No set of films better expresses the sheer joys and possibility of cinema than the run Jean-Luc Godard made from “Breathless” to “Weekend” between 1959 and 1967. Unfortunately, this exuberance has also been used as a club to beat Godard over the head because he’s not spending the present day making “Pierrot Le Fou, Part 25.”
More deeply affected by the near-revolution of 1968 than any other filmmaker, he spent the late 1960s and early 1970s making didactic tracts, turning off most of his old audience, who never got back on board when he returned to more accessible work. Godard’s last film, “In Praise Of Love,” was filled with contempt for the American cinema that he loved as a critic in the 1950s, treating Steven Spielberg as a symbol of everything wrong with the U.S. and its attitude toward Europe.
“Notre Musique,” made after 9/11 and the American invasion of Iraq, is more mellow and more lucid. The anger of “In Praise of Love” is replaced here by a gentle irony and willingness to listen. Structured in three parts, the film is inspired by Dante’s “Inferno.” Part one, “Hell,” is a well-chosen 10-minute montage of war footage, both real and fictional. The longest section, “Purgatory,” takes place at an arts conference in Sarajevo. Godard plays himself in this part, as do writers Juan Goytisolo and Mahmoud Darwich.
The film, however, focuses more on the parallel stories of two Jewish women––journalist Judith Lerner (Sarah Adler), who interviews Darwich, and Olga (Nade Dieu). Both are deeply conflicted about the condition of Israel, but the former feels far more optimistic.
In part three, “Heaven,” we discover that Marines guard the pearly gates.
The war in Bosnia inspired Godard’s relatively weak 1996 film “Forever Mozart,” but “Notre Musique” places the tragedy of that war on a continuum that includes the Holocaust, the genocide of Native Americans and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The film is a tribute to Sarajevo’s survival, finding the humanity amidst its bombed-out buildings, especially a demolished and burnt library. In tracking shots, the camera all but caresses the city.
In Sarajevo, Godard gives a lecture emphasizing the importance of the shot and reverse shot. Holding up two stills from Howard Hawks’ “His Girl Friday,” he says that the shots look the same because Hawks saw no difference between men and women. The shot and reverse shot of “Notre Musique” are natural beauty and human cruelty. One of his best 1990s films, “Nouvelle Vague,” centered on the same juxtaposition, playing out murderous business schemes in the lovely Swiss countryside.
Here, flowers are associated with death. Godard cuts from a shot of them adorning a grave to a man selling them on the street. In the film’s most touching scene, Godard receives a phone call about a character’s tragic fate. As he hears the bad news, the camera abandons him to take in the brilliant colors of his garden.
In lesser hands, this contrast might play out as either cheap irony or facile optimism. In “Notre Musique,” it represents a tentative hope. Its glimpses of “Hell” and “Heaven” are brief, but “Purgatory” lasts about an hour, which says a lot about Godard’s worldview. If earlier Godard films cried out for revolution, “Notre Musique” reflects a calmer, albeit deeply politicized, frame of mind. He’s still something of a provocateur, particularly in the way he links the fates of Palestinians and Jews. (In an interview with the French newspaper Le Monde, he described himself as “a Jew of the cinema,” despite being a gentile in the real world.)
Godard plays with another dichotomy––documentary and fiction––by having Goytisolo and Darwich, whose interview statements are scripted but taken from their own words, play themselves. (Goytisolo delivers the film’s best aphorism: “Defending an idea by killing a man isn’t defending an idea, it’s killing a man.”) While “Notre Musique” gestures towards reality, its dialogue, filled with literary quotes, remains highly stylized.
The ending of “Notre Musique” is a puzzler, but its images will be especially resonant for New Yorkers, who have seen armed soldiers patrolling our subway stations for the last three years. In one sense, it’s a joke on American hubris. Yet it can’t simply be reduced to an anti-American statement: the film’s “heaven” really does look lovely.
The notion that one might need an armed guard to sit by a lake and read a book or eat an apple acknowledges all the violence depicted in “Hell.” “Notre Musique” suggests that the world is full of flowers and corpses. It does justice to both their beauty and horror, while trying to find reason to believe that a better world can exist.