#94 in Best of the 21st Century?, a series in which I view, for the first time, some of the most critically acclaimed films of the previous decade.
Let me take a moment to clear up some misunderstandings about the “Best of the 21st Century?” title. The question mark is there for a reason; this is not my canon for the decade, but rather the collective critical canon as compiled by the website They Shoot Pictures Don’t They?. A talented critic named Kevin B. Lee started an exercise years ago in which he moved through the website’s all-time canon, watching and discussing the films he had not yet seen. His imaginative approach is to create video commentaries for each film – while my own work here is nowhere near as ambitious, I’m taking a similar approach, writing about each film on the 21st Century list that I haven’t seen. Key point: that I haven’t seen, so I have no way of knowing, going into a viewing right before a review, if I’ll like the movie in question. I’ve seen a few responses in the past saying something to the effect of “Can’t wait to see your other favorites” or “Do you really think this is one of the best of the whole decade?” Hopefully this introduction clarifies my approach.
I bring this up because otherwise some of you might be confused by what follows. So far in this series, I’ve been generally positive about the films discussed even if dissenting from the acclaim in some regards (which was already too much for some). This time I have to dissent from the apparent consensus altogether; by and large, I didn’t care for In Praise of Love, so for me that response to the question mark of my series title would have to be a “No.” It’s ironic that this film would be the one to warrant that response, since Jean-Luc Godard is one of my favorite directors of all time. Yet even in his prime, I think he could be hit-and-miss, often within the same film. We take the lows of Godard because the highs are so exhilarating; unfortunately in Praise, the latter are scarce and the former all too abundant. Though some have seen it in exact opposite fashion, I find the movie gets much better as it goes along, leading finally to a rapturous conclusion, but it’s too little too late to save the movie as a whole. The meta-questions on Godard’s old work vs. his new are most creatively addressed by Bob Clark in his “the-best-way-to-criticize-a-film-is-to-make-another-film a-video-game” response to Film Socialisme last week. As for In Praise of Love, I come not to praise but to bury. So proceed below the fold…
In Praise of Love contains two sections (many more if you want to put too fine a point on it, but two very distinct sections nonetheless). In the glacially-paced first, shot in a moody black-and-white, various characters reflect upon their lives and questions surrounding love, memory, and history. There is a filmmaker trying to make a documentary about love (or perhaps about Resistance heroine Simone Weill?) but his actions do not necessarily dictate everything we see; rather Godard seems to wander at will through Paris – this was his first film shot there in 35 years – and mourn the passing of the past. The tone of nostalgic reverie doesn’t quite suit the old master. Even in the “later period” films or fragments I’ve seen, there tends to be a restless flow to Godard’s images; yes, he has immersed himself in a classicism and scorned the Pop hagiography of his past, but he still seems to be at his best when suffering from an uber-cinematic ADD. The “elegance” of Praise’s first half then feels rather empty, as if Godard is trying to settle down and strike a Bressonian tone (the recently deceased filmmaker’s “Notes on a Cinematograph” are quoted later in Praise). But he can’t do Bresson any more than Bresson could have done Godard. Initially I found these scenes pleasant enough, but eventually they grew tiresome; affecting an elegiac, leisurely sensibility, they were unable to truly embody it.
The second half – which begins with a title setting it two years before the first half – begins far more promisingly. The cuts accelerate and Godard dips the visuals in bleary video colorization which discards the forced romanticism of the black-and-white “present.” This, excuse the expression, breathless and impatient aesthetic conveys a desire to seize life by the throat and drink its blood vampirically; this is Godard’s forte and while most critics seem to have preferred the monochrome photography of the first half, I much preferred the look of the second. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t lose its other problem: the ideas on display. Much has been made of the film’s anti-Americanism, but in truth it’s far too silly to be offensive (the actor playing the State Department official who “calls the shots in Hollywood, of course” looks like he’s inwardly counting down the seconds until he can get his paycheck and fly home). A young woman, hidden like Yoko Ono behind a veil of long hair, constantly interrupts the dialogue – mostly revolving around Steven Spielberg’s attempt to “steal” the memories of Resistance fighters – to remind us that Americans (er, North Americans, er, North Americans living in states, er North Americans living in united states, er North Americans living in united states that are located between Mexico and Canada…) have no name, and no history.
The diatribes are tiresome and one-note (as numerous other critics have pointed out, America not only has a history, Godard once celebrated it) but Birth of a Nation contains views far more rancid than anything here, and that’s still a great movie. What damns Praise is that it foregrounds its ideas so consistently that often there’s little else to take in. This is especially true in the first part, when the black-and-white pseudo-documentary approach can kid you into thinking you’re experiencing some kind of cinematic art but a comparison with any passages where Godard’s really on fire (like the end of this film, for instance) will immediately show you the difference between the genuine and the ersatz. Even once Godard picks up his aesthetic pace, the “ideas” remain front and center as if he considered his half-baked notions of America’s cultural (lack of) identity (an interesting topic if handled with subtlety and insight) so important that the movie must be rendered merely a carrying vessel for them. Long sections feature characters pacing around rooms, conversing, no longer imaginatively shot as in Contempt or Hail Mary, but merely captured with an eye for content above all else. (Nonetheless, the “plot” of Praise is often almost impossible to follow.)
Yet as the film winds down to a close, Godard catches fire and the movie burns up in a glorious conflagration before our eyes. Praise‘s first truly emotionally effective scene in the movie occurs when we finally see the long-haired woman’s face; revealed, she asks her mother why the family name was changed from Samuel. The older woman does not respond, she seems addled by senility, and suddenly all Godard’s ramblings about memory find their powerful articulation in this woman’s expression. Then the visuals themselves begin to dissolve and bleed into one another, as if Godard is furiously scratching away the surface of the movie – and till now it’s been almost entirely surface – and revealing the palpitating heart underneath. Seascapes create a chiaroscuro affect around floating heads, waves wash over men getting into cars, a view out of a blurry windshield becomes a kind of heavenly visitation, the glowing orbs of headlights now angels come down to kiss our screens. Having knocked the film, I’d nonetheless tell you to seek it out if only for this rapturous finale. Perhaps it could be seen as a transition out of Praise’s mode and into the style of Notre Musique’s electric opening. The opening of Musique is the only part of that film I’ve seen, but it’s coming up in this countdown and if all of Notre Musique contains this kind of dizzying power and aching beauty, I look forward to it. At any rate, it will be a relief after the disappointment of Praise.