Years ago at Cannes, I attended a screening of Jean-Luc Godard’s Histoire(s) du Cinéma and ended up walking out after 20 minutes — not because I didn’t like the film, but because it was being shown in French without English subtitles. Since most of what I saw consisted of narration, and I barely speak a word of French (in high school, I seemed to know less of the language each year I studied it), it seemed altogether pointless to stay. I assumed, at the time, and naively, that I’d mistakenly wandered into some special category of screening intended for the foreign press. Actually, the movie had only just been completed, and it was being shown without subtitles because Godard had approved it that way. He can be a stubbornly perverse purist and devoted anti-communicator (especially when it comes to Americans).
With Godard, though, nothing is simple. This year at Cannes, I saw Film Socialisme, his latest tract/poem/experiment/avant meditation, and this time, too, the French in the movie was spoken without a full translation. But at the bottom of the screen, throughout the film, there appear clusters of words, in English only, that aren’t so much subtitles as slogans and pensées, displayed in cutting counterpoint to the images. (This time, you were out of luck if you didn’t speak English.) Film Socialisme has obscure moments, but it’s (literally) easy to read. That may be because Godard, at 79, has something scaldingly urgent to say, even if it isn’t pretty.
The first half of the movie presents scenes on a cruise ship, which Godard treats just like the spaceship in WALL-E — as a giant, floating metaphor for our passivity and corruption. There are striking, abrasive, raggedly degraded video shots of people dancing in the ship’s disco (the music is distorted into scrapes so that it sounds like electronic torture with a beat); these shots suggest that our entertainment escapes have become a form of madness. Godard presents the passengers on the ship as clueless zombies and happy pawns, and his images have some of the primary-color narcotic sharpness one remembers from Pierrot le Fou (1965) and One Plus One (1968). At the same time, the words and phrases at the bottom of the screen offer an ongoing haiku analysis of our current condition: words like “today bastards sincere” or “aids tool for killing blacks.” Then there are the oversize headlines that really spell things out, like this one: “Palestine: Access Denied.” At one point, the screen flashes (untranslated) Arabic letters in white with Hebrew letters in blood-red superimposed on top of them. Richard Brody, in his magisterial 2008 Godard biography, Everything Is Cinema, has acknowledged the filmmaker’s creeping anti-Semitism, and watching Film Socialisme, you don’t need a translation to know what Godard is really saying: that Israel, with regard to the Palestinians, isn’t just in violation — but, rather, that it is a violation.
He’s still cryptic about it, of course, and he lumps Israel in with other “antisocialist” regimes, hectoring the whole world for its litany of injustice. With his leftist-nihilist agitprop laid over an increasingly fractured and depersonalized underground-film vocabulary, Godard is now a strange hybrid — Stan Brakhage crossed with Noam Chomsky. Late in the movie, he gets some montage going that’s like a deconstructed music video, and you feel the surging pull of his power as a filmmaker. But you also feel one of the key motivations behind his obliqueness, his splintered-cinema techniques: If Jean-Luc Godard actually came right out and said what he was thinking, in all its off-putting extremity and even ugliness, he might knock himself right off his pedestal.