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In 1963, Jean-Luc Godard’s Les Carabiniers told the satirical
tale of two peasants who enlist in the army of a king hell-bent on world domination.
The king and the war were fictitious, but the vainglorious letters sent home
by the soldiers were fact, as was the combat footage — unapologetic, interchangeable
images appropriated by Godard from the perpetual newsreel of 20th-century armed
conflicts.

His new film, Notre Musique, begins with a similarly randomized
chronology of violence — only the tone is graver, as if the intervening years
had deprived Godard of the ability to so much as crack a smile at the world’s
lethal absurdities. Bomb bursts illuminate a darkened screen, and we are drowned
in a torrent of images offering a brief history of global terror, from 13th-century
Russians driving out invading Germans, through the Cold War and on to the more
urgent incursions now taking place in the Middle East. Some of the clips hail
from documentary sources, while others are taken from movies like Alexander
Nevsky
and Kiss Me Deadly. But as in Les Carabiniers, Godard
doesn’t mean for the source material to be differentiated — quite the opposite.
“In the age of fable, there appeared on Earth men armed for extermination,”
announces a voice on the soundtrack, and in doing so Notre Musique announces
itself as its maker’s great, angry and sorrowful fable for our self-exterminating
age.

Divided by Godard (via Dante) into three kingdoms, Notre Musique
charts a gradual progression from the fiery hell that opens the film to a finale
set in a placid, lakeside heaven — its gates guarded not by Saint Peter, but
by United States Marines. Mostly, though, we’re in a wintry purgatory (a.k.a.
Sarajevo) right here on planet Earth. The setting is a European literary conference,
at which Godard (playing himself or, as Godard might suggest, a filmmaker named
Jean-Luc Godard) has been invited to deliver a lecture on the relationship between
text and image. That lecture, coming midway through Notre Musique, provides
the film with one of its most elegiac moments: Holding before his audience a
black-and-white photograph of a bombed-out cityscape, Godard asks for guesses
as to where the picture was taken. “Stalingrad, Beirut, Sarajevo,”
come the responses, before Godard reveals the true locale: Richmond, Virginia,
circa 1865. The world, Godard seems to be saying, is one eternal, migrating
battlefield, and we are its zombified victims.

At the conference, Godard is surrounded by a cadre of contemporary
writers and thinkers, including the Spanish novelist Juan Goytisolo, who traveled
three times to Bosnia during the war there and who remarks early on, in a classically
Godardian aphorism, “Killing a man to defend an idea isn’t defending an
idea. It’s killing a man.” Those words weigh heavily on what follows in
Notre Musique, as Godard’s focus shifts to two Israeli Jewish women who
have arrived in Sarajevo with radically -different senses of purpose. For journalist
Judith Lerner (Sarah Adler), the rebuilt city is a place where hope and reconciliation
seem possible. She herself has come here in the hope of arranging an interview
with the local French ambassador (Simon Eine), who as a young man in Vichy,
France, gave shelter to a young Jewish couple who happened to be Judith’s maternal
grandparents. Alas, common ground between sworn enemies is rarely so easily
achieved. And so, for guilt-ridden Olga Brodsky (Nade Dieu), the niece of a
conference attendee, Sarajevo is but a reminder of all the atrocity and suffering
there has been in the world and continues to be at this very moment.

Different as they may seem, Judith and Olga are less two separate
people than they are two halves of one person, in a film that is constructed
as a series of dichotomies and parallel -realities. On the one hand is the realm
of intellect and -humanism as represented by Godard, Goytisolo and the Arab
poet Mahmoud Darwish; on the other the realm in which fire can be fought only
with more fire. It’s a sentiment eloquently -summarized late in Notre Musique
by French essayist Jean-Paul Curnier when he says, “The world is now split
in two, between those who line up to voice their misery and those for whom this
public display provides a daily dose of moral comfort to their domination”
— words that may well resonate even more profoundly in light of the recent U.S.
-elections. For though it may lack the ostentation of a Michael Moore, I can
think of no other recent film that rates as more essential viewing — not just
for the -politically inclined, but for all who fancy themselves -citizens of
the world — than Notre Musique.

For five decades now, Godard has occupied a storied place in film
history, unrivaled by his contemporaries as much for the boldness of his experiments
with sound and image as for his encyclopedic knowledge of film history and technique.
Without him, Quentin Tarantino would be unthinkable. Yet time and respect haven’t
dulled the fire in Godard, and like his best work, Notre Musique is an
impish assault of quotations, annotations and provocations, already controversial
for a scene in which Darwish proclaims that the Palestinians are famous only
because the Israelis are their enemy. That said, Notre Musique also strikes
me as one of Godard’s most accessible works — one in which the graying, stubbly
maestro, who turns 74 today, presents himself and his ideas to the audience
in a less combative way than he sometimes has in the past. Which makes the accusations
of anti-Semitism (and anti-Americanism) that have been (and will continue to
be) leveled against the film and its maker all the more puzzling. For where
Godard is concerned, Arab and Jew are no more different than Bosnian and Serb,
Iraqi and Kurd, American and Native American, Stalingrad and Richmond. We are
all strangers in the same land. And we are all guilty.

NOTRE MUSIQUE | Directed and written by JEAN-LUC GODARD
| Produced by ALAIN SARDE and RUTH WALDBURGER | Released by Wellspring | At
the Nuart

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