Cannes Film Festival 2010: Godard doesn't show for Film Socialisme
Jean-Luc Godard has a history of canceling appearances, but bailing on the Cannes premiere of his Film Socialisme—a movie some have suggested will be his last—seems a bit much. In a fax to chief programmer Thierry Frémaux, Godard reportedly attributed his absence to "problems of the Greek type," but the festival hasn't offered an official excuse. ("He's not here, that's why," the head of the media office said with a smile when a group of us asked why this afternoon's press conference was called off.)
Godard being Godard, he'd have probably opened a newspaper and cited any headline as a reason for not coming, but his no-show comes as a major disappointment for those of us hoping to catch a glimpse of the 79-year-old director, who is as important to film as Joyce was to literature and Picasso was to painting. Possessed of a prankish sensibility, Godard has, over the past four decades, cultivated a public image as a fickle philosopher too profound to be bound by rules of politesse (or coherence). There's been speculation that Godard's health may have been an issue, in which case here's hoping for the best. If not, we'll just have to take his nonappearance as another form of performance art. As I quipped outside the the Salle de Conference de Presse, the only thing more Godardian would be to cancel and then show up anyway.
Film Socialisme ends with a title card that says "NO COMMENT," which suggests, as a colleague noted, that perhaps dodging the press conference was always part of the plan. Par for the course for late Godard, the film itself, shot in rich digital video, is almost impossible to parse on one viewing. The first section relays assorted anecdotes, if that’s the word, involving passengers on a ship (including Patti Smith), whose lines, like those of many of the cast members, are translated almost entirely as sentence fragments, even when they aren't. The willfully perverse subtitling ignores key phrases, flips them into a different order and omits syntax—and as in Nouvelle Vague (1990), what's coming out of the characters' mouths bears little relation to what we see them doing. To an English speaker, at least, the screenplay (sample line: "Words Russia happiness") quickly comes to seem like the cinematic equivalent of magnet poetry.
The credits include references to Beethoven, Shakespeare and "Plages d'Agnes" (presumably a nod to Godard's fellow New Waver Agnès Varda's most recent movie), and the film touches on issues of democracy, the law, civilization in Ancient Egypt and Greece, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Literary and cinematic citations, along with scenes of family life, round out the mix. If footage of parakeets and kittens seems straight of Godard's YouTube collection, there are scenes, such as one in which a woman reads Balzac at a gas station while standing next to a llama, that recall the director's heyday, as well as his beguiling ability to intertwine pop and politics.
Film Socialisme is stunning to look at—memorable images include a man lecturing to what appears to be an empty auditorium and a boy in a Soviet shirt conducting a phantom orchestra—but it should be said the movie feels more tossed off than Godard's last two features, In Praise of Love (2001) and Notre Musique (2004), in which it was easier to discern a sense of organization. Like the epic Histoire(s) du Cinéma, Film Socialisme feels like Godard's personal journal, which would make it both ideal and a tad disappointing if it turns out to be a swan song.
For those curious about the competition films—Godard's movie, showing in the Un Certain Regard section, isn't in the running for the Palme d'Or—there have been two groan-worthy premieres since my last post. Takeshi Kitano's Outrage takes the trappings of his mid-'90s yakuza films and denudes them of any drama or context, so that essentially we have two hours of people getting killed, over and over and increasingly stylized ways, for reasons we barely comprehend. That's sort of an interesting concept, but the movie never flirts with full-on abstraction; as executed, Outrage plays like the template for a gangster movie for which no one bothered to write an actual script (although a particularly violent bit of dental work provides a momentary highlight).
Just as tedious, Babel director Alejandro González Iñárritu's Biutiful—his first film not written by Guillermo Arriaga—finds Javier Bardem descending the more obscure depths of Barcelona's drug and immigrant-labor markets while coping with a strained family life and, incidentally, cancer. Iñárritu may have opted for a chronological structure this time, but the movie still suffers from major narrational problems. It's a grim slog—a phrase that's beginning to describe the competition lineup as a whole.