When Jean-Luc Godard's In Praise of Love closed out the 2001 New York Film Festival, many in Lincoln Center's sold-out Alice Tully Hall must have anticipated a “return to form” from the playful postmodernist of Breathless, A Woman Is a Woman and Band of Outsiders. What they actually saw from the then–70-year-old filmmaker was a formally audacious, historically aggrieved, stubbornly digressive poetic provocation. In other words, exactly the sort of film Godard had been making for years. Nevertheless, by the time the film's etched black-and-white cinematography had given way to final-act explosions of fauvist DV color, and long before the maestro's most incendiary anti-imperialist sentiments could rile freshly hatched post–9/11 sensibilities, at least a third of the audience had fled into the October night. I sat in the back row, an ecstatic young cinephile privileged with a rush ticket, eyeballing the exodus and enthralled by whatever it was I was watching.
With Film Socialisme, which comes to AFI on Nov. 10, fresh off its U.S. premiere at the 2010 NYFF and three days before Godard will be awarded an honorary Oscar in absentia, patrons might have a better idea of what to expect. If they don't — if their Godard literacy really does stop after that oft-cited dividing line, 1967's Week End — perhaps I can help.
Let's start with that false threshold, which has more to do with external events — specifically, May '68 — than with any drastic formal transformation in Godard's work. Even as his art has evolved over the past half-century — yoking it to Maoist ideology; pursuing groundbreaking experiments in video and television; exploring classicism, nationalism and digital editing — some preoccupations have long remained. The filmmaker's uniquely radical historical-political obsessions motivate Film Socialisme, as they did Notre musique, In Praise of Love and most of his work since the late 1980s. But so did they inform Godard's Algerian war thriller, Le petit soldat (1961), and the allegorical Les carabiniers (1963), his second and fifth films, respectively. Despite their reputation for being ponderous and pessimistic, the recent films are still the work of a wry, frisky mind, as bounteous as Breathless with visual and verbal puns. Far from having abandoned his aesthetic gifts, his later films, including Film Socialisme, are as visually accomplished as anything Godard has ever made. And most important, even as he enters his sixth decade behind the camera, Godard still shapes films as inquiries: Words say one thing, yet his pictures keep intimating something else. “If anyone understands me,” a character says in Notre musique, “then I wasn't clear.”
While Godard's three 21st-century features carry the DNA of his '60s work, they also retain strands of his fragmentary, nonnarrative '70s projects and especially his eight-part fin de siècle opus, an idiosyncratic essay for French television called Histoire(s) du Cinema, completed from 1988 to 1998. A history of cinema that's also a history of the 20th century — so personal that it verges on the confessional — the series started conversations that have continued right on through Film Socialisme: about the moral failure and cultural decline of Europe, the smothering dominance of the United States, the retreat of history, the problem with the Jews. “Poor Europe,” one character says to another in his latest triptych, “conquered by suffering. Humiliated by liberty.” As tiresome as his aphoristic, gnomic proclamations can be, Godard's conflation of history, cinema and the self gives each new film the feel of a strange new chapter in a personal memoir.
You don't have to understand all of his allusions, you don't have to buy the arguments he's selling, you don't even have to get beyond thinking that he's an egotistical, incontrovertible, willfully obtuse anti-Semite. “No other filmmaker has so consistently made me feel like a stupid ass,” wrote film critic Manny Farber in 1968, and likely many felt the same as they exited Alice Tully Hall in October 2001 and will again after experiencing Film Socialisme's cacophonous sound edits, baffling narrative break and sporadic, intentionally simplistic English translation (JLG fiendishly calls them “Navajo subtitles”). Except Farber kept wrestling with Godard, kept running toward what repelled him, and the following year, the critic marveled at Le gai savoir.
Enough of 1968 and the endless hosannas for Breathless. If you care about a living cinema, a cinema that asserts a blistering, confounding present even as it freights the past, then you should not be walking out on Jean-Luc Godard.