Stuck on Lake Geneva with the Paris blues again – filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard’s ‘In Praise of Love’

Stuck on Lake Geneva with the Paris blues again – filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard’s ‘In Praise of Love’ – Brief Article

Kent Jones

Godard has a key move that he’s been working and refining since the late Sixties, which is to thrust an image before us and then weave various inquiries and stray bits of information around it, getting it to pulse with associations and formal cross-currents. In the first half of In Praise of Love we get the Bois de Boulogne, the old communist trade union building, a railyard at night, a multiplex as it’s closing, and the ugliest stretch of superhighway, all in exquisitely somber black-and-white. As we confront these places, Godard builds up a nice sense of awestruck immobility in the face of time and history. His insufferable, 30-ish protagonist Edgar (it’s hard to say how much of the insufferability is by accident or design) and the men who are financing his “ode to love … in the documentary tradition” know the tangled history behind every vista and building in Paris, with which Godard and his camera are having a melancholy reunion. The words set the images vibrating with a very refined sense of regret.

And when Godard films people in this movie (here, he tends to concentrate on the bodies of men and the faces of women), the vibration becomes a pulsating throb. Edgar rehearses a young woman with red hair, Eglantine to some faceless Perceval. When she’s onscreen, she’s alive in a way that few people ever are in movies. Part of Godard’s genius as a filmmaker lies in the fact that he can harness moments like these, where women are caught within the frame–in one spine-tingling instant, you can actually feel her heart jump. On the one hand they’re trapped like birds in a cage, while on the other they’re free from the decorous constraints of acting. Every moment with this exquisite woman makes up for every dead loss of a scene with Edgar the human paperweight, lamenting the loss of cultural memory or soulfully thumbing through a book with blank pages.

The bracing shift to painterly DV color in the film’s second half, which takes place two years earlier on the Brittany coast, carries a sensual/existential wallop–an altogether different form of beauty and perception. A learned friend of mine thought the color in this section was smudgy, but I found Godard’s impressionist seaside images to be rapturously beautiful, the movie of your dreams as you’re listening to Debussy’s La Mer. The scenes with the Bayards, a married couple of former Resistance fighters, are quite unlike anything else Godard’s ever done. They’re old people with troubled pasts, trying to reconcile who they’ve been with who they are. Godard catches this tension in their stillness, where you can feel the struggle between mental resolution and physical fragility. Here is where the film’s powerful central idea really blooms–there is only youth and old age but no such thing as adulthood, whether in love, art, or an enterprise like the Resistance. I confess that I don’t know if this idea comes from Brasillach, Blanchot, or any of the other writers Godard “credits” at the end of the film, with his usual Olympian disdain for specifics.

Beauty and eloquence aside, there’s something disconcerting about In Praise of Love. It has to do with this Olympian thing, which started creeping into Godard’s work with Helas pour moi and all but announced itself with JLG/JLG. Jonathan Rosenbaum observed that in that film, Godard imagined himself as Goethe. At this point, he seems to be imagining himself as Goethe, Homer, Shakespeare, Chateaubriand, Montaigne, and Heidegger rolled into one. Godard has always played cat-and-mouse games with his own personality, not unlike Bob Dylan. But where Dylan is now at ease with his mastery and his massive influence, Godard comes on like the grand spirit of Western civilization itself–I’m waiting for him to write himself into the Bible. A lot of the positions in the film seem like they’ve been deposited into the structurally appropriate slots, without too much consideration. The much-discussed anti-Americanism is less annoying in and of itself than for the desultory manner with which it’s expressed. It’s as if Godard had an assistant lurking over his shoulder–“Sir, we need some material to fill in the space between the blue boat and the man silhouetted against the window,” “Okay, let’s throw in another Spielberg joke.” More troubling is the way the business about the rounding up of French Jews in ’42 and the Resistance seems to have been dropped into the movie from a great height. Basically, In Praise of Love is a movie by an old man who fondly remembers the days when the trains ran on time, that happens to contain references to the Holocaust.

As Wallace Stevens said, the probing of the philosopher is deliberate, the probing of the poet is fortuitous. At this point, Godard is a poet who comes on with a philosopher’s deliberation. But only when he’s working in film. His mind and body now seem more attuned to the associative speed afforded by video, where he’s free to concentrate on his one true subject: Cinema. When he’s making an actual film, he’s too slowed down by the technical, laboriousness, the lack of total control. Godard made his Time Out of Mind ten years ago, with Nouvelle Vague, his last great film. His “Love and Theft” will be on video.

COPYRIGHT 2002 Film Society of Lincoln Center

COPYRIGHT 2002 Gale Group