Film Socialisme

Film Socialisme

Static Mass Rating: 5/5
New Wave Films 

Release date: July, 8th, 2011
Certificate (UK): PG
Running time: 101 minutes

Original language: French with English subtitles
Country of origin: France, Switzerland

Writer and director: Jean-Luc Godard
Producer: Ruth Waldburger

Cast: Patti Smith, Catherine Tanvier and Jean-Marc Stehlé

The first thing you’ll notice about Jean-Luc Godard’s latest excursion from the conventions of cinema is that the subtitles aren’t right. Key words appear haphazardly, in twos or threes and not always at the right moment. With bitter humour Godard has called this “Navajo English”. It reads like a mix of Twitter, haiku and search engine optimisation.

The obstinacy is characteristic of a director who, even at 80, is still at the vanguard of cinema. Rarefied, intractable and totally brilliant, Film Socialisme is a work of art on berserker principles. It’s as if Europe was having a momentous revelatory migraine.

Film Socialisme

There are three sections which Godard has called “movements”. The first, “des chose comme ça” (“such things”), is a hallucinatory collage of symbolism, documentary, aphoristic voiceover and oblique narrative fragments. It takes place on board the SS Concordia, a luxury cruise-liner, which is touring the Mediterranean with a full complement of real holidaymakers.

Amongst the families, honeymooners and retirees, JLG (as he likes to be known) and his three fellow filmmakers capture the unremarkable goings on on board. With a mix of HD equipment, handheld and mobile phone cameras they examine the fauna of this weird island habitat like anthropologists.

Holiday routine begins to resemble the strange rituals of a distant newfound tribe. Innocent enough at first, but later it takes on the sinister aspect of conditioned conformity. Aerobics classes, nightclub scenes, public dining, clapping along to music and applause look more and more like the compulsory sacraments of a perverse religion of leisure.

Film Socialisme

Then there’s the sea. It’s everywhere and soaks up all sorts of significance. On tides of image, music and text, the meaning is as amorphous as water. The major themes of the film are all there: oil, money, society and language. Like the boat itself, the sea is what you might call (in a joke that’s not nearly outside the range of JLG’s possible intention) a “floating” signifier.

Two red parrots which appear before the title sequence give a wickedly recondite nod to the historical event which gives some structure to this section.

In 1936 with Nationalist forces gaining the upper hand in the Spanish Civil War, the acting Presidente consented to evacuate the country’s massive gold reserves to the USSR for safe-keeping. The Soviets pilfered all 510 tonnes of it, later saying it was in exchange for military hardware.

Film Socialisme

The Spanish word for parrot is “loro”, and “oro” is Spanish for gold. Red parrots: Soviet theft of Spanish gold. It goes further than that (e.g. mimicry) but even so this gives you a measure of the precision and commitment to detail throughout. No frame is wasted.

Out of the blizzard of symbolism something like a “story” emerges. A Mossad double-agent and a war criminal are amongst the unsavoury folk sort of trying to track down this purloined gold. I say “sort of” because nothing is ever quite itself in this sort of film.

The characters for example aren’t real characters, but hollow character-shaped things or “statues” as JLG has put it. He doesn’t do character, just as he doesn’t do narrative.

Film Socialisme

Nothing really happens in the normal sense but there are some notable episodes. A woman imitates a pair of garrulous kittens on YouTube; a jogger loops the running track on deck like the astronauts in 2001: A Space Odyssey (one of many allusions to other films); and, my favourite, the renowned philosopher Alain Badiou gives a lecture on Husserl to a totally empty room. The talk was announced over the ship’s tannoy but nobody turned up.

It goes on in this calmly delirious manner for a long time, the longest time of the three sections but also the most interesting.

The next is a consciously undercooked allegory about French political principles. Were this a conventional film you would suppose that the Martin family (named after an organisation in the French resistance of course) run the petrol station where it takes place. But it isn’t, and they probably don’t.

Film Socialisme

Daughter is reading Balzac and insulting German tourists in a pretty dress. Son, wearing a bright red CCCP shirt, is conducting triumphalist music with a truncheon. Here is a llama. There is a pony. And Mum and Dad are running for president.

Journalists arrive from the FR3 Regio TV company which, ha ha, provided funding for the film. The kids interrogate their parents on the national motto – liberté, égalité, fraternité – and subject them to a “tribunal of their childhood”. Then they decide to challenge them for office.

So the young boy, who some suggest is a self-effacing surrogate for Godard himself, does his pompous Leninist thing with the truncheon. The older sister meditates on the political future and announces her manifesto, which consists of “[b]eing twenty, being right, keeping hope, being right when your government is wrong, learning to see before learning to read.”

Film Socialisme

The young are important to this film. In a hopeful and, for the 80 year-old director, perhaps retiring gesture, the onus is handed over to the kids. It’s their future after all.

The concluding and shortest section visits the modern history of the ports on the liner’s itinerary. Using archive footage, the route takes in Egypt, Palestine, Odessa, Hellas, Naples and Barcelona.

We see where Europe has been – it isn’t pretty – and Godard asks Europe what Christ asked Paul on the road to Damascus: quo vadis (“where are you going?”)?

It’s a good question.

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