July 29, 2010
Having never personally walked out on a film in the cinema it was fascinating to watch so many people hurriedly, frustrated and constantly leave ACMI 2 on Sunday night during the screening of Jean-Luc Godard’s latest, Film Socialisme (Socialism, 2010). I’m not sure if it’s because they were expecting the likes of A bout de Souffle (Breathless, 1960) or even Le Mepris (Contempt, 1963), unaware of Godard’s more recent string of arrogant, elitist cinematic works, or, if it was perhaps that Film Socialisme in and of itself is far too inaccessible and abrasive for a majority of cinema-goers. Either way, it certainly caused a bit of a stir (much to Godard’s delight no doubt) and, for all its pomp, is worth sitting through, not just because you shouldn’t let the smug old bastard get the better of you, but because it is actually a very thoughtful and provocative film, deserving of both the time and concentration it demands of its viewers.
As someone who doesn’t particularly enjoy what might be considered “passive” cinema, I find the challenge of unpacking something so incredibly dense, theoretically and philosophically loaded to be a rewarding, yet still arduous, task. If there was even an inkling of doubt in anyone’s mind as to the complexity of the ideas in Film Socialisme, these were immediately dispelled as the title credits flashed up on-screen, revealing the involvement of one Alain Badiou. It was clear already that this film would at the very least contemplate the role of individual subjectivity within its greater contemporary global social context. Heavily layered and somewhat aesthetically manic, Film Socialisme is a commentary on the way in which we negotiate our global existence and a question over the ethics of our actions and experiences.
It begins on a cruise ship and follows a type of segmented forward trajectory that explicates Godard’s Euro-centric view on the ethics of international tourism. The partial, stilted, subtitled translation throughout employed to further implicate and alienate western audiences, put perfectly through the sarcastic words of a child, “It’s true if it’s in English.” There are three main “chapters” to the film; Des Choses comme ca (Such Things), Notre Europe (Our Europe) and Nos Humanites (Our Humanities) and six specific locations; Egypt, Palestine, Odessa, Hellas, Naples and Barcelona. The “chapters” separate the three main themes in the film; human interest in indulgent, superfluous and postmodern activities; the conscience of Euro-centric socialism; and the ethical question as it pertains to a philosophical consideration of “humanity”.
Film Socialisme opens with conversation surrounding “white Algiers” against visuals of a tumultuous sea; the frothing white at the surface looking markedly out-of-place in an otherwise natural, calm environment. This level of subtle metaphor is sustained throughout the film and, even if your French is so pitiful as my own, the correlation between dialogue and image is always apparent, though visual tone certainly takes precedence in the context of the overall “moral project” of the film. There is constant reference made to “currency” and the notion of “exchange” that capitalist success is built upon as well a clear critique of the consequences of misunderstanding and misinterpretation due to a global preference and reliance upon language rather than images and actions. Certainly in my mind at least, it seems Godard’s latest film is informed by a Levinasian ethics of the Other and the “face-to-face” encounter he speaks of (see Colin Davis’ Levinas: An Introduction).
Featuring images from Sergei Eisenstein’s famous and acclaimed Battleship Potemkin (1925) amongst a plethora of other historical and archive footage, the film culminates in a succession of bold imagery that homages Soviet montage and aims to shock its audience into consciousness. Claiming “smiles dismiss the universe”, Godard is claiming in no uncertain terms that we shouldn’t approach places and people of historical significance with such flippancy and personal pleasure as is attributable to the act of tourism for it inherently denies historical comprehension and unethically annihilates the Other.
Anything but easy viewing, Film Socialisme is a lot of things – and not all of them are necessarily good. Demanding its audience participate in an “active” viewing experience, it is in my mind an achievement in contemporary cinema (even if it is occasionally flawed and pretentious.) But most importantly, if you’re going to see it, I urge you, don’t walk out! In doing so you’re only confirming Godard’s condescension. Great film, smug bastard.
Film Socialisme is screening as part of this year’s MIFF and will be screening again Friday July 30, 2.30pm and Saturday August 07, 4.45pm in ACMI 2.