Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Godard Marathon Day 17: In Praise Of Love (2001); Notre Musique (2004)

In Praise Of Love (2001); viewing: first

Ravaged with a nasty bout of allergies (as I've been for the past week, ugh), I finally settled in for my final day of Godard viewing. Up first was Éloge de l'amour aka In Praise of Love, the 2001 feature from Godard that I knew very little about, apart from the fact that while it received a pretty dismal reception from American critics upon its initial release (a mere month after 9/11), Godard aficionados generally tend to hold it in extremely high regard as yet another epochal film in the directors oeuvre. The film is a quiet yet deep meditation on age, love, memory and of course, cinema, that is split up into two parts: the first, filmed in black and white and set in Paris, deals with a man named Edgar (Bruno Putzulu) trying to realize a project that is to be about the four stages of love: "the encounter," "physical passion," "separation," and "reunion." For this project, he is seeking a mysterious, unnamed woman (Cecile Camp) whom he feels will be perfect for the part of the lead character, Eglantine, and goes about tracking her down. Around the hour mark, the film switches to saturated, acidic color and the title card "Two Years Earlier". Here, in addition to learning that indeed Edgar and the mystery woman (whose name we learn is Elle) had a history together, we are shown the story of the proprietors of a hotel who are former Resisters, and have sold the story of their lives during that period to Steven Spielberg to make a Hollywood film out of, starring Juliette Binoche.

By now I've gotten quite used to the abstract methodology of these later Godard films that places minimal importance on plot, and major importance on emotion and the senses, and have found for the most part no trouble connecting with the majority of them on both emotional and aesthetic levels, getting swept away by the poetic beauty of the images and the graceful flow of the dialogue. Those qualities are undoubtedly present in In Praise of Love, and while I did admire the film quite a bit, I never found myself completely enraptured by it, and yet I am utterly baffled as far as identifying what it was that kept me from fully embracing it. There were things here I loved: the switch to brilliant colors for the last half hour; the use of literary quotations once again for much of the dialogue that seemed heartfelt and unusually poetic; and one particular scene towards the end I found to be simply gorgeous, involving Elle questioning her grandmother on her wartime experience. The grandmother sits with Elle and recounts tales of traveling across America, relaying her experiences in the concentration camps to audiences who listened to and viewed her then the way people do television now. There is a pronounced sadness to the scene, and all throughout it the grandmother is holding a lit cigarette at rest, her hand positioned underneath a lamp, the smoke rising up through the top of the shade giving the impression of a quiet volcano spewing steam. It's a poignant visual metaphor for the years of pent up emotions the grandmother has obviously been carrying around, and which are only now finally being expressed in the presence of her granddaughter.

And yet for all of the wonderful things, I still can't help but feel that something was lacking for me here on a single viewing, and I just can't rank this among the best Godard pictures I've seen. It's frustrating for me that I'm not able to work out what exactly it is that left me slightly underwhelmed; there were many things particularly in the first hour of the film, having to do with the relationship Edgar has to an older art dealer and various characters appearing in both segments that highly confused me, and perhaps this aspect of the film (an aspect I felt was probably an important one) will clear up for me with future viewings, and allow me to pick up some subtle stuff I missed. But I would be lying if I said that In Praise of Love didn't leave me quite intrigued, especially in regards to its form and the implications behind it. And don't get me wrong, I did feel the ideas coming out of it and the undercurrent of sadness and nostalgia here. I just didn't feel it for some reason. And so I will leave it at this: Though there was something missing for me in the experience, I am far from through with this film.

Notre Musique (2004); viewing: first

My last film in this Godard marathon is 2004's Notre Musique, a haunting and despairing movie separated into three parts inspired by Dante's Divine Comedy: the first part, titled Kingdom I: Hell, is a 10 minute montage of war footage - both real and fake - depicting the carnage of battle and the suffering that is brought about by war, set to classical music. The second part, titled Kingdom II: Purgatory, takes up the bulk of the film, and it introduces a narrative involving Godard himself arriving in Sarajevo to give a lecture at an arts conference. A second narrative strand introduces us to two young women; the first, Judith Learner (Sarah Adler), is a Jewish journalist from Israel, who has come to speak to the French ambassador to Bosnia regarding peace between the Israelis and Palestinians. The second women is named Olga (Nade Dieu), and is the niece of Godard's translator, who broods and expresses to her uncle the desire to commit suicide. The third segment, titled Kingdom III: Heaven, shows Olga, now apparently in the afterlife, wandering around a wooded area by the sea guarded by U.S. Marines. She eventually settles down near a young man eating an apple, and the film ends as she takes the apple from him and begins eating it, in a bit of Garden of Eden imagery.

Notre Musique is above all a deep and lyrical reflection on the meaning of conflict, the effects of war, and the fragility of communication. It is also of course firmly entrenched in Jewish history and the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, a subject I am sadly undereducated in. Nevertheless, the performances are wonderful all around, particularly Sarah Adler as the Judith character, and do a great job, along with Godard's thoughtful camera, of conveying the gravity and historical significance of the images presented. The film is also fascinating for its structure, introducing the viewers first to a literal Hell by way of brutal war imagery, then to the Purgatory of its characters trapped in the void of a life surrounded by tragedy and pointless violence, and finally with a tortured soul roaming about an enigmatic afterlife. There is a great profundity to the way Godard ties the various themes together, and it in many ways to me feels like his wisest and most considerate work. It is certainly the most accessible of his later films, with a somewhat cohesive narrative framework and more intimate cast of characters. It goes without saying (and I feel like a broken record to keep harping on this in every writeup) that a film as dense as Notre Musique will surely require multiple viewings in order to sift additional meanings from its various layers and complexities, but for right now I am content in saying that it's up there for me alongside my favorites of all the late Godard films I've watched recently. Pretty stunning stuff.


Ed Howard said...

In Praise of Love definitely deserves better than the offhand dismissals it received back in 2001, because of its timing and because it dared to mock Spielberg and commercial cinema. Like you, it's not one of my personal favorites, but it's a typically complex and thought-provoking film. I especially love Godard's use of digital processing techniques in the second half, and the moment when he steps into the film himself to deliver a lecture on the image.

As for Notre musique, it's an utter masterpiece. It's intimately connected to the Histoire(s) du cinema, especially its opening, which is a condensed form of the style Godard developed in that epic video project and the related short films like On the Origin of the 21st Century. The opening is harrowing and viscerally affecting, and sets the stage for the remainder of the film's examination of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. It's bookended by the final scenes, in which Godard's vision of Heaven is a fragile, ambiguous thing, a small patch of paradise that needs to be protected by force. I've always thought that was his elegant metaphor for Israel itself, questioning the value of an idyllic Heaven that needs armed soldiers posted at its borders at all times.

Drew said...

Thanks for the great comments as always Ed. For some reason these comments get delayed sometimes and don't show up until hours later, I don't know what causes that. Anyway, it sounds like we are very much on the same page with these two. While I of course didn't love In Praise of Love, I definitely agree with you that it deserved better than its dismissive initial reception. In particular, Roger Ebert's (who I normally love) take I found extremely weird; having initially liked the film, he then rescinded his praise in favor of a bitter review calling it a "rote work, used to conceal old tricks, facile name-calling, the loss of hope, and emptiness."

I am definitely inclined to agree with you about Notre Musique being a masterpiece. I probably put it right up there with Nouvelle vague and Passion as far as my favorite post-60's works go. I was going to discuss my exclusion of Histoire(s) du cinema a bit in my final thoughts - which should be posted sometime this week - but yeah, I am definitely compelled to finally watch it seeing as how the beginning of Notre Musique blew me away. It also reminded me of his super short film Une catastrophe (I think that's what it's called).