The Costa Concordia was a cruise ship named to signify the hope of “continuing harmony, unity, and peace between European nations.” With its thirteen decks each named for a different European nation, it made a virtually ideal pre-fabbed stage for the first section of Jean-Luc Godard’s “Film Socialisme” (2010). In this opening segment (just under half the film’s running time) the Concordia becomes the fictionalized setting for international intrigue as agents from various nations search for smuggled treasure – the modern remains of the Spanish gold transferred by boat to the Soviet Union in 1936 for “safekeeping” as the Spanish Civil War broke out. The gold was not kept all that safe, but rather “redistributed” a few times during its sea voyage (in the film, gold had also helped build Hollywood which JLG, in his obstinate way, defines as both a “Mecca” and a place “built by the Jews”), and Godard’s den of thieves (or “bastards” as the film puts it) believe there’s still a share up for grabs on this contemporary Mediterranean journey.
The real Costa Concordia capsized off the coast of Tuscany in January 2012, two years after Godard shot “Film Socialisme,” leaving 17 dead and 15 missing at the date of this review’s publication. Real deaths trump any connection to a film, and Godard obviously could not have foreseen such a grim future for his giant film set, but if the movie did not predict a happy destination for this Good Ship Euro (or Good Ship Mediterranean, if you prefer) the real life tragedy provides a chilling echo. That the Concordia ran aground the same day that S&P downgraded several nations in the Euro Zone and that Greek debt talks broke down yet again makes “Film Socialisme” seem eerily prescient, though it’s sheer coincidence. Godard did not show up for the film’s premiere at Cannes in 2010, citing “problems of the Greek type,” perhaps a reference to the then headline-grabbing debt crisis.
Then again, the movie’s critique of globalization and modern finance is so vast in scope, and the fragmented narrative is so replete with allusions (you will need to write down all the names credited with “Textos” in the opening, and then search Google for proper attributions of various lines of narration and dialogue) that a particularly besotted viewer can divine many portents from it. Let’s settle for calling it keenly insightful and limit ourselves to what we see and hear in the film.
That’s no small task. Though “Film Socialisme” is not as opaque as some of its detractors might have you believe (it certainly has a story, for example) it’s fair to say that Godard isn’t particularly worried about whether you keep up with his dense audiovisual montage. Of course, one of the many subjects touched on in the film is the increasing speed by which information and capital is transferred in the digital age, and if you’re not feeling overwhelmed by modern media’s pepperspray oversaturation, then you’re not paying attention. Godard didn’t help Anglophones either by only sending out theatrical prints with “Navajo English” (his term) subtitles, translating dialogue exchanges into a few words: “Money is a public good.” “Like water then?” became simply “money public water.”
The hunt for gold aboard ship is more than a MacGuffin (it’s a history lesson, a dessert topping, and a floor wax too), but Godard was also taking a cruise along with the rest of the passengers (one of whom looks suspiciously like Patti Smith which, by definition, means she must be Patti Smith). Along the way he filmed some of the most extraordinarily beautiful shots of rippling water I have ever seen, along with some rough and tumble digital footage captured on deck with the audio partially drowned out by the sound of flags whipping in the wind. Some images are partially pixilated, in others the colors are decidedly non-naturalistic (this movie has some truly unusual varieties of blue, and they look gorgeous on this high-def transfer). Godard was taking holiday snaps along with his buffet-grazing, hip-hop dancing fellow passengers at the Concordia’s various ports of call (Egypt, Palestine, Greece, Naples, Barcelona among them) though when he returns to these locations in the film’s third and most poetic section, it’s with a “vacation album” of a most unusual variety. If you’re wondering if anyone finds the gold, just move on.
The film’s second section, an abrupt shift from the cruise ship, is set at a French gas station owned by the Martin family. A generational mutiny is taking place as the father wants to leave for the South, mom wants to run for President, and the kids, a 20 year-old daughter and a young boy, want to know what the hell is going on… in France, in the world, and, incidentally, with the family as well. Florine, the daughter, is the eloquent heart of this segment, which is probably why Godard made her a bookworm. Godard has always liked to film books, by which I mean literally filming books sitting on tables or as they are being read, and books pepper the visual landscape of this movie, begging home viewers (“Film Socialisme” raked in a mighty $31,000 in the U.S. – so it’s being viewed in the home, if at all) to Google search Naguib Mahfouz or “Illusions perdues” by Balzac, the book Florine (the name of a character from Balzac’s “La comédie humaine”) reads as she leans against a gas pump. When a carful of tourists asks for gas, she yells at them to “go invade another country!” She’s reading, dammit! Later, when two pushy reporters from Channel Three show up to film the Martins, esp. politician mom, Florine threatens one of them, “If you make fun of Balzac, I’ll kill you!” Should we call him Jean-Luc “Literature” Godard now?
Revolution is brewing among the Martin family (another reference: The Martin Family was the name of a French resistance organization), but Godard doesn’t treat these characters as mere ideological constructs. In one of the film’s most intimate scenes, young Lucien (a stand-in for a cautiously hopeful Godard?) cinches his eye tight and gropes blindly for his mother, wrapping his arms around her legs and waist, then feeling her hair and face. This warm family scene transforms into an oblique conversation about images that are sometimes at liberty, and sometimes locked in, a common occurrence in a film in which nearly every sound and image appears to serve multiple functions. Gold shows up in this sequence too, as do a donkey and a lama. Did I forget to mention that Godard, at least in this movie, likes animals almost as much as books? Parrots open the film, and a couple of meowing cats viewed on a laptop may be the only living beings who really understand what each is saying to the other. In the press notes to “Film Socialisme,” Godard suggests that rather than a final film, he has merely a final title: “Farewell to Language.” But we’ll always have books. Until they’re all stored on Kindles and we get that giant EMP that wipes out all records of civilization, but I digress.
The third segment is the most challenging, and also the most emotionally resonant. Godard revisits the ship’s ports of call, but this time through the lens of history which, for Godard, also means through the lens of cinema. Einsentein’s Odessa Steps figure prominently here, but so do shots from Agnes Varda’s recent “Beaches of Agnes” (2008) and Jean-Daniel Pollet and Volker Schlondorff’s “Mediterranée” (1963). All of them are intercut with historical photographs and footage from Egypt, Haifa, America, Hellas (aka HELL AS, aka Greece) and many other locations, and scored by strands of classical music and dissonant, crashing piano chords. Godard’s one-minute “Une catastrophe,” shot for the 2008 Viennale, bears a similar look though minus the music (look to the opening sequence of “Notre musique” as well). Literary and political allusions dominate the narration in this closing dirge which informs us that “Democracy and tragedy were wed in Athens… the sole child: civil war.” And from Athens to the rest of the world. All of which leads to his now infamous final credit which reads, quite simply, NO COMMENT. His farewell to language already? The last image of Godard’s career? I wouldn’t bet on it, but rumors (fears) abound. Hel(l)as pour nous.
I set out to write a short, preliminary take after an inadequate three viewings of “Film Socialisme” and failed miserably as I got bogged down in the details. Let me wrap up quickly then with “SOME THINGS” that the film addresses:
The nebulous, changing idea of intellectual property in the digital age – nobody paid the Arabs for the concept of zero, and we’re not paying royalties to Greece for democracy though perhaps we should be asking for a refund instead, but good luck collecting on that bill – “private investors” get first dibs.
The inadequacy of language – we built machines that can communicate flawlessly, but we usually can’t understand a damned thing anyone is saying. Yet we still try.
The need to preserve the images of history and language against the gatekeepers. If it’s not on Google, did it even happen? Maybe we’d all better take as many holiday pics as we can. We can’t let this “intellectual property” be purchased, because then it can be erased, now much easier than ever.
The way that the instantaneous flow of capital across the globe renders the whole idea of money completely disconnected from peoples’ lives (though if Godard is suggesting gold is more authentic or a better solution merely because it is tangible, I disagree, but I have no idea if that’s what he’s saying.)
“When the law is unfair, justice precedes the law.”
The film is presented in its original 1.78:1 aspect ratio (anamorphic). The 1080p transfer looks absolutely stunning at times. There’s a scene where the daughter is being interviewed in the second section and the sky behind her is as crystal blue as a sky can get. Similarly, some of the shots of water are gloriously tangible. It’s difficult to fully assess how “true” the image in the film is because Godard shot on multiple sources, used distorted digital imagery and, in one case, even let the digital image freeze – you may reach for your DVD player thinking it’s seized up but just look to see if your counter is still ticking and wait. So there are artifacts visible from time to time, but perhaps they are supposed to be. Somebody else may have some particular quibbles, but I was wowed by this lush high-def transfer.
The film is presented in Dolby DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. I’m not going to pretend I can tell how this incredibly rich, overlapping audio mix is “supposed” to sound. My memory from the Toronto International Film Festival in 2010 simply isn’t that keen. I’ll just say that it sounds like this lossless mix is up to the task of presenting narration, music, sound effects and frequent, abrupt switches without any discernible weaknesses or (unintentional) distortions.
You can choose to watch the film with “Navajo English” subtitles or “Full English” subtitles. Godard released the film to festivals and later in its brief theatrical run in the U.S. with what he described as “Navajo English” subtitles. Let’s not worry about why. I mentioned the effect above. The Full English exchange: “Money is a public good.” “Like water then?” is “Navajo” translated as only: “money public water” (with ample spacing between the words on screen). This is how virtually all English audiences encountered the film and can thus be viewed as the way it was “intended” to be seen.
Does this mean you would be cheating on JLG if you used the “Full English” subtitles provided on this Kino Lorber video? I don’t think so. You’re getting the same experience French speakers get, and if that’s not what Godard wants, well, you worry about that. It’s a radically different viewing experience with the Full English subtitles. If that’s how you watch and you then go back and read what sound like some clueless reviews from the festival circuit (How did they miss the Spanish gold stuff???) keep in mind they were watching the limited subtitles.
If you’re enterprising, I recommend two viewings, the first with “Navajo English” so you get the festival experience and so you get to form your own ideas without a guiding spoken narrative, then a second viewing with the Full English to see how it all changes.
The only extras are a Trailer for the film which is also available on Youtube (click at the top of this page to see it), and a Stills Gallery. Critic Richard Brody, author of “Everything is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard,” writes a three page essay for the slim liner notes.
“Film Socialisme” is a living text that is practically designed to be analyzed image-sound by image-sound in the comfort of your home. If you reject the film at first as “impenetrable” or “not a real film” or “pretentious,” I offer one humble suggestion. Jean-Luc Godard, the greatest filmmaker of the past fifty years, may have had something in mind when he made this movie, and all that weird stuff wasn’t just a mistake, though it’s possible some of it is a put-on. Try again, dig a little deeper, look and listen a little closer, hit up those Google searches, and maybe the film will transform for you bit by bit. This Kino Lorber Blu-ray is short on Extras, but maybe that’s what the web is for, and the high-def transfer is marvelous.
I’m tempted to close with that brilliant “NO COMMENT” but that’s already played out, so I offer you a link to an annotated guide to “Film Socialisme” instead. Compare what is incomparable.