Film Socialisme: Godard’s Essay on the Decline of Western Civilization

Godard’d new feature, Film Socialisme, continues his tradition of presenting film-essays that are intellectually ambitious but tough to watch due to their rambling nature and lack of narrative focus.

Our grade: C+ (** out of *****)

Film Socialisme aims at critiquing the state of European Civilization, its inevitable decline and the growing crass nature.  This may explain why most of the tale (such as it is)  is set aboard a garish cruise ship. which travels the Mediterranean with a diverse group of passengers.

Like many of Godard’s essay films, this one is constructed as a collage of philosophical quotes, historical facts, cultural myths, and images that range from the luminous and vibrant to the vulgar and banal.

The scope of this pseudo-cerebral feature is impressive in goal, trying to say something profound about the state of Western Civilization—its past, present, and future—and expectedly cynical and ironic in tone.

Likely to please only the increasingly small hard core of Godard’s fans and followers, Film Socialism is not one of the master’s great or even features, though it has some merits.

To say that the ideas in the film represent leftist agit-prop is to state the obvious, considering Godard’s well-known ideology and politics. Among his targets are the Internet culture, the way we watch movies, the star system, the nature of our leisure as we enter the twentieth first century—in short the all-pervasive post-capitalism era.

The titles of chapters that occasionally pop up on screen—“Des Choses” or Comme Ca” or “Quo Vadis Europe?”—seem both arbitrary and opaque rather than edgy or provocative.

The statements are often spoken in dialogue or in voice-overs, and they are in half a dozen languages, French, English, German, Russian, Arabic. And the characters, some of which play themselves, like Patti Smith, engage in brief conversations about food, video games, gambling, cats, Palestine, how the Jews invented Hollywood.

There are also references to famous cinematic images, such as Eisenstein’s “Odessa Steps” sequence, which is contrasted with a view of the “real” Odessa.

I think the film’s opaque and elusive text is intentional, and so is the messy and inconclusive structure.  In the course of 101 minutes, there are half-baked thoughts, incoherent dialogue, wannabe shocking revelations, mixture of unlikely characters (young and old, black and white), random jumps from Jerusalem in the past to the German invasion of Paris in WWII to contemporary Athens and Barcelona.

My initial response to Film Socialisme, which I saw at the New York Film Fest, was decidedly mixed, recognizing its occasionally ravishing digital images, but never able to ignore its frustratingly maddening and off-putting structure.