By Don Simpson | December 23, 2011
Director: Jean-Luc Godard
Writer: Jean-Luc Godard
Starring: Jean-Marc Stehlé, Agatha Couture, Mathias Domahidy, Quentin Grosset, Olga Riazanova, Maurice Sarfati, Patti Smith, Lenny Kaye, Bernard Maris, Marie-Christine Bergier, Nadège Beausson-Diagne, Bob Maloubier, Dominique Devals, Alain Badiou, Elias Sanbar, Catherine Tanvier, Christian Sinniger, Marine Battaggia, Gulliver Hecq, E. Anzoni, Élisabeth Vitali, Eye Haidera
I had a dream last night that I watched a Hollywood action film directed by Jean-Luc Godard. Even in my dream state I was shocked that Godard chose to abide by all of the standard — and tired — tropes and conventions associated with Hollywood action films (if I remember correctly, Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger had prominent roles in the film). I recognize that it is no mere coincidence that this dream occurred a few hours after viewing his latest — and arguably most opaque — film, Film Socialisme. My mind was obviously toying with me, because Film Socialisme is just about as far away from a Hollywood action film as any filmmaker could possibly get. Then again, maybe I was playing with my own mind by watching Steven Spielberg’s The Adventures of Tintin the same day as my Film Socialisme viewing. Certainly the two films are as opposite as you can find in the world of cinema (though they both take place out at sea and deal with a search for a long lost treasure), as if the two directors are fervently reacting against each other. If this was true, it would not be the first (or last) time Godard gave Spielberg a celluloid bitch-slap. (In Praise of Love anyone?)
I can say with absolute confidence that Godard has never made a film that could possibly be confused with a Hollywood film. Even when Godard was making [what he considered to be] genre films in the early 1960s, he was creating his own playful reinterpretations of Hollywood cinema; these films philosophized about and reacted against the genre films that had been produced in the United States. Over the course of his 50-odd year career, Godard has repeatedly turned any filmmaking traditions and conventions which had been long-propagated in Hollywood as the gospel of cinema on their head. So, for audiences raised on a steady diet of Hollywood cinema, Godard’s oeuvre is nearly impossible to stomach, let alone digest. Does Godard care? No. In fact, his films have become remarkably more obtuse since the mid-1960s.
Film Socialisme is certainly no exception. In fact for English-speaking audiences, Godard obliterates any resemblance of coherent/cohesive dialog (or narrative) by releasing Film Socialisme with what he refers to as “Navajo” English subtitles. By doing so, Godard deconstructs the primarily French dialog into an oblique code that isolates (and occasionally concatenates) specific nouns and verbs [presumably] from the spoken dialog. It is not without bitter and jaded irony that the “Navajo” English subtitles recount most of the words that I, as a novice French-speaker, am able to recognize from the dialog; so Godard has essentially translated the dialog just as I would piece together my own interpretation of French — by stringing together random words that I can recognize forthright with no consideration of grammar or structure. But without grammar or structure, the words remain just that, words; thus Film Socialisme plays to me as a silent film. The spoken dialog becomes part of the film’s soundtrack and the subtitles present mere clues of what might be going on. This tactic works surprisingly well for me, as it allows me to focus on the hypnotic array of images that Godard presents onscreen. I did, however, walk away from the screening with absolutely no clue about the meaning or purpose of Film Socialisme — and it is difficult to ignore the inherently Godardian “fuck you” to the Anglophone imperialists in the audience. It is as if Godard does not want us non-Francophones to know the true meaning or purpose of Film Socialisme.
Luckily for us ignorant Anglophone imperialists in the audience, Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray and DVD release of Film Socialisme features two subtitle options: Godard’s “Navajo” English and a full English translation of all of the film’s dialog. Eventually I will cheat and watch Film Socialisme with the full English translation, but for now I plan on remaining in this strange state of blissful naiveté…