Slipping Into Darkness 

Cautiously optimistic, Godard's Notre Musique shines its light into the night

Cautiously optimistic, Godard's Notre Musique shines its light into the night

Notre Musique

Dir. Jean-Luc Godard

NR, 79 min.

Opens Friday at the Belcourt

There's no living filmmaker who compares to Jean-Luc Godard—at least not one whose oracular bent is supported by his stature, and by the decades of association we have with his earlier work. But another name does spring to mind. The gnomic personal mythology, the restless need to reinvent himself, the work composed of snatches of remembered culture—does anyone else hear the music of Bob Dylan's second coming (or third, or fourth) in the wintry splendor of late-period Godard?

Having shaken off most anyone who would still holler for the early stuff—except for those fans who cling to him like barnacles through each new shift in identity—Dylan now makes art out of scraps: ancient bromides, old Tin Pan Alley standards, Delta blues, passages and titles of arcane books now fractured in memory. Ask him to tell you the future, and he opens up the Old Testament and the 1905 Farmer's Almanac. For Godard, the world is a bombed-out library, a cinematheque in ruins. In his career's waning light, he's made elegiac, magisterially broken movies from the shards that rain from the sky.

I won't belabor the comparison by calling Godard's Notre Musique his Time Out of Mind. But if ever a filmmaker conjured the benumbed calm of "walking through streets that are dead," Godard does in his 90th (!) film, a threnody for peace, cinema and the voices of the vanquished. Like his previous feature, In Praise of Love, it's a patchwork of film clips, literary allusions and historical citations, fastened by dialogue that sometimes suggests the output of a random aphorism generator. And yet the severity of In Praise of Love gives way to something like serenity—or the stillness after a cannon blast.

Notre Musique is a kind of fugue on the theme of opposition: not just enmity, but the life-defining relationships between light and dark, reality and imagination, rubble and rebuilding. The film is divided into three segments, or "kingdoms." The first, "Hell," is a dialectical firefight between real slaughter and fake war drama that gives the writing and erasing of histories the force of tectonic upheaval. It acts as a prologue for the second section, "Purgatory," which convenes fictional characters and French and Palestinian authors playing themselves at a literary conference in ravaged Sarajevo. The city forms a way station of tentative reconciliation before the unearthly paradise of the sun-dappled final segment, "Heaven."

Stylistically as well as thematically, Notre Musique is a sustained movement from violence to calm. The editing rhythms in "Hell" recall the famous moment in Godard's My Life to Live that evokes machine-gun fire visually. It takes him roughly 10 minutes to encapsulate human warfare. An atrocity exhibition of 20th century horrors (death-camp footage, Middle East bombings) vies for posterity with clips from Zulu and Battleship Potemkin, histories officially endorsed by the winners. The effect, immediate as calamity, is of deepening darkness—the fog of war.

The darkness relents, if not lifts, in the movie's longest section, "Purgatory." Though set at the epicenter of another of the 20th century's proliferating genocides, it's shot through with cautious optimism. Godard's modern-day Sarajevo is a common ground, not a killing ground, where the world's citizens try to neutralize the politics of victimization and oppression. In this no-man's-land, a Spanish author (novelist Juan Goytisolo as himself) meets with fictitious Native Americans in the ruins of a public library, far from the ghost of Columbus. An Israeli journalist (Sarah Adler) hopes to find "a place where reconciliation was possible," not another irresolvable West Bank, while her Russian-Israeli doppelganger (Nade Dieu) brings the movie's allusions to Hamlet to their despairing end: to be or not to be.

In the background is Godard himself, owlish and bespectacled, seen early on nursing a foot-long stogie he might've bummed off Samuel Fuller. His hopes for Middle East peace seem slim but faintly hopeful, though more hopeful than he seems to regard his continued relevance. The movie's centerpiece is a dazzling lecture in which Godard breaks down cinema (yet again) to its atoms of composition: "shot and reverse shot," Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell, the thing and its opposite, just like the celluloid negative that produces an image filled with light. "Go toward the light and shine it on our night," he commands his listeners, who sit bored and twittering. Somebody has a question: will those little digital cameras save the movies? Godard sits silently in silhouette. Nostradamus gives an audience, and all anybody wants to know is who'll win tomorrow's football game.

As befits a movie (and a career) so obsessed with claiming equality of text and image, Notre Musique practically demands separate viewings—one for the bristling thicket of Godard's interlocked provocations, one for his still mesmerizing command of montage and movement. But that doesn't mean he'll get them. To converts won by the Band of Outsiders reissue, In Praise of Love resembled something smashed on the ground and imperfectly reassembled, no matter how beautiful and wounding its jagged pieces. Notre Musique is much more linear and thematically accessible—it's amusing to note how many reviews use the word "lucid"—but it's still hard to sort out the many unidentified literary figures, and there's no one person to serve as our guide or point of identification in Godard's democratic design. The movie won't placate critics who can't stand his use of characters as philosophical mouthpieces, or who don't have the time to unpack arguments as dense and spiraling as supernovas—even if those arguments can change the way you consider the world. People love a seer, until he starts to look beyond them.

We will not get back the man who made A Woman Is a Woman and Masculin-Feminin: he is no longer here. His characters will not sing out "New York Herald Tribune!" on the Paris streets again, or hand-jive an impromptu Madison. Instead, we have this stubborn soothsayer who is interested in the there and then only as it relates to the here and now. But if we listen close, he is making music as strong and passionate as that of his youth, our youth. Just like the guy a few years back who sang, "Well my sense of humanity has gone down the drain / Behind every beautiful thing there's been some kind of pain." In Notre Musique it's not dark yet, but it's getting there.

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