Memory Lame

Godard meanders aimlessly In Praise of Love

Oct 30, 2002 at 4:00 am
The French word for turkey is dindon. With this in mind, it's fair to say that French New Wave auteur Jean-Luc Godard's latest movie, In Praise of Love (Eloge de l'Amour), is basically fricasé du dindon -- and none too tasty, either. Snoots will no doubt rally to its cause, trotting out threadbare stand-bys such as "masterpiece" and "triumph" and all that malarkey, but rarely does an established filmmaker so ardently waste viewers' time with a gobbler such as this one. Given Godard's four decades of cinematic and sociological experimentation -- from Breathless and Weekend to King Lear and For Ever Mozart -- it's pretty shocking that this thing isn't even artsy. Barring a few brief moments of instantaneously fizzling inspiration, it's merely fartsy.

Well, fine. Under the reasonable assumption that Godard has set out to make a fartsy movie, let's assess his successes theretoward. There are random shots of cows, horses and French people (the last often shown smoking, but because Godard is old-school, none of the above are shown in the currently hip act of urinating). There are stretches of absurdly pretentious dialogue edited over awkward angles or black interstitials so that one has no idea who is talking or why. Probably filched from a bum poet's scribble pad, said dialogue involves references to history's being replaced by technology, to landscapes' seeming new only in comparison to previously known landscapes, to -- no joke, deep thinkers -- the collapse of the gaze. Somehow it's all to do with nostalgia and reckoning, and indeed, the, um, director seems quite confident in his jumbled mess, but the very element of fruity incomprehensibility that makes dadaism (or life itself) so appealing makes this project aggressively tedious.

If Godard is trying to say something here -- actually, he seems much more interested in obliterating his statements in mid-delivery -- it's mostly to do with memory, presumably his own spluttering sense thereof. As uppity, thirtyish know-it-all Edgar (Bruno Putzulu) struggles to create the titular Eloge de l'Amour, a cinematic magnum opus about the four stages of a love affair -- those'd be hooking up, doing it, dashing off and hooking up again -- Godard grants himself license to explore at length the unrelated notion that memory may be of little use in reclaiming one's life. Nifty in theory, but all that's really going on is rusty cultural and philosophical regurgitation, by way of Edgar's pretty actors Eglantine (Audrey Klebaner) and Perceval (Jérémy Lippman); by way of his ever-failing conquest, Elle (Cécile Camp); by way of anyone who manages to avoid falling out of the remarkably amateurish frames of cinematographers Christophe Pollock and Julien Hirsch.

Because the thematic content of In Praise of Love is so irritatingly obtuse -- from Bayard to Bresson, from Sartre to Spielberg, it's less a meditation than a name-check fiesta -- it would have been downright decent of Godard to sedate us with some suitably high-minded visuals during our 98 minutes of punishment. No such luck. The first 60 percent or so is shot clumsily on black-and-white film that makes Paris look mostly like a sad little toilet, and the remainder -- taking place two years earlier in the countryside -- is shot on digital video that literally looks like puke. If nothing else, Godard has effectively ended any debate about the value of one cinematic medium over another: Slop knows no technical boundaries.

Fans of Godard's -- especially his classic '60s refractory work -- will likely appreciate this thing despite its many faults, possibly because of them. It's noteworthy that this is the first feature film (and video) Godard has shot in Paris since 1966's Masculine-Feminine, and it shares with that film a similar devil-may-care sense of style and cutting. If you enjoy random montage and a direct affront to the Hollywood machine, perhaps you'll find a reason to stay in your seat.

If only there weren't so much sneering. Honestly, it's refreshing to hear America questioned, redefined and even mocked as a peculiar, overly proud nation wedged between Canada and Mexico (both of which are also, technically, America). It's even stronger to hear characters ranting about Hollywood boy Spielberg stealing people's stories for profit while Oskar Schindler's widow lives in poverty in Argentina. (They fail to mention author Barbara Chase-Riboud's $10 million suit against Spielberg and company for ripping off her book Echo of Lions to make Amistad, still a dubious matter despite an amicable settlement.) Sadly, however, it doesn't take long for Godard's attempt at a trance to turn into a tantrum, and his rants against nasty, soulless America actually make the place seem more attractive. Instead of complaining, maybe the rebel should just succumb and shoot an old-fashioned picture for DreamWorks (if they don't shoot him first).