Judge Joe Armenio grapples with Jean-Luc Godard's latest cinematic essay.
"The principle of cinema: go towards the light and shine it on our night. Our music." -Jean-Luc Godard
A central scene in Jean-Luc Godard's latest film, Notre Musique, features Godard himself (now 74 years old) delivering a lecture to a group of students. He declaims on the idea of "shot and countershot," using stills of Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell in Howard Hawks's His Girl Friday to illustrate that the director thought of the two characters as halves of a single whole. He then follows the theme of doubling to the idea of the real and the imaginary, then to one of the film's major thematic preoccupations, the Israeli-Palestinian war. The Israelis and Palestinians are "shot and countershot," parts of one divided entity, each inexplicable without the other. As he talks, the students chat amongst themselves and fidget; it's a self-pitying moment, as Godard laments what he sees as his increasing irrelevance. When he's done, one of them asks Godard if digital cameras can save cinema. He remains silent, the implication being that the question is too banal to answer, and cinema is well beyond saving. It's a shame that he feels that way, and Notre Musique reflects the belief; I couldn't help sympathizing with those antsy students as I watched this hermetic, humorless, stodgy work, one drained of the vitality and joy of cinema that animates Godard's greatest films.
Facts of the Case
Notre Musique is divided into three sections: "Hell," "Purgatory," and "Heaven" (the reference to Dante is perhaps the most easily graspable of Godard's many literary, musical, and cinematic allusions here). "Hell" is a montage of images of war, taken from both documentary footage and fiction films. The longest section, "Purgatory," is a mix of fiction and documentary that deals with an actual literary conference, "European Literary Encounters," which was held in Sarajevo. At the conference a young Israeli journalist, Judith Lerner (Sarah Adler), talks to various literary types who expound on the relationship between war, memory, and the artist. Miss Lerner is a vital, idealistic person who came to post-war Sarajevo "to see a place where reconciliation seemed possible." Keeping with the film's theme of doubling, of "shot and countershot," we are introduced later to her "double," a French Jewish woman of Russian background named Olga Brodsky (Nade Dieu) who is lost in suicidal despair over the world's problems. The brief coda, "Heaven," follows Olga into paradise, visualized here as a rich forest watched over by American soldiers.
I'm assuming that most people reading this review have some familiarity with Jean-Luc Godard's work, so I won't take up too much space talking about his career. His 1960s work remains revolutionary in its rethinking of cinematic technique, genre convention, and the relationship between film and politics. I've found his more recent work less satisfying, mostly because of its rather cranky cultural conservatism, which seems like a betrayal of his youthful vibrancy and openness. Also, Godard relies almost entirely now on an intellectual style I find immensely irritating: his work is composed almost entirely of cryptic aphorisms, such as "We can consider death in two ways—the impossible of the possible, or the possible of the impossible" (an example from the "Hell" section of "Notre Musique"). His defenders praise this film for its "density," and I'm a firm believer that works of art should be dense and even difficult, that they should not reveal all of their mysteries immediately. But Godard's attitude seems glib and smug, designed to confuse rather than to illuminate, not to open up questions for the viewer but to close them off.
The "Hell" section of Notre Musique is a masterfully edited piece of work, piecing together horrific footage of war's effects with images from serious films as well as corny Hollywood cowboys-and-Indians clips, perhaps to suggest that cinema is complicit in the 20th century's horrors. In "Purgatory," the most effective moments are those in which the characters travel through Sarajevo; we see the ruins, the destructive results of war, but are also somewhat encouraged by the presence there of people from so many different nations. The conference is a place of possibility, where thinkers temporarily freed from the burden of the nation-state can discuss a world in which both war and the nation might be things of the past. Still, though, Godard makes it clear that communication carries the possibility of miscommunication ("shot and countershot," he would say). In one scene, set in a ruined library, one character philosophizes in Spanish, while a pair of Native American activists lament in English the fate of their people. Nobody, it seems, is listening to or can understand anyone else. For me this scene represents everything that's both interesting and frustrating about late Godard: it carries the germ of a fascinating idea but plays like a parody of gnomic, hyper-serious art-film pretentiousness, with its blatantly symbolic setting and characters and stilted dialogue. I couldn't help but want to turn off Notre Musique and watch Godard's masterpiece Contempt (1963), which deals with issues of language and miscommunication in far more graceful ways.
Most of Miss Lerner's conversations focus on the issue of duality, on attempts to reconcile divided halves; in one sequence she talks to Palestinian thinker Mahmoud Darwich, who in part of the scene is so severely backlit that he appears only in silhouette. Darwich, like Godard later on, says that Israelis and Palestianians are inconceivable without each other, and that the West only pays attention to Palestine at all because of its interest in Israel: "You have brought us defeat and renown," he says. There is a certain hopefulness to these discussions, as the idealistic Lerner attempts to communicate, to locate a unity hidden among divisions; in one sequence she pleads for "not a just conversation, just a conversation," a wry reference to Godard's famous remark about images. However, the hopeful Judith Lerner also has a double, the tormented Olga (many critics have commented on the similarity to Bergman's Persona, but the characters are so rooted in Notre Musique's own themes that the allusion seems of secondary importance). The "Purgatory" section ends with Godard receiving news of Olga's strange suicide-by-cop in Jerusalem, a despairing commentary on the ultimate futility of art. It seems she took a cinema hostage, gave the audience time to leave, and threatened to blow it up; she was shot down by the police, and her bag was discovered to contain only books. The brief coda follows her into "Heaven," conceived rather banally as a forest filled with frolicking youngsters and, in a final deflating Godardian twist, watched by the Marines.
Wellspring's DVD gives the film a full frame presentation, reflecting its 1.33:1 aspect ratio. The only extras are a Godard filmography, unaccompanied by even a cursory text biography. The trailer for Notre Musique is included as well as trailers for other Wellspring films. The DVD comes with a booklet that includes an essay on Notre Musique by David Sterritt, film critic for The Christian Science Monitor. It's an eloquent defense of the film's "many-layered depths," its "dark musings" and "sublime visions." It's a shame that Wellspring doesn't provide any more supplements to contextualize the film, but the spareness of the package seems perversely appropriate, given how Godard revels in his own refusal to explain.
I'll acknowledge that the ideas which Godard raises in Notre Musique are fascinating and rich ones, for all of the glib obscurantism with which they're presented. The larger problem, ultimately, is that Notre Musique feels static, forced, less a work of art than a hollow vessel into which Godard has emptied a few years' worth of notebook jottings. In other words, it doesn't work as a film, which is the biggest disappointment, considering that Godard is an artist who has spent his career obsessed with the cinematic.
Guilty and innocent, shot and countershot (see, I can play Godard's aphoristic game too).
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Wellspring Media
• Notre Musique Trailer
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