A film fan does not overlook the opportunity to see the newest from a legend like Jean-Luc Godard in a film festival atmosphere. When the venue is the Toronto International Film Festival and the movie, Film socialisme [Film Socialism], is the first screening held, you look beyond the fact it is in foreign languages and purposely devoid of subtitles. Right? Well, if you ask me I’d say yes—although I won’t lie that the thought of leaving didn’t cross my mind—but fear not because there are many you can ask who did. The estimated number via TIFF’s twitter feed was 30%, and since the screening wasn’t sold out to begin with, that stat is telling. People may have thought there was an error, so why keep watching? Or it could have been the odd cuts, over-powering score, static camera positioning, and completely obtuse plot—if there even was one—that caused discomfort and a desire for freedom. Whatever the reason, while I won’t say they missed out on a masterpiece, I also won’t deny the visual power of the work. If nothing else, the film was gorgeous to look at.
I want to believe the purpose of the movie was to make some comment on society’s unhealthy obsession with reality television and living vicariously through ‘celebrities’. The title may reference something like a class on interpreting the phenomenon—film for the people and about the people. For the first two-thirds we are shown disparate vignettes of random tourists on a cruise ship. We catch glimpses of their lives as they themselves film or photograph as souvenir. We are voyeurs into this vacation of strangers, willingly letting Godard show us private exchanges, mundane window-shopping, or a nighttime rendezvous on the ship’s deck. Every slice is abruptly cut and sharply transitioned into the next, be it crisp, high-definition film stock or grainy, bass pounding footage via a camera phone. Therefore, the actual dialogue is somewhat inconsequential. None of the footage leads into the next, the only ‘story’ being a continual commonality of existing on the boat. That is, until we find ourselves (in Barcelona?) at a gas station filmed by an FR3-RG10 crew— with a USSR apologist youth, his mother and possible sister, and the resident llama/alpaca. And here is where the wheels really come off.
What was an intriguing exercise in juxtaposition, mood, and sights soon turns into a confusing narrative of TV reporter and local family. Do they have a relationship to each other? I’m not quite sure. It seems as though they might, but it never really matters since I couldn’t understand a word they were seeing. I didn’t really mind this fact during the cruise ship portion since it was merely snippets of conversation without any bearing on what came after. At the gas station, however, there are lengthy exchanges and events that progress forward; you need to know what is said to understand motivations, characters, and pretty much why we are even watching this group of people to begin with. I did really enjoy the little boy, though, whether I knew what his deal was or not. Watching him pretend to conduct an orchestra and moving his mouth to the music while sleeping is very entertaining. As for his Soviet Union tee—maybe it’s a nod to the title? Maybe it’s a projection of where Europe is headed? With a text card reading “Quo vadis Europa” flashing onscreen, the question of where Europe is going may be a relevant one.
There are also a lot of miscellaneous things happening that I actually didn’t have a problem with. The screen breaks up digitally every once in a while, the sound cuts in and out on a whim, old news footage is spliced in, the steps from Battleship Potemkim appear onscreen alongside their present appearance, a bottle of Palmolive soap stands by the sink like a blatant product placement, gorgeous shots of the water’s aggressive waves sprinkle in, and title cards crop up whenever they please with the words ‘des choses’ (things) and ‘comme ça’ (like that), sometimes alone in white and sometimes overlapping with an added color of red. I really liked the prevalence of cameras throughout too—pocket digitals, huge camcorders, accordion vintages, and lightboxes—and the kinetic alternating between quick sights and sounds always from the viewpoint of a static tripod. The depth of focus is constantly fixed with characters needing to come closer to the lens in order to be in focus, the only movement occurring by those in frame. And I’ll admit that the lack of subtitles allowed me to constantly search the screen for details, not worrying about language or dialogue.
However, I do take issue if the French was actually French because that either means Godard made this specifically for his countrymen or that it will be a different experience for native speakers and those who aren’t. To me, making the language indecipherable gibberish, so that no one watching could understand, would be the only way for it to even the playing field and be consistent from viewer to viewer, letting their own interpretations be discovered. My friend did remember reading somewhere that the French might be an unintelligible mangling of the language—I hope he is correct because it really does change my outlook on the work. There is a synopsis about Europe’s humanities and the truths and myths of the six cities represented, but it all falls on deaf ears for this American. I can appreciate Film socialisme as a piece of avant garde art, playing with our notion of senses and begging for discussion. If it somehow does mean more to Europeans or specifically the French due to an understanding of the dialogue, I can’t help but completely lose all interest because I’m excluded from the conversation before the projector even starts. I hope it is a symbolic work meant to spark debate, creating unique interpretations to all those that watch it. Unfortunately, though, that still may not be enough.
Film socialisme [Film Socialism] 4/10 | ★ ½