Finnegan’s Wake, the music of Diamanda Galas, the art of Francis Bacon, a bowl of menudo: These are things I consider “strong medicine.” They’re good for the world but they may not suit everyone’s tastes. Sick of slick action flicks and limp romances, I found Jean-Luc Godard’s In Praise of Love to be just the tonic I needed.
Fans of Godard won’t dare miss this one. They’ve been dying for just one more release from the 71-year-old master of the French New Wave. And he doesn’t disappoint, creating the sort of rich, lyrical work followers expect. But for those who’ve never seen a Godard film it may be better to think of this as an epic work of video art, rather than a conventional film. In Praise of Love has a plot and it is a love story, but to leave the description at that would be like saying Salvador Dalí painted clocks.
In Praise of Love drips with romanticism. The story orbits around a young man named Edgar and his “project.” Edgar’s project is to tell a story of the four stages of love: the meeting, the physical passion, the quarrels and separation, and finally, the reconciliation. Vaguely describing it as a “project,” Edgar hopes to decide later if it is a film, a play, an opera, or a novel. But Edgar’s project is Godard’s as the film itself tells the story of Edgar’s own four stages of love, albeit with a wonderful manipulation of time. Edgar meets an old flame, who he tries to cast in his project. When she dies, Edgar has still to complete the final two stages of love–quarrelling with his memory of her, and ultimately reconciling with her ghost.
Godard knows how to exploit the tools of filmmaking in a way that makes most other movies seem vacant. Where Hollywood would simply lay a soundtrack, Godard lets an astonishing melody rise and then suddenly drops it out of the scene, the shuffling of other moviegoers emphasizing the silence onscreen. In the age of the two-second jump cut, In Praise of Love interrupts scenes with a black screen, to isolate lines of dialogue, and to give the viewer a moment to process the images. But Godard’s magic isn’t simply in his use of minimalism. Often he will invoke a surfeit of strings, or a saturation of color, as when the movie jumps back two years in time. Every moment seems considered and useful: A passing truck drowns out the most intimate part of a conversation; characters pass by advertisements that comment on the scene, rather than serving as crass product placements. The sound, the script, the lighting, and the locations all conspire to evoke a solemn, melancholy mood.
There is a moment when Edgar is told that his old flame has left a book for him among her belongings. No one knows which book she meant, so he is encouraged to choose. As the dialogue continues to discuss the end of this affair, the audience is shown various titles, as though we might decide along with Edgar what this relationship meant. It’s this sort of freedom and density that Godard uses to show his respect for the audience. If he shuns quick cuts, Godard still offers a wealth of substance with the frequent use of simultaneous dialogues. In translation, the overlapping texts are sometimes hard to follow and often one conversation is entirely abandoned by the subtitles. (There is a particularly whimsical bit you will miss if you don’t speak French. Two young girls wearing the traditional costumes of Brittany, lace caps and white aprons, arrive at the door seeking signatures for their petition to have the international blockbuster, The Matrix, dubbed into their mother tongue, Breton. Local and global cultures clashing in a child’s desire.) Most striking is Godard’s repeated focus, not on the speaker, but on the person listening, giving us the emotional texture of the speaker’s voice as well the recipient’s reaction.
Part of what makes this meditation on love incompatible with mass audiences is the film’s tendency to lapse into that particularly French mode of melancholy that reads as pretentiousness. All of us stare off into the night and think about love, but we don’t film it and then overdub it with sentences like: “I am thinking of something, but I can only think of that something when I am thinking of something else.” It might be nice if Edgar would occasionally light another Gitane and keep his pretty little mouth shut.
The film is also fairly critical of America and Hollywood. It generally struck me as “fairly” so in every sense of the word, but some audiences may not appreciate the more bitter jabs. A lost tourist is referred to as a “pain-in-the-ass American” for no other reason than that she asks for directions. One of the themes of the movie is the importance of memory and history, and Americans are singled out for lacking a critical sense of both. Godard shows France’s superior grasp of historical context by including references to the French Resistance in WWII and the riots of May of ’68 all within the confines of this love story. Can you imagine if Harry met Sally and they talked about Cambodia? Not likely.
There will always be a gap between what an art form can do and what it chooses to do; without that space to explore, the form is dead. But if you let that distance between potential and realization become a void, it will be filled with bloat and flatulence. Freddy will get fingered and serial killers will splatter the screen with gore. At 71, Jean-Luc Godard is still testing the limits of film’s evocative powers, still trying new methods of communicating through celluloid. When Edgar’s lover enters the frame and suddenly the screen is literally flooded by an ocean of longing, you get a glimpse at a new possibility in the characters’ lives, as well as the director’s longing to reach us.
Jean-Luc Godard has medicine for our obese 24-screen cineplexes, but it might not be easy for everyone to swallow.
Kirk Lynn is a co-producing artistic director and playwright-in-residence for Rude Mechanicals.