Notre Musique (Our Music): Godard in Top Form

Jean-Luc Godard’s brilliant new film, Notre Musique (Our Music) is the shortest but densest feature I have seen all year. In 79 minutes, Godard offers an intellectual yet poetic meditation about war as seen through the prism of cinema and the dialectics of text and imagery.

The impossibility of language and words to capture reality is not a new subject for Godard, who addressed it, among other issues, in his former film-essay, the sublime Eloge de l’amour (In Praise of Love).

However, despite thematic and stylistic continuities, Our Music is a different kind of work. For one thing, unlike In Praise of Love, in which the mood was contemplative and melancholy, the tone of the new film is more intellectual and reconciliatory.

Our Music is the kind of film in which every singe image counts, which means that, like most of Godard’s films, it’s impossible to grasp the richness of the footage in one viewing. Structurally, the film is a masterful creation. It’s divided into three asymmetrical parts, titled Kingdoms. Kingdom 1 is Hell, Kingdom 2 is Purgatory, and Kingdom 3 is Heaven.

Hell is conveyed through exhilarating montage of horrific images of actual wars–and Hollywood movies about war. There are snippets of imagery from Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, Cy Endfield’s Zulu, and the noir classic, Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly, an apocalyptic film that has obsessed Godard for half a century. The Aldrich film, a metaphor for the atomic bomb in the 1950s, is juxtaposed with a map of Hiroshima after its destruction.

Wars are permanent fixtures throughout history; the only thing that changes is the technology of war, from knives and arrows to airplanes and tanks to the atomic bomb. What lends the images power is the accompanying silence; the only sound heard is the spare pulsing of a single piano, whose tempo changes from delicate all the way to furious and ferocious playing.

After ten minutes of fast, exciting imagery, the narrative per se begins with Godard’s arrival in Sarajevo for a lecture on The Text and the Image, for the European Literary Encounters. Largely set at a literary conference in Sarajevo, the film draws on the conflagration of the Bosnian War, but it also addresses other wars and atrocities, such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the mistreatment of Native Americans, and the legacy of Hitler and Nazism.

As always, refusing to distinguish between fiction and non-fiction, Godard blends real-life figures, such as the Arab poet Mahmoud Darwich and Spanish writer Juan Goytisolo, with actors plays fictional parts, such as an Israeli journalist named Judith Lerner (Sarah Adler). Asked, why revolutions are not started by humane people, Godard says, because humane people don’t start revolutions, they start libraries.

Cut to Goytisolo exploring the ruins of the Sarajevo Public Library, where he recites a poem about the revelation of the “better fate” of the dead. A Native American couple then speaks about Columbus’s destructive legacy on his people. Meanwhile, at the Sarajevo Holiday Inn, the Arab poet Mahmoud Darwich tells the journalist the Trojan victims were only discussed through the literature of the conquering Greeks, like Homer. The point is made: As a Palestinian, Darwich is a poet of the vanquished.

An Israeli woman of Russian descent, Olga (Nade Dieu) attends Godard’s lecture, in which he talks about the divisive nature of language, and the difference between imagining, looking, and seeing. To illustrate his point, Godard relates the visit of German scientist Werner Heisenberg and Danish physicist Niels Bohr to Elsinor Castle. Heisenberg notes that there’s nothing special about the castle, which Bohr counters, When you say it’s Hamlet’s Castle, it becomes special!

At the airport, Godard is given Olga’s DVD of Sarajevo; her sad and beautiful face is reflected on the disc’s shiny surface. Back home, Godard learns that Olga had died in a movie house in Jerusalem in an encounter with hostages. After letting the hostages go, the marksmen killed her. When Olga’s shoulder bag is searched, all that’s found there are books!

Heaven, the film’s third and last part, describes an idyllic setting with Olga walking through a lush green forest. Sitting next to an American soldier by the river, she shares an apple with him.

Godard has described Our Music as a serious but optimistic film. Indeed, compared to the anger and protest of some of his earlier films, the film is more peaceful and hopeful. When Olga visits Sarajevo’s Mostar Bridge, the noted architect Gilles Pecqueux, who supervises its reconstruction, talks about the symbolic meaning of his work. Speaking for Godard, he says: It’s not to restore the past; it’s to make the future possible. Bewildered, as some viewers would be, Olga simply can’t see the spirit of hope symbolized by the bridge.

Dialectical thinking–and visual presentation–is evident in every scene. Godard explores a series of conflicting forces and binary oppositions, such as life and death, light and dark, good and bad, positive and negative, real and imaginary, passive storytellers and political activists, victor and conquered, criminals and victims, hopeful and suicidal. This might sound as pretentious filmmaking, but it is not. Rather, it serves the ideological purpose of showing that there are different faces of truth and eternal opposing political movements.

The criticism of Americans as “Masters of the Universe,” conquering and appropriating lands, will prove offensive to some viewers. But again, perceiving language as an ideological weapon, Godard’s anti-American feelings begin and end with names and titles that bear imperialist connotations of an arrogant nation. Why do we call ourselves Americans, and why is our land called America, Godard asks, when there are other lands, cultures, and languages on the American continent, such as Mexico, Brazil, and Venezuela.

Wishing to be democratic in treatment, and show the characters (Israeli and Palestinians, Jews and Muslims) on equal terms, Godard’s strategy is to mingle fiction and documentary, real actors with false actors, and no actors at all, with him intervening as a guest. A major asset, Godard’s presence adds a layer of autobiography and self-reflexivity, all contributing to the film’s overall intellectual and emotional impact.

A masterful mosaic of eloquent words and luminous images, fiction and documentary, Our Music, a wonderful follow-up and companion piece to the equally impressive Eloge de l’amour, represents Godard and intellectual cinema at their very best.