Dir.  Jean-Luc Goddard. France. 2010.

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Goddard continues his iconoclastic exploration of the boundaries and standards of cinema in his latest impenetrable work, with a discourse focussing on language, history, oil and image ownership.

Images of the sea open Goddard’s new film, which, if not careful, will leave you lost within them without land in sight. Like most Goddard admirers, my knowledge of his oeuvre has a distinct cut-off point from when he vanished into political and experimental filmmaking after the 1960s closed its doors on its most beloved auteur. Being a man famous for swinging from side to side not only in his political views but also in his stance towards his own films perhaps accounts for the lack of widespread interest or relevance attributed to his later output, even though his legend continues to grow through it. But more likely the fact that Film Socialisme is being hailed as Goddard’s most mainstream effort in decades says a lot more about why these films go unseen.

The auteur is dead, and so is cinema. Well so says Goddard. But these extreme statements aren’t so hard to grasp with what is on display here, even if a new cinema shows the possibility of an emergence from under these rubbles. Looking first at the film as film, as an allegory and example of cinema, the auteur question soon comes forth. The pic was made with a lot of historical stock footage being edited together, questioning the authority of authorship in a generation obsessed with the short clips of youtube. At times the film plays like an extended combination of youtube clips, with no narrative to hold and link them together. Cinema losing its time and spatial reference points. To his credit Goddard has always been a cinematic youth, always pushing at the forefront of technology and its possibilities, and his age has not diminished this enthusiasm. He never feels part of an older generation, relying on old ideas. It seems vital to him and his cinema to be part of the flux. But the question of authorship with Film Socialisme is not such a simple one. For me, it’s a case of the auteur is dead, long live the auteur. For even though the clips were not all filmed by Goddard, authorship can still be claimed from the old conceptualist principal that it is not relevant that he made them, more that he chose them. And this seems to be part of the crux of what Goddard is touching on here. Inside the film itself is a defiant statement against copyrights and image ownership, focussing on the effects they have on how we perceive images, and by extension history. Goddard wants these images, ones that have shaped and became part of our lives, to be as much ours as anybody else’s. It all harks back to the Marxist epithet about he who owns the means of production. To own the images is in a sense to own history. If the ownership is with individuals instead of corporations, perhaps a different history will reveal itself? A socialist history we can control, edit and put into our own contexts, as Goddard does here in terms of money and oil being central players. Oil’s role in recorded history receives an interesting treatment as a camera crew are constantly getting into trouble while trying to film at a petrol station, where a female petrol attendant refuses gas to certain customers based on their nationalities. A simple yet powerful metaphor.

A key follow on from this idea, and one that made one man quickly exit from the nearly empty to begin with screening I attended, is the use of subtitles within the film. Anyone without a grasp of the multitude of different languages spoken in the film will find no solace from the subtitles, which deliberately refuse verbatim translation for a minimal staccato of sometimes related, sometimes not words. Frustration mounts as a spectator to begin with, as you get the feeling Goddard is just trying to show off his language ability and laugh at the less able. But I decide to endure it, giving him credit that there is a greater purpose to it, and that the film was not just produced for multi-linguists. As theory, the alternative approach to subtitles is another example of Goddard’s iconoclastic view of cinema conventions. Why should subtitles merely give one language’s vocabulary for an equivalent in another? Surely something is always lost from the original culture in this way that expression in another language cannot replicate. Should subtitles be our guide into a culture, or are they a barrier which prohibits us from completely understanding it, encouraging our reliance on our own language and its entrenched ideas? It’s as though Goddard is saying that cinema is always explained to us in “our terms” in “our language”, and as a consequence the film rejects the idea of explaining itself to American or Western audiences, telling us that history goes beyond American and European perspectives.

Also from this we feel Goddard is looking himself for a new language of cinema, as he always has been. Goddard is famed for his quote that cinema is truth 24 frames per second, though it is hard to believe that he would still hold true to those words now. Realism finds an intriguing discourse through a juxtaposition between the endless, deepness of the sea, with the constant photographing seen onboard a cruise liner and film recording onshore. The comparison works beautifully not just in the negative-positive space of photographs and the sea, but also in their depth and durée. The metaphor extends as an allegory for the state of modern cinema, where everyone owns a camera, and everyone can therefore make films, which has resulted in a sea of images, and perhaps a loss of the real.

In Film Socialisme film is dead, and narrative is gone, but Goddard still gives birth to some breathtakingly fresh forms of cinema. Three scenes stand out where Goddard lets his playfulness, imagination and love of cinema come to the fore, all of which appropriately enough involve a young boy and music. Firstly a scene where he composes along to a symphony, then falls asleep, only to awake and open his mouth in accordance with musical notes finds great tenderness in its simplicity and joy of life. This is mirrored in a subsequent scene where a straw in a milk glass becomes the saxophone of a jazz track. The final moving scene has a child with his eyes closed reaching out and touching his mother who is washing the dishes. The child grabs at her clothes and body from feet to head with eyes closed all the time, and then gives her a hug at the end. You can’t help but feel Goddard’s young soul in the child, fondling blindly without any preconceptions at the feminine body of cinema, and finally holding it tightly to his chest. The simple interplay of sound and image through these scenes show you that all that’s needed is fresh, indiscriminating eyes, and cinema can be born again from its ashes.

Shaun McDonald

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