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In Praise of Love (Jean-Luc Godard) 2001


    Jean-Luc Godard's latest film, In Praise of Love, is absolutely heartbreaking. It's also quite difficult. I imagine most of its audience will reject it without ever understanding it. The film really will only work for you if you understand that for Godard, cinema is all-encompassing. The "Love" in the title is Godard's love for cinema. His work transcends any boy-meets-girl posturing of typical love stories. The conflict arises from the disconnect between the admiration that Godard felt for Hollywood's films and the guilt that he feels for enjoying those inherently Capitalist images.  The film opens with Edgar, a Parisian director that is working on a vague, ambitious project about the stages of love. He wants to show the four stages of love (meeting, passion, separation, and reconciliation) across the three ages people go through (young adult, adult, old). Edgar lives alone, and seems to live only for his work. This is Godard's first film shot in Paris in over twenty years, and he shows a city that seems to be overrun with industry. The skylines are abuzz with the neon lights of flashing billboards. There are plenty of scenes of Edgar reading or speaking against a backdrop of noise. That noise seems equally likely to come from passing trains, the blare of an action film shootout, or as it does in one scene, American Beauty).  


    The fear of the Hollywood film is omnipresent here. Edgar is having difficulty casting his adult actors, and when one of his producers suggests he simply drop that segment, he admonishes them, saying he might as well cast Julia Roberts. Edgar is striving for integrity in a world that doesn't seem particularly interested in creating works with it. Even Paris in this film seems to have been swamped with an American mentality. Godard argues American culture is like a sponge that absorbs the cultures of other countries, but leaves a sticky residue of history behind that makes the absorbed culture meaningless. In Godard's view, American culture has no room for historical accuracy. The film most obviously illustrates this moment when the director stands before posters for Bresson's Pickpocket and The Matrix. He places himself in front of the one for the Bresson film. As Edgar searches for his "adults" for his film, he is told to meet with Elle, a working class girl that he finds he knew from a few years earlier. She's not quite right for the part, and they drift away as the project falls apart. The thing seems to be that no one is quite right for the part. Edgar is seen getting on a monorail marked "Dranoy Future", but is seem immediately getting off. There is no compromise possible here, and Edgar cannot progress. He comes to say that there is no such thing as an adult as he realizes his own creative impotence. 


    Edgar, like Godard, views cinema as a beautiful, universal language. One character remarks "(political) state is the opposite of love (cinema)". To Godard, expression should not be something that can be deemed of a certain nationality. He rallies against commercial culture whether it's in America, France, or Kosovo. The first half of the film dabbles in the idea of this universal language by showing the film's producer's hotel (Hotel Intercontinental), by expressing admiration for those who have left their home countries, and by having a character remark that a soldier's country of origin should be stricken from his eulogy, but it's the film's second half that tackles the issue head on.


    In this half, which takes place two years earlier, Edgar meets Elle at a farm that is home to her grandparents. They are in dire financial straits, and have been contacted by Hollywood representatives (from "Steven Spielberg and Associates, Incorporated") who want to purchase their life story's rights, since the couple led a Christian resistance during the Holocaust. The Hollywood executives swoop in by helicopter and sports car to tell the old couple that the film is to star (Oscar-winner) Juliette Binoche, and is to be written by an American, as if that will comfort the old couple, that seems barely aware motion pictures exist at all. The couple, of course, is never explicitly told that the film is to include nude scenes, a notation buried deep within the thick contract, until Elle points it out. Elle, like Edgar, resents the executives and what they represent. She makes their time difficult, as she demands a more specific definition of America. The executives are flummoxed by this, and her knowledge only underlines Godard's point that America is a land that has no real culture of its own, but, rather, must appropriate it from elsewhere.


    This sequence, effective as it is in skewering American sensibilities, doesn't let the others off the hook. Edgar criticizes the media for focusing on how large a success the film Titanic was, suggesting they actually write about the content of the film instead, but then admits that he has never actually seen the film. The grandparents still use their code name from the war over fifty years later, suggesting they never wanted to lose the fame that they attained for their (noble) deeds. The grandfather tapes a television show entitled "The Secret War", suggesting he has supplanted his memories of the war with those fabricated by the media. Certainly, this makes me recall the WWII veterans that assured us young folks that the way Spielberg showed WWII in Saving Private Ryan was "real", despite the fact that I could quote a dozen or so films that Spielberg's movie lifted scenes from almost directly. When Godard waxes about the power of cinema to create reality, it's episodes like this one that make me think he is right.


    The film essentially acts as Godard's personal reconciliation of his love with cinema. He seems to realize that he is now old. Edgar's realization that there is no such thing as an adult seems to be Godard's admission that he never quite managed to do what he wanted with cinema when he was at his creative peak. His creative impotency is now smacking him in the face since he realizes he is old. Near the film's end, he has Elle read from a Bresson-penned book about the function of the director. When she reads "the challenge of the director is not to direct others. Rather it is to direct himself," Godard seems to be laying the gauntlet down for future generations (though, since the only children in the film are petitioning for a translation of The Matrix, he doesn't seem particularly hopeful). He absolutely loves the art form, but seems to have realized he has not entirely lived up to it. Although my trepidations in agreeing with Godard wholeheartedly are the reason that I won't call this film a masterpiece, I believe he quite eloquently has made his case here by creating a romance in which the girl dies. It is astonishing and sad if Godard considers himself a failure. Perhaps, because of the sadness in his realization of his failure to live up to the potential of his love, when he closes the film with the repeated intoning of "maybe nothing was said..." I shed a tear.

* * * *

October, 2001


06-23-02 - After finally seeing this film a second time, I have pretty much the same impression of it, but I got a bit more out of a few more images, since I knew what the movie was working toward. The image of the suitcase at the end of the first half of the movie recalls the Holocaust in a way that I wasn't able to note the first time through, and basically Godard appears to be equating the actions of the Nazis with the actions of the dumbed down media, which is nothing if not an extreme stance (and really not one that I could agree with). Still, a second viewing did more to improve than hurt my view of the movie, since I came away with more insight into the movie's central theme, which basically argues that all of historical experience can be distilled down to personal experience and vice versa. To not acknowledge history when telling a personal story, as Godard accuses the Americans of doing, is to not have insight into that personal story. To look at history without attempting to understand the personal side of it is to invite a misunderstanding that will cause tragedies to repeat themselves (as they do here). 


Jeremy Heilman