TIFF started out its 2010 edition with a particularly sadistic decision. Namely, the festival programmers chose to show a totally unsubtitled print of Jean-Luc Godard’s latest feature, Film Socialism as the fest’s first public screening on its first day. At least forty percent of the film’s eager audience left before Godard’s work (and possibly career – this is said to be his last feature) ended. Presumably, many of those remaining, unlike me, spoke French, which is only the most frequently used of the many languages that Godard employs here. Though Godard is the very definition of one of our Masters (the name of the festival Programme that the film was included in), something this obtuse and aggressive toward its viewers’ expectations probably would have been better served by being included in the festival’s experimental sidebar, Wavelengths.
Lacking even the broken English subtitles that it sported during its Cannes premiere, Film Socialism in its current form forces analysis of imagery for all but the most polyglot of viewers. This lack of translation brings as much opportunity as frustration. The subservience of language here helps to illuminate Godard’s late period as a whole. Freed from interpreting the specific meaning of his aphorisms, we are able to focus on a style that builds a steady rhythm, interspersed with moments of sheer visual epiphany. Divided into three parts, if Film Socialism is intended to be Godard’s final coda, it’s clear that he has a great deal left to say (even if most of us won’t be able to understand what, exactly, it is that he’s saying).
The first act of Film Socialism is set aboard a cruise ship. The multinational societal microcosm depicted, though, doesn’t really live up to the film’s title. Instead of a socialist paradise, the boat is something of a consumerist nightmare, where hordes of anonymous passengers move from buffet to disco to church service. A group of attendants and servants are glimpsed throughout, as are a few recurring characters, who surface and resurface, generally to quote literature. Here, the style is invigorating, as Godard switches camera types, making the most of his various digital formats. Offering images that are either crystalline in their clarity or corrupted by artifacting (including a soundtrack that frequently becomes an indecipherable garble, brought about by the limits of consumer-grade microphones), this segment is a formal stunner. Much of the content eludes me, to be sure, but the closest point of comparison that came to mind for me is Manoel de Oliveira’s hilarious, glacial A Talking Picture, which similarly parodied our modern lives as it looked backward at our history.
Film Socialism’s second part, which seems to have a plot involving an unwelcome news reporter and a family at a filling station (tinges of the Spielberg lackeys from In Praise of Love can be felt), is the most bound by narrative, and therefore the least successful when viewed without the help of subtitles. Just when this segment, which has less impressive image-making than the first, is about to convince you that nothing in this work will be as ambitious as the montages in Notre Musique, Godard’s last feature, Film Socialism transforms itself into an essay film. The final third, which juxtaposes images with skill equal to Godard’s Histoire(s) du Cinema, presents an accelerated world tour of great sites of revolution, creating a beautiful procession of filmic citations and historical markers.
Obviously, due to my unfamiliarity with the various languages that it employs, I cannot make definitive statements about Film Socialism’s quality or meaning. That being said, it seems to operate with many of the same themes and stylistic flourishes of Godard’s later work, making it easy to interpret, regardless of language barriers, for those familiar with his oeuvre. Since no first viewing of a Godard film will ever offer up every citation and every intended meaning, ignorance of the bulk of Film Socialism’s dialogue has a less disastrous effect on one’s ability to appreciate Godard’s accomplishments than one might suspect. Hopefully, the opportunity to see a translated version of the film will present itself in the future, but even if Godard’s obstinate wish to withhold subtitles continues to be honored, Film Socialism feels like a significant entry in the director’s body of work.