Jean-Luc Godard’s Film Socialisme played last fall’s New York Film Festival, where it sparked the usual Godardian storm of controversy, this time centering on whether the film is anti-Semitic. I didn’t think so when I saw it then, but was – and remain – reluctant to speak to the issue more directly because, as my review, which is below, said, my French isn’t good enough to be sure, and Godard chose to deliberately obfuscate matters with deliberately inadequate subtitles. I haven’t had a second chance to see the film, but until I see it again I’ll stand by what I wrote in the fall. Of course, you should go to the IFC Center and see the film and make up your own mind.
Jean-Luc Godard’s newest work Film Socialisme is something of an extended homage to Manoel de Oliveira’s 2003 effort, A Talking Picture. Both are set on cruise liners working their way through the Old World’s great cities. Each features wildly multilingual casts discoursing to one another in their own languages regardless of who they are addressing, and both films are meditations on the wreckage of the 20th century. Of course, this last subject has been Godard’s focus, even compulsion, for many years, and at 80 he is no better disposed towards the modern world than he was at, say, 60.
He’s also none too fond of his audiences, if the evidence of Film Socialisme is to be believed. On the one hand, it is the most dazzlingly beautiful film Godard has made in a long time, perhaps in his entire career, a film that utilizes every conceivable cinematic and video palette with a profusion of super-saturated colors, inky blacks, solarizations and other visual tricks. On the other, the film is a dizzying 97 minutes of seemingly disconnected events, including a long entr’acte set in a gas station owned by a couple of local French politicians who opt out of their campaign to support that of their teenage daughter. It’s the kind of Godardian garage whose denizens include a burro and a cheerful-looking llama. (Leave it to Godard to find a llama that takes direction.)
But most dismaying to almost any audience, “Film Socialisme” is a film with almost no subtitles.
Godard has created his own set of subtitles for the film, using what he calls “Navajo subtitling,” cryptic, two- and three-word titles that pick out key words — and some not so key ones at times — rather than translating the dialogue. When added to a typically mysterious Godard scenario in which a character named Goldberg may or may not be a) Jewish, b) a Nazi hiding out, c) an international financier, d) a former Stalinist agent or e) all or none of the above; a missing cache of gold, possibly stolen by the Comintern at the end of the Spanish civil war; a profusion of historians-plotters-passengers, the result is a kind of mental mayhem. My French just isn’t good enough to decipher the Goldberg subplot on a single viewing, so the most I can say is that it is of a piece with Godard’s Jew-obsession, his anti-Zionism and his deep concern with various resistances to fascism and racism.
What one takes away from Film Socialisme even without a knowledge of French, Spanish, Afrikaans, German, Russian and Hebrew — to name some of the languages on the soundtrack — is the realization that Jean-Luc Godard is still deeply in love with the powers of cinema, with Sergei Eisenstein and Manoel de Oliveira and Chris Marker and John Ford, all of whom are quoted visually, and he is still mordantly funny as a critic of the conspicuous and dangerous over-consumption that has driven the world economy since World War II.
Is it a great film? It’s sumptuous to look at and great fun, if you don’t mind the feeling that you’ve just stepped into an empty elevator shaft. Is it anti-Semitic? I don’t know. All I can say is that without a lot more French or non-Navajo subtitles, I can’t be sure.
Maybe that’s the point.The only thing I will add to the debate on JLG and the Jews is that, as A.O. Scott notes his review in today’s New York Times, Godard does have a character say that “the Jews invented Hollywood.” Given that he has never completely renounced his love of American film, I’ll take that as a compliment, however backhand