In Praise of Love

At 70, still working in the post-Bruckheimer age, Gallic firebrand Jean-Luc Godard seems less a director than some shaggy-browed Pre-War avant-garde composer. So dense and doggedly intellectual are his recent films—mixing media, referencing social theory, blending sound, text, and image in a heady polyphony—that it’s tempting to liken them to a Schoenberg song cycle or a Shostakovich symphony, with their arcane devices and surfeit of information. But such comparisons are ultimately misleading. Experiencing a Godard film is not, in fact, like listening to Schoenberg. It’s like listening to Schoenberg while reading Joyce, in Italian, during a conversation, in the middle of a traffic jam.

Godard’s films require that we attend not just to the flashing slogans and literary allusions but also to the overlapping voices, the street noise, the factory sounds, the musics pop, classical, and concrete. No other director has so pointedly manipulated sound towards a singular aesthetic, ensuring that film remains, as Godard himself put it, “somewhere between art and life.” Given the distinct role audio plays in his work, recent products like the CD for his 1990 film Nouvelle vague and the five-book, five-CD, five-pound compendium Histoire(s) du cinéma are hardly surprising—despite the fact that neither has, strictly speaking, any cinema in it at all.

Although its booklet lists artists and titles, the Nouvelle vague CD is as far from a conventional soundtrack album as possible, skipping the standard song-by-song format in favor of two 40-minute immersions in the film’s sonic world, a free-flowing megamix of what we might call Godard’s pet sounds: traffic noise and car crashes, epigrammatic men and impassioned young women, foreign accents, splashing water, poet rockers, and 20th-century composers. The Histoire(s) du cinéma CDs (an objet d’art to Godard’s eight-part video work) provides a just as personal meditation, only this time on the entire cinematic tradition.

Godard’s sensibility emerges through his engulfing sonic language: snippets of Bartók and Bach, snatches of Otis Redding and John Coltrane, and the voices of Celan, Pound, Hitchcock, and Godard himself, all poking through a mercurial ambience of natural sounds and film dialogue. While they are dream demo discs—lusciously mixed by Godard’s longtime sound collaborator François Musy—the CDs remain thoroughly disorienting, capturing what critic Jean Narboni called the Godard effect: “You are suddenly confused. . . . You feel like you are losing your footing,” before the work’s oceanic drift creates its own meaning and momentum.

If we feel lost in these worlds of pure sound, there is a new Godard film to reassure us that the director can still leave us just as adrift in his cinema. In Praise of Love (Eloge de l’amour) is a brooding essay, ostensibly on the four stages of love (meeting, sexual passion, separation and rediscovery), but with the inevitable digressions into capitalism, art, history, authenticity, aging, loss, and other abiding concerns. As befits its title, In Praise is less a linear argument than an ode, a poetic meditation, a tone poem— yes, a musical composition. In this conception, all of film’s traditional narrative devices are freed to perform the more abstract duties of musical gestures. Brief black screens, sometimes with intertitles like “Something” and “Two Years Earlier” become rests, cadenzas, tension, and resolution. Godard’s signature mismatching of sound and image works to heighten this tension, so that when a long gorgeous shot appears of a Parisian fountain at night—its arcing jets of water backlit by streetlights—the matching watery whoosh on the soundtrack has the affect of a resolving major chord.

In an interview that accompanies Histoire(s), Godard says, “Video is closer to painting or to music [than to film]. You work with your hands like a musician with an instrument, and you play it.” Such a comment explicates the long-standing impression of Godard as some senior avant-DJ, mixing dialogue bites and symphonic samples, taking snatches of image,sound, or musical motifs to revisit and intermix. Even without image, the jump cuts between the strings of Bartók and Bernard Herrmann on Histoire(s) offer as tasty a timbral juxtaposition as anything you’ll hear on most DJs’ cross-faders. While once futuristic cut-up and collage techniques may suggest a grating cacophony, the images and sounds of In Praise actually have an elegance rare to both avant-garde and Hollywood cinema.

And while Godard’s penchant for the poetically inverted phrase (“Histoire de la solitude/Solitude de l’histoire”) recalls some serialist composing device (like Schoenberg’s mirror-image “retrogrades”), the softness of his images, the luminescent black-and-white textures, and, most of all, the gentle, measured grace of his cuts lull rather than shock — more like the phrases of a sonata than the riffs of a DJ.

Temperamentally, the new Godard is more Impressionist than a late-century mathematician, more wistful Debussy than tortured Berg, bringing the same inevitably autumnal feeling to this examination of love that Histoire(s), explicitly a postmortem on the medium, brought to cinema. In one quietly emblematic moment during In Praise, a young woman on the phone asks her conversant to repeat something, slowly, so she can copy it down. “Every thought,” she says, transcribing. “Should recall. The debris. Of a smile.” Then she gently hangs up.

© 2001 by Chris Norris