inane dialogue regarding Nazi gold and such were often quite beautiful to behold. Godard uses a mix of HD video footage, what looks like stock nature footage, and what looks like cell phone video or webcam footage to create his montage. As strange as it may sound, I really liked it.
The first section of this film is a wonderfully dense pastiche of all of these different methods. In addition to the varying video imagery, Film Socialisme is blessed/cursed with one of the more confrontational/avant garde audio mixes I've ever heard. Sounds come at the viewer from every direction, but always discrete from one another. If dialogue is coming from the right channel, then the ambient sounds of the ocean are coming only from the left channel, or vice versa. There are some times that the audio and/or video drops out or becomes pixelated or glitchy, which I can only assume was part of Godard's plan. I admire anyone who plays with the audiences expectations in that way, even though the content may be completely baffling.
I toyed with the idea of sitting on these ideas for a while and hoping they'd gel before writing this review, but I think that would be against the spirit of the film. Film Socialisme is designed to be a confrontational act from Godard, and I'd be doing it a disservice if I did any less that shoot back my visceral response to the experience. Did I like Film Socialisme? Truthfully, the answer to that is probably no. Like is too pedestrian a term for the feeling I came away with. I felt assaulted, and not in a way which would allow me to fight back. I felt as though my presence in front of my television was at this film's mercy, not of my own volition.
Film Socialisme isn't for everyone. Hell, I'm not even sure yet if it's for me or not. I can say that I have wasted my time on worse films this year. For all of its assertive execution, I cannot say that Film Socialisme left me flat, in fact, at times I felt small waves of rage creeping up, that was the film working. It began to sting. Ultimately I cannot give a qualified recommendation of this film. The way I see it, this is either going to be experience that will piss you off to no end, or grab you by the balls and yank you into submission, acceptance, and/or ultimately respect. It's your choice, just don't blame it on me, either way.
Film Socialisme is a tough disc to judge. The first segment, which is by far the longest, utilizes several different kinds of video at varying quality levels. I assume that it looks exactly as it was intended to. Kino has a very good track record for this kind of thing, so if this is how Godard wanted it, I'm sure Kino would know. The audio is similarly all over the board. I mentioned in the body of the review that the audio mix is unconventional to say the least, but the interesting use of the sound field in the first segment was among my favorite parts of the film. It probably sounds exactly as it is supposed to. Layers of sound crash into and overlap one another throughout most of the film, and it seems to fit with the shape of Godard's vision, so I have to assume it is accurate.
Kino offers little in the form of extras, as is to be expected from Godard, but there are a couple of interesting things to talk about. The first, and more important, thing is the issue of the subtitles. When Godard started screening the film, he insisted that it be shown with "Navajo" subtitles, that is English subtitles translated from the Navajo translation of the dialogue. The end result is a set of very impressionistic words flashing across the screen, which further challenges the viewer to make sense of the content of the film, even beyond the obtuse nature of the dialogue. A bold and interesting move, I must say. I spent most of the film with the full English translation which certainly helped my comprehension of the dialogue, if not the purpose. The other extra is a 4 page essay from Godard biographer Richard Brody, which is printed in a type size as dense as the film itself. I was sincerely hoping that reading these liner notes would give me a deeper understanding of the film and flip that light bulb in my head, but no such luck. Brody's writing is as dense as Godard's film, which is probably appropriate, but not particularly helpful.
Film Socialisme is a trip. It makes no attempt to tell a story, and cuts no corners in its drive toward its goal, which is still rather unclear to me. If you're up for a challenge and don't mind coming out on the losing end, by all means, give it a shot. Just don't expect love to conquer all, it never does.
- Jean-Luc Godard
- Hannah Arendt (additional material)
- Walter Benjamin (additional material)
- Léon Brunschvicg (additional material)
- Jean-Paul Curnier (additional material)
- Jacques Derrida (additional material)
- Roland Dubillard (additional material)
- Jean Giraudoux (additional material)
- Jean-Luc Godard
- Jean-Paul Sartre (additional material)
- Jean Tardieu (additional material)
- Otto von Bismarck (additional material)
- Jean-Marc Stehlé
- Agatha Couture
- Mathias Domahidy
- Quentin Grosset