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Godard has nothing left to say.
on June 7, 2005
Notre Musique is the newest work by the legendary French director Jean-Luc Godard. The film is shot in a documentary style, but it is not entirely non-fictional; it is neither a documentary nor a feature film, but rather, a sort of cinematic treatise. Godard's chosen subject is war, and he breaks it down according to a rigid, three-part structure. The parts are entitled "Hell," "Purgatory" and "Paradise," in reference to Dante; presumably, Godard's objective here is to show how humanity might escape "Hell," or the horrors of war, by cleansing itself in "Purgatory," and thereby finally attain "Paradise."
The first section consists of a montage of war imagery, from all countries and time periods: Holocaust victims, cowboys and Indians, French grenadiers, the American North and South, and so on. The camera flies between these disparate scenes for a few minutes without staying on any one image for long. Finally, as the screen fades to black, a voice informs us, "Death can be viewed in two ways: the possible of the impossible, and the impossible of the possible."
Is Godard trying to say that death is impossible, or that we wrongly perceive death as impossible, or that death marks the moment when the impossible becomes possible, or what? And, supposing any of those were true, so what? What conclusions should we draw? What is the significance of this cryptic observation? Godard leaves it unexplained, providing us with the first of many examples of the way in which this film uses horrific human catastrophes as a backdrop for empty, vague, often arrogant moralizing.
The second section takes place in Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia, which was besieged by the Bosnian Serb Army during the nineties. Godard now introduces a plot: a literary conference is taking place in this city, and famous artists are going there to discuss how war might be averted through art. Among them is a young Israeli woman named Olga (a fictional character), who travels to Sarajevo to gain insight into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Godard wishes to present this conference as a blueprint for the moral and intellectual "Purgatory" that mankind has to go through in order to end all war.
But why does this conference have such far-reaching importance? For instance, why is it relevant to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Well, someone in the film asks that very question. The answer given by the organizer of the conference is, "I wanted to see a place where reconciliation was possible."
The presumptuousness of this statement is offensive. Godard is a European from a country that was itself partial in the conflict. Here he represents a side that exerted heavy influence, of a violent and destructive nature, on the outcome of that conflict. Without discussing or even acknowledging this fact, he is announcing, in part to the same people that his side helped bomb, that reconciliation is now possible for them. But why should they accept what he says? Is he, perhaps, merely saying that the violence has died down, and that now it is possible to begin rebuilding? But that isn't true: recall the clashes in Kosovo during March of 2004, when thousands of Serbs were driven from their homes, while Western forces were helpless to do anything.
Later, when the camera pans over a dilapidated marketplace, Godard opines (again through Olga), "The defeated are the truly lucky ones." So was Carthage "lucky" to be defeated by Rome? Please tell me this is a joke.
Then there's a scene in which Godard himself gives a talk for some film students in Sarajevo. He shows photographs of Israelis and Palestinians; then, for no reason whatsoever, he shows two stills from some black-and-white American film or other, and says that their similarity proves that the director of the film "did not comprehend the difference between men and women." In between these different trains of thought, he utters bizarre aphorisms, such as, "We say to let the facts speak for themselves. But Celine once said, 'They will not for much longer.' That was in 1936," or, "It's the accountants who do all the books. Balzac spoke of a Great Ledger." What has this to do with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? And what has that to do with film class?
But that's just the norm for this film, which is full of risible non sequiturs. Consider one scene, where some guy speaks to Olga in Russian, but she cuts him off, for this reason: "I distrust the Russian language. In fact, I only regret that the powerful notion the Russians have of evil alienates them from conscience." Actually, Russian art, far from being "alienated" from conscience, often features it as a central theme; just recall the novels Crime And Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov, or the play Boris Godunov. So how does Godard have Olga justify her inane assertion? She goes on to say, "It is due to the syntax [of the Russian language]." That is, Godard claims that the mechanics of a language serve to "alienate" the speakers of that language from moral reasoning. I hope you aren't going to ask for examples, because Godard doesn't give any.
It goes on. Olga states that "suicide is the most important philosophical problem." Then why all the talk about war? Elsewhere, an American Indian walks into the ruins of a library and demands to know when the mistreatment of his people will end. A legitimate grievance, possibly, but what is the dude doing in Sarajevo? Some other guy says, "I only believe stories whose witnesses would have their throats cut." Is he saying that he only believes first-hand accounts of war, or that he believes that people who tell stories should be willing to die for them? Either way, what's his point?
The third section shows Olga sitting with a soldier in a quiet glade, in a symbol of humanity achieving peace. But, by this point, after sitting through so many lifeless, artificial pronouncements, it's hard to believe that Godard is all that concerned with humanity.