In today’s film universe, there are few seemingly galactic beings quite as large, ever present and ever controversial as one Jean-Luc Godard. Originally seen as a playful enfant terrible from the early days of the French New Wave, he has since become a film historian (his Histoire(s) Du Cinema is every bit as entrancing, influential and stimulating as any bit of film history you’ll ever see) a genuine cinematic antagonist and all around political firestarter thanks to a recent collection of form-pushing motion pictures that are more akin to filmed dissertations than actual narrative-driven pieces of fiction filmmaking. Truthfully, one can see the start of this new era of Godardian filmmaking back in the seething masterpiece Week-End, but has since led him to push boundaries with pictures like Hail Mary and one of this era’s greatest films, Film Socialisme.
And yet, he’s languished in relative obscurity save for true blue cinephiles and those around the world that deem themselves Godardian acolytes. Most people with any love for cinema have no doubt seen his masterpieces, say the Breathless and the Week-End type classics that have become culture touchstones marking an entire generation of forward minded, experimental cinema as much as they have become classic motion pictures. But with genuinely superb experiments like Le Gai Savoir or For Ever Mozart, Godard has given the proverbial middle finger to the majority of the film world, instead ostensibly living in his own universe as poet, filmmaker, philosopher and politician.
There are few films that mark this more clearly than one of his most underrated and underseen pictures, Notre Musique. Using a structure that Godard has seemingly fallen in love with as his career has gone on, the film is split, ostensibly, into three seperate “acts” (the film draws a lot of inspiration from Dante and his Divine Comedy). First up, for a brief moment that opens the picture, we are shown what the film deems as “Realm 1: Hell.” A series of images both fiction and non-fiction, moments of newsreel archival footage are spliced with footage from various Western films and other bits of cinematic storytelling. A jarring and bombastic entry into this seething meditation on a handful of ideas Godard has seemingly been hell bent on mining for much of his career as of the last handful of decades. Unflinchingly about the nature of war and man’s relation to it, the film then thrusts us into “Purgatory,” by introducing us to a handful of characters led by two women in Sarajevo on a trip to an arts conference. With Godard himself at the center of this segment as a director set to give a lecture during the conference, this is one of Godard’s more narratively straightforward segments, and feels especially jarring when we jump to “Heaven,” a tale of Olga, one of the previously mentioned two women as she walks through an area occupied by American soldiers. A brazen meditation on war and the atrocities that come with it, Godard’s film is an 80 minute masterpiece that has not garnered enough buzz, enough buzz for a film that is truly unlike anything you’ve ever seen.
Aesthetically, the film is definitively Godard. Proving that there is a pre and post-Week-End aesthetic within the Godard canon, the film is chock full of lengthier scenes and lengthier sequences, few of which actually further a narrative, instead proving to be staged sermons from one of film’s great provocative preachers. The opening sequence is histrionic and abrasive, but also the film’s most intellectually distilled and pure, Godard at his most aggressive and truly angry. The “Purgatory” sequence, ostensibly the film’s second and lengthiest act, is lyrically shot with a static camera that is thoughtful and unflinching, allowing for the thrillingly dense and stimulating screenplay to really come alive. The photography here is breathtaking, naturally lit by Jean-Christophe Beauvallet and Julien Hirsch, finding star Nade Dieu so lovingly shot that she appears to be just another one of Godard’s great muses, with shots more than fitting of his greatest, Anna Karina. The long takes are fitting for Godard as he’s a relatively unfussy filmmaker, but the details are deeply important to the type of themes and ideology he is attempting to dig through. Be it the placement of a Charlie Chaplin portrait in a diner or a discussion of how Howard Hawks never got the difference between men and women, the film is lavishly shot but with such assurance from Godard that it’s without a doubt he is one of the greatest filmmakers to ever pick up a camera. Particularly in the final act, the film really proves to be one of Godard’s most touching and poetic, especially from this stage in his career. A fluid camera is our guide through this world, and it’s a truly affecting piece of filmmaking from a director who hasn’t been truly described as a director of emotion.
Performance wise, the film is pretty damn good. While voices from the art world abound here, including Godard, poet Mahmoud Darwish and even writer Juan Goytisolo, the performances are universally great and perfectly fitting of this type of definitively Godard universe. Our leads, Sarah Adler and Dieu, are revelations here, particularly the latter who does truly fit that muse role perfectly. She’s shot with so much love and affection that it’s hard to not think of Karina when looking at her awe-inspiring face. Toss in names like Rony Kramer and you have a film that isn’t entirely built on emotional roots, instead finding these perfect voices for the confrontational words written by writer/director Godard.
Overall, a startlingly dense meditation on the nature of violence and man’s relationship with it, the film is both an underseen masterpiece, and also a definitive look at the mindset of Godard during this stage of his career. Currently hard to find on DVD, the DVD that is available to the world is a solid one, but a new DVD and Blu-ray is a must. The current release includes no real features, and while the transfer is solid, this deserves the type of supplements Criterion has given their previous Godard releases. A scholarly commentary would be welcome (think the recent Cohen Godard releases and their solid commentaries), and retrospective interviews would be welcome. A look into the politics of the film would be welcome as well, as would be a video essay looking into the aesthetic choices made by Godard, and what this says about this recent stage in his career. A breathtaking masterwork, this is a film that needs to be seen, and needs to be given the home video release it so rightly deserves.