In Praise of Love, the latest film by Jean-Luc Godard, isn’t unbearable. This is significant, for it marks a drastic change from the rest of his post-Week End work, most of which consists of a stream of mostly indecipherable psychobabble. I don’t doubt that with many viewings, one can begin to extract some significance from For Ever Mozart or King Lear, but I’ll be damned if I’m interested enough to do so. These films explore the same themes of his early work—mainly, the meaning of cinema and what it can accomplish—but choose to do so without a story or any semblance of coherence. Depending on your view, this can be insane brilliance or wretched pretentiousness. I primarily choose the latter, though perhaps smarmy is the better word than ‘pretentious.’ There’s no doubting Godard’s intelligence; he’s clearly supremely schooled in literature, art, cinema, and all that good stuff. Starting with Breathless and continuing through My Life to Live, Contempt, Band of Outsiders and Alphaville, Godard employed his aforementioned intelligence to craft fascinating films, unique blasts of energy, ideas, and snappiness.
Then the trouble began. With Pierrot Le Fou in 1965 and Week End and Two or Three Things I Know About Her in 1967, Godard began to slowly eliminate narrative as a key component to his work, though those films were still successes. From the ‘70’s and on, however, Godard’s movies became little more than an excuse for him to flaunt his immense acumen. Splashes of this were present earlier—the Emily Bronte scene in Week End, the Pan Am and TWA bags on the head in Two or Three Things I Know About Her—but encompassed within a storyline, they were far more useful and informative, and far less ostentatious. Even then, however, the scenes would be nothing without knowledge of who Emily Bronte was. There are those who say to break down Godard’s rambling is to miss the point, that one must simply allow the mood to sweep you in. I don’t buy it, for what’s the reward of 80 minutes of indecipherable gibberish? If that was indeed Godard’s goal, then it failed with me in every post-1967 film of his that I’ve seen, though as I’ve said, I’m sure there are those who can somehow connect to JLG/JLG or the like.
Which brings us to In Praise of Love, made in 2001 and released here in 2002. Though still primarily stream-of-consciousness based, it reaches back to Godard’s glory days a bit, conjuring memories of his great Contempt with stunning visuals and a somber piano score. The plot is almost trivial, but exists in a slightly more understandable fashion, focusing on a Parisian director named Edgar and his travails while undertaking a complex project about love. Ultimately, though, In Praise of Love is about themes, about the anti-Hollywood sentiment that Godard feels so passionately about, and this is where the film begins to crumble. I have absolutely no problem with his admonishing America; God knows we’re a flawed country, and probably in need of a wakeup call about it. What I take issue with is his methods of doing this, particularly his all-out assault on Spielberg and particularly Schindler’s List. Though Spielberg isn’t mentioned by name until well into the film, In Praise of Love appears to be mocking Schindler’s List throughout, right down to Godard’s decision to shoot the present in black and white and the past in color. Perhaps I’m overanalyzing here, but I can’t help but think that’s a direct attack on Schindler’s List’s girl in red—a touch that I happen to find one of cinema’s more poignant moments. Even putting aside my personal adoration for Spielberg’s masterpiece, however, Godard blatantly ignores the extraordinary impression that Schindler’s List left on American culture, choosing instead to focus on its historical ‘inaccuracies.’ What Godard fails to realize is that few films are more successful than Schindler’s List in conveying its message to the audience, and isn’t that what Godard himself has always preached? Of course we all know of the Holocaust and its horrors but when I watched Schindler’s List, I felt it like never before. Godard’s attacks on Hollywood become grating rather quickly, and he should have chosen someone else to pick on if he wants to make his point without seeming nonsensical and illogical.
Phew! All that said, though, Godard frequently does nail our cultural problems, as well as successfully convey his doubts about himself and his career. We see a young couple in front of a poster for Bresson’s Pickpocket, ignoring a parallel advertisement for the mainstream Matrix. Their easygoing manner in selecting arty over mindless reflects a respect for artistry that’s simply not present in our society much of the time. The literary and cinematic references, including odes to L’Atalante, are plentiful— I’m sure I missed a good deal, if not most of them—but succeed in provoking when they hit in a non-pretentious manner. Edgar’s character seems to be an autobiographical reflection of a wistful Godard, a man questioning his success and old age. That his faith in childhood and youth, so prevalent in My Life to Live and the like, is disintegrating would leave me sad, but I have to admit that my disgust with several of his messages frequently left me cold. Overall, In Praise of Love succeeds at times, fails at others, but always manages to be controversial and provocative. In that regard, I suppose it must be labeled a success, if not a film for everyone.
[EDIT: After speaking with my friend Derek about the film at length, I'm considering the possibility that I've been too hard on Godard's anti-Spielbergism. Derek's theory is that color is used in the past to show where Godard still lives, to show that he believes the present is where he can no longer produce what he once could. This fits my view on In Praise of Love's career and aging themes, so I think there definitely can be something to it. Regardless, I still can't say the picture works for me overall, despite its strong points as of now, though I'll revisit it one day]