The earth has cooled quite a bit since Jean-Luc Godard and other critics-turned-directors of the French New Wave stormed the motion-picture world and electrified a generation of students by overthrowing the prevailing idea of an art film. Their new standard was American popular movies of the past, translated playfully with loads of style and political self-consciousness: Warner Bros. meets the Left Bank. Gene Kelly, Bertolt Brecht, Howard Hawks, Bogie, Freudian Westerns, films noirs, Frank Tashlin slapstick, even sex kitten Brigitte Bardot — all devoured and regurgitated as “film truth.” Godard riffed supreme on beams of light, with delicate, Danish Anna Karina as his Cyd Charisse and ex-boxer Jean-Paul Belmondo as Burt Lancaster.
Godard was drunk on movies, but instead of being giddy and sloppy he was tense and pissed-off, an anti-American who worshiped Hollywood. Young people armed with movie cameras took themselves very seriously in the ’60s, and Godard — the very picture of a Parisian intellectual, bespectacled, ferret-like, with a nervously dangling cigarette and a Swiss Calvinist’s disapproving scowl — took himself the most seriously of all. He was seemingly everywhere. He mau-maued power-mad producers by casting Jack Palance as one, with fangs. He envisioned Jane Fonda and Yves Montand as a reporter-filmmaker, wife-husband team. He hung out with the Rolling Stones. He hurled paving stones with rioting students, at least figuratively. Warner Bros. wanted him to direct Bonnie and Clyde, but he preferred to work with university leftists and, as he put it, to show movies underneath bridges to workers.
Eventually, of course, the entertainment industry moved on to the next sensation and turned its back on Godard and his band of outsiders. In Los Angeles, the term auteur became an insult used to describe someone who thought his schlock was profound. But Godard kept making films, at first for art houses, then mostly for museums, on video, with titles like Histoire(s) du cinéma. Few college students today recognize his name. That’s their loss, because Godard, now an unmellow 74, is making some of the most provocative films of his career. Case in point: 2004’s Notre Musique.
The film opens with Godard’s trademark title cards. In the manner of his recent work, we’re being treated to the really big themes. The movie is a meditation on war and suffering, divided into three sections — Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven. Over portentous music by such composers as Jean Sibelius, Arvo Pärt, Anouar Brahem, and Meredith Monk, Godard’s tour of Hell sobers us up with a string of sad, horrific images from a hundred years of world cinema: Alexander Nevsky, Ran, Zulu, Vietnam war newsreels, Westerns, Bosnian civil war video clips.
Then all of a sudden we’re in Purgatory, which is to say contemporary Sarajevo, ten years after the civil war. If nothing else, Notre Musique‘s numerous languid establishing shots function as a thoughtful travelogue on the Bosnian capital, now returned to somewhat normal life but still plagued by bullet-pocked walls, half-wrecked buildings, and the awful memories of the conflict. Sarajevo is a place that we know reeks of violent death, but, as one character observes, it’s also a city that is trying to move forward. The beautiful green Mostar River looks particularly inviting. In this part of the film, Godard plays himself as a guest lecturer at the European Literary Encounters conference, where he interacts with a procession of actors playing parts, as well as with distinguished visitors like Spanish novelist Juan Goytisolo and Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish.
Godard is famous for having his characters get up and declaim on art and politics. For him, the proscenium was made to be broken. (In his 1983 genre piece Detective, he even makes fun of his own tendencies: “We’re not in some little French movie where the characters believe that talking is thinking.”) Notre Musique moves those asides to the foreground. The ostensible narrative line is the parallel stories of two otherwise unrelated Israeli women at the conference, Judith Lerner (Sarah Adler) and Olga Brodsky (Nade Dieu), but their stories are more or less garnish for the somber feast of ideas and tableaux. The subject matter is intensely deep-dish, but Godard is still enough of a showman to make his emblematic characters breathe a bit, so we can recognize they’re just like us.
At one point, someone asks Godard why revolutions aren’t started by humane people. He replies: “That’s because humane people don’t start revolutions, they start libraries.” One of the best sequences takes place in the ruined Sarajevo public library, a gutted shell really, with fire barrels burning in the corners of a great empty room in which people are sorting through piles of books, trying to catalogue them. We can hear the muezzin calling through the open windows as snow flurries blow in. Like Jean-Pierre Léaud delivering a speech while strutting around a farm field in 18th-century costume in Weekend, a Native American man and woman in full buckskin regalia suddenly appear out of nowhere. They’re to remind us that in war there are winners and losers, as does Arab poet Darwish (“There is more inspiration in defeat than victory”). And yet when the lecturing gets too heavy, characters are liable to break into a song or dance in the middle of a room — the lasting influence of Stanley Donen and MGM musicals on Godard. The director has long since traded his romantic-comedy parodies for dense, allusive essays on the interconnectedness of visual culture, but his montage is as deadly as ever and his palette is seemingly every camera shot that has ever been made, from Howard Hawks’ His Girl Friday to a forlorn cityscape of Richmond, Virginia, in 1865 after its destruction by the victorious Yankees, looking much like the worst days of Sarajevo.
Godard has never been much of a people person; ideas were always more important. His most sympathetic character may have been poor, mixed-up Pierrot le Fou, or perhaps the unwed-mother stand-in for the Virgin Mary in Hail Mary. But the briefly sketched tales of reporter Judith and Russian-Jewish Olga are genuinely moving. How does one develop a conscience in the age of multinationalism and digital recording? And where does one proceed from there? Olga may have a clue. The short third section takes us directly to Heaven, a strange forest of children, games, and US Navy sailors. Godard seems disdainful of the place. Its unreality and lack of apprehension is disturbing compared to the grim but hopeful streets of Sarajevo. He could be spending his maturity making nostalgia pieces like Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Dreamers, but Godard is not content to dream of the past. He’s vitally interested in history, 21st-century politics, culture, and the power of images — difficult problems of meaning. In other words, he’s still hard.