Film Reviews

TIFF 2010: Film Socialisme

The films of Jean-Luc Godard have rarely been accessible, are often slow, but almost always, even the worst ones, have at least a few moments of sheer brilliance and stunning photography throughout. Film Socialisme, Godard’s newest film, which had its North American premiere at TIFF, is certainly slow and inaccessible. In fact, this was by far the slowest and least accessible Godard film I’ve seen, which means that the 10-minute traffic scene in Weekend and the pain that was Masculin Feminin are a rollicking good fast-paced time by comparison. Unfortunately, Godard’s trademark genius and exquisite photography are also often lacking in this film. He seems unaware of what the strengths of the film are; the few small glimpses of greatness are overshadowed by a long and disconnected mess.

Although the primary language of the film is French, and there is at least some dialogue in Russian and Arabic, the film has no subtitles. Intentionally. I am almost fluent in French and can follow along with all of the dialogue and yet, I did not feel like that helped me much in understanding either what was happening in the film or what the point was. There are no characters. There is no plot. Not only is there no plot, but also there is no story. People appear and talk at each other or at the camera now and then, but these can hardly be described as “characters” since they are in no way emotionally involving and the nonsense they spurt can only be understood by the select few that happen to speak the language.

The film can be split up into three main parts: the first takes place on a cruise boat, the second in a Martin gas station, and the final goes all around the world and attempts to – largely unsuccessfully – connect the disconnected threads from the rest of the film. Often, dialogue is undercut by loud noise. Sometimes this is white background noise from the digital camera’s microphone (how dare Godard not use a boom! my ears!) and sometimes it is a loud sound or piece of music overlaid on the audio, making it nearly impossible to decipher the words being said. People seem to philosophize about various subjects and the film seems to be lampooning capitalism and civilization, in typical Godard form, but to what point is much less obvious.

If you can accept that there is little sense to be made of the film, then you might be able to appreciate its few merits. Each frame is masterfully composed, a characteristic of most Godard films. Sometimes the HD digital photography leads to moments of beauty like the shots on the cruise deck at night. Yet instead of using digital photography to enhance his usually skilled shots, he sometimes uses cell-phone-quality video, which is painful to watch and overlays extremely low quality audio. In the 1960s, when Godard made La Chinoise, he put together beautiful shots that were exquisitely lit on a stunning set. Fifty years later, technology is better, yet Godard’s photography has become – intentionally – sloppier through use of low quality video.

The film is at its best when it focuses in on a little boy listening to music. In one scene, he listens to an old classical piece and conducts in the air to an empty room. In another scene, he is listening to retro jazz and blowing bubbles into his milk in time with the music. These scenes made me smile. The young boy was engaging and had the film taken a greater interest in this young boy and some of the other young people that graced the screen with great vitality, it may have been a better film with a clearer message. After all, if Godard is unhappy with present day politics, what better way to point to hope for a different future – or to show the destructive potential of bad politics – than to show these effects on children who will inherit the present day problems.

I did not like Film Socialisme but it also was not a good film. I did not particularly like Godard’s Weekend but it was a beautiful film with clever satire and was even somewhat prescient in its satirizing of the traffic jam from the city to the country on the weekend; there was recently a week-long traffic jam in China. Film Socialisme did not have similar artistic merit: some of the photography may be beautiful, but much is painful to watch. That being said, if you actually enjoy (rather than barely tolerate) David Lynch films like Inland Empire, then you might just get a kick of out of the sheer inaccessibility and pointlessness to Film Socialisme. I looked at my watch every 5 minutes during Inland Empire out of both pain and boredom, yet I think it was a better film than Film Socialisme. Rent Pierrot Le Fou, instead.

Film Socialism shows again at TIFF on:
Sunday, September 19th, 9:30PM @ Tiff Bell LightBox 2

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Alex is the Chief Film Critic and Editor-in-Chief of The Seventh Row, based in San Francisco and from Toronto, Canada. She has been writing film reviews for over a decade for various publications, including The Stanford Daily. She is also a Ph.D. Candidate in Industrial Engineering at Stanford University where she works on how to reduce system-wide food waste and its environmental impact. Alex is particularly passionate about stories about (and by) women, but gets equally excited about "Oslo, August 31st" as "Little Women" — both rank among her favourite films. She's also a keen supporter of Canadian cinema.