"And so in the age of fable, after the floods, there appeared on Earth men armed for extermination." This is the first line of narration spoken in Jean-Luc Godard's most recent film "Notre Musique" (2004) which translates as "Our Music." After this line, Godard cuts from an image of monkeys leaping through a stream to a shot of marines wading neck deep in another similar-looking stream; this cut echoes the famous bone/spaceship splice in Kubrick's "2001" and suggests the passage of an immense amount of time. The human race emerged with the potential for great violence and evolution has been a series of refinements in our capacity to inflict destruction on each other. This is "our music", the uniquely human music of war, carnage and genocide, and we've been playing the same chords for a long, long time.
"Notre Musique" is divided into three "kingdoms" as in Dante's "Divine Comedy" – Hell, Purgatory and Paradise. Hell is a ten-minute montage which mixes documentary footage with film clips and depicts scenes from battlefields and other evidence of man's violence against man. Godard has always liked to play with words and here he inverts a familiar saying; rather than "War is hell" the film shows us that "Hell is war." Godard's blending of documentary and fiction is provocative: we love "our music" so much we not only play it on real battlefields but entertain ourselves with it in our theaters. As with the monkey/marine example, the cuts in this section often leap across timeframes: Vietnam-era soldiers (documentary footage) fire their guns screen left; a civil war soldier (fiction footage) stumbles screen right and sets off a canon.
Godard repeats this motif in the second section, Purgatory. Purgatory takes place during a writer's conference in modern day Sarajevo (labeling such an event Purgatory is probably a tongue-in-cheek joke at the intellectuals' expense), a city now struggling to rebuild itself in the aftermath of a devastating civil war. Godard, playing himself or a character very like himself, has been invited to lecture on the relationship between the text and the image. He begins his lecture by showing students a photograph of a cluster of bombed-out buildings, and asks if they can identify the location. They guess Hiroshima or Sarajevo or many other places they've seen on television or in movies. All wrong. The photograph is from Richmond, VA in 1865 at the end of the American civil war. The fact that the picture is so indistinguishable from similar modern day scenes suggests at least two implications: first, war is eternal (our music plays across the ages) and second, film (or photography) is inadequate to capture fully the unique horror of war, an issue which has long concerned Godard.
"Notre Musique" addresses the specific as well as the general. The two ostensible protagonists are Judith Lerner (Sarah Adler) and Olga Brodsky (Nade Dieu), both young Jewish women who choose to confront the Israel-Palestine conflict in different ways. Judith, described as a journalist from Tel Aviv, seeks comprehension through reportage. She interviews Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish who sourly notes that the only reason anyone cares about the Palestinians is because Israel is their enemy; otherwise, the Palestinians would be a mere afterthought on the world stage. Olga, a French Jew of Russian descent, contemplates much stronger action. Eventually, she stages a fake suicide bombing attack in Jerusalem and is shot to death even though her alleged "bomb" was nothing more than a backpack full of books.
Olga's death leads into the final section of the film, Paradise, which consists of idyllic forests and streams which are guarded by U.S. Marines, all of which is quite lovely but also quite puzzling. I admit I am not sure what to make of this final segment, but that's often the case with Godard's films which require multiple viewings before the texts open themselves up to the viewer and yield deeper comprehension.
As usual, Godard's characters speak mostly in aphorisms and unattributed quotations, many of which are either insipid or insightful depending on your perspective. Once again, Godard's fondness for word games is apparent. One character observes, "Killing a man to defend an idea isn't defending an idea, it's killing a man." Olga quotes Camus: "Suicide is the only truly serious philosophical problem." Judith later describes a hypothetical discussion as "Not a just conversation, just a conversation." Godard provides limited audience cues, so it is difficult to tell whether or not he believes what his characters are saying. I'm not sure it matters; sometimes the point is simply to indulge in the sheer pleasure of manipulating words for rhythmic or ironic effect or simply to toss out as many ideas as possible so they can be either rejected or accepted, which is the way any field of science (i.e. knowledge) develops.
Godard doesn't provide any solutions here. Revolutionaries have frequently played a central role in his films, but here Olga is strictly a tragic figure. Her act of protest is neither heroic nor criminal; she is merely doomed to failure the minute she chooses this path. Godard, once the angry young man, seems to have aged into the resigned fatalist; revolution no longer holds the promise of delivery from the world's problems and he doesn't seem to know what comes next. The same is true of the future of film. At one point, a student asks if digital cameras can save cinema and Godard can only stare in mute silence; he simply doesn't know the answer. Later, when he is informed of Olga's death, he can only listen helplessly as he tends to his flower garden. Can anything break us out of this vicious cycle or are we going to be listening to "our music" for many more centuries to come? For once, JLG doesn't have any answers.
It is tempting to suggest that Godard has matured into a more contemplative phase, but that is too facile an interpretation. "Notre Musique" is not nearly as accusatory or aggressive as many of his films, but it's probably foolish to read any major shift into a single work. Still, it's difficult to watch this movie without wondering if it represents a kind of summation or end-point for Godard, one of the most prolific filmmakers of the latter half of the 20th Century.
I am not qualified to assess the film's stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; I'm not sure "stance" is even the right word since the film ultimately focuses on a kind of doleful mourning for the whole sorry state of affairs than any overt political statement. However, I am comfortable in stating that I consider "Notre Musique" Godard's best work at least since his criminally underrated "Germany Year Ninety Nine Zero" (1991). When I saw it in the theater, I was overwhelmed by the experience on a very visceral level. On DVD, I find it to be eminently rewatchable (I have seen it four times now) and filled to the brim with a soup of ideas, thoughts and wisps of emotion.
The DVD is presented in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.33:1. The image quality is generally good though the colors seem a bit washed out; I can't remember if this is what it looked in the theater as well.
The DVD is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1. The sound design is not nearly as complex as in some of Godard's earlier work like "King Lear" (1987), which could be the subject of an entire book on sound all by itself. Reflecting its international cast, the film is in French (mostly), English, Spanish, Hebrew, Arabic and Serbo-Croatian. Optional English subtitles support the audio, though not all lines are subtitled as some languages were meant not to be translated even for French audiences; only a few lines (some in Spanish, some in Serbo-Croatian go untranslated).
Nothing save for a Filmography and a Trailer Gallery.
Your appreciation of "Notre Musique" is likely to be related to your familiarity with Godard's recent work. A perfectly reasonable viewer might see "Notre Musique" as willfully opaque and incomprehensible. On the other hand, most of the critics familiar with Godard's recent output have argued that "Notre Musique" is, by far, his most accessible and mainstream film in many years; compared to "In Praise of Love" it is certainly, in the words of Alex de Large, "as clear as an unmuddied lake." The film has a very obvious tripartite structure (the three kingdoms) and is perhaps his most beautifully and clearly composed film in years, but nobody will blame you if you still find yourself lost. "Notre Musique" is not a great jumping-on point for the Godard neophyte. My rating is simply an acknowledgement of my own appreciation for a film by perhaps my favorite director of all-time; I can't really "recommend" the movie to any particular viewer without knowing more about his or her familiarity with Godard. Maybe the best strategy is to work your way up to it by way of "Alphaville", "Weekend" and "Tout Va Bien." Like many of Godard's films, "Notre Musique" requires a little extra work on the part of the viewer, work that, in my opinion, will be richly rewarded.