Some years ago a friend of mine said that the people who claimed that the new Jean-Luc Godard movie was a return to form were exactly the same people who claimed every new Dylan album was as good as his '60s work. Well, Dylan has been making terrific records again for the past 10 years. What's Godard's excuse?
Critics have sounded the "Godard is back" drumbeat every few years since the director slammed the door on commercial filmmaking with 1967's "Weekend," the last of the 15 movies he had made since his 1959 debut, "Breathless." This happened in 1972 for "Tout Va Bien" and in 1975 for "Numéro Deux." It happened in 1980 for "Every Man for Himself" and in 1984 for "First Name: Carmen." It happened in 1990 for "Nouvelle Vague," and now it's happening again for his latest film, "In Praise of Love." Ever since it played at last year's Cannes and New York film festivals, the advance word on "In Praise of Love" has been that it's Godard's most accessible/tender/mature/insert eternally hopeful adjective here film in years. Now 72, Godard is being acclaimed for an autumnal '68 Comeback Special.
In some critical circles there's been a growing belief that Godard's post-"Weekend" work is just as vital, if not superior, to his initial '60s burst. But anyone who's been lured to any of his "comebacks" and been disappointed can be forgiven for being suspicious. The question to be asked of the laudatory word from Cannes and New York is, Can 50 Godard fans be wrong? And the unfortunate answer is yes.
"In Praise of Love" is the work of an exhausted, desiccated talent who can't get out of his own way. Godard's artistic deterioration has been particularly heartbreaking because, as his sensibility has atrophied, his visual gifts have matured. The primary colors of his '60s films, derived from movie posters and advertising and the era's graphic design, gave way, in movies like "Detective" and especially "First Name: Carmen" (on which he reunited with Raoul Coutard, who shot most of the director's '60s work), to a deep, rich burnished glow that could have been derived from the old masters. The burnish of the images in "First Name: Carmen," combined with the flow Godard shows in the editing rhythms and in the use of Beethoven string quartets to underscore the images, can lull you into thinking that something is actually going on in the film. Clearly, Godard's rejection of pop is for the director some sort of reaching for the solace and depth of classical culture.
What it adds up to, though, in "In Praise of Love" as in the films that have preceded it, is a retreat, a shutting out of the world. In "Carmen," Godard made fun of being out of sync, casting himself as a washed-up shambling wreck of a movie director named "Uncle Jean." "In Praise of Love" is just the sort of movie you might expect from that self-loathing caricature.
As far as I can tell, the first half of the film, in black-and-white and set in Paris, deals with the attempts of a young director (Bruno Putzulu) to make a movie on what he calls "the four stages of love ... meeting, attraction, separation, reconciliation." In the second half, taking place two and a half years before, set in Brittany and shot in color-drenched digital video (some of it striking, some looking like the cover of the great lost Yes album), the director is interviewing figures from the French resistance as preparation for writing a cantata based on the life and work of Simone Weil.
The confusion about what's happening has nothing to do with the elliptical narrative. Godard has always referred to himself, rightly, as more an essayist than a storyteller. But even if you're used to his methods, the episodic structure, the constant intrusion of references and graphics designed to make a quick point, the alienation techniques, "In Praise of Love" is damn near impossible to follow. And the reason, I think, is that the people in Godard's films have ceased to function for him as actors or even personalities, ceased to be anything more than his mouthpieces.
There is none of the torment and adoration with which he looked at his then wife Anna Karina in the series of films they made together. Nothing like the distanced affection he showed for the vitality and emptiness of the young people played by Jean-Pierre Léaud and Chantal Goya, or for the young revolutionaries in "La Chinoise." I've seen "In Praise of Love" twice now and both times it took me a while to distinguish between the actor playing the director and the one playing his assistant.
Godard is not entirely dead to faces. In the film's first half, there's a cut from an old woman talking about the burden that time is for the elderly to a young woman alone on a bench in the Paris evening, the lights of the city blurred behind her. That shot, and another of a young homeless couple dossing down for the night in a doorway, show traces of photographers Brassaï or Cartier-Bresson. The random shots of Parisians that dot the film suggest that, if he had the will, Godard might be the movies' great poet of urban alienation. Yet if you compare these shots to what Michael Almereyda has already achieved along those lines in "Nadja" and "Hamlet," they evaporate because, unlike Almereyda's work, they are not tied to anything, not supported by the surrounding movie.
So what is Godard's concern here? The evil of America, the long reach of cultural imperialism and the particular way that is reflected in the rot of Hollywood. It may be that Sept. 11 delayed "In Praise of Love" from being released in time to capitalize on the acclaim it received at the Cannes and New York festivals last year. And rejecting what the movie has to say may rouse Godard's partisans to claim that American insularity and xenophobia are behind the rejection. Any American critic who criticizes a film critical of America is letting himself in for accusations about America's inability to comprehend other cultures. (I'm just waiting for the letters.) But when even J. Hoberman in the Village Voice refers to the film's anti-Americanism as "callow" (as he did last fall), something is up.
"Americans have no real past ... so they buy the past of others," says a character at one point and the sheer ludicrousness of that statement coming from Godard should make you, at the least, embarrassed for him. How can Godard talk about Americans having no stories of their own, no past of their own (he claims we don't even have a name) when his first film was based on American gangster movies and dedicated to an American B-movie studio (Monogram Pictures)? Of his initial 15 movies, at least four besides "Breathless" could to be said to be based on that quintessentially American genre, the film noir ("Band of Outsiders," "Pierrot le Fou," "Alphaville" and "Made in U.S.A."). Three of those were based on American pulp thrillers. And one of Godard's films, "A Woman Is a Woman," is an homage to American movie musicals. (What's wrong with American movies now isn't that we're taking other people's stories but that we're still telling the same damn stories over and over and over again.)
At the end of his laudatory New Yorker review of "In Praise of Love," Anthony Lane -- as usual, missing the point for the sake of a well-turned phrase -- writes, "Ask not what Jean-Luc Godard thinks of America but what America did for Godard." But the questions are inseparable. How can a man who, along with his colleagues in the French new wave, did more than anyone to alert America to the art of its movies, the art we always took for granted, suddenly turn around and proclaim the whole culture worthless? That feeling for American film was as true for Godard the film critic as for Godard the director. Has no one noticed that by damning American culture Godard is invalidating the very foundations on which he based his aesthetic and his movies?
It wasn't just the borrowing from genres that showed the American influence in Godard's work, it was the quickness. His shorthand methods of quotation, allusion, letting a movie reference (or a political reference) or a comic strip panel or an advertising logo stand in for his meanings -- all this was a sophisticated version of the speed and casualness of American movies, the agitprop version of the breakneck pace of the dialogue in screwball comedies, or of the black Packards that careened through gangster movies.
For all his reputation as a forbidding intellectual (the very thing that has made people think his movies were cold has kept them from seeing the romantic heart of his best work), Godard has never been a very coherent thinker. He introduced and abandoned ideas far too quickly to develop them. If I can be permitted a monstrous cobbled-together phrase, I'd say he was a socio-cinematic aphorist. But with his passion for making movies having evaporated (even as his technique has grown more sophisticated), we are left with Godard's "ideas." And the lack of urgency strips those ideas bare, makes their wobbliness plain to see.
Who can take seriously Godard's equations of Vietnam and Sarajevo, or his claim that Americans are drawn to stories of resistance because they themselves don't understand resistance? There's no way to say this politely, but a man who was born in Switzerland, a country that sat out World War II, and who lived and worked for many years in France, a country that essentially said to the Nazis, "Come on in. We've saved all the best wines for you," has no business lecturing anyone else on the subject of resistance.
But if Godard stands revealed as no thinker, he has become quite adept as a smear artist. In the second half of "In Praise of Love" he introduces an American character, a representative of the State Department, who is working in tandem with representatives of "Spielberg Associates" to buy the stories of resistance veterans. "Spielberg" is used here as one of Godard's references of old, a stand-in for an idea, America's aforementioned cultural co-opting. We see representatives of Spielberg buying away people's rights to their own stories for the sake of what we understand will be a vulgarized, distorted film.
At one point a character comments, of Spielberg's greed, "Mrs. Schindler is living in poverty in Argentina." This needs some clarification. The rights to Thomas Keneally's book "Schindler's List" were purchased well before Steven Spielberg was signed to direct the project, and purchased, of course, from the author. Schindler himself was dead when the book was written, and since it was not Mrs. Schindler's story, her rights to her own story were not involved. Spielberg's Shoah Foundation has recorded the testimonies of Holocaust survivors. I don't know if they have been compensated, but willing participants in documentaries rarely are. These testimonies have not been used in commercial projects but are recorded for their historical import. No participant has, as far as I know, complained that their memories or the rights to their stories have been stolen from them.
So if Godard has to invent lies about Steven Spielberg in order to make a case against him, how good a case is it to begin with? Has Godard shown any particular commitment, financial or otherwise, to the families of the people he's referenced in his films? Did the widow of Ben Barka, the murdered Moroccan leader, get any financial consideration for the part his death played in "Made in U.S.A."? Were any of his fees for his '60s films donated to organizations working for Vietnamese relief? The answer has no bearing on the artistic worth of Godard's movies or his passion for the causes he invoked. But for Godard, it does have a bearing on the principles of Steven Spielberg, that epitome of American cultural imperialism. You get the feeling that Godard would hold Robert Flaherty responsible for Nanook dying of starvation while "Nanook of the North" was in its first release.
When Godard films a man standing in front of a Paris movie theater with two posters side by side, one for Bresson's "Pickpocket" and one for "The Matrix" (not an uncommon occurrence in Paris, the cinephile's Mecca), it's clear he's telling us that Hollywood product has crowded out art. It would never have occurred to Godard the critic to make those kinds of phony high-art, low-art distinctions. But then, "In Praise of Love" is a movie made by a man who has mastered surfaces but who apparently lives completely within his own head. For all his jabs at Hollywood product, I can't think of a working filmmaker who has become more insular. Judged solely by the work being done in contemporary French movies by his "children," directors like Catherine Breillat, Olivier Assayas, Claire Denis, Laurent Cantet, Erick Zonca and others, Godard's current work has no resonance to anything other than Jean-Luc Godard.
It gives me no pleasure to write this about a director whose films have meant (and continue to mean) so much to me, whose best movies were absolutely of their moment (and sometimes eerily ahead of it) yet still feel fresh and vital, whose innovations still have the power to astonish. And it surely gives me no pleasure to say it of a man who has developed the rich visual style Godard has. But "In Praise of Love" gives no indication that Jean-Luc Godard has anything left to say that is worth hearing, no indication that he has any drive or passion to continue making movies. What's on the screen is habit -- accomplished, rote, empty.