Where Is The Love?

With 'In Praise of Love,' Jean-Luc Godard mourns the passing of mourning

It is clear from his latest feature, In Praise of Love, that Jean-Luc Godard knows there's only one passage to a sound critical accounting of his work: his own death. When there are no more Godard movies, because there is no more Godard, we will be forced to reexamine his 40-year-plus body of work, most of which (from 1980 on, anyway) is devoted to mourning. Indeed, Godard has been a one-man grief factory in the past two decades; he hasn't yet learned that the final step, as the self-help books say, is acceptance. Or perhaps, in Praise, he has, and it's just that Godard's version of acceptance is more chilling than the rage, bargaining, and denial of other, lesser artists.

In Praise of Love presents several challenges at the outset, hurdles that are difficult even for inveterate Godard watchers to leap over. In recent years, the director has refined his style and worldview to a point so stunningly rarified (and beautiful) that the viewer almost seems to be receiving communications from an alien intelligence. I defy anyone to unpack all the meaning in Godard's last masterpiece, Hélas pour moi (Woe is Me), in which a shlubby Gérard Depardieu discovers that he is, in fact, God. But the serenity of that film--the feeling of completion in Godard's mix of aphorisms, sound cues, musical shards, and seemingly disconnected images--evokes the inscrutable gift of a late Stevens or Paul Celan poem.

But here's the rub: Critics have so long thrown up their hands at grasping Godard's cinema that it has become common for them to take one of his new movies as a sort of impressionistic hot tub: a series of lovely image-and-sound pairings, apparent non sequiturs, and Punch-and-Judy scenes that, stirred together, "mean whatever you want them to mean." Yet In Praise of Love makes clear that Godard's style isn't merely impulsive or arbitrary. Like the playwright-director Richard Foreman, Godard plants content in front of us only to dissolve it before our eyes like an Alka-Seltzer tablet.

In Praise, Godard will take some pregnant aphorism--"And then the poor...I don't know how memory can help us reclaim our lives" or "It is not whether man will endure, but whether he has the right to"--and overlay an image that further complicates our comprehension of it. Then he'll add a note of elegiac music whose very downbeat nature appears to pull us in a different direction from the spoken sentence. This strategy leaves us just on the verge of understanding the point that Godard is making about history, America, memory, resistance, sex, or justice. But in fact, the point is never actually made: Godard deliberately keeps it out of our reach. We in the audience are expected to do the work of finding the director's point of view--a job that few in the critical community (save for the Chicago Reader's Jonathan Rosenbaum) have even tried to do.

In Praise of Love is notorious for its purported "anti-Americanism," though Godard's gibes at Hollywood, and Spielberg in particular, are equivocal at most. In the movie's most openly telling scene, a group of French intellectuals gathers to hear an American journalist testify about the horrors he saw in the Balkans. (Godard visited this territory--tastelessly--in For Ever Mozart.) As the journalist gives his testimony, the French sneer at his accent, until an older man of their number tauntingly asks, "What about your own parents in 1943? And your grandparents in 1918?" The overriding theme of Praise is testimony--fervent, first-person testimony--that is ignored by artists seeking the Higher Ground. In the movie's most painful scene, a filmmaker puts a working-class woman trying to tell her own story through the most humiliating paces. ("Listen! I didn't say 'Look.' Listen!") Earlier, the same auteur--trying to tell a "Simone Weil or Hannah Arendt"-type story in "a film, or a novel, or an opera"--chases an Arab woman, a non-actress, through a train station to get her to appear in his film. Just as we glean that his motives are less than aesthetically pure, we notice that Godard is focusing not on the characters' faces, but on the boxcars leaving the City of Lights--another Godardian banner reading, Resistance Is Futile.

An hour into its running time, Praise shifts from gorgeous, 35mm black-and-white to digital-video color. A title appears: "Two Years Earlier." Then, seconds later, another appears: "A Long Time Ago." It is not at all clear to me how the two parts of Praise fit together temporally. What is clear is that sound and image--whose schism is Godard's lifelong subject--are engaged in hand-to-hand combat here. And the image wins. Godard elegizes everything: the lost cinema, the end of beaux-arts European culture, the resistance of color in our globalized corporate world, even the capacity to mourn. (Godard's final, digitally color-toasted images of dawn are as ravishing as Monet haystacks.) And yet the movie, with its repeated piano theme reaching a chillingly resolved chord, overwhelms with sadness. Godard's ability to make beauty detaches itself from his desire to communicate ideas about life in the world. One senses him saying, "Let me just make these beautiful things for myself in my little bunker before I die."

We can only be grateful that he has, for no one on the planet can put music and image together as powerfully, as subtly, as tellingly as Godard. In terms of what his future may hold, one can't help wishing for a return to the engagement with life in Numéro Deux (1975), or to the hellion comedy of First Name: Carmen (1984) and Hail Mary (1988). On the other hand, in this blighted era, Praise's near-autistic hunk of embattled aestheticism--its elegy to elegy--is praiseworthy enough.

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