Band of Insiders

By Todd McCarthy | Todd McCarthy's Deep Focus May 18, 2010 at 3:02AM

If one of the elusive subjects of Jean-Luc Godard's new "Film Socialisme," is the problem of communication, then the director himself, who was similarly elusive in Cannes yesterday, is part of the problem. This is a film to which I had absolutely no reaction--it didn't provoke, amuse, stimulate, intrigue, infuriate or challenge me. What we have here is failure to communicate. Had this three-part video essay taken the form of a newspaper or magazine article, I would have tossed it aside and quickly moved on to other things. But because it's Godard, we have to attempt to come to terms with it and try to explain it even when the director himself declined to attend Cannes for a press conference, at which he would have rebuffed every attempt to probe its meanings anyway; as the final title card at the end of the film proclaims, "No Comment." When I pressed some die-hard Godardians to defend the film or explicate its potential meanings, no one could do a very good job of it, and the most common and ominous remark I heard among them was, "I really need to see it again." I don't. There are absolutely many difficult and dense works that require repeated viewings or readings to reveal their true and full meanings, but even the most daunting of them at least suggest their stature at first exposure and should presumably inspire, rather than intimidate, one to make return visits.
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If one of the elusive subjects of Jean-Luc Godard's new "Film Socialisme," is the problem of communication, then the director himself, who was similarly elusive in Cannes yesterday, is part of the problem. This is a film to which I had absolutely no reaction--it didn't provoke, amuse, stimulate, intrigue, infuriate or challenge me. What we have here is failure to communicate. Had this three-part video essay taken the form of a newspaper or magazine article, I would have tossed it aside and quickly moved on to other things. But because it's Godard, we have to attempt to come to terms with it and try to explain it even when the director himself declined to attend Cannes for a press conference, at which he would have rebuffed every attempt to probe its meanings anyway; as the final title card at the end of the film proclaims, "No Comment." When I pressed some die-hard Godardians to defend the film or explicate its potential meanings, no one could do a very good job of it, and the most common and ominous remark I heard among them was, "I really need to see it again." I don't. There are absolutely many difficult and dense works that require repeated viewings or readings to reveal their true and full meanings, but even the most daunting of them at least suggest their stature at first exposure and should presumably inspire, rather than intimidate, one to make return visits.

Ironically, Godard himself recently described not only his own position but that of any number of other members of the ivory tower group whose work regularly turns up at festivals, is received with enthusiasm by the usual suspects and then is promptly ignored by everyone other than an easily identifiable inner circle of European and American acolytes. Godard explained in Telerama on May 13 that, in the years after he hit his commercial peak with his first film, "Breathless," in 1960, he could count on roughly 100,000 paid admissions to his films in Paris. "The problem is that there's no longer 100,000 in Paris--there's that many in the entire world. At most you can reach 10% of them."

I'm glad Godard put an absolute number on his contemporary audience, and I'm pleased it's that large, as I'd thought it might be slightly lower. Except for the rare freak break-out success, it's probably about the same number as attends most films by Jia Zhangke, Pedro Costa, Bela Tarr and Abbas Kiarostami, among other members of the high-art elite. What Godard's estimation tacitly and usefully acknowledges is that his and the others' audience really does consist of a private club with a rigorously limited membership list. This time out, Godard and his backers are trying to expand their economic potential by putting "Film Socialisme" out on VOD for, I'm told, seven euros, although those who tried to check it out on their computers yesterday morning were blocked until after the Cannes screenings.

I can argue either side when it comes to Godard. Intellectually, I can extol him as a cinematic James Joyce, as they both playfully expanded the language, structure and form of their chosen arts and achieved sublime works until, increasingly, flying off into rarified realms into which few could accompany them; the proper view, I think, would be that Godard has been in his inscrutable "Finnegan's Wake" period for some time now. More personally, I have become increasingly convinced that this is not a man whose views on anything do I want to take seriously. I can neither forget nor forgive Godard's wish, resourcefully noted by Colin MacCabe in his biography of the director, that the Apollo 13 astronauts would die on their imperiled voyage; this was either the most spurious sort of anti-Americanism or genuinely profound anti-humanism, something that puts Godard in the same misguided camp as those errant geniuses of an earlier era, Pound and Celine. MacCabe's biography also made note of the child Godard and Anna Karina might have had but was lost to a miscarriage, and in my idle moments during "Film Socialisme" I wondered if Godard would have been any different an artist or thinker had he been a father. Whereas Godard's one-time comrade-in-art-and-arms and subsequent favorite whipping boy Truffaut adhered to Jean Renoir's generosity of spirit, Godard has long since become the mean-minded anti-Renoir, someone who can say nothing good about anyone except himself. Like his film, it's not a worldview that says anything to me at this point.

This article is related to: On the Croisette