Movie review: 'Notre Musique'

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4 stars (out of 4)

At 73, Jean-Luc Godard, director of the striking new French film "Notre Musique" ("Our Music"), may look like a cineaste contemplating the end, but fortunately for us, he's never out of breath.

Still cinematically alive, intense and bursting with ideas and paradoxes, the brilliant creator of "A Bout de Souffle" ("Breathless"), "Pierrot le Fou" and "Prenom: Carmen" never stops surprising us even as, along with most of the great independent cinema poets of his generation (a sadly diminishing number), he always remains himself, on or behind the screen.

In "Notre Musique," which Godard premiered at the last Cannes Film Festival, he transports us from hell to heaven in three acts. But unlike Dante, who made that same dark-to-light journey in "The Divine Comedy," the sometimes playful, sometimes somber French auteur is less interested in penetrating the mysteries of paradise than in fathoming the hell on Earth below.

This is a film about war, idealism, historical and personal tragedy and how all of them are reflected or distorted in the words of literature and the images of cinema. But though it's a sad, somber, deeply questioning work, it's done with a light, loving spirit. Godard arranges his story/lecture in three parts, or "Kingdoms": It opens with a montage of film clips of warfare and its aftermath (Godard's Inferno); then moves to the drama of a conference in modern-day Sarajevo attended by Godard and others, including two fervently political young woman (Purgatory); and ends with a peaceful but disturbing climax in a sunny, lakeside forest guarded by U.S. Marines (Paradise).

The two women Godard shows us--some audiences may confuse them--are pushy young journalist Judith Lerner (Sarah Adler) and brooding student Olga Brodsky (Nade Dieu). In different ways, both are preoccupied with the current bloody riddles of the Middle East. So are most of the real-life intellectuals Godard showcases in the film, many of them participants in a real-life conference, European Literary Encounters, held in Sarajevo: Israeli-Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwich, Spanish-Moroccan writer/essayist Juan Goytisolo, French litterateurs Pierre Bergounioux and Jean-Paul Curnier--and, outside the conference, French architect Gilles Pequeux, who is working in Sarajevo to restore the famous Mostar Bridge.

Most of the conference attendees represent mixed international backgrounds, including the French-Swiss Godard, and that's part of the film's grand overview. "Notre Musique" celebrates "our music": art as an international free zone, open to everybody, through which the horrors like the wars of "Hell" can be contemplated with humanity and compassion, beyond ideology.

By contrast, the Israeli Judith and French-Jewish Olga wish to intervene directly in the Palestinian-Jewish problem, Judith by her journalism, and Olga, perhaps, through revolutionary activism.

Where the younger, radicalized Godard of "Weekend" (1968) and "Tout Va Bien" (1972) would have applauded someone like Olga, the revolutionary, here he sees her as foredoomed, tragic--and not even a real revolutionary. (She packs books, not guns.)

It's a reflective, wordy and concept-packed film, filled with a melancholy love of cinema and a passion for ideas and intellectuals. The images throughout are lucid and moving. Godard's "Hell," for example, is a 10-minute virtuoso piece, drawing shots and scenes from films as varied as "Alexander Nevsky," "Zulu," "Night and Fog" and "Apocalypse Now" to create a magnificent cinema poem/collage on the terrors and consequences of war. His "Purgatory," shot coolly by cinematographer Julien Hirsch, is fiction touched with life, a thoughtful blend of despairing documentary and wistful drama, suffused with alienation and malaise.

The last 10 minutes, "Paradise," are pure Godard, full of allusions, jokes and twists: a halcyon scene with a slightly nightmarish edge, replete with allusions to Godard's old loves, American noir and '60s French films. One heavenly denizen is absorbed in "Street of No Return," a thriller by David Goodis, who wrote the book on which Francois Truffaut based "Shoot the Piano Player." Raymond Chandler's "Farewell My Lovely" is evoked in "Musique's" last line: "She could see far … but not as far as Olga had gone." The whole sequence suggests both a very cruel scene from Godard's 1968 "Weekend" (the young cannibal-revolutionaries in the forest) and a gentler climax by Godard's old Nouvelle Vague comrade Francois Truffaut: the closing of 1966's "Fahrenheit 451," with the book people preserving literary culture in the woods.

One of the joys of Godard's work is the way he weaves culture, high and low, into all of his films and these are the kinds of references, echoes and jokes that made so many intellectual critics love his movies in the '60s. Here, they're even sadder, more reflective. Like most of Godard's films, "Notre Musique" is not for everybody. It will mean much more to those familiar with his work. But those moviegoers will experience intense pleasure in watching a great innovator at a personal high point.

Godard's image hangs over the film: a quiet 73-year-old with glasses and thinning, frizzy hair, usually puffing away at a slim cigar while impassively eyeballing the world and its paradoxes. It's a gift for us that he's still here--like Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni, like his old confreres Claude Chabrol, Eric Rohmer and Jacques Rivette and very few others. For devoted cinema-lovers at least, "Notre Musique" does reach heaven.

"Notre Musique" ("Our Music")

Directed and written by Jean-Luc Godard; script by Godard, with texts by Antonia Birnbaum, Wolfgang Sofsky, Fyodor Dostoevsky and Maurice Blanchot; photographed by Julien Hirsch; art direction by Anne Marie Mieville; music extracts by Jean Sibelius, Peter Tchaikovsky, Meredith Monk, Alexander Knaifel, Arvo Part, others; produced by Alain Sarde, Ruth Waldburger. In French, English, Spanish, Hebrew and Arabic, with English subtitles. A Wellspring release; opens Friday. Running time: 1:19. No MPAA rating. Adult; parental discretion advised (for images of violence and mature thematic discussions).

Judith Lerner - Sarah Adler
Olga Brodsky - Nade Dieu
Himself - Jean-Luc Godard
Ramos Garcia - Rony Kramer
Ambassador - Simon Eine
C. Maillard - Jean-Christophe Bouvet
Themselves - Mahmoud Darwich, Juan Goytisolo, Jean-Paulk Curnier, Pierre Bergounioux, Gilles Pequeux

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