In Revue: Socialism(e) on Film
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In Revue: Socialism(e) on Film

Because Toronto’s more movie-obsessed than a Quentin Tarantino screenplay (yuk yuk), Torontoist brings you In Revue, a weekly roundup of new releases.

Age hasn’t tempered Jean-Luc Godard. The eighty-year-old auteur is more defiant than ever with his latest film. Illustration by Chloe Cushman/Torontoist.

So this week we’re still caught in the holiday lull, with very few films opening up around town. The Lightbox will be launching Gaspar Noe’s Enter the Void, but that’s been available for a while at some of the city’s video stores that deal in region-free DVDs. And in case you missed it, last week, Barney’s Version opened in selected theatres. But the big boy this week is the release of Jean-Luc Godard’s latest (and, some macabre fatalists project, last) feature, Film Socialisme.
The film caused a small uproar at TIFF this year, when it screened without subtitles, resulting in many viewers hightailing it out of the theatre. Well, it wasn’t a goof. The film (presented in Russian, French, German, and a half-dozen other languages) is subtitled with minimalist, two- or three-word text. And if that sounds alienating, these so-dubbed “Navajo” subtitles (named after the jerky English spoken by Native-Americans in old Westerns, where “Do you know what time it is?” may turn into “YOU TIME TELL”) are just one of Film Socialisme‘s many dense folds. But like anything, the challenges yield considerable rewards.
Well, maybe.

FIlm Socialisme

Directed by Jean-Luc Godard

There’s a pretty good SNL sketch from back in the day in which Jon Lovitz, dressed up as Pablo Picasso in a striped shirt and barely passable bald cap, pays for a meal by squiggling a rough doodle on the bill, spitefully barking “I’m Picasso!” The idea, rich in its implications, is that a worthless doodle from Picasso, even one cast in utter contempt, is inherently valuable. Why? Because he’s Picasso!
The latest from Jean-Luc Godard, the dreadfully named Film Socialisme, is bound to raise questions similar to those suggested by this bit of late-night Lovitz ephemera.
As boundless in its opacity as it is in its mystique, Film Socialisme is like a scornful epistle scrawled by Godard for his most vehement detractors. Anyone looking to have their sanctimonious views of the now-eighty-year-old Godard as a navel-gazing, anti-Semitic, anti-humanist purveyor of hollow polemics need look no further than Film Socialisme. But at the same time, it’s precisely the director’s disdain for these turncoats—those who couch their appraisals in well-rehearsed qualifiers like “Breathless redefined the grammar of the cinema, but…”—that gives Film Socialisme its extraordinary, frequently evanescent power.
Largely plotless (there’s some stuff on a cruise ship involving, among much else, rocker Patti Smith and a potential war criminal, then some scenes with a llama tied up in front of a gas station, then a photo essay itemizing the collapse of a bunch of global empires), Film Socialisme may well be the most radical film from a filmmaker who built his rep on the rejigging of cinema’s latent artistic and intellectual possibilities. (Potential tagline: “It Makes Weekend Look Like Weekend At Bernie’s!”) It’s far from the style of sexy ‘60s Godard that vaulted him to superstar status and has inflected everything from the direct-address militancy of Reginald Harkema’s Monkey Warfare to the precisely positioned, emotionally vacant tableau vivants of Wes Anderson. But palatability is of zero concern. Film Socialisme exists as scraps of scattered ruminations, presented with minimally subtitled polyglot dialogue, bound by Godard’s insolent self-assurance in his own mastery of cinema.
Just what exactly happens proves difficult to describe. But more important is that Film Socialisme, whatever it is, affects. Its cool, maybe callous, remove from its characters, and almost perfunctory late-game connection to history’s larger ebb and flow, makes the title seem more than a bit cheeky. But Socialisme’s politics are configured more in form than content: in its multilingual audio track and its multivalent cacophony of ideas. Like many of Godard’s better films, it’s most suggestive in its style; in its capacity to suggest an alternative to conventional models of the cinema. And as these commercial, mainstream (i.e. “Hollywood”) moulds become more staid and reified with each passing Transformers sequel, it would only make sense that Godard’s responses become more fractured and multifarious.
It’s the kind of inherently divisive piece of work that some may regard as an indulgent ninety-minute screensaver and others will hail with reactionary vigour as the director’s daringly challenging late period masterwork. It’s somewhere in the middle that the film’s undeniably resonant impressions and less contrived profundities are bound to remain.
End of film? End of cinema? No comment.
Film Socialism(e) opened Thursday, December 30 for a limited engagement at TIFF Bell Lightbox. Click here for showtimes.