Directed by Jean-Luc Godard — 2004, France — 80 minutes, color, aspect ratio 1.33:1 (as presented in theatrical exhibition) — Drama
IN BRIEF, latest work from the great Jean-Luc Godard, one of the most adventurous living filmmakers, this film combines poetry, journalism and philosophy to try to unravel the absurdities and horrors of the modern world.
Jean-Luc Godard is one of the handful of filmmakers who have forever changed, and expanded, cinema – making it both freer in image and structure and more passionately analytical. Notre Musique (2004; literally “our music”) is not only his latest film, it’s also one of his best. It had its world premiere at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival, and was an official selection at the festivals in Toronto, New York, and Chicago. It was named one of the ten best films of 2004 by Film Comment, Art Forum, the Village Voice, the Los Angeles Times, the LA Weekly, the Boston Phoenix, Newsday, The Christian Science Monitor, and many others. It was awarded Best Film by FIPRESCI (the International Federation of Film Critics). Wellspring’s DVD release features excellent image and flawless sound; their Website offers illuminating background resources (PDF 103K download).
Notre Musique is part journalism, part philosophy, part poetry – both verbal and visual – and pure Godard (whose over seventy other films include Breathless, Pierrot le fou, and Week End). Following my review is a detailed scene-by-scene synopsis of the film taken from the pressbook; it may be drawn from Godard’s own scenario. While Godard riffs on the basic three-part structure of Dante’s 700-year-old spiritual epic, The Divine Comedy – Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven – he grounds Notre Musique in events of today, even as he dissects the tangled, and terribly human, nature of war. Largely set at a literary conference in modern-day Sarajevo, it draws on the conflagration of the Bosnian conflict, as well as Israeli/Palestinian hostilities, the legacy of the Nazis, and even the genocide of Native Americans (a ghostly band of whom literally haunt the film). Fiction intersects with fact, as actors mingle with real-life artistic figures, including Spanish author Juan Goytisolo (for people interested in GLBT literature, the bisexual Goytisolo is sometimes considered the greatest living Spanish author), Arab poet Mahmoud Darwish, French architect Gilles Pequeux, Godard playing himself (or a reasonable facsimile), as well as the people of Sarajevo.
The central story follows the parallel but divergent experiences of two Israeli women, reporter Judith Lerner (Sarah Adler – Afraid of Anything, 1999), drawn to the light, and the enigmatic Olga Brodsky (Nade Dieu – The Butterfly, 2002), moving towards darkness. On one of its many levels, the film is a meditation on war as refracted through cinema, text, image, and the conflicting forces at the heart of the modern world. Simultaneously, Notre Musique continues Godard’s lifelong interrogation of cinema as to what it is and what it can be: much of the film’s power comes from what happens between the frames we see. Visually, it is a work of rapturous, though cool, beauty, from its depiction of a city in the throes of winter to the penetrating way it uses close-ups of faces to convey enormous psychological, and even spiritual, depth. Yet even with this astonishing richness of ideas, it is a work of engaged passion. You can sense the energy, of feelings and ideas, seething beneath the placid surfaces. Godard understands fully that we humans are thinking creatures whose beliefs – about society, love, war, God, our individual selves – profoundly influence the emotions which lead to our actions. Even with my nearly boundless admiration for Godard, very much including Notre Musique, I also have a few major concerns about his work, which I’ll look at in the final section of this review.
About Jean-Luc Godard
Before beginning our exploration of Notre Musique, let’s place Godard in the contexts of both his own body of work and international cinema. (If you are already familiar with Godard, jump to the analysis.) If I may add a personal note, Godard is one of my three or four favorite directors (along with Kubrick, Dreyer, and Welles); I also consider him the most exhilarating, if at times maddeningly abstruse, living filmmaker. Every time I resee a Godard film it seems richer, more luminous and more moving. His work can be dizzying at times, since – like James Joyce – he plays with not only his own now-vast body of work but pretty much everything in Western, and sometimes Eastern, culture: literature, philosophy, art, music, history, politics, even the natural sciences (as we will see in our exploration of this picture). But the rewards of his films can be so immense, and liberating, that the effort to appreciate them is worth whatever it takes. If you’ll pardon a food metaphor, Godard is perhaps best bitten off a little at a time, chewed thoroughly, and digested at leisure: the unique aftertaste – not to mention the intellectual, artistic, spiritual, and sheerly human nourishment – can be savored for a lifetime. As we will see, in highlight form below, his pictures, from first to most recent, exist as a unified but always-evolving body of work, unique in the history of cinema.
Godard was born into a wealthy Parisian family on December 3, 1930. When the war broke out, his parents sent him to live in Switzerland, where he became a naturalized Swiss citizen. In the late ’40s he returned to Paris to study ethnology at the Sorbonne under the aegis of Jean Rouch, an anthropologist/filmmaker who became the first practitioner of cinéma vérité. That new style led directly to the formulation of the French New Wave, created by Godard along with his fellow critics at the enormously influential journal, Cahiers du cinéma (founded in 1951): François Truffaut (Jules and Jim), Jacques Rivette (L’Amour fou), Eric Rohmer (Claire’s Knee), and Claude Chabrol (Le Boucher). In 1952, Godard returned to Switzerland to work on the construction of the Grande-Dixence Dam, using his earnings to finance his first film, the 1954 short “Opération béton” (literally ‘operation concrete’, referring to the dam). He continued making short films, as well as appearing in and sometimes co-writing scripts for his fellow New Wave friends. Together, they re-invented cinematic conventions, through such still-influential devices as jump cuts (radically elliptical editing), improvisatory scripts (or rather, no scripts – making up the film as they went along), a deconstructive reimagining of genres. To take a leading example: thrillers were never the same after Godard’s Breathless (1959), with its use of realistic locations and performances, and an entirely new documentary-like yet poetic visual style. Critics and audiences may never stop arguing about who actually “invented” the New Wave: that watershed year of 1959 also saw Truffaut’s autobiographical The 400 Blows and Alain Resnais’s experimental psychological drama Hiroshima Mon Amour – but Godard seems as strong a candidate as any. Of course, that was only the first of four distinct, but connected, phases to date of his unparalleled career:
- New Wave Godard (1959–1965)
Godard made his feature directorial debut in 1959 with Breathless – arguably the most important cinematic landmark since Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925) – an eclectic tribute to the American “B” gangster movie (like Robert Aldrich’s 1955 Kiss Me Deadly, which Godard quotes from in Notre Musique’s Hell sequence) as well as to the “alienation effect” of avant-garde Socialist playwright Bertolt Brecht (The Threepenny Opera, first staged in 1928). Godard shot his film in just a few days without a script (from a story idea by Truffaut) in a freewheeling style, featuring a fresh cinéma vérité look – much more ‘realistic’ than even Italian Neo-Realism – and an epoch-making use of the jump cut, with its jarringly abrupt transitions between shots (this has long since become a staple of filmmaking, not to mention MTV). Breathless revolutionized cinema even as it electrified audiences – the sexual chemistry between stars Jean Seberg and Jean-Paul Belmondo may even have scorched a few movie screens – and helped firmly establish the French New Wave. The movement’s influence quickly spread throughout the world: ’60s and all subsequent cinema is unthinkable without the New Wave – try to imagine, say, Richard Lester’s A Hard Day’s Night (1964) in the style of Singin’ in the Rain instead of A Woman is a Woman. (NOTE: Titles are in their most common form in English-language publications, i.e., most are translated but a few are always given in French.) Godard’s next film, the political thriller Le Petit soldat (1960), was the first of eight movies in which he starred his then-wife, Anna Karina. His subsequent films brought him increasing international renown: A Woman is a Woman (1961, a “musical” comedy without songs), Vivre sa vie (1962, ‘My Life to Live,’ about a woman’s descent into prostitution), Les Carabiniers (1963, an Absurdist satire on war: an ultimate double bill would be this film and Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, made the following year), Contempt (1963, starring Bridget Bardot, Jack Palance, and director Fritz Lang as himself – Godard plays his harried assistant; this is Godard’s only ostensibly commercial movie), Band of Outsiders (1964 – since Pulp Fiction, the most often-imitated film of the ’90s, lifted much of its style and form from this film – Tarantino even calls his production company A Band Apart, after this film’s original title, Bande à part – it can be argued that this is currently Godard’s most influential picture; it’s also one of his best), Alphaville (1965, one of the most innovative science fiction films ever made), and the criminal-lovers-on-the-run classic Pierrot le fou (1965, one of my favorite Godard films). These extraordinary pictures made Godard the most discussed and argued-about director in the world. But his understanding of cinema, politics, not to mention human nature, were about to make a second quantum leap.
- Revolutionary Godard (1966–1972)
From 1966 to 1968, Godard’s films increasingly showed the influence of ’60s radicalism, which exploded in the May ’68 riots: Masculine–Feminine (1966), Two or Three Things I Know About Her (1966, an indispensable Godard picture about the destructive hypocrisies of modern society), La Chinoise (1967, starring his second wife, Anne Wiazemsky, about French “Maoist” student revolutionaries), Week End (1967 – this apocalyptic satire is arguably Godard’s single greatest work), and Le Gai savoir (1968, literally ‘the joy of knowledge’). From 1969 through the early ’70s, he collaborated with Jean-Pierre Gorin; they called themselves the Dziga Vertov Group (named after the Russian filmmaker who created the avant-garde 1929 masterpiece, Man With the Movie Camera – do not miss Vertov’s film!). Together, Godard and Gorin made such politically revolutionary – aka agitprop – pictures as Vladimir and Rosa (1970), Wind From the East (1970, an iconoclastic Western), Tout va bien (1972, starring Jane Fonda as a reporter covering a strike at a sausage factory), and Letter to Jane (1972, deconstructing a photo of Fonda being chummy with the North Vietnamese). The films of this period were radical in both content and style. Godard and Gorin drew heavily on the ideas of class struggle and dialectical materialism, the Marxist theory that historical events are caused by the conflict of social forces, which nonetheless can be analyzed – Godard believed through cinematic means – so that solutions can be found.
- New Media Godard (1972–1979)
In 1972, Godard moved to Rolle, Switzerland, where he concentrated on video, as an alternative to film, for production and distribution. He also began a partnership with Swiss filmmaker Anne-Marie Miéville, which still continues (most recently on Notre Musique). Moving away from radical politics, Godard returned to more personal material. He and Miéville created video experiments for such clients as Britain’s Channel 4, France Telecom and UNICEF, including the television series Six Times Two / On and Beneath Communication (1976) and France / Tour / Detour / Two / Children (1977). Godard’s own films during this period include Number Two (1975) and Ici et ailleurs (1976).
- Reflective Godard (1980–Today)
Godard’s films of the past quarter century are often characterized as “autumnal” or contemplative; I prefer the term ‘reflective’ because of its association with ‘reflexive,’ which – exhilaratingly – Godard’s films still are. In 1978 Godard returned to France to make Every Man for Himself (released 1980, starring Isabelle Huppert). In 1980, he moved to California to work with Francis Ford Coppola on a picture about gangster Bugsy Siegel, which was never filmed (in the mid ’60s, Hollywood had courted Godard to direct Bonnie and Clyde, only to get cold feet at the last minute). Returning to Paris, he made his Trilogy of the Sublime – Passion (1982), First Name: Carmen (1983), and Hail Mary (1985, a luminous, but controversial, modern retelling of the events surrounding Jesus’s birth) – all concerned with female beauty, art, and nature. After his neo-film-noir Detective (1985), Godard and Miéville produced Soft and Hard (1986), the TV film Grandeur et décadence, d’un petit commerce de cinéma, la recherche des acteurs (1986), Soigne ta droite: une place sur la terre comme au ciel (1986, ‘Keep Your Right Up: A Place on Earth as in Heaven’), and King Lear (1986, starring Burgess Meredith as Lear and Molly Ringwald as Cordelia!). In the ’90s Godard made Nouvelle vague (1990, ‘New Wave’), Germany Year 90 Nine Zero (1991, a sequel to Alphaville), Hélas pour moi (1993), For Ever Mozart (1996, about a French theatrical troupe trying to stage a play in Sarajevo), and his acclaimed eight-hour series, History(s) of the Cinema (1997–98), which he also condensed into a 90-minute version. In the new millennium, his film In Praise of Love, in part about an elderly couple who are former heroes of the Resistance, was acclaimed at the 2001 Cannes Film Festival. Notre Musique (2004) is Godard’s most recent feature, although we can be sure he still has plenty of cinematic surprises in store for us.
Although Notre Musique is much more than just a summing up of Godard’s earlier concerns, it does play a key role in the ongoing development of his body of work. Here are some (though certainly not all) of the themes which Notre Musique shares with his previous works: war (Le Petit soldat, Les Carabiniers, Week End, Letter to Jane, In Praise of Love), the “alienated city” – often shown in winter (Band of Outsiders, Vivre sa vie, Alphaville, Two or Three Things I Know About Her), the world of nature as temporary retreat (Pierrot le fou, Week End, Hail Mary), spirituality (Hail Mary, Soigne ta droite), literary reimaginings (First Name: Carmen, King Lear, Hélas pour moi), music (One Plus One: aka Sympathy for the Devil, First Name: Carmen – which features Beethoven’s late string quartets but not Bizet’s opera Carmen, in the anthology film Aria his segment using Jean-Baptiste Lully’s opera Armide), the rapid montage of cinematic fragments in this film’s Hell section (History(s) of the Cinema), the abstract use of primary colors (Contempt, Pierrot le fou), Godard playing himself (Letter to Jane, Number Two, First Name: Carmen, JLG by JLG; also as the offscreen unnamed narrator in Band of Outsiders, A Married Woman, Two or Three Things I Know About Her, Le Gai savoir, Letter to Jane, History(s) of the Cinema), even aquatic engineering (his first film, “Opération béton”).
On a more general level, there are many elements in Notre Musique shared by virtually all of Godard’s films, including humor: puns, jokes and plenty of quirky characters – despite the seriousness of his themes and the rigor of his filmmaking, Godard quite often is a genuine and provocative hoot; narrative digressions in a highly-formalized work (both visually and in its deep narrative structure); the many forms of being an outsider (psychological, socio-economic, political, religious); the distance between people and the difficulty in creating meaningful connections; the roles which women are allowed and/or forced to play; the many problems of communication, including the Babel of different languages (at least six are used in this film – French, English, Spanish, Hebrew, Arabic and Serbo-Croatian – and perhaps at Godard’s request a few select lines are not translated in the optional subtitles, to remind us of this ‘mis-communication’ theme); popular culture versus elite culture; enormous interplay of cultural references (literature, philosophy, music, art, cinema, history, political theory, as well as Godard’s own films – see the few examples given in the paragraph above); the interplay of image, sound and movement; image versus text – and the sometimes fatal disconnection between the true nature of an object and how it is misinterpreted; the struggle between contemplation and action; politics and the connections between past and present; the tentativeness of the future (although Notre Musique is, Godard tells us, his most optimistic film); cinema as a deeply provocative medium of beauty, tension, insight, and hope. Let me also note one more aspect of Godard which I cherish: his uncanny ability, from Breathless to his latest film, to use the close-up to reveal so much about a character’s psychological, and even spiritual, depth: certainly some of the most haunting and indelible memories we take of Notre Musique are the strangely similar faces of the divergent main characters – Judith and Olga; and it’s no coincidence that Godard ends with a serene yet devastating close-up of Olga in Heaven. For all of Godard’s vast, and sometimes playful, intellect, his films are always grounded in humanity. These are just some of Godard’s perpetual themes also found in Notre Musique, which indicate both the continuity and the evolution of his cinema during its first five decades.
Godard is also perhaps the single most influential modern filmmaker, having inspired – to name a few – Terrence Malick (Badlands), Martin Scorsese (Mean Streets), Robert Altman (Nashville), Wim Wenders (Kings of the Road), Joel Coen (Blood Simple), Jim Jarmusch (Stranger Than Paradise), Steven Soderbergh (sex, lies and videotape), Gus Van Sant (My Own Private Idaho), Quentin Tarantino (Pulp Fiction), Wong Kar-Wai (Happy Together), Peter Greenaway (Pillow Book), Baz Luhrmann (Romeo + Juliet), David Fincher (Fight Club), Paul Thomas Anderson (Punch-Drunk Love), Spike Jonze (Adaptation), and first-time filmmaker Joanthan Cauoette, whose astonishing 2004 autobiographical documentary, Tarnation, could hardly be more Godardian. Other great writer/directors inspired by Godard include the late Pier Paolo Pasolini (Oedipus Rex), Derek Jarman (Edward II), and his most prodigious disciple, Rainer Werner Fassbinder (it’s impossible to write about any of Fassbinder’s films, despite their originality, without invoking Godard).
Few films with such a placid surface – there is virtually no onscreen “action” in a melodramatic Hollywood sense – contain such worlds of meaning, and passion, between the frames. Mine is, of course, only one possible reading of this extraordinarily rich film: Notre Musique, like all of Godard’s pictures, invites – and deserves – a multiplicity of interpretations, including your own.
Let’s begin by looking at the narrative structure of this seemingly static drama, which begins with its own antithesis: war – ten minutes of almost mind-numbing violence and horror before the stillness of the last seventy minutes.
This rapid-fire montage of war images comprises maybe five hundred shots drawn from old movies, eclectically – and dizzyingly – ranging from such classics as Griffith’s Intolerance, Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin and Alexander Nevsky, Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deady, Bondarchuk’s definitive War and Peace, Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, and Kurosawa’s Ran to Hollywood spectacles running the gamut from sword-and-sandal epics to cowboy-and-Indian flicks (presaging the band of ghostly Native Americans which appears throughout this film) to Zulu to every kind of war-as-commercial-entertainment movie), documentaries (including some on monkeys and, mystifyingly, a penguin, who seems on the verge of being washed away), and all manner of propaganda films. This is Hell on earth. But is there a deeper structure to this torrent of images? But of course!
Although Godard rarely analyzes his own films – he leaves that to us – in a recent interview he does offer a succinct overview of the underlying four-part structure of his Hell sequence “with 10 minutes’ worth of documents, divided into four small moments, which is easier than going on for 10 minutes. The first part is all the wars, the second is technology – tanks, aircraft, ships. The third is victims of war, and the fourth part is some images of Sarajevo during the war, to introduce the Purgatory segment.” (The film’s central 60-minute section is set in Sarajevo; it is followed by a 10-minute segment in Heaven.)
Godard also provides structure through his editing, which is another way of saying his strong rhythmical sense. When you re-see the Hell sequence, notice how shrewdly – and even smoothly – the wildly disparate images fit together through the direction of screen action: left to right, right to left, up and down, sometimes even coming straight at us. The clips all fit together brilliantly, as if each one was part of a vast jigsaw puzzle: thematically speaking, that is exactly what they are. On a more subtle level, there is a jarring but evocative juxtaposition of many different kinds of war clips, from cinematic masterpieces to junk, from the profoundly moving shots of actual Sarajevo victims to the sheerly propagandistic, including “equal time” clips from the Nazis, Soviets, and the U.S. (Godard’s point here is, of course, the unnerving rhetorical similarities).
Although the clips are presented as silent, Godard sets up a highly evocative correspondence between them and the minimalist pulsing of a single piano. Sometimes it is hammered furiously, other times (as during the scenes of war’s unspeakable aftermath) it fades almost to silence. The piano becomes not only the voice of the images, but perhaps of our emotional response to them; by giving us a voice, however indirect – at times sublminal, the music allows us to process the horror.
The only other sound is a woman’s voice calmly (perhaps – purposefully – too calmly) reciting the typically Godardian narration, a free-verse poetic lament which includes such lines as, “And so, in the age of fable / There appeared on earth / Men armed for extermination… / They’re horrible here. / With their obsession for cutting off heads / It’s amazing that anybody survives.” The narrator ends with an epigraph that is both vintage Godard and – in its parallelism and paradox – a suggestion of the entire film’s underlying mode: “We consider death two ways: / The impossible of the possible / And the possible of the impossible.” Like me, when I first heard that line, you may be thinking, What the hell does that mean? Throughout the course of this essay, we’ll see. For now, let me note that there is far more than mere “method” in Godard’s seeming “madness”: there is real, and perhaps even profound, insight into the nature of cinema as well as of the modern world.
Now, let’s take a look at the film’s overarching three-part structure, which Godard has said indicates “a past, a present, a future…” We have already looked at the past (Hell / war); the extended middle section is the present (Purgatory / Sarajevo); and the final section – an intriguing coda – is the character Olga’s future (Heaven). As you can tell from Godard’s naming the three sections – or “Kingdoms” – of this film after Dante, there are some important correspondences between Notre Musique and The Divine Comedy. Superficially, Godard is more modest than Dante (happily, a couple of years ago I finished reading his masterpiece, along with a small pile of commentaries). While the fourteenth century poet appears in every scene (or rather, canto) of his rhyming epic, Godard only pops up once in a while (although his persona certainly marks every frame). Both works are journeys through the three Kingdoms: Dante’s is overt (and at times mesmerizing), while Godard’s is more subtle and allusive (and intended to break the hypnotizing spell of the modern world, still mired in the “age of fable”). The journey in this film is, ultimately, our own, not only as we wander through the streets, mansions, libraries, cafes, lecture halls, and airports of Sarajevo – trying to make sense of the ‘talky scenes’ and cool (in both senses of the word) images – but as we dig ever deeper beneath Godard’s enigmatic structure (which, significantly, also binds him as a character). Both Dante and Godard employ a provocative mix of both fictional characters and real people, although the latter always have a symbolic function, as we will see. (Two other films which specifically use – and refer to – Dante, to their own ends, are Pier Paolo Pasolini’s uneven but provocative satire, The Hawks and the Sparrows, and Derek Jarman’s greatest picture, Edward II, which sets Christopher Marlowe’s 1591 play in a Dantesque Inferno.)
Although I’ll add to the list of Godard’s Dante connections throughout this review, on the most basic level both works are profoundly spiritual: Dante’s in an overt Christian sense (although he does include a sly revisionist streak: for instance, the gay characters fare surprisingly well, even in Hell) and Godard’s in what you might call a universal, or a post-sectarian, sense. It is no coincidence that the film builds towards the sequence about the reconstruction of the Mostar Bridge: while the doomed Olga rejects the real-life architect Gilles Pecqueux’s words that “It’s not to restore the past; it’s to make the future possible,” her symbolic counterpart, the reporter (and listener) Judith Lerner lovingly photographs the work being done on the bridge (on another plane, she at last allows the ghosts of the Native Americans to un-bind themselves from this world and go to, presumably, (their) Heaven – although a couple of them remain behind, as we will see).
Even more than The Divine Comedy, the work which seems closest to Godard – throughout his entire body of work, but especially here – is James Joyce’s era-defining 1922 novel, Ulysses. It contains most of Godard’s catalog of techniques, including radical narrative construction and deconstruction (sometimes based on then-new cinematic conventions: Joyce was a lifelong devotee of film, and even once ran a movie theatre), parallels between ancient and modern experience (Ulysses offers contemporary parallels for all of the major scenes in Homer’s eighth century BCE epic, The Odyssey), mingling of fictional and real events, and (considering its deserved reputation as a defining Masterpiece of Art) a lot of humor, some of it downright knee-slapping. Regarding Ulysses and Notre Musique, there are clear parallels to both works being set in a politically-troubled city (Dublin / Sarajevo), during a brief span of time (twenty-four hours / a couple of days), following two or three characters’ parallel journeys (Bloom and Stephen / Olga and Judith – and the Godard character), with almost no overt “action,” yet with an evocative series of correspondences between ancient literary sources and modern events (Homer – Joyce’s Ireland / Dante, as well as cinema history – our contemporary world), and a profusion of cultural allusions (mythic, literary, musical, visual, historical, political, scientific) which is not only revelatory but staggering.
Although I don’t know if Godard’s Sarajevo is used with the same symbolic density as Joyce’s Dublin (in which particular parts of the city have specific metaphorical functions: “Nighttown” is a self-evident example), the capital of Bosnia–Herzogovina acts as much more than just a setting. As Godard has remarked, he uses “Sarajevo as a metaphor for Europe, with people who feel that they’re separated from others and at the same time are with us, with something to be reconstructed together. That’s why my film is relatively serious, but also an optimistic film.” Precisely.
Yet the specifics of how Godard depicts Sarajevo make it even more intriguing than his summing up suggests. He has created perhaps his most resonant “gray city” since Alphaville: a literally-frozen, haunted, liminal world, situated between the West and the East, and trapped between the reality in which we all live and an almost phantasmagorical alternate universe – a place of (pun intended) concrete symbols. In both films, Godard may have been drawing on Cocteau’s sublime Orpheus, which depicts Limbo by using the actual demolished buildings of postwar France. All over Sarajevo, we see the results of the recent Bosnian War, including a burned-out hulk which was once the great National Library.
Also notice the many shots of cars, trams, even planes, coming and going, round and round on the curving roads – yet they seem essentially static (a mood reinforced by the repetition of this imagery). This also recalls Dante, whose Kingdoms are depicted as enormous cones: Dante and his guides literally spiral – around and around – downwards to the deepest frozen pit of Hell, then gradually upwards through the circles of Purgatory and Heaven. For Godard, his purgatorial Sarajevo – in which characters relentlessly but quietly probe their assumptions – also acts as a “middle ground” between the clipped horrors of his Hell and his unnervingly serene Heaven; in other words, this is both a specific, real city and a metaphor for our world – which also works as an externalization of Olga’s “liminal” psychological state.
Speaking of the incredible mix of characters in this film, Godard noted, “I wanted to show them all on equal terms, I wanted to be democratic, with both fiction and documentary, real actors and false actors and no actors at all, and me intervening as a guest.” Even the renowned modern poet, Mahmoud Darwish, had to memorize his lines – although they were based on an actual interview he had given. Godard is well-known for his use of improvisation; but once he has the words he wants, the dialogue is locked.
As in all of his films, Godard is very careful – and often playful – when he names his characters, almost always with a symbolic intent. The most affirmative fictional character here is certainly Judith Lerner, whose surname comes from the German word for “learning.” Her doomed alter ego, the enigmatic Olga Brodsky (described as a Jewish Israeli of Russian descent), takes her last name from the poet Joseph Brodsky, which serves as a reminder of the film’s many transnational characters. Brodsky, winner of the 1987 Nobel Prize for Literature, was a U.S. poet born in Russia who wrote in both languages. Olga’s last name also brings to mind such other important transnational figures – in this international / trans-sectarian / universal film – as novelist Juan Goytisolo (born in Spain but who lives in Morocco and Paris and considers himself a part of those cultures), Mahmoud Darwish (who considers himself an exiled Palestinian, but who has never given up his Israeli citizenship), and Niels Bohr, the Danish physicist forced by World War II to relocate to Britain, then the U.S. (although he is only mentioned briefly, in the key ‘lecture scene’ which we will dissect soon, I believe that Bohr’s theories play a fundamental role in Godard’s vision).
At the end of the film, Godard creates the film’s most haunting image, as his own character stares at Olga’s reflection on a DVD of the film which contains her political statement – made just before her tragic, ironic, and completely wasteful death (the irony is compounded because doesn’t even watch the film; he wants it given to his assistant). This ghostly image resonates on several levels: as a sad reminder of how Olga was never able to connect with herself (notice how lost she looks), as a suggestion of the limitations of media (what good did her digital testament do?), as a foreshadowing of her death (note how the DVD’s hub cuts a hole into her right-hand reflection), and still – in its own right – as a beautiful, powerful, memorable image which “speaks” more eloquently about Olga than she ever did about herself.
Let’s leave the symbolism aside for a while… please! Just look at the faces of Olga and Judith. In fact, look at the faces in any of Godard’s films (especially the women’s faces): few filmmakers are such subtle masters of the expressive close-up. We can sense, just by looking at the visible play of ideas and emotions which register on their faces, the fullness of their humanity. Without this tangible real-ness, Godard’s symbolism would fall flat – because no one can care about abstractions (and to paraphrase Hollywood mogul Louis B. Mayer, if you want to send a message, use a telegram). One of Godard’s rarest gifts is that he’s at once able to reveal so much about the deepest nature of a person – whether a passing extra or a star – by how he lights (or casts in shadow) and frames their face. He lets us observe the rich interplay of ideas and emotions which register on their faces: it’s no accident that this film ends with a devastating close-up of Olga in Heaven. Godard’s people are abstractions brought pulsingly to life – and that is the best way to contemplate abstractions, since it acknowledges their literal embodiment in human beings. Like such literary counterparts as Dante or Joyce, Godard gives us living, breathing women and men – the people who embody ideas and consequently turn them into actions, from the most noble to the most base and self-destructive.
Of course, there is an important flip side. In his second film, Le Petit soldat, small time photo-journalist Bruno sums up what I’ve just noted about Godard’s close-ups: “When you photograph a face, you photograph the soul behind it” (the line continues with Godard’s best-known quotation: “Photography is truth… and the cinema is truth twenty-four times per second”). Now, we have to consider the source: Bruno. Despite his sententious pronouncements about Life, Art and Spirit, this guy is no font of godlike wisdom; he’s actually something of a jerk. And so this pivotal early character reminds us that in all of Godard’s pictures (including Notre Musique), as in life, we must consider the source of even the most self-evidently wise sayings – including Godard’s various incarnations in his films (in First Name: Carmen, his persona is a playful lunatic).
We must also listen closely to what his characters say, both onscreen and off-. The voice-over narration he uses in many of his films (often spoken by Godard himself in the ’60s pictures) is transparently in free verse – and more than one critic has hailed Godard as perhaps the greatest postwar French poet (and that’s notwithstanding his role as filmmaker). Yet the dialogue for all his characters, arguably in every one of his films, is only slightly less abstract than his fully poeticized narrator, but certainly his dialogue is “un-realistic” by any definition. Even when he uses an actual person’s own words – as in the example of Darwish’s interview noted above – he strips away the hemming and hawing of actual conversation, transforming the speech with pronounced rhythms and cadences into a kind of vernacular poetry, raising the language above the level of mere transcription. With his extraordinary gift for working with both actors and non-actors, Godard is able both to present his poeticized ideas and to have them embodied in (seemingly real) people. I think this is one of his greatest, and most unique, achievements.
Equally important is Godard’s subtly brilliant use of image and sound. Godard recently referred to himself, only half-jokingly, as a great “destroyer” of “the written form. But what I’m destroying is a way of using the written form that refuses to take images on equal terms.” Notre Musique is one of Godard’s most visually ravishing films: the film is literally and thematically inconceivable with its interplay of image and idea. This film marks the third time that he has worked with cinematographer Julien Hirsch, who also shot In Praise of Love and the short “Ten Minutes Older: The Cello,” a segment in the 2002 anthology film, Dans le noir du temps. I’ve already talked about (or is it rhapsodized?) the way that Godard has captured the feel of winter in this film, as well as how he captures (or is it releases?) the profound expressiveness of faces through close-ups. He also employs his career-long gambit of using the three primary colors – red, blue, and yellow in strikingly pure hues – in a fun but abstract way. In fact, the more you look at this film, the more instances of those primaries you’ll find, including signs, cars, consumer products, decorative objects, and near the end – when spring at last comes, at least to Godard’s garden back at his home – a profusion of flowers, which weirdly or not brings to mind the floral-filled opening credits of Cukor’s My Fair Lady. In Notre Musique, Godard adds green to his eye-popping primary palette, from the bilious flourescent cast of the light in the airport to the Mostar River (which Godard points out in the narration is “the greenest river in the world”) to the many shots of plants; the ‘green motif’ culminates in the impossibly verdant Heaven of the third section, with Olga cavorting amidst a sea of leaves and grass so blindingly green it seems to be electrically charged. Godard’s use of color is gorgeous in its own right, even as it also helps tie the entire film together on a stylistic level.
Although Godard tends to use a standard, non-distorting lens (perhaps a 50 mm or so) for most of the Sarajevo/Purgatory and Heaven sections, his subtle – and other times playfully bold (like the huge glowing question mark signs in the airport) – mastery of composition provide more than enough visual energy to keep the film compelling on that level too.
Let’s focus, for a moment, on just one image, pulled almost at random from the film: it’s basically two pairs of hands and three glasses on a barroom table. The shot is both representative and outstanding: Godard takes a slightly skewed perspective, as here – he withholds showing the speakers while holding for an inordinately long time on the glasses and hands, arranged in a subtly striking yet balanced composition (the trio of glasses running along the center vertical axis, the hands, notebook and ashtray defining the center horizontal line). The composition is also bound together by color – the warm browns and golds – and the use of shadows, which adds to the intriguing effect set up by not showing us the speakers (for quite a while). We later see that this is a dialogue between real-life author Jean-Paul Curnier (who has written extensively on public cultural policies, media, and aesthetics) and the fictional C. Maillard (Jean-Christophe Bouvet – whose many films include Pialat’s Under Satan’s Sun, Collard’s Savage Nights). Curnier opines that criminals can always accuse still bigger criminals, and thus become “victims themselves.” While that idea smacks of talk radio, Curnier – and by extension Godard – takes the idea a step further, noting that “victims… provide easy moral comfort to the dominant society.” Godard also has his characters note, still more provocatively, that “We’re incapable of freeing ourselves and we call that democracy;” the contemporary political philosopher Claude Lefort is then quoted as saying that “since modern democracies have separated out politics, they are prone to totalitarianism.” As the films final one-on-one dialogue scene (there have been several throughout; both punctuate and help structure the Purgatory section) draws to a close, you may still be wondering, Why are there three glasses for only two people? Could it be that the third glass is for you– an invitation to pick up the thread of his characters’ argument and continue developing it for yourself?
I at first found one of the most puzzling aspects of this film to be its title. But the more I’ve thought about the phrase, “our music,” the more I’ve come to realize that it’s a key – or perhaps as Godard playfully but suggestively puts it, “a lock” – to this film. Godard offers his own gloss on the title, during the climactic lecture scene (which we’ll look a below), but there are other dimensions to it which I want to address first.
Throughout his body of work, Godard has consistently, and with brilliant imagination, used music – as well as more general sound effects – to add layers of thematic and emotional complexity. His use of the sublime late Beethoven string quartets in First Name: Carmen is arguably a landmark in the cinematic use of music (although Godard’s film is a revisionist updating of Prosper Mérimée’s 1845 novel, which inspired the beloved 1875 opera Carmen, he completely eschews Bizet’s music – which some viewers would have expected). Yet atypically, his use of music in a film entitled “Our Music” is remarkable for being so, well, straightforward. As with his other films, he has an eclectic roster of composers on the soundtrack – from classical titans Tchaikovsky and Sibelius to contemporary artists Arvo Pärt, Meredith Monk, and many more – but the music seems (at least to me) to be there primarily to reinforce the feeling of the scene, whether the hammering piano of the opening Hell section or using Sibelius under the many vaguely mysterious, chilly shots of Sarajevo in winter. Compare this direct musical/narrative parallelism with the self-consciously jazzy rhythms of Breathless, or the song-less “musical” comedy A Woman is a Woman (which moves and feels like a musical, despite its lack of actual musical numbers), or the more complex cadences of Two or Three Things I Know About Her or Week End. Godard edits his own films, whether in name or not, and is adept at controlling the flow of narrative and images to his larger purposes, as seen as recently as In Praise of Love, the feature he made prior to this one. So why did he give this picture a “musical” title and then downplay the enormous potential for setting up a (pun intended) counterpoint between the musical/rhythmic aspects, the theme, and the emotional effect?
If you even agree with my contention that Godard’s use of music here is straightforward (I can already hear several friends of mine disagreeing), I’m sure you will have your own theories as to why: but let me turn back to the implications of the title. “Our” is certainly a key concept of this film; we’ve already looked at Godard’s own comment that he considers this an optimistic film, since it (subtly) celebrates cooperation, as seen in rebuilding of the Mostar Bridge – both a literal and metaphorical act – which allows connections between the warring factions of Catholic Croats and Muslim Bosnians. In general terms, the entire film – with all of its interviews, one-on-one bull sessions, even Godard’s pivotal lecture on text and image (which we’ll look at in depth in a moment) – is about the search for common ground, an ethical “our” which everyone can embrace, and which can lead the world away from the horrors of war/Hell and towards a livable peace (although not, I hope, the living-dead world of Olga’s Heaven). On still another level, there is a note of secularization: instead of the sectarian Catholic “Notre Dame” (“Our Lady” – herself the subject of Godard’s Hail Mary, perhaps his tenderest film), we have a universal and artistic “Our Music.” There is an even more abstract aesthetic counterpoint to the quest for a collective “our” on a deeper structural and philosophical level, which we wil soon explore. That’s one way of glossing “our,” but what does “music” mean in the title, as well as in the film?
I think Godard actually goes back to the root meaning of “music” (not to mention his highly idiosyncratic definition of the phrase “our music” given during his lecture), instead of the common meaning of the term. To put it mildly, this would not be the first time Godard had set up a provocative trap for his viewers: with Godard, if you snooze, you lose (although the elitist implications of such feints are not all rosy, as I’ll discuss in the final part of this essay). The word “music” derives from the Latin and Greek phrase “art of the Muses,” of which there were originally three. The second century BCE Greek historian Pausanias notes that there were three original Muses: Aoide (“song”, “voice”), Melete (“practice” or “occasion”) and Mneme (“memory”). Today it’s more common to think of the nine Muses (a Botticelli painting, like “The Birth of Venus,” may pop into our heads as an illustration), which included much more specific Muse / subject associations, as Euterpe / music and Clio / history. But Godard’s film fits nicely within the three original Muses of voice, (historical) practice, and memory.
In fact, this “Muse–ical” reading may help explain the film’s most (seemingly) bizarre credit: Elias Sanbar is listed as “Memory” (Sanbar co-directed a 1998 documentary entitled “Mahmoud Darwish: The Land as Language”). Memory is, of course, key to any form of understanding; and Godard takes the longest-possible view of memory and history: in the Mostar Bridge sequence note his reference to Sumer, the very beginning of Western culture – and language – six thousand years ago. There is also a direct connection to Dante, who at the beginning of The Divine Comedy (Canto II) famously invoked the Muses, while singling out memory: “O Muses, O lofty genius, assist me now! / O memory that inscribed that which I saw, / Now shall your nobility be seen!“
Godard proffers his own highly, and weirdly, poetic definition of the title during his lecture:
Shot and Reverse Shot
The Principle of Cinema:
Go Towards the Light and Shine It on Our Night
Although we will look very closely at this text and its accompanying images and sounds in a moment, for now note that the theme is fundamentally about correspondences. After living with this film for several weeks, I’ve come to realize that – on a deep formal level – it is structured over a vast, mazelike series of correspondences, encompassing not only all of the arts (hi, Muses!) but, as we’ll see, quantum physics (!) as well. This almost impossibly-eclectic and abstruse system is similar to the one that Joyce employed in Ulysses, and which a few other mega-adventurous Modernist authors have used in their works, such as T.S. Eliot’s comparatively tiny 1922 poem, The Waste Land, and Thomas Pynchon’s sprawling 1972 novel, Gravity’s Rainbow. (Later, I will offer my two cents on the troubling paradox of Godard, whose lifelong political activism has been to help “liberate the people,” making the most intellectually dense and rigorous – as well as sometimes the most beautiful and moving – films in all of cinema, although superficially they appear to be about just a bunch of stuffy and/or silly people talking endlessly about politics and art.)
Now, back to correspondences – more specifically, Charles Baudelaire’s best-known poem, “Correspondences” (from his 1857 collection, Flowers of Evil), which the offscreen narrator recites during the crucial scene in the burned-out Sarajevo Library. From the poem, we hear its opening quatrain: “Nature is a temple in which living pillars / Sometimes give voice to confused words; / Man passes there through forests of symbols / Which look at him with understanding eyes….” (translated by William Aggeler in 1954).
Baudelaire’s haunting imagery meshes perfectly with the unforgettable hulk of the burned-out, yet once obviously glorious, Sarajevo National Library, with its beautiful Muslim-inspired architecture – now charred, with huge pieces of blackened plaster crumbling to the filthy floor. Taken as a literal illustration, you can see the library as a “temple” with actual pillars whose hideous damage “give[s] voice” to the wanton destruction of war. (On one critical level, this entire film is a vast “forest of symbols,” of which the burned-out library is one of the more obvious – and heartbreaking.) If you investigate the library’s history further – and by implication, this raises the issue of just what Godard expects us to know to extract the fullest meaning from his film – you’ll learn (as at the Wikipedia entry on Sarajevo) that it was Orthodox Christian Serbian ultra-nationalists who deliberately fired incendiary weapons to burn down the “Muslim” National Library. Happily, the library is now being rebuilt and the books replaced. There is a strange optimism in Baudelaire’s poem (as in Godard’s film) that the “forests of symbols” (presumably in some metaphysical Platonic dimension of Pure Forms) compassionately “look at [confused humankind] with understanding eyes,” above the violence-inducing bigotry of men mired in this “age of [conflicting sectarian] fables.”
Another level of connection between Baudelaire and Godard, regarding “correspondences,” concerns the poet’s direct inspiration, the eighteenth century mystic Emanuel Swedenborg. His then highly-popular visions of Heaven (which many people accepted as gospel) revealed that everything ‘up there’ had a counterpart on earth: Godard’s Heaven, guarded by the U.S. military, fits that model, although with more than a trace of irony.
Oddly, Baudelaire’s is perhaps the most important quoted text which Godard does not cite in his “bibliography” in the end credits (Dostoevsky and three other authors made the cut), and which he does not even have the female narrator identify. Does Godard believe that the poem is universally well known; or does he feel that the words speak fully for themselves? I pat myself on the back for knowing this poem, but all of the allusions I don’t even know that I missed gnaws at me.
As the narrator breaks off reading Baudelaire, we see real-life novelist Juan Goytisolo (1967’s Marks of Identity, 1970’s Count Julian – the openly [although not in this film] bisexual Goytisolo is sometimes considered the greatest living Spanish writer), walking on wobbly planks around the smoldering library, reciting one of the few lines in the film which are not translated in the subtitles (ugh!). I wish I knew what he was saying; but something tells me that in those few instances when the subtitles fall silent, it was at Godard’s request – perhaps to tacitly remind us of the distance which the global Babel of tongues – note Baudelaire’s phrase “confused words” – puts between us (yet many people, unlike myself, know Spanish, so why not include a translation of Goytisolo’s words in this well-known language? Again, ugh!). By the way, visually this is the most perfectly Dantesque scene in the film, although it seems more like one of the (lighter) torments in Dante’s Inferno (an author surrounded by massive piles of torn or burning books) than in his Purgatory (the “restless” Native American ghosts in this scene are clearly in a transitional Purgatory). I feel compelled to add that invoking Baudelaire, for diehard Godard fans, brings to mind a classic scene in Pierrot le Fou, in which the influential American B-movie director Samuel Fuller (Pickup on South Street, Shock Corridor), playing himself, is at a party. Fuller is in Paris to shoot a (fictitious) film called Flowers of Evil; but Godard uses this great tough-guy auteur (a hero to all of the New Wave filmmakers) – leaning against a wall, in a masterpiece of perfectly flat spatial design – to spout his (Fuller’s? Godard’s? Both?) infamous definition of cinema: “Love. Hate. Action. Violence. Death. In one word, Emotion.”
In the key scene in this film, Godard’s lecture on “image and text” at the European Literary Encounters conference (his reason for being in Sarajevo), he offers a strikingly different interpretation of his medium: “The principle of cinema: go towards the night and shine it on our light. Our music,” which we’ll now look at in context. Here Godard poetically suggests, among many other things, what he means by the film’s title – which of course is even more enigmatic than we might have suspected. On another level, the scene works as a brilliant in-joke: some people have always accused Godard of being nothing but a pontificator – so here he gives the lecture to end all lectures. There is also a crucial story development: the scene begins with Olga racing through the streets to attend the lecture; and by its end, she has resolved to commit an act of terrorism. Note the “shot” and “reverse shot” in just these elements: on one level, the lecture is a slyly comic criticism of Godard’s critics, on the another it leads a character to her doom.
Since this is such a critical scene not only in this film but, I believe, in Godard’s entire body of work, I’ll describe it in much greater detail than the official pressbook synopsis which follows this review, then pull the connections together afterwards [although I do add a few comments in brackets, as well as a few additional silent details]. Here is my blow-by-blow summary (from the last half of the DVD’s chapter 9 and chapter 10):
Godard begins by holding up a black and white photograph of total devastation, obviously caused by war: blasted buildings, with just a few twisted beams remaining, and total emptiness. Godard asks his audience of almost entirely young people (there is also a middle-aged woman who acts as his interpreter) if they can identify the scene, before he reveals that it is Richmond, Virginia in 1865 during “the American Civil War.”
He then talks about the “peasant girl” Saint Bernadette of Lourdes who claimed that, as a young girl in 1858, she saw the Virgin Mary eighteen times; the local mother superior and bishop grilled her about the vision, showing her famous canonical paintings of The Virgin (by “Raphael and Murillo”), but she said none looked like what she saw. Godard interpolates “dramatized” scenes of Bernadatte played by a little girl, in nondescript modern clothes, sitting on a step in a dark stairwell, holding a picture book. At last, Godard tells us that they showed her a Byzantine-like icon, the Virgin of Cambrai, which Bernadette exclaimed “was her.” Godard, who shows us the painting, now sermonizes, “An icon: no movement, no depth, no artifice. The sacred.” [NOTE: Researching this painting, I found that it is not, in fact, the Virgin of Cambrai, also called the Cambrai Madonna, although it bears a close resemblance. The original – which credulous medieval pilgrims once believed to be painted by St. Luke himself – is a fourteenth century Italian adaptation of a much older Byzantine motif, deployed in countless icons, called “the Virgin of Tenderness.” Most incredibly, Godard’s “substitute” icon is missing the original’s defining element: the infant Jesus: the actual Cambrai Madonna, as well as its countless reproductions, fully shows the Madonna and her child.] Godard next shows a Surrealist photograph of a leering skull which has just – redundantly, ironically – removed a skeletal mask. Godard says, compounding the irony, “Yes, the image is joy. But beside it lies the void. All the power of an image can only be expressed through it. They say our language arbitrarily divides up things in reality. And they say this as if it were our fault.”
He quotes a fatalistic passage from Jean Racine’s 1677 dramatic verse tragedy, Phaedra (“When you have learned my crime, my fate, my shame, / I’ll die no less but with a guiltier name”), while slowly tracking laterally, back and forth – again and again, across the faces of his young audience; their blank faces could be registering any combination of fascination, confusion, and/or boredom [note that Godard has all but patented the lateral tracking shot as his own, including its astonishing appearance at the end of Tout va bien, when a proto-Wal*Mart becomes a scene of terrorist carnage, to in the final section of this picture its emphasizing – by its obsessive movement parallel to the prison-like chain fence – the unnerving stillness of Olga’s Heaven]. Over this tracking shot, Godard utters another key line: “Try to imagine. Try to see. With the first you say, ‘look at that’; with the second you say, ‘close your eyes.'” At this moment, the camera stops and holds in a medium close-up of Olga, her eyes closed.
Godard calls the shot and the reverse shot the basics of film grammar. He shows parallel images of Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell from Howard Hawks’s comedy of split-second-timing, His Girl Friday (1940), and explains that the shots are “the same thing twice” because Hawks was “incapable of seeing the difference between a man and a woman that are alike.” [Recall that this comic tour-de-force was based on the play The Front Page, except that Hawks made one of the two lead characters, who were originally both men, a woman – the sexual dynamics is also colored by the fact, not mentioned by Godard, that Grant was a closeted gay man and Russell here played one of her most assertively ‘masculine’ roles.]
“It is worse with two things that are alike,” notes Godard; “Truth has two faces.” He now shows photos labeled “Kosovo,” “Egypt,” then a traditional painting of Moses carrying the Ten Commandments, then photographs of a dying Jewish prisoner, then a dying Muslim prisoner, then shots of Israeli and Palestinian warfare, while Godard again says, “shot, reverse shot.” With an angle showing only the back of his head, Godard now quotes Louis-Ferdinand Céline (whose novels include 1932’s Journey to the End of the Night) that “facts speak for themselves but not for much longer” because “the field of text has already covered the field of vision.” We now hear the sound of offscreen young people giggling – which may or may not help clarify the nature of Godard’s lecture audience – as a melancholy cello underscores the tragic images of various wars’ victims.
Next, he relates an anecdote about two Nobel Physics laureates: the Danish Niels Bohr and his pupil, the German Werner Heisenberg, who in 1938 together visited the famous Kronborg Castle in Elsinore. Godard shows us two artistic representations of the castle, one a straightforward representational painting, the other a menacing-looking charcoal sketch. [Godard may expect us to understand the significance of that year, which heralded the Nazis’ rise to power – also after the Germans occupied his country, Bohr was active in the anti-Nazi resistance movement and, under threat of arrest because of his Jewish ancestry, he escaped – shades of Hollywood! – by fishing boat to Sweden, was then flown secretly to England, and later went to the United States as an advisor on the atomic bomb; by contrast, Heisenberg remained as director of Berlin’s prestigious Kaiser Wilhelm (now Max Planck) Institute for Physics, later claiming that although he remained in Nazi Germany he basically ‘never inhaled’ fascism.]. Heisenberg thought that the building was nothing special; Bohr countered, “when you say it’s Hamlet’s castle, then it’s special.” Godard now presents the title-defining moment, as he shows a small light swinging rapidly back and forth, towards us and away from us, in pitch blackness, while intoning, “Elsinore the real, Hamlet the imaginary. Shot and reverse shot. Imaginary: certainty. Reality: uncertainty. The principle of cinema: go towards the light and shine it on our night. Our music.”
Cut to Olga holding a series of message boards [a prop that Godard, inspired by Brecht, used in several of his New Wave pictures – notably Le Petit soldat – and all of his Revolutionary Period films], which plot her fate: “And the Deliverance?,” “And Victory?,” “That Will Be My Martyrdom,” and finally, “Tonight I Will be in Heaven.” Interspersed with these increasingly certain signs, we have close shots of Olga looking numb, even confused.
A student now asks Godard, “Can the new little digital cameras save the cinema?” Godard in close-up, his face in darkness but with the now-stationary single light behind him, is silent. This breathtaking scene now ends with a shot of people, in the shadows, looking at blow-ups of images which Godard has shown us during his lecture, including ever-larger details of the Virgin of Cambrai, war atrocities, and the rest.
To which I say: !!!
What are we to make of this scene? Actually, quite a lot. But first, let me suggest that one reason interpretations of Godard can sound (or even be) so unbelievably out-there is that most of the entertainment which we consume (and yes, there are lots of Hollywood movies which I thoroughly enjoy) doesn’t make a hundredth of the demands on our intellects and emotions that Godard does.
Now, let’s focus on the title-defining moment, and work our way forwards and backwards from there – not only to a reading of this film but to some suggestions as to why Godard is such an extraordinary filmmaker, thinker… and mensch.
Let’s start with that little swinging light – a spot of illumination in a world of blackness, which almost seems to break out of the frame as it swings right at us (who needs 3-D glasses), then back along its vector until it’s just a speck, then at us again, then back. At its most literal, this is an illustration of the line “Go towards the light and shine it on our night…” The darkness also parallels the countless ‘black frames’ in this film, especially evident in this scene in which Godard spells out his poetic/practical/political concept of temporary “blindness” as a way to focus: “Try to imagine. Try to see. With the first you say, ‘look at that’; with the second you say, ‘close your eyes.'”
On an artistic level, there is also, I think, a great deal of visual purity and beauty in the simple oval shape of the white light moving against the pitch black background; it could almost stand as a tidy example of Modernist art’s core aesthetic of simple, geometrical, and clean-looking forms.
When Godard mentions two of the twentieth century’s three greatest physicists (Einstein obviously missed his colleagues’ trip to Elsinore), as well as “uncertainty” (the line, “Certainty: uncertainty…”) he is further opening up the interpretive frame. Bohr’s pupil Heisenberg went on to formulate the “Uncertainty Principle,” which states that one cannot precisely determine both the momentum and the position of a particle at the same time – so take your pick. And yes, that little swinging light can be seen as a playful illustration of that principle: momentum / position. It’s worth noting that Godard was the son of a physician who originally trained in the sciences (his limitless passion for the arts is his own doing). He created perhaps his single most beautiful and resonant image – from Two or Three Things I Know About Her – by suggesting the cosmos in the swirling bubbles of coffee in a cup (gradually the motion stops you have black stillness). There, as here, he makes the connection between the infinity of Nature with the (hopelessly/hopefully) finite nature of our world. Two of Bohr’s theories which particularly influenced Heisenberg were the principle of correspondence between macrophysics and microphysics (not exactly cosmos and coffee cup, but close enough – and recall the fundamental structural importance in this film of “correspondences,” many more of which we’ll look at in a moment), and the “interactive” rather than merely passive role, in microphysics, of the scientific observer. Both of those theories, as we have seen, can be applied (in the abstract) to Godard’s cinema; as he embodies them in the structure of his films, they are at the very core of his aesthetic.
The light itself can be read in a few ways, all resonant (you thought I was going to say ‘illuminating’?). Light is the movement of energy through space in the form of electromagnetic waves. It is also, among many other things, what makes cinema, not to mention life, possible. It is not only necessary to expose the negative (or shoot a digital image), but to allow us to see the images as they pass through a projector. Light is also one of the most important and universal of metaphors, suggesting everything which Godard stands for: clarity, reason, understanding, art, compassion, vision; it can be individuality as much as cooperation.
There are even more purely cinematic ways to read the swinging light – the most famous of which is the one in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960 – opening within a few months of Breathless), revealing the shriveled corpse of Mrs. Bates: by the way, Godard’s light swings on exactly the same axis as Hitchcock’s. (Hitchcock was a sort of patron saint to all of the New Wave critics/filmmakers, who saw him as the nexus of both popular and high cinematic art). In a film like Notre Musique, so massively interconnected with endless “correspondences,” note that the memento mori of the late Mrs. Bates’s skeletal corpse can be connected to the Surrealist skull we saw earlier in this scene, which in turn recalls the most famous of all skulls – “alas, poor Yorick”‘s in Hamlet’s famous graveyard scene (recall at whose castle we picked up our two Nobel Physics laureates: hmmm – and you just might want to nickname Hamlet the “prince of uncertainty”) – and even the startling skull in Godard’s own Made in U.S.A. In that deeply twisted 1966 film, the heroine unwraps the head of a man sitting in a dentist’s chair only to find him flayed – a skeletal corpse (she had just had a conversation with a gangster’s nephew named David Goodis: the real-life American suspense novelist with that name wrote the book, Down There, which Truffaut brilliantly filmed in 1962 as Shoot the Piano Player; and recall that in this film the only book which anyone is reading in Olga’s Heaven is David Goodis’s thriller Street of No Return, under it’s French title which literally translates as “Without Hope of Return:” the book was filmed in 1989, the last feature directed by Samuel Fuller, whom we met at that party in Pierrot le fou… – talk about intertextual references).
On yet a further level of correspondence, all of these “artistic” skulls are in contrast to the very real and horrifying effects of war which we have seen, in this scene, in the respective photos of a grotesquely emaciated Jew and then Muslim, and many more in the Hell/war section. To flip Godard’s line, Unreality: reality.
At its most “unrealistic,” or boldy metaphorical, level, that little light swinging in the darkness can also be read as a starkley simple take on the human condition – moving alone in the dark – albeit from a pretty Existential point of view.
Now let’s move from image back to text, and look more closely at Godard’s final two words – the title of the film – as they appear in the key phrase, “The principle of cinema: go towards the night and shine it on our light. Our music.” What does the title phrase specifically referring to? There is a considerable amount of ambiguity as to whether “our music” refers generally to the “principle of cinema,” or (least likely) the phrase “the light,” or (more likely – and darkly) the words which immediately precede it, “our night.” The more you know of Godard’s films, the more you know that his choice of words is rigorously precise, especially when he wants to be purposefully – and richly – ambiguous, as he does here. I think Godard wants us, for reasons which get to the heart of this film, to consider “our music” not as literal music but – in this film filled to the bursting point with correspondences (between the arts, science, cinema, politics, spirituality, and always complex human nature) – as a work of “voice, historical practice, and memory” (recall the three classical Muses) which simultaneously yokes together while tearing apart what is imaginary and certain, what is real and uncertain. Godard’s film, with its (sometimes bewildering) labyrinth of parallel and contrasting images and ideas, ultimately is a device to help each of us realize our integral role – as even more than a Bohrian or Heisenbergian “observer” – in this and every other Godard film.
Recall his key comment on his “triptych” structure, à la Dante, with “a past [Hell], a present [Purgatory], a future [Heaven]; one image, another image and what comes between, what I call the real image…” We are responsible for making the ultimate synthesis. As viewers, as participants in this film and much more importantly in the world, we matter – we can choose learn and connect, like Judith, or waste our lives, like Olga, who finds herself in a vegetative Heaven which is much more like a Hell II: The Final Chapter than a paradise.
While I could hardly agree more with Godard’s basic ethic, there are still several questions I want to raise. Your answering the questions for yourself – and of course asking a lot of additional ones – is, on one key level, Godard’s point. After this section, I will list some of the reasons why my admiration and passion for Godard (after spending so much time with this latest film) remain stronger than ever.
Problems & Questions
- Why so many references!? — Godard’s film addresses the most important issues of our, or any, time: war (specifically, moving beyond the mutually destructive “nation states” we’ve had for millennia), religious belief (including the search for new, more ‘humane’ modes of spirituality), and identity (the desire for new modes of understanding, both personal and social) – so why doesn’t he express his themes more directly? By “directly” I mean in an aesthetic yet somewhat transparent way. Why does Godard make his films so deliriously dense, not only in the immense range of his references (history, philosophy, the arts, science, not to mention his own body of work) but in the extreme subtlety of his structural design as well as in his presentation of character? What does Godard expect us to know? If we are unfamiliar with much, or even most, of the hundreds of germane and resonant allusions (above I looked at only a scant few of the ones which I happen to have caught), does it matter? What film are we seeing, if we don’t “get” the references? How does “our” version of the film relate to what Godard conceived and actually made? Ultimately, does this matter? And how does this elitism relate to the “working-class people” whom his Marxist politics purport to want to “liberate”? Put another way, is Godard showing off – or is he showing us the multifarious nature of the world which the popular media, governments, and ‘organized religions’ hide from us? It seems, at best, ironic that a film which is basically about the vital importance of communication – of people being able to overcome the Babel of different and competing languages, cultures, and world views to reach common understanding – is not, by its own (brilliant but at times impenetrable) formal nature, able to “communicate” with a wide audience. I am certainly not suggesting that Godard ever “sell out” to commercialism, but I think the considerable distance between his idealistic goal and his uncomprised aesthetic needs to be questioned.
- Is this film really “optimistic”? — As we saw above, Godard has stated that he considers this to be an “optimistic” film – but is it? In support of an optimistic reading, we see the growth (although it’s only suggested) of Judith Lerner, culminating in her embrace of the – literal and metaphorical – rebuilding of the Mostar Bridge. We also see many people, both fictional and real, from a variety of disciplines – diplomacy, journalism, poetry, fiction, architecture and more – actually communicating with other people, sometimes from divergent cultures: the scene with the Israeli Judith and the Palestinian Darwish is a key instance. There is also something profoundly optimistic about Godard expending the enormous energy required not not only to think through the vitally important issues in this film but to then create such beautiful, and sometimes mysterious, cinematic forms to embody his vision (despite the, for some, off-puttingly immense interpretive “prerequisites”). But on a less optimistic hand, note that while Judith liberates the spirits of three Native Americans at the Mostar Bridge, after Olga decides on her suicidal/political course of action, we immediately cut to two of the “red Indians” still on the streets of Sarajevo, one playing a dirge-like melody on a flute: is that a case of three spirits forward but then two back? Notice that while Godard’s lecture is the most illuminating (pun intended) aspect of the film (after you sift through layer after layer of references and their ‘contrapuntal’ significances for the film’s structure and, hence, meaning), he delivers it in darkness, to students who (at least while offscreen) are tittering. In context (visual / cinematic / metaphorical), is his message as optimistic as the words?
Also, Olga’s fate can hardly be read as “optimistic,” since she winds up in a Heaven with endless chain fences guarded by expressionless U.S. soldiers with assault weapons. It’s a world where the other non-military inhabitants are all dressed the same (red and white), doing silly things, like reading a noir novel (shouldn’t Heavenly peace put one beyond the Existential niceties of noir?) or spinning strips of fabric on a string. Heaven help us, but is this Godard punning on the twirling fragmentary nature of his own “text,” this film – recalling that “text” and “textile” come from the same root word?! This Heaven is certainly verdant, but it’s also a world of the passionless living dead – and as such it’s scarcely less anti-human and horrifying than the Hell depicted in the opening war montage.
Although it’s subtle, perhaps the film’s most anti-optimistic aspect is how Godard depicts young people. The modern young girl “playing” Bernadette of Lourdes (sitting on a creepy, shadowy stairway – could it be “to Paradise”?) seems hypnotized – rather than truly engaged – by the huge picture book on her lap; the kids in the Mostar classroom have no real ‘presence’ in their scene – they’re like props; and the young people at Godard’s lecture are ambiguous in the extreme, although they look – during those long lateral tracking shots – to be more passive listeners (with the scary exception of Olga) than the intellectually and politically energized ‘hope of tomorrow.’
- More than “two sides” — For me, the most disturbing aspect of Godard is his career-long reliance on dichotomous (he would say ‘dialectical’) thinking, as summed in the often-repeated line, “the truth has two sides.” I respectfully disagree: “the truth” as it refers to human experience has many sides – as Godard’s film amply demonstrates on every level (despite his “two-sides” assertion); but ethical truth only has one side (no ‘moral relativist’ am I), summed up in the Golden Rule of “treat others the same way you want them to treat you” (this principle is stated by Confucius and Aristotle, as well Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and various Native American nations, to name a few). I think the dualistic way of thinking, so endemic to Western civilization, is a root cause of our millennia of hostilities. We Westerners, including Godard, are always trying to squeeze reality into ‘A opposed to B’ categories – ‘male or female,’ ‘good or evil,’ ‘with us or against us,’ shoot or reverse shot’ – but reality won’t oblige. You can even see this dichotomous world at the very bottom of all Western narratives, including fiction and movies, where a ‘good guy’ must fight a ‘bad guy’ in order for a traditional story to exist: how many writing guides tell you ‘it’s all about the conflict between protagonist and antagonist.’ I like Carl Jung’s idea of a hero(ine) as someone who embodies all qualities – good, bad and ‘in between.’ The truth is, Godard does embody that ideal, to a point, in Olga – yet she remains too flat and too metaphorical – despite the enormously resonant face of the actress playing her – to have a “life” in our imaginations after we see this film (making her offscreen death – when police mistakenly believe her book bag contains a bomb, while she holds a cinema audience hostage – doubly ironic). And Godard has certainly created dozens of characters, beginning with the two leads in his first film, Breathless. So why does Godard continuously espouse an ideology which is contradicted by the conspicuous richness of his own body of work? Could those critics be on to something when they contend that he is still – though I find the charge not only glib but silly – ‘stuck in the 60s’ (whatever that means)? Or perhaps the deeper truth lies in the fullness, and ambiguity, of what is created – in part by Godard, but also in part by each of us – in the “synthesis” of the “thesis” and “antithesis” elements (those “two sides” of truth). Perhaps that’s why Godard calls such a synthesis “the real image,” as it is so much greater, and “truer,” than the mere combination of “one image [and] another image….”
- Gender identity and war — Godard, from his first film to his latest, is a heterosexist: there, I’ve said it. Although he’s made films with seemingly “definitional” titles like A Woman is a Woman and Masculine–Feminine, he seems to have a very limited – and exclusively tradtional opposite-sex-oriented – view of gender identity. It seems no coincidence that virtually all of his most revealing and exquisite portraits are of women. Of course, there is nothing wrong with that, except that it impacts on his understanding of the crucial connections between traditional masculine identity and violence, including war – his theme in this film. And the insights of feminism and GLBT liberation offer a lot more than fodder for dittohead right-wing jokes. For instance, a study was released in late summer 2005 by researchers at Cornell University that found – as if this wasn’t already obvious – that men whose masculinity is threatened respond by adopting more macho attitudes, including increased homophobia and violence, including a propensity to support war (the same was not found in an equivalent study on women). What makes Godard’s seeming indifference to the socio-political implications of “traditional” macho identity (or should I say ‘posturing’) especially grating is that he raises issues of sexual politics in several ways in this film, but then doesn’t explore their implications. For instance, to illustrate an oft-repeated point of the film (that life is all “shot: reverse shot”), in his lecture he uses Hawks’s His Girl Friday, taking ample time to accuse Hawks of not understanding the differences between men and women (although Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell are hardly the most traditional ‘poster people’ for their respective genders); then he just drops that line of inquiry – although the sexual complexity of those characters, as well as of the actors’ and filmmaker’s lives, could have considerably enriched his theme by showing that the identities of “male” and “female” are rather more than one-sided. He also uses not only Spain’s most renowned living author, but the nation’s most prominent bisexual – Goytisolo’s orientation is at the heart of his writing – and then Godard completely ignores that aspect of the man’s life. Why does Godard neuter Goytisolo; and why does the author let him? And why are GLBT people, as GLBT people, invisible in Godard’s more than seventy films (at least there are none that I’ve noticed or read about)? I’d think that Godard would be not only intrigued but perhaps convinced by the argument that machismo is at the root (pun intended) of many evils, including war – not only because it degrades women but because it crushingly limits men too. An understanding of the implications of gender identity is relevant for people of all sexual orientations – and perhaps one of several concomitants of ending that macho-proving-ground, war.
- Religion and war — Rigidly defined sexual roles are also a hallmark of all absolutist religions, which Godard seems chary of confronting directly on this and other scores. Yet this film is fundamentally about religion, and not just because it’s Godard’s reenvisioning of Dante’s poetic Catholic epic or because he tosses in an icon of the Madonna. As Godard suggests, in dozens of instances, war has religious conflict at its dark heart. Look at where Godard sets his film: a country driven into bloody chaos by sectarian wars on multiple fronts: Orthodox Serbians versus Catholic Croatians, Orthodox Serbians versus Bosnian and Albanian Muslims. (If only their respective faiths inspired them just to throw religious pamphlets at each other.) Godard shows us the devastation, not only in the nauseating Hell section footage of mutilated Bosnian War victims – children, women, and men – but more quiely with the burned-out National Library scene (Orthodox Christian Serbians had fire-bombed a “Muslim” landmark) with Goytisolo / Native American ghosts (God-fearing Americans rationalized their genocide of these people, with their invaluable land resources, because they were “heathens”). In the first seconds of this film, Godard tucks in a reference to this being “the age of fable” but he never analyzes, let alone criticizes, the absolutist nature of religion which allows adherents to commit atrocities in the name of their particular deity. I’m not accusing Godard of intellectual cowardice, but – for all of his immense understanding, insight, and artistry – there are some cornerstone issues, of his own world view no less, which he soft pedals (religion) or even keeps in the closet (the diversity of sexual orientations, and what they represent emotionally, politically, and even spiritually).
- Flattening — We began this section by questioning Godard’s obsession with (perhaps) overly complexifying almost everything in his films – now let’s look at the equally problematic flip side: flattening, making ‘real things’ abstract to varying degrees. Godard held up the (literally) iconic Virgin of Cambrai as the artistic epitome of “the sacred,” and in the film’s unnerving final image of Olga – dead and in Heaven – he shows her closing her eyes “to see,” while giving her the Madonna’s beatifically serene “flat… sacred” expression (in a “reverse shot” to the icon, of course), thereby ignoring the full implications of her tragic/pathetic/ironic fate. Going even further, we can see Godard’s tendency to sometimes radically flatten entire foundational elements in his films: notice how he formalizes not only images but narrative structure to an extremely “pure” abstract degree, as we saw in this film. It’s a fascinating aesthetic, brilliantly realized – but it also explains why Godard’s films reach such a tiny audience. And remember, his films are about – and I don’t mean to sound flippant – trying to save the world. Again, he’s pushing people away from the very films which he (and others) hopes they will see. While I do respond to his abstract-yet-real characters (Godard is, among other things, a genius at casting), there are some aspects of it which I find disturbing, such as the manipulation of reality – including his putting his words in various (and sometimes internationally prominent) real people’s mouths. On the other hand, Godard is the consummate provocateur: he wants us to ask these tough questions – and as many more as we can throw at him. His cinema has conspicuously evolved, as he has integrated his own – and other people’s – criticisms into new works. Sometimes, the fallout is that he flattens, in extreme ways, certain elements which he has already mastered. For instance, the films of his New Wave phase are consciously much more psychological than his later films. For instance, compare his two major films about prostitution: the enormous attention to emotional development, and disintegration, in Vivre sa vie (1962) contrasted with the brilliantly trenchant abstraction of the same phenomenon in Two or Three Things That I Know About Her (1966). Same theme; both films are widely considered to be masterpieces; yet how radically has Godard evolved, or at the very least changed, his approach in just four years. In Notre Musique, psychological depth is suggested almost entirely through how Godard models the light and frames his characters’ faces. Whether this is a high form of aesthetic, and even political, inspiration or a psychological cop-out is, like almost everything in Godard, up to you to decide for yourself.
- Your own additional questions — go for it: Godard can take the heat.
Now that I’ve finished grilling Godard (hey, nobody’s perfect), let me turn to some of the reasons why he remains – more than ever, after scrutinizing this latest film – one of my three or four favorite of all filmmakers.
Why I Find Godard Both (Aesthetically) Great and (Ethically) Good
- Let me just say it: I consider Godard a genius – and that is a term which I reserve for only a handful of artists. He is master of the creation and use, often in extraordinarily beautiful counterpoint, of narrative form, image, sound and movement (both of the camera and in editing). He is arguably the most probing and creative analyst of the ‘grammar of cinema’ – exploring the deepest structures of cinema not only as an art form but as a unique means of communication – who is also a great filmmaker. And he changes the way we see, not only his films but the world itself; his films open up immense new vistas of understanding and, for the ‘initiated,’ sheer pleasure too. Shakespeare and Joyce did this with language, Bach and Beethoven with music, Michelangelo and Picasso with art.
- Let me immediately highlight a less conspicuous aspect of his cinema: it is often very playful (although that is less obvious in this film than in most of his other works). Godard has one of the fullest, if wryest, senses of humor of any filmmaker. His films are never leaden philosophical drone-fests (please forgive my limitations if I’ve given that impression); they pulse with wit, life, and always – in countless forms – passion.
- Godard shows us the generative force not only of “correspondences” – meaning metaphor, on a more basic (or ‘English major-y’) level – but also of association, of making ever more connections between elements. Recall how Godard let us move, if we want to follow him, from the swinging light during his lecture here to Psycho, Hamlet, Made in the U.S.A. and still more ‘skull’ imagery, and then went further still. Godard’s pictures, unlike those of virtually any other filmmaker, not only allow such ‘out-there’ associative leaps, they encourage them. If you respond to this, it can be one way of liberating our minds (at least until some totalitarian government classifies Godard’s films as “controlled substances”). On a deep level, Godard’s films are all about making connections, finding connections, understanding connections – whether it’s, at first, on an intuitive level or as a means to making intellectual leaps which could have real, and positive, impact on our world.
- This film certainly looks simple (there’s no “action” in a Hollywood sense – except for the violent war montage in the opening Hell sequence), but Godard’s is a simplicity so radically full of depths and implications that it is as complex as, say, the baroque density of a film by Eisenstein or Welles. Godard is constantly prodding us – for reasons both philosophical and ethical – to look behind the images, behind the sounds, behind the flow of the film. If more people did that, would the world be in its current sorry state? I think not.
- Godard does everything in his considerable power to make us vastly more than passive viewers: his films, on their fullest level, demand that we be actively, creatively, ethically involved. He wants us to ask not only ‘what does it mean’ but how does it mean – and why: with “it” referring not only to his film but to the current world it reflects, as well as, if we intervene, the better world we can build together. In the truest sense, his films empower his viewers.
- Godard doesn’t just want to live an examined life, he wants a reexamined life – and one scrutinized from every perspective. He wants to strip away the encrusted droppings which have wounded civilization (although there are still one or two he needs to address), well, since it began. But he almost always does it with a lot of humor – and always with a passionate, if often rueful, idealism. His films are filled with beauty and powerful emotion, not only in the characters but through the ideas which they embody. And they really can be fun. Is any moment in cinema more shocking – horrifying and laugh-till-you-cry hilarious – than the middle class woman in his apocalyptic comedy Week End, surrounded by burning cars and bloody corpses, shrieking about the only thing still important to her: “My purse! My purse!! My Hermes purse!!!” Every time I see that scene, I almost fall out of my seat laughing: the materialism which we need to jettison has been dissolved by humor, both horrific yet hopeful (it’s only a fantasy), in Godard’s understanding – and his ability to express such insight so profoundly and so entertainingly.
- Godard changes the way we see not only the world, but our individual selves – and to Godard, that individualism is essential. For example, he knows that no two interpretations of any of his films will be the same: and certainly your personal interpretation will differ, perhaps enormously, from mine. But it’s all about communicating, about sharing ideas and considering many other possibilities.
- Godard also embodies a fundamental optimism about the power of art (beauty leading to self-awareness); and it can be argued that in Godard art even more than politics is the key to salvation. Understand symbols for what they are, and life for what it is and, more importantly, for how good it could be for all of us. Godard’s methods are indirect because he wants us to probe, reason, put the pieces together and understand for ourselves. Life is complex, and so by design are Godard’s films: understand the latter and the former gets easier. As he implies in his lecture, his films are – in every sense – about the power of light.
- Godard is both profoundly iconoclastic (he would have been burned at the stake a couple of centuries ago for his “blasphemies;” actually his films might still get him stoned to death or beheaded in a few dozen countries today) and – no oxymoron intended – rationally spiritual. From a certain perspective, Godard’s films can be seen as a point at which rationality and spirituality converge: where he, and we, can bring together our reason and our political passion and our hope for peace, mediated by our joy in artistic beauty – to change the world. It’s not always a comfortable fit, but then, what is that’s real?
- Godard helps us understand how much we need to relax around uncertainty and complexity. One of the deadliest aspects of the sectarian faiths which underlie all wars is the desperate need for absolute certainty, as invariably revealed in an “infallible” book. There are something like eight hundred separate religions in the world, some with literally thousands of branches, and virtually every one has its own “inerrant” text written by what it considers the one and only deity: ‘death to the unbelievers’ is a common, though often hidden, command. Godard’s film is the radically humane opposite of such fantastical “infallibility:” his cinema is all about making connections, lots of connections, and understanding them in their (sometimes contradictory or just plain quirky) fullness – and taking only those elements which can be proven to work best for humanity. Godard’s films are not only a poetic, and sometimes playful, encapsulation of what so many people understandably fear – complexity, ambiguity, contradiction: a total lack of “divine infallibility” – but (from a certain point of view) a series of guides, in cinematic form, to help us “practice” living with a world of uncertainty. Sort of like deeply humanistic “spiritual lessons,” except I doubt anyone will soon be writing Everything I Need to Know About Life I Learned from Jean-Luc Godard.
- On a deeply philosophical and spiritual level, the countless questions which Godard asks us – or leads us to ask ourselves – are never intended as The Absolute Answer. Rather, they exist to help us find the paths which we can choose, or not, to follow to find our own answers. And hopefully they will fit not only our individual needs but humankind’s too. Godard’s optimism is well-tempered, even muted, but it’s also real – waiting for us in Notre Musique and all of his other films.
Synopsis of Notre Musique
I have reproduced the following detailed synopsis from the pressbook. It is possible that these descriptions of the three Dantean Kingdoms are drawn from Godard’s own scenario, which would also likely have been the film’s de facto screenplay: he is well known for improvising much of his films’ dialogue on set. In any event, what we have here “sounds” like the few actual Godard scripts I have seen. PLEASE NOTE that this Synopsis is copyrighted material, provided (courtesy of Wellspring) solely for your personal, non-profit, educational use – this is NOT to be distributed in any form. Thank you!
KINGDOM 1: HELL
Bright flashes of explosions set off images of war throughout the ages: gunfire, airplanes, tanks, battleships, executions, devastated countrysides, the holocaust and the atomic bomb. We hear a woman’s voice:
And so, in the age of fable
There appeared on earth
Men armed for extermination
Black and white intertwines with color. Some images are documentary footage; and some are taken from Hollywood movies like Apocalypse Now, Zulu and Kiss Me Deadly.
They’re horrible here.
With their obsession for cutting off heads
It’s amazing that anybody survives.
All the images are silent; the only sound we hear is the spare pulsing of a solitary piano: sometimes played very delicately; sometimes furiously hammered.
We consider death two ways:
The impossible of the possible
And the possible of the impossible
KINGDOM 2: PURGATORY
Because of Palestine
and because I live in Tel Aviv
I wanted to see a place where reconciliation was possible.
– Judith Lerner (Sarah Adler), Notre Musique
Jean-Luc Godard arrives in Sarajevo to give a lecture on “The Text and the Image” for the European Literary Encounters. He meets Ramos Garcia (Rony Kramer), who tells him about his life.
The Spanish novelist Juan Goytisolo gets in a car and is joined by an Israeli journalist, Judith Lerner (Sarah Adler).
Godard gets in another car with another Literary Encounters guest. Someone asks Godard why revolutions aren’t started by humane people. “That’s because humane people don’t start revolutions,” he says. “They start libraries.” “And cemeteries,” adds the guest.
Driving through the sites of the Bosnian war, Goytisolo says, “killing a man to defend an idea isn’t defending an idea. It’s killing a man.”
In another car, Literary Encounter guest C. Maillard (Jean-Christophe Bouvet) speaks passionately about the terrible impact of war. “Violence leaves a permanent scar,” he says. “To see your fellow man turn on you leaves a feeling of deep-rooted horror.”
All the Literary Encounters people arrive for a reception at the mansion of French Ambassador Olivier Naville (Simon Eine). After arranging a meeting with his former classmate, French writer Pierre Bergounioux, the Ambassador asks if writers know what they’re talking about. “Of course not,” says the writer. He explains that people who act don’t have the ability to express themselves about what they do; and likewise people who tell stories don’t know what they’re talking about.
Judith Lerner tells Ambassador Naville that he gave shelter to a young man and his fiancee in Vichy France in 1943; her mother was born in his apartment. Judith now wants to interview him about Israel and the Palestinians from the point of view of his onetime resistance to the Nazis. She says she doesn’t want the diplomat–she wants the man himself. “Not a just conversation,” she says, “just a conversation.” Naville says that accepting her proposal might make it necessary for him to resign.
As he explores the ruins of the Sarajevo Public Library, Juan Goytisolo recites a poem about the revelation of the “better fate” of the dead, and how this helps people cross more peacefully into darkness. A Native American couple approaches and the man speaks about the destructive legacy of Columbus on his people. “Isn’t it about time for us to meet in the same age?” he asks. “Both of us strangers in the same land,” the woman continues, “meeting at the tip of an abyss.”
In the lobby of the Sarajevo Holiday Inn, Judith Lerner interviews the celebrated Arab poet Mahmoud Darwish. Darwish points out that the Trojan victims were only discussed through the literature of the conquering Greeks, like Homer. As a Palestinian, he is a poet of the vanquished.
Olga (Nade Dieu), a Jewish Israeli of Russian descent, rushes through the streets of Sarajevo to attend Godard’s lecture. The director talks about the way language divides things. “Try to imagine; try to see,” he says. “With the first you say ‘look at that’; with the second you say ‘close your eyes.'”
Godard calls the shot and the reverse shot the basics of film grammar. He shows parallel images of Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell from Howard Hawks’ “His Girl Friday,” and explains that the shots are the same because Hawks doesn’t see a difference between men and women. “It is worse with two things that are alike,” says Godard. “Truth has two faces.” He relates an anecdote about German scientist Werner Heisenberg and Danish physicist Niels Bohr and their visit to Elsinor Castle. Heisenberg thought that the castle was nothing special; Bohr countered, “when you say it’s Hamlet’s castle…then it’s special.”
A student asks, “Can the new digital cameras save the cinema?” Godard is silent.
Cinema is made with what is called negatives in every language.
And you draw a positive from this.
And this specific element of photography
is a metaphor which is more than a metaphor, it’s a kind of reality.
With digital, there’s no more negative; you’ve only got the positive.
You’ve only got the axis of good and not the axis of bad.
– Jean-Luc Godard, Cannes Press Conference [NOTE: This excerpt is not included in the film]
Olga visits the Mostar Bridge. Famed architect Gilles Pecqueux is supervising the rebuilding of the bridge; he tells Olga about the symbolic importance of the work. “It’s not to restore the past; it’s to make the future possible.” Olga can’t respond to the spirit of hope symbolized by the bridge.
On the other hand, Judith takes pictures of the bridge, for her a significant step towards the healing of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Full of joy, she sees the Native Americans leave in a truck and has a vision of them in tribal outfits, returned to their glory. For Sarah, past and future are one; she isn’t afraid to dream.
Walking alone, Olga says to herself, “There are two people side by side. I’m next to her. I never saw her before. I recognize myself.”
Olga meets with Ramos, who is her uncle. Filled with guilt by her identity as an Israeli and a Jew, she wants to kill herself, but there are two things holding her back: the pain and her fear of the Next World. “There will be total liberty,” she says, “when it’s the same to live or die.”
The Encounters are over. Olga tries to give a video to Godard.
French author and essayist Jean-Paul Curnier and C. Maillard are having a conversation in a bar. Curnier sees the world as divided into victims and criminals. People can always avoid being tried as a criminals by accusing even bigger criminals – and thus becoming a victim themselves. Victims can always get a hearing as they provide easy moral comfort to the dominant society.
The young people who work for the Encounters say goodbye to Godard at the airport. One gives him Olga’s DVD. The director looks at Olga’s sad, beautiful face reflected on the shiny surface of the disc.
Back at his home, Godard is working in the garden when he receives a call from Ramos.
Olga is dead. She took hostages in a cinema in Jerusalem, threatening to blow herself up. After letting the hostages go, marksmen killed her.
Approaching Olga’s lifeless body, they opened her shoulder bag. Inside were only books.
KINGDOM 3: HEAVEN
Olga walks through a lush green forest
It is truly an idyllic setting
except for the fences guarded by rifle-bearing Marines.
Olga walks by the water’s edge.
She passes a girl spinning strips of fabric on a string.
A young man reads Street of No Return.
Two couples in swimsuits play a lighthearted game.
She sits down next to a soldier by the edge of the water
and they share an apple.
It was a fine clear day.
You could see a long way off.
But not as far as Olga had gone.
- Written, Directed & Edited by Jean-Luc Godard
- Produced by Alain Sarde & Ruth Waldburger
- Director of Photography: Julien Hirsch
- Artistic Director: Anne-Marie Miéville
- Sound: Pierre André, Gabriel Hafner & François Musy
- Memory: Elias Sanbar
- Music Extracts from:
- Jean Sibelius
- Alexander Knaifel
- Hans Otte
- Ketil Bjornstad
- Meredith Monk
- Gyorgy Kurtag
- Valentin Silvstrov
- Peter Tchaikovsky
- Trygve Seim
- Arvo Pärt
- Anouar Brahem
- David Darling
- Antonia Birnbaum
- Wolfgang Sofsky
- Fyodor Dostoevsky
- Maurice Blanchot
- Charles Baudelaire (uncredited)
- Sarah Adler as Judith Lerner
- Nade Dieu as Olga Brodsky
- Rony Kramer as Ramos Garcia
- Simon Eine as Ambassador
- Jean-Christophe Bouvet as C. Maillard
- George Aguilar as an American Indian
- Leticia Gutierrez as an American Indian
- Aline Schulmann as Spanish Translator
- Jean-Luc Godard as Himself
- Mahmoud Darwish as Himself
- Juan Goytisolo as Himself
- Jean-Paul Curnier as Himself
- Pierre Bergounioux as Himself
- Gilles Pequeux as Himself
NOTE: If you use my Amazon Affiliate link for any purchase, I may receive a commission that helps support this site, at no additional cost to you. Regardless, I stand by my opinions.
Wellspring‘s DVD of Notre Musique features excellent image and superb, full-bodied sound. Their Website offers illuminating background resources (download PDF 103K) for the film, including a detailed synopsis and interview with Godard.
- 4×3 1.33:1 Full Frame presentation preserving the original theatrical release aspect ratio
- Theatrical trailer for Notre Musique, plus a gallery of trailers for other Wellspring releases
- Subtitle control – the film is in French, English, Spanish, Hebrew, Arabic and Serbo-Croatian with English subtitles
- Essay on the film by David Sterritt, of The Christian Science Monitor, included in a booklet
- $29.95 suggested retail
Reviewed July 31, 2005 / Revised October 26, 2020