In 1963, Jean-Luc Godard's LesCarabiniers told the satirical tale of two peasants who enlist in the army of a king hellbent on world domination. The king and the war were fictitious, but the vainglorious letters sent home by the soldiers were fact, as was the combat footage—unapologetic, interchangeable images appropriated by Godard from the perpetual newsreel of 20th-century armed conflicts.
His new film, Notre Musique, begins with a similarly randomized chronology of violence—only the tone is graver, as if the intervening years had deprived Godard of the ability to so much as crack a smile at the world's lethal absurdities. Bomb bursts illuminate a darkened screen, and we are drowned in a torrent of images offering a brief history of global terror, from 13th-century Russians driving out invading Germans, through the Cold War and on to the more urgent incursions now taking place in the Middle East. Some of the clips hail from documentary sources, while others are taken from movies like Alexander Nevskyand Kiss Me Deadly. But as in Les Carabiniers, Godard doesn't mean for the source material to be differentiated—quite the opposite. "In the age of fable, there appeared on Earth men armed for extermination," announces a voice on the soundtrack, and in doing so Notre Musique announces itself as its maker's great, angry and sorrowful fable for our self-exterminating age.
Divided by Godard (via Dante) into three kingdoms, Notre Musique charts a gradual progression from the fiery hell that opens the film to a finale set in a placid, lakeside heaven—its gates guarded not by Saint Peter, but by United States Marines. Mostly, though, we're in a wintry purgatory (a.k.a. Sarajevo) right here on planet Earth. The setting is a European literary conference, at which Godard (playing himself or, as Godard might suggest, a filmmaker named Jean-Luc Godard) has been invited to deliver a lecture on the relationship between text and image. That lecture, coming midway through Notre Musique, provides the film with one of its most elegiac moments: holding before his audience a black-and-white photograph of a bombed-out cityscape, Godard asks for guesses as to where the picture was taken. "Stalingrad, Beirut, Sarajevo," come the responses, before Godard reveals the true locale: Richmond, Virginia, circa 1865. The world, Godard seems to be saying, is one eternal, migrating battlefield, and we are its zombified victims.
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At the conference, Godard is surrounded by a cadre of contemporary writers and thinkers, including the Spanish novelist Juan Goytisolo, who traveled three times to Bosnia during the war there and who remarks early on, in a classically Godardian aphorism, "Killing a man to defend an idea isn't defending in idea. It's killing a man." Those words weigh heavily on what follows in Notre Musique, as Godard's focus shifts to two Israeli Jewish women who have arrived in Sarajevo with radically different senses of purpose. For journalist Judith Lerner (Sarah Adler), the rebuilt city is a place where hope and reconciliation seem possible. She herself has come here in the hope of arranging an interview with the local French ambassador (Simon Eine), who as a young man in Vichy, France, gave shelter to a young Jewish couple who happened to be Judith's maternal grandparents. Alas, common ground between sworn enemies is rarely so easily achieved. And so, for guilt-ridden Olga (Nade Dieu), the niece of a conference attendee, Sarajevo is but a reminder of all the atrocity and suffering there have been in the world and continue to be at this very moment.
Different as they may seem, Judith and Olga are less two separate people than they are two halves of one person, in a film that is constructed as a series of dichotomies and parallel realities. On the one hand is the realm of intellect and humanism as represented by Godard, Goytisolo and the Arab poet Mahmoud Darwish; on the other the realm in which fire can be fought only with more fire. It's a sentiment eloquently summarized late in Notre Musique by French essayist Jean-Paul Curnier when he says, "The world is now split in two, between those who line up to voice their misery and those for whom this public display provides a daily does of moral comfort to their domination"—words that may well resonate even more profoundly in light of the recent U.S. elections. For though it may lack the ostentation of a Michael Moore, I can think of no other recent film that rates as more essential viewing—not just for the politically inclined, but for all who fancy themselves citizens of the world—than Notre Musique.
For five decades now, Godardhas occupied a storied place in film history, unrivaled by his contemporaries as much for the boldness of his experiments with sound and image as for his encyclopedic knowledge of film history and technique. Without him, Quentin Tarantino would be unthinkable. Yet time and respect haven't dulled the fire in Godard, and like his best work, Notre Musique is an impish assault of quotations, annotations and provocations, already controversial for a scene in which the Arab poet Mahmoud Darwish proclaims that the Palestinians are famous only because the Israelis are their enemy. That said, Notre Musique also strikes me as one of Godard's most accessible works—one in which the graying, stubbly maestro, who turns 74 today, presents himself and his ideas to the audience in a less combative way than he sometimes has in the past. Which makes the accusations of anti-Semitism (and anti-Americanism that have been and will continue to be) leveled against the film and its maker all the more puzzling. For where Godard is concerned, Arab and Jew are no more different than Bosnian and Serb, Iraqi and Kurd, American and Native American, Stalingrad and Richmond. We are all strangers in the same land. And we are all guilty.
NOTRE MUSIQUE was Directed and written by JEAN-LUC GODARD; Produced by ALAIN SARDE and RUTH WALDBURGER; and stars Sarah Adler and Nade Dieu. Now playing at Edwards University, Irvine.