PRINT February 2011


Eric Rohmer, Les Amours d’Astrée et de Céladon (The Romance of Astrea and Celadon), 2007, still from a color film in 35 mm, 109 minutes. Léonide (Cécile Cassel) and Céladon (Andy Gillet).

In the history of art, late works are the catastrophes.
—Theodor W. Adorno

The lucky ones are the defeated.
—from Jean-Luc Godard’s Notre Musique (2004)

THE FIFTIETH ANNIVERSARY of the French New Wave in 2009 proved to be both milestone and death knell. Eric Rohmer and Claude Chabrol subsequently passed away, Jacques Rivette made his final film, and, from his sanctuary in Rolle, Switzerland, Jean-Luc Godard announced his ultimate project, Film Socialisme (2010), before disposing of the visual matériel he had spent decades hoarding for his montage essays. (The fifth member of the Nouvelle Vague, François Truffaut, died of a brain tumor in 1984.) In the transformation of these filmmakers over half a century, from young and seditious cinéastes maudits to éminences grises, what became of the New Wave’s maverick nature, of the innovations and insurgence that impelled its origin? In Godard’s abiding concern with money and memory, the cash nexus and cultural tradition, a strong continuity exists between his early classics and his most recent work, just as Chabrol’s acerbic view of humanity, Rohmer’s loquacious sense of the moral consequences of desire, and Rivette’s claustral rendering of entrapment and amour fou persist in their late films. However, one also detects in certain of their final works ingratiation and willed amiability, allegory as the mode of conscious valediction, a senescent striving for simplicity and distillation. Measured by the rigorous standards of Adorno and his exegete Edward Said,* the late style of the Nouvelle Vague reveals itself not as the intransigent, oppositional, and exiled approach the two theorists proffer as their ideal of contrarian lateness, but as a reiteration of often conservative vision, sometimes bracing and vigorous, as in Rohmer’s final works, sometimes happily flaccid, as in the late mysteries of Chabrol. Facing mortality, only Godard remains “not reconciled,” his works rife with irresolvable contradiction and discontinuity, a conscious “going against,” as Said characterizes the nature of lateness-as-rejection.

In his posthumous collection On Late Style: Music and Literature Against the Grain (2007), Said employs Adorno’s thorny writings on Spätstil to explore the final works of several writers, composers, poets, and musicians, contrasting the “unearthly serenity” of those artists whose late works “crown a lifetime of aesthetic endeavor”—Said cites Sophocles, Matisse, Bach, Shakespeare, and Rembrandt—with the “nonharmonious, nonserene” artists given to untimeliness, fragmentation, and rupture, who refuse resolution, create anxiety, and indulge in anomaly, such as Genet, Lampedusa, and, following Adorno’s primary example, Beethoven. Immensely rewarding, troubling in ways small (Said misconstrues Visconti’s cinema, for instance) and substantial (his thematic anachronistically imposes lateness on a prematurely dead Mozart), the collection does not provide a coherent definition of late style, probably because one is not possible. Like the disobliging Adorno he so admires, Said appreciates incongruity and paradox, qualities that resist totalizing descriptions. (The fractured “lost totality” of late Beethoven awes Adorno, negativity replacing unity as his standard of aesthetic worth.)

“The caesuras,” Adorno writes, “the sudden discontinuities that more than anything else characterize the very late Beethoven, are those moments of breaking away; the work is silent at the instant when it is left behind, and turns its emptiness outward.” Near the end of his new feature, Film Socialisme, Godard appears to echo the Frankfurt philosopher: “Even more significant than the profound structures of life,” intones the narrator, “are the points where they break, their brusque or long deterioration.” Both Adorno and Godard prize the irregular and estranged. If one finds in the last films of Rohmer, Chabrol, and Rivette recapitulation and humility, a form of the “return and repose” Said discovers in Richard Strauss’s retrospective late operas, Godard offers no such ease. Both maker and connoisseur of “catastrophes,” he instead resembles Adorno’s lamenting Beethoven, “bristling, difficult, and unyielding,” in Said’s appraisal.

“THE MATURITY of the late works,” Adorno insists, “does not resemble the kind one finds in fruit. They are . . . not round, but furrowed, even ravaged. Devoid of sweetness, bitter and spiny, they do not surrender themselves to mere delectation.” Not so the insubstantial final works of Claude Chabrol, which invite delight but don’t always deliver. To extend (and belabor) Adorno’s fruit metaphor—oddly appropriate for the epicurean Chabrol—the French auteur’s films are not just round, they’re plump, oozing pleasant nectar instead of the director’s once customary caustic. If any of the Nouvelle Vague directors achieved serenity at the end, it was Chabrol, but at considerable cost to his art.

Jacques Rivette, 36 Vues du Pic Saint Loup (Around a Small Mountain), 2009, still from a color film in 35 mm, 84 minutes. Kate (Jane Birkin) and Vittorio (Sergio Castellitto).

In Chabrol’s late phase, the Modigliani features of his former wife and lead actress Stéphane Audran—almond eyes, high, attenuated cheekbones, sphinx-like expression—were replaced by an equally opaque face: that of Isabelle Huppert, who brought her formidable froideur to more than half a dozen of the director’s films, from Violette Nozière (1978) through Comedy of Power (2006). But the chill formal elegance and visual precision that Audran’s chic once served in such films as Les Biches (1968) and La Femme infidèle (1969) all but disappear in Chabrol’s final decade. Especially after La Cérémonie (1995), his last great film, Huppert is often set adrift in feckless tales of mayhem. Chabrol, nasty mannerist celebrated for his pitiless insight, succumbed in his latter years to congeniality; once the Jonathan Swift of the Nouvelle Vague, he became its Agatha Christie. His cinema remained rife with obsession and murder—by drug-laced nightcap, Murano glass dagger, booby-trapped car—but his baleful vision slackened into a largely convivial one, his formal stealth into the padded and haphazard. Given that his films were made en famille, with Thomas, Mathieu, and Aurore Chabrol involved, respectively, as actor, composer, and scriptwriter, it sometimes seemed as if the director’s blithe prolificacy were a pretext for the famous alfresco meals he enjoyed with kin and crew.

Deception and doubles, intertwined themes in Chabrol’s early cinema, return to haunt his last film, Inspector Bellamy (2009), which, though low-key and disarming, retains the structural elegance of his geometric works from the ’60s and ’70s and a Langian sense of proliferating conspiracy. Gérard Depardieu, his bulk stuffed into a gray sweater like a big boudin blanc, stars as a police chief from Paris on holiday with his wife in Provence. “Felicity” is the first word out of his mouth and the first uttered in the film, but most of what follows involves misfortune. A mystery man turns up at the door, drawing Bellamy into a case of mistaken identity and murder. Perhaps worse, his half brother, the boozing, dissolute Jacques, also suddenly appears, complaining about the Tchaikovsky his cab driver insists on playing, the prodigal returning to fill Bellamy with old bitterness about his alcoholic father and with suspicion that his (Bellamy’s) adored wife, Françoise, may be susceptible to another man’s charms.

Though little more than a pleasant divertissement—a louche lawyer with a vole-like mustache entertains a courtroom by delivering his defense as a Georges Brassens chanson—Bellamy at times comes off as one last blast of classic Chabrol. The old master casts an ironic eye on the constrictions of class and family, mordantly explores sexual and moral hypocrisy, implies a transference of guilt between policeman and criminal, and portrays life as a series of small pleasures, mostly sexual and gustatory, and inevitable betrayals. Despite its zoom-ridden televisual style, Bellamy harks back to early Chabrol in what Godard might have called the film’s “fatal symmetries,” opening and closing with a car wreck by the sea, the accidents explicitly rhymed, as are many characters and incidents in the film. Doubles and doppelgängers abound, emphatically placed to balance and contrast with each other; among them is the local top cop, whom we never see but who is Bellamy’s shadow. Auden’s counsel “There is always another story, there is more than meets the eye” provides the last word at film’s end, inscribing Chabrol’s long-held notion that most mysteries, especially those of existence, remain unsolved, the world ever inscrutable.

UNLIKE CHABROL’S FINAL WORKS, the last three films of Eric Rohmer, sage of the New Wave, retain the master’s trademark rigor and at first glance appear to embody the notions of exile and untimeliness that for Adorno characterize late style. They are all historical works, set at varying distances from the present (the French Revolution, World War II, and fifth-century Gaul) by a director whose subject was almost exclusively contemporary romance, and all involve some form of exile: a Scottish woman living in France (The Lady and the Duke [2001]), a Russian soldier and his Greek wife, refugees in Paris (Triple Agent [2004]), and a young shepherd banished from the world of his loved one (The Romance of Astrea and Celadon [2007]). However, Adorno’s sense of untimeliness and exile is Nietzschean, having more to do with love of the future and exclusion, “permanent renunciation”—of society and class, of an artist’s former accommodations, and of the present—a severity that this trio of odd but obliging films certainly does not reflect. Seeming to be “out of joint” with Rohmer’s previous cinema, they instead reveal themselves to be vigorous restatements of his core beliefs, an intensification of his conservative vision, even as they take considerable aesthetic risks. All three turn out to be “moral tales” about the nature of fidelity, the testing of trust and faithfulness, and the chaos that ensues from their absence.

Claude Chabrol, Les Biches (Bad Girls), 1968, still from a color film in 35 mm, 100 minutes. Why (Jacqueline Sassard) and Frédérique (Stéphane Audran).

After two largely interior films peopled with mature characters, Rohmer returned in his last film, The Romance of Astrea and Celadon, to his long-favored world of lithesome youths and sun-flooded landscapes, and to the narrative template of his earliest cycle, the “Six Moral Tales,” in which a man who is betrothed, married, or otherwise committed finds himself tempted by another woman, usually more alluring or dangerous (and darker) than the first. In Roman Gaul, shepherd Celadon finds himself banished by his fiancée, the blond Astrea, after she spies him consorting with another, duskier lass. (Amorous misperception is central to Rohmer’s cinema; Astrea and Celadon looks back to the romantic imbroglio of Pauline at the Beach [1983].) After being rescued from a suicide attempt by drowning, Celadon recuperates in the loving care of three nymphs. In a series of Shakespearean twists, he ends up disguised as a young woman, his resemblance to Astrea’s former and presumed dead lover a turn-on for the grieving shepherdess, who eagerly makes out with this strangely attractive girl (the first instance of cross-dressing in Rohmer’s films, if one doesn’t count masculine Chloé in L’Amour, l’après-midi [Love in the Afternoon, 1972], and perhaps the first full-on broaching of homosexuality). The androgynous Celadon—“His girlish face took everyone in,” says an approving druid—with his Botticelli mane and cleft chin, provides one last example of Rohmer’s taste for odd physiognomy, evident in the smiling wife of L’Amour, who could model for John Currin.

Set in a zephyr-cooled arcadia of “wild poetry and bucolic charm,” in which nymphs, druids, and troubadours disport in a landscape of leafy bowers and glades, Astrea and Celadon was indulged by many critics as the barmy lark of an old man, void of the director’s customary moral rigor. Much the opposite is true. Rationalist to the very end, Rohmer employs his radiant tale to deliver stern lessons about the nature of love, the rewards of virtue and moderation, and, as in his previous two films, the importance of duty, loyalty, and faith. The pure, holy Lycidas, voice of reason and morality, argues that love is not carnal but spiritual—“The body is only an instrument”—its infinite power merging lover and beloved, in contrast to the hedonistic Hylas and self-serving Galatea, who represent fickleness and infidelity. In their free-loving ways, suggests Rohmer, lies chaos of every kind. The irritating Hylas, a mop-haired signifier of caprice and inconstancy, whose capering ensures that one rejects his every word, refuses to treat a sacred grove with respect, and he is the only pilgrim who won’t enter its hallowed sanctum. Like the rootless seducers in early Rohmer (Maud, Chloé, Henri), Hylas ends an outcast, his rejection of commitment an invitation to abandonment, by his peers and by God.

Though the gamboling rustics often suggest Boucher’s berger pastorals, Poussin is more Rohmer’s painterly model, especially in the classicist’s moral seriousness and his determination to find continuity between the ancient world and his own faith. In Astrea and Celadon, the Catholic, some say Jansenist, Rohmer appears intent on forging and emphasizing parallels between the Celtic beliefs of his long-ago Gauls and those of his religion, including last rites, the soul’s eternal life, and the Holy Trinity. Perhaps, even as the closing lines of his ultimate film instruct us to “Live! Live! Live!,” Rohmer intuited the imminence of the great beyond, and so made his final statement a heavenward invocation, one last Pascalian wager.

“DEATH IS IMPOSED ON CREATED BEINGS, not on works of art,” Adorno writes, “and thus it has appeared in art only in a refracted mode, as allegory.” Jacques Rivette’s final film, Around a Small Mountain (2009), refracts death as a series of finalities. How best to say farewell—with the expectant à plus tard or the more conclusive adieu?—becomes an issue in this clearly valedictory work, suggesting the director’s acknowledgment that the film takes leave of his art, his audience, the world. “We’re the last classics,” a clown pronounces in another such indication, his pocket-size circus traveling through mountain villages on a farewell tour. In this allegory of mortality, the end is always in sight.

A mere slip compared with the protracted works for which Rivette is best known, the eighty-four-minute Mountain restates his defining themes—the exchange between life and theater, the inescapability of the past, the processes of art—modestly, intimately. (The film exhibits the “recapitulatory and even backward-looking and abstracted quality” that Said detects in late Strauss.) Scaled small like the circus that is its setting and central metaphor, shot in slow pans and dollies, mostly in long takes (there are fewer than one hundred shots in the entire film), Mountain has an unassuming air, even as it battens on the torment of a woman who accidentally killed her lover in a razor-whip act fifteen years before. Kate, played with gawky exasperation by Jane Birkin, is saved from herself by an outsider, the Italian bon vivant Vittorio, who first fixes her car and then repairs her psyche. Taking boyish pleasure in the circus’s unfunny, neo-Beckettian clown act (shot in lengthy fixed takes like canned theater), imposing a glass of wine on teetotaler Kate, passing through in a sports coupe on his way from one sunny clime (Italy) to another (Catalonia), the Italian is an impresario of nothing but happiness. (He appears to be a businessman, but commerce, like heaven, can wait.) A lover of movement, chance, new things, the suave and extroverted Vittorio seems conceived as the nervous, reclusive Rivette’s opposite and alter ego, and it is he who helps orchestrate both Kate’s exorcism, which releases her from a lifetime of grief, and the film’s finale, a Handelian round of new and severed alliances, of forgiveness and reluctant departure. Liberated from the conspiratorial and obsessive mode of his former cinema, Rivette hangs a full moon between two mountain peaks, shining in lunar benediction on the foolish mortals below, and allows a clown to declare, “All’s well that ends well”—a statement inconceivable in the director’s previously cryptic cinema.

Eric Rohmer, L’Anglaise et le duc (The Lady and the Duke), 2001, still from a color video transferred to 35-mm film, 129 minutes. Grace Elliott (Lucy Russell).

Rumors of Rivette’s debility swirled about Mountain’s making, his decline reportedly accounting for the film’s slim duration, loose ends, and simple, forthright manner. One thinks of de Kooning’s glorious late paintings, in which density and slather give way to spacious, skeinlike forms and harmonious palette, his early style readily apparent but opened up and airily undone. The danger in mistaking senescence for evanescence, abatement for the “senile sublime,” remains great, however, and Around a Small Mountain relinquishes a great deal to arrive at its small, beneficent meaning.

WHILE THE FINAL FILMS of Rivette, Chabrol, and Rohmer deal variously with community and the granting of clemency, Jean-Luc Godard remains to the end alone and unforgiving. He is a “lamenting personality,” the term Said uses to characterize Adorno’s depiction of Beethoven in his late string quartets—music much loved by Godard, a director increasingly prone to requiems and memorials, to the elegiac mode, as the title of the film that launched his late period, Éloge de l’amour (In Praise of Love, 2001), suggests. A threnody for a world of art, politics, and philosophy that has been colonized and subdued by international capital, and a screed against a state within which resistance is impossible and everything is for sale, even history and the individual gaze, Éloge summons a sense of suicidal futility that accords with Godard’s long-held feeling of abandonment and mortality, apparent in the “left for dead” dénouement of Sauve qui peut (la vie) (Every Man for Himself, 1980) and in the photograph of the filmmaker as a child “already in mourning for myself” in his autoportrait, JLG/JLG (1994). Berthe, the despairing heroine of Éloge, cannot escape memory—historical (the Resistance, the Holocaust) or personal (her role in a corrupt Hollywood deal)—and kills herself. “The image,” she tells us, “alone capable of denying nothingness, is also the gaze of nothingness on us.” That “gaze of nothingness” falls on all in late Godard, the regard of impending death.

Rupture and interruption, what Adorno called “tears and fissures,” characterized Godard’s aesthetic from early on, and one might argue that his late films in fact manifest a growing concern with continuity and structure. Each of his last three works—Éloge, Notre Musique (2004), Film Socialisme—is organized as a diptych (the first) or a triptych (the latter two), and taken together, they form a trio, an updating of Rossellini’s war trilogy, perhaps, given that all three deal with the actuality or aftermath of battle (World War II; the Bosnian war; World War II again, plus the Israeli-Palestinian conflict). Each film can also be ascribed a governing art: painting in Éloge, literature in Musique, and photography in Socialisme. The neatness of this schema suggests a late mania for order, especially after the torrential montage of Godard’s magnum opus, the Histoire(s) du cinéma (1988–98), but within these regulating forms the director’s irrepressible sensibility remains unconstrained: The legendary magpie, collagist, hoarder, montagist, lives supremely in every teeming frame and disorienting edit.

If the toxic shimmy of the digital image in the second half of Éloge de l’amour seemed to indicate what the director thinks of DV’s diminishment of the world, the completely digital Film Socialisme dismisses any such suspicion. Shot by the director and three other cinematographers, Godard’s latest (and reportedly last) film employs every possible register of digital imaging, from garishly raw cell-phone footage, a blizzard of disintegrating pixels accompanied by splintering sound, to immaculate high definition, which allows miracles of single-source natural lighting in interiors and precise, saturated compositions outdoors. Coming so far for beauty, Godard indulges in outrageously lovely images (the inky glitter of moonlit sea; a woman standing against a white wall, haloed by the ghostly spokes of a windmill’s shadow; a molten close-up of the wheels and gears of an ancient watch) and riotous color effects (a ship deck pulsating in a blaze of harvest gold and electric blue; lemon-lime Agrola gas pumps in Fauvist contention with cherry-red vehicles parked nearby; a shipboard elevator flooded in brackish algae-green light). In the Godardian struggle between word and image, pictures inevitably win out, no matter how dismal their delivery system.

Film Socialisme is structured in three parts: “Des Choses comme ça,” set on a cruise ship on the Mediterranean; “Quo Vadis Europa,” at a family-owned gas station in the South of France; and finally “Nos Humanités,” in a transglobal assortment of cities. The middle section, which served as the film’s genesis, differs markedly from the flanking ones in its cohesion and concentration, its lengthy, fixed shots, and its tone of tender domesticity, the pulverized dance music of the onboard discotheque in part 1 replaced by Beethoven at his most benedictory (the andante of his Sixth Symphony and the largo of his Second Piano Sonata). Though more loosely connected than the three Dantean chapters of Notre Musique, Socialisme’s triptych develops many motivic or thematic through lines: the exploitation and abandonment of Africa and the end of poor, unhappy Europe; cameras, primitive to digital, daguerrotype to camcorder, and the undependable images they produce; gold (as name, watch, lucre, silence, necklace, teeth); the futility of political action and the lost ideals of the French Resistance; the wisdom of children and animals, neither of whom have any rights. (The film offers an enchanting menagerie, from the precredit image of a pair of scarlet parrots to the unkempt llama and Balthazar-like donkey tethered at the gas station, the burro carrying a television on its back somewhere in the Middle East, the biblical lamb and inquisitive owl of Minerva, and, most memorably, the two YouTube cats performing a karaoke duet that get transformed into Egyptian statuary.) Godard has said that notions of property provided Socialisme’s inception—“Money is a common good, like water,” maintains the film’s first line—and theft of various sorts becomes its most insistent motif: the embezzlement of Spanish gold and nonpayment of rights to the Arabs for their invention of money in part 1, Lucien’s stealing of the black camerawoman’s hat and of a Renoir image in part 2, Israel’s annexation of Palestinian sites and the purloining of images from other films in part 3. Godard’s brazen disregard for copyright niceties has landed him in trouble in the past, and he finishes the film by condemning the Hadopi agency, which regulates French Internet access and copyright, quoting Pascal to assert his right to thieve freely: “If the law is unjust, justice proceeds past the law.”

Jean-Luc Godard, Sauve qui peut (la vie) (Every Man for Himself), 1980, still from a color film in 35 mm, 87 minutes. Paul Godard (Jacques Dutronc).

The director circulates objects, phrases, and images throughout the three parts, pairing characters (the wise boys Ludovic and Lucien), reiterating items (gold-doubloon jewelry) and settings (Haifa, Naples, Barcelona, Odessa) and revisiting incidents (e.g., the taking of the first photograph of Palestine in 1839). In each of the sections, the feminine gender of one word is emphasized: respectively, la géométrie, la presidence, and l’escalier (as in the Odessa Steps of Battleship Potemkin fame), the sense of reason and power, order and governance associated with the first two canceled by the cataclysmic imagery of women’s suffering attached to the third. (Godard powerfully reedits and scores Eisenstein’s footage to his purpose.) One might also infer that, consciously or not, the film’s tripartite structure represents, in the manner of Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Three Times (2005), three periods or modes of the director’s cinema: the enclosed group portraits of First Name: Carmen (1983) and Détective (1985), the domestic world of women and children in the epic video works Godard made with Anne-Marie Miéville in the ’70s, and his recent montage essay films.

Godard has always had a puritanical streak, and he makes easy targets of the cruise ship’s vacationers and retraités (retirees on holiday, all real-life “extras” in the film), who prefer dancercising, gambling, swimming, boozing, buffet stuffing, anything, to a lecture on Husserl and ancient geometry by philosopher Alain Badiou, which Godard inserted into their activity schedule and which no one attended. (He exaggerates the lecture hall’s vast emptiness with a high-angle shot.) The boat is both a ship of fools and the last ark, its pleasure seekers heading to hell even as they take communion from a priest in the luridly lit casino. (In one dizzying image out of Dante at the end of part 1, Godard sets them on a double-helixed stairway circling ever downward, a descent in preparation for the hellish steps of Odessa in part 3.) Around these antics, sometimes shot in stop- or slurred motion, Godard sets a fragmented tale about an old French policeman and a young Russian woman investigating the disappearance of part of a transfer of gold from a bank in Barcelona to the Soviet Comintern after the Nazi invasion of France. If that sounds convoluted, it is, especially when Godard doles out the narrative shards to almost a dozen mostly unnamed characters who speak various languages. Several of the cities they mention in their account of the lost money return in the film’s final third, a dense essay that refashions a mythic originating text of the Nouvelle Vague, Jean-Daniel Pollet’s 1963 film Mediterranée, and whose ports of call were chosen, Godard says, for their importance in his own life but also, one infers, to emphasize the film’s sense of political inutility and horror, marking locales of failed struggle and civil war. (One also notes Godard’s emphasis in his montage on unfinished, cobbled, or traduced late works of favorite directors: John Ford’s Cheyenne Autumn [1964], Orson Welles’s Don Quixote [1992], Michelangelo Antonioni’s Michelangelo Eye to Eye [2004].)

Godard’s governing concerns with the inadequacy of language and the struggle to show the invisible—“To tell is never enough. . . . The poor things have for themselves only the name that we impose on them”—are afforded new force by the often untranslated polyglot and the lack of wind protectors on microphones in part 1 (so that unshielded seaward gusts toss already arcane phrases into the blustery beyond) and by the film’s infamous subtitles, presented in what Godard has dubbed “Navajo English.” Having often inveighed against translation, insisting that anyone can learn French, as he did English, by watching movies, the director adds another impediment for the Anglophone with subtitles that reduce copious and often gnomic French and German dialogue to perversely truncated phrases and peculiar neologisms, so fascinating in their linguistic condensation that they draw attention away from the film’s images. Language, innately unreliable for Godard, turns into both fixation and refusal: ACCESS DENIED, a text reads half an hour into the film, echoed by the film’s final NO COMMENT, repeated twice for good measure.

In a work whose credits catalogue dozens of sources for the film’s music, texts, and video clips, the welter can overwhelm. “What lies ahead is an impossible history,” we are warned early on, and Film Socialisme indeed bears out Godard’s recent admission to a German interviewer that “all the films I’ve made in recent years, one has to look at three times to understand.” Try twelve. Every image and phrase recalls another, sometimes within the film—a sudden, almost subliminal detail from Grünewald’s Mocking of Christ, for example, prepares for a discussion of German Renaissance painting ten minutes later and for the troubling reference to the avenging of Christ’s death in part 3—but often from the director’s previous work. Godard’s quotation of the Fascist-turned-Communist writer Curzio Malaparte, to the effect that the Americans liberated Europe by making it dependent, invokes both Socialisme’s motif of the rape of Naples and the director’s decades-old Contempt (1963), whose final sequences are famously set in Malaparte’s modernist casa on Capri. Godard can even be accused of self-reflexive product placement: The text ABII NE VIDEREM, emblazoned in the film’s first section, implies “fleeing so as not to see” but also refers to a piece of music by Giya Kancheli on ECM, long Godard’s “house label,” a composition the director extensively employed in chapter 4a of his Histoire(s) du cinéma. The service station, place of dispute and death in early Godard, in Socialisme again becomes the site of struggle, between the news reporters and the Martin family, and between the politically paralyzed parents and their anarchistic children, who defend Balzac, French notions of brotherhood, and the necessity of using the verb “to have” in preference to “to be.” With the film’s sole zoom shot, Godard italicizes Illusions perdues, the Balzac novel the Martin daughter reads as she desultorily tends the gas pumps, telling some German tourists to “invade another country” when they demand directions to the Côte d’Azur. The name of the novel’s protagonist, Lucien, is also bestowed on the vital, politically astute ten-year-old Martin son, whose close relationship with his mother—he blindly inspects her body as if by braille as she washes the dishes and listens to Beethoven—looks back to that of Juliette and her blond son, who dreams of the reunification of North and South Vietnam in 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her (1967). (Like Lucien, his mama cannot resist conducting music, her hand unconsciously gesturing in time with the Beethoven as she talks politics with her daughter in the bathroom.)

Jean-Luc Godard, Film Socialisme, 2010, still from a color video transferred to 35-mm film, 101 minutes. Lucien Martin (Quentin Grosset) and mother (Catherine Tanvier).

Godard’s penchant for rhetorical dualities—sometimes oppositional (myth and history, light and darkness, the individual and the law, photography and painting), sometimes dialectical (a girl’s voice chanting the Talmud is followed by one chanting the Koran; a Hebrew text in red is laid over an Arabic one in white; gold is associated with both Jewish and Islamic cultures, and so on)—returns in Film Socialisme. The latter conflations express the kind of reconciliation the Israeli journalist Judith Lerner searches for in Notre Musique, whose possibility, Godard has suggested, is embodied in the sequence, lifted from an Agnès Varda film, of trapeze artists practicing by the sea. “If the Israelis and Palestinians started a circus and performed a trapeze show together,” Godard told critic Serge Kaganski, “things would be different in the Middle East.” (The Rivette of Around a Small Mountain might agree.) Perhaps Godard’s brief insertion of a severely cropped image from Botticelli’s Calumny of Apelles can then be read as oblique commentary on the accusations of anti-Semitism frequently laid against the director, given the painting’s elaborate tableau of deceit and slander. Godard shows not the turmoil of defamation that dominates Botticelli’s panel, concentrating instead on the extreme left side of the composition, where a black-robed Penitence stares at nude Truth, whose eyes are directed toward heaven, away from the fray of obloquy. If Godard’s allegorical intentions remain obscure, the The Calumny of Apelles is another of Socialisme’s invocations of Greek antiquity and another of the film’s citations of late or last works, in that Botticelli thereafter abandoned classical subject matter under the influence of firebrand evangelist Savonarola.

“We’re facing a kind of zero,” someone says at the beginning of Film Socialisme, a declaration that returns transmogrified twelve minutes later: “So, we’re back to zero, my friend.” Stated as a farewell to narrative in Le Gai Savoir (1969), the desire to return to zero has long been Godard’s obsession, and in the end he succeeded, turning emptiness outward, as Adorno had enjoined. “I have once encountered nothingness, and it is much more immense than one tends to believe.” This Sartrean statement, repeated twice in Socialisme’s first half hour, captures the desolate tone of the artist who late in the day still finds the hell and the hélas in Hellas, the roots of our devastation in ancient civilization. “Nonharmonious, nonserene” in his inconsolable lateness, Godard condensed his Histoire(s) du cinema into a primer whose title, Moments choisis (2004), promises “just the high points” but whose redaction in fact excises all the joy and juice of the larger work, in particular the surging paean to Italian Neorealism. Similarly, when Eric Rohmer died, Godard released a video commemoration (dated July 20, 2009, half a year before Rohmer’s expiry, suggesting premature preparation) that sifts through the wreckage of the directors’ common past: abandoned and forgotten films, old haunts, former friends, actors, politicians, and screenwriters whose names are mostly unremarked or unremembered except by their ever-diminishing group. (As Godard had mournfully quipped in the Histoire[s], “They were my friends.”) The director, murmuring and mumbling as if words have lost all agency, quotes from the ending of Flaubert’s Sentimental Education—“That was the happiest time we ever had”—to salute the distant and retreating era of the Nouvelle Vague, all gladness gone except in an old man’s memory. Godard previously expressed cautious optimism: “You should take comfort in these lines from Cioran: ‘We are all jokers: We will survive our problems.’” The catastrophe of Film Socialisme warns us otherwise.

James Quandt is Senior Programmer at TIFF Cinematheque in Toronto.

*All quotations of Said have been taken from Edward W. Said, On Late Style: Music and Literature Against the Grain (New York: Pantheon, 2006); all quotations of Adorno are from his seminal essay Late Style in Beethoven (1937), as quoted by Said.