After years spent trying to bury cinema--or at least its more obvious pleasures--Jean-Luc Godard has made a new movie that exalts its glory. A film about history, memory and the distance between the two, "In Praise of Love" is an almost-love story about a French artist and a Jewish woman that also takes measure of the distances between identity and nationalism, Hollywood and the Holocaust; an almost-love story that--because nothing is ever simple with Godard--is framed against the struggle to make art in a world that largely ignores it.
At the anguished center of all these ideas is a brooding young Parisian named Edgar (Bruno Putzulu), whose resemblance to the film's director as a brooding young genius is surely less than coincidental. When the film opens, Edgar is auditioning a young woman for a project he lyrically describes as "the four moments of love--the meeting, the physical passion, the separation, then the reconciliation."
Edgar doesn't yet know what form his project will take (he's nothing if not vague and confused), whether it will be a play, a novel, a film or an opera. All he knows is that he wants three different couples to embody love in its youth, its adulthood and its old age, and that the youngest will carry the names Eglantine and Perceval, she after an Old World rose, he after one of Arthur's knights, seeker of the holy grail.
Shrouded in solitude, head bowed as if by the sheer heaviness of his thoughts, Edgar is being supported in his venture by a certain Mr. Rosenthal (Claude Baignères), a businessman who, with the help of lawyers, tracks down artwork stolen from Jews during World War II. Rosenthal's father once ran a gallery with Edgar's grandfather and as a young boy Rosenthal had been in love with Edgar's aunt, who later committed suicide. Now in his mid-60s, Rosenthal is trying to pay some form of personal restitution by righting history's wrongs, while also helping Edgar make something of his life. "Something," sighs the older man, "more than money."
Edgar's story, shot in luxuriant black-and-white celluloid, comes to us piecemeal, in snatches of dialogue and scenes that open and close like slamming doors. There isn't much plot but there is a wealth of complication. Faces fade in and out, bodies enter rooms, then disappear for good. Edgar searches for actors, running them through his lines. "I don't know how memory can help us reclaim our lives," recites one older woman. "It's not whether man will endure," answers Edgar. "But whether he has a right to."
Time passes, imperceptibly. One afternoon, Edgar meets with the godfather of a woman named Berthe (Cécile Camp) and learns that she's recently killed herself. With a small jolt, we discover that nearly a year has slipped by in the space of a few edits: What we thought was the present tense has eased into the past.
Minutes before (or maybe it was months), Edgar had asked Berthe to participate in his project. She had declined, saying that she didn't believe she was beautiful enough for him. The second time they'd met it had been in front of a shuttered Renault factory, a crumbling mausoleum that Edgar had eulogized as an empty fortress. "There's always a voice somewhere," Berthe said, before whispering something into his ear (we never hear what.) A year later, her godfather tells Edgar that Berthe had wanted to leave him a book. Rummaging through a suitcase of her things, the godfather pulls out a copy of Christa Wolf's "Cassandra" and an obscure novel titled "Le Voyage d'Edgar" moments before the film switches from black and white film to violent digital-video color.
What follows is a bracing plunge into the past. We discover that three years earlier Edgar had traveled to Brittany to research yet a different project, a cantata he hoped to write for Simone Weil, the French philosopher and mystic who starved to death during World War II. While there, he had met two elderly resistance fighters, Jean and Françoise Bayard (Jean Davy and Françoise Verny), then in the midst of selling the rights to their lives to an outfit called "Spielberg and Associates." An American sales agent explains to the old couple that the film will be titled "Tristan and Isolde." The role of Isolde has been promised to Juliette Binoche, hot off of an Academy Award win; the screenwriter will be William Styron, author of such historical pastiches as "Sophie's Choice" and "The Confessions of Nat Turner."
Since it screened at the Toronto Film Festival last September--after an enthusiastic and distinctly un-scandalous premiere at Cannes in May--"In Praise of Love" has been knocked for all the usual complaints leveled against Godard's work (nothing makes sense) as well as the charge that it's anti-American. If not for the political tenor of these times, the accusation could be simply shrugged off as silly. Because this is one specific moment in time, however, as Godard might put it, the charge is worth addressing because it seems little more than a smoke screen for the anxieties that difficult art, and difficult movies in particular, often provoke.
Godard has been stretching the limits of narrative since the release of "Breathless" in 1959; no director with this sort of marquee value has dedicated himself so consistently and at times tediously to such radical experimentation. He's routinely forsaken and rediscovered, and while he makes at least one film a year he's best known and loved for his earliest features, steeped as they are in pop-cultural joie de vivre and an anguished romanticism that flatter young audiences. In the last couple of decades, the work has been characterized by further experientialism, notably in video and television, and his reputation has, at least in this country, waned precipitously. The last time Godard received as much attention here was in the early 1980s during his dust-up with the Catholic Church over "Hail Mary," his delicate telling of the life of Mary of Nazareth.
"In Praise of Love" will likely seem as heretical to some as "Hail Mary." Here, though, the heresy is committed against another god--Steven Spielberg, though less the man than the blockbuster auteur who goes by that name. For Godard, the director of "Schindler's List" is a metonym, a symbol of the way Hollywood lays claim to the past as if history were something that could be bought and sold as truth. This idea is underscored several times, most emphatically during a scene in which the resistance fighters negotiate away their life stories. The Bayards' representative--Berthe, their granddaughter and Edgar's friend--challenges the American sales agents on their national identity. "Which united states do you mean," Berthe asks. "See? You don't have a name. No wonder you need other people's stories."
The lines are pure Godard and purely polemical, and some critics have balked at them for being ostensibly anti-American. It depends on how you listen. As is always the case with this filmmaker, it depends on how you look, too: There's a reason that the first thing we read in the color section of the film is a road sign warning "Attention Enfants." Polemics has always been a weapon in Godard's rhetorical arsenal and there's something almost intentionally crude about the jabs, which have the sting of provocation more than of condemnation.
Like Edgar, Berthe has an uneasy grasp on history. It isn't that she's wrong about America, though her jabs elide the fact that if we look elsewhere for stories it's because elsewhere is where most of us come from. It's that no matter how fiercely she longs to guard her grandparents' past neither it nor their stories belong to her.
Still, the past weighs on Berthe; Edgar may carry a load of heavy thoughts but her history will always be heavier. As the second half of the film unfolds, we discover that her death is inextricably linked both to her grandparents' lives and to the staggering price they paid in their fight to free France, a country that wasn't universally eager for liberation.
It would be overstating the case to claim that "In Praise of Love" is Godard's rebuttal to "Schindler's List." Godard has more on his mind than that, even if Hollywood is clearly never far from his thoughts. What Godard has in mind is history and memory and their respective demands, as well as the ways in which movies can both fail the truth and affirm it. In this sense, he's not asking the familiar question (is it right to make a fiction film about the Holocaust?), he's asking the question that usually goes unspoken (where would you start?). How do you reconcile a love for Paris and all it represents with the country that shipped its Jews to their deaths? I'm not sure that Godard knows the answer to this question; only that it's one that needs asking.
During Edgar's black-and-white reverie, the camera glides through Paris, sweeping over buildings groaning with history and the fountains at the Place de Concorde, romantic tours that often come to a halt at one of the war memorials found throughout the city. Now a touristic paradise, Paris was also once a battlefield, a place of resistance. For Godard, the resistance started some 50 years ago with the start of a revolution called the French New Wave and it's still going strong. Which is why instead of a story about the Triumph of the Human Spirit in the face of catastrophe, Godard instead gives us a complex meditation on history and memory constructed out of fragments of stories. It's also why he asks more questions than he can answer, with a tenderness that's not always been evident in his work. It is, after all, worth remembering that after Berthe takes the Americans to task, she adds, "You're like us."
Those three words may not seem like much but in the context of this exhilarating, difficult film, and in the context of Godard's lifework, the words have the feel of an embrace. Godard has always made films that are as thrilling for their ideas and ideals as for the sheer beauty of their images; the difference here is that for the first time in years he's more interested in turning us on than in turning us off. He really did think movies could change the world and he still does.
Unrated. Times guidelines: The most provocative thing about the film is its ideas and aesthetics.
'In Praise of Love'
Claude Baignères...Mr. Rosenthal
Jean Davy...Jean Bayard
Françoise Verny...Françoise Bayard
An Avventura Films, Peripheria, Canal Plus, Arte France Cinema, Vega Film and TSR production, released by Manhattan Pictures International. Screenwriter and director Jean-Luc Godard. Producers Alain Sarde and Ruth Waldburger. Cinematographers Christophe Pollock and Julien Hirsch. Sound François Musy, Christian Monheim and Gabriel Hafner. Running time: 1 hour, 38 minutes.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times