New Yorker Films // 1996 // 85 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Chief Counsel Rob Lineberger (Retired) // October 28th, 2005
"Does it have boobs in it?" -- Random filmgoer
Casting down sacred cows of cinema is not a game I derive any pleasure from. Jean-Luc Godard has made seminal movies that have influenced film in ways we have yet to discover. They say he is witty and incisive, piercing in observation and nuanced in meaning. I was looking forward to watching my first Godard film, which happens to be Forever Mozart. Sadly, this release by New Yorker made my initiation into Godard frustrating and ultimately fruitless.
An accomplished director's granddaughter convinces him to make a film in war-torn Sarajevo. He takes to the idea, and gathers a motley cast and crew together. They trudge off across the embattled landscape, spouting dialogue you can only hear in French films while fending off bombs, frostbite, and depraved soldiers. They ultimately arrive at the sea, where the film's most vital scenes will be shot. At the cost of great personal pain, the scenes are finally completed. The film opens to a public who wonders only whether the film has boobs in it, and who would rather watch Terminator 4.
There's no way to spin this, so I may as well speak plainly: This is probably the most frustrating movie-watching experience I've ever had. New Yorker Video has brought us many important films, and opened my eyes to great movies I'd otherwise have little hope of seeing. For L'Atalante and Under the Sun, I thank them profusely. Forever Mozart is a different matter.
French film is known for being philosophically dense, and I suspect that Godard takes the cake in that respect. If so, the lack of subtitles in this release is particularly egregious. I estimate that one-third to one-half of the primary dialogue in this film is ignored by the subtitles, along with most of the secondary and background dialogue. Entire minutes of discourse go by without so much as a word of explanation. This leaves English speakers on the outside looking in, watching people talk heatedly without having the first clue what is being said. I accept this reality at work or in the street, but not when I am sitting down in my living room to watch a DVD. Watching a dialogue-heavy film requires access to the words being spoken. Subtitles are a poor substitute for the original language, but they'll do if you don't speak it. If so, you rely on accurate, and more importantly complete, translation. In lieu of that, you are simply watching pretty pictures move across the screen.
So, in brief, I'm unable to adequately critique this film. I'd love to; it seemed to have a vein of quixotic dark humor running through it. It seemed to equate filmmaking with war. There was a theme about objects in the present as touchstones to the past. Forever Mozart has something to say, if only I could grasp the words.
I can adequately critique the audio visual quality. The transfer has a dingy greenish blue cast that makes everyone look like they've been standing in an ice chest for two days. Browns are bluish brown, greens are bluish green, and blues are rather greenish-gray. The only color to buck this trend is red, which is omnipresent and saturated to the point of bleeding. The color temperatures of warm colors are so unstable that the reds and yellows seem to pulsate off of the screen. Godard uses a definite ultramarine-red theme in the film, and I can only guess that he didn't intend for the mix to be so gaudy. The image seems stable, though several inches are trimmed from both right and left.
The audio is passable. The stereo separation is enough to give a sense of enveloping dialogue, and the few moments of action have decent oomph. In several places the dialogue became inaudible, which is bad, but worse still when no subtitles come off the bench to support the audio track. Music comes through cleanly and with enough headroom, particularly at the very beginning, and in the closing Mozart recital.
I consider myself intelligent, literate, and somewhat cultured. Even so, I grasped about one in ten of Godard's cultural and political references. He made many of them, so you can see the problem. Even had every word been faithfully reproduced, I still would have felt frustrated and isolated from the meaning in this film.
In some of the scenes, complete subtitles would have been excessive. Picture a non-English speaker reading subtitles for an Altman film; subtitles would overwhelm the screen. It doesn't excuse the awful subtitle job, but Godard's style does offer a slight defense.
Perhaps it was not meant to be. Though I enjoy French film, a dense avant garde statement about European politics might have been too much to absorb. Still, I wouldn't have minded the opportunity to try.
The film? Who knows. This release? Guilty!
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Scales of Justice
Studio: New Yorker Films
* 1.66:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (French)
Running Time: 85 Minutes
Release Year: 1996
MPAA Rating: Not Rated