Jean-Luc Godard divides his latest film, Notre Musique, into three "kingdoms": hell, purgatory and heaven. At the end of the first section, he creates a jarring moment that works in a way opposite that of most cinematic shocks.
"Hell" is a montage of images of warfare, destruction and cruelty -- a grainy, elegantly assembled mash-up of U.S. Marines, chain-mailed medieval crusaders, red-coated British colonials in Africa, the exploding beach house in Kiss Me Deadly, Nazi tanks and Hollywooden Indians. After a bit the frantic rush slows and the perpetrators and victims, the corpses and collaborators, are punctuated by a close-up of a single charred human paw, while the soundtrack's dramatic piano chords trickle away into solitary notes.
Godard's subsequent analog to a "shock" cut presents us with something plainly banal. Placid and undemanding of one's sensibilities, it's the image of a late-model automobile, waxed to a high shine, discreetly curbed at some anonymous international airport. And of course it seems wrong, something so easeful as this sedan -- rendered in the glossy fine-grained color of a modern feature film -- in a world so fallen (especially when we learn the airport is in Sarajevo). But that's just Godard setting up some of the boundaries that frame this remarkable and discursive film, which is part elegy for the cinema, part somber paradoxical rumination on man's inhumanity to man, and part call for change the filmmaker seems to acknowledge as futile.
While Notre Musique is something of a philosophical essay, it's built around a shred of occasionally confusing fictional narrative that incorporates Godard himself. In Sarajevo to lecture on "The Text and the Image" at a Euro-lit conference, the filmmaker is complemented on screen by characters including a young Israeli journalist named Judith Lerner (Sarah Adler), a mysterious companion named Ramos (Rony Kramer), and real-life figures including Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish and Spanish novelist Juan Goytisolo. There's also Olga (Nade Dieu), a young Israeli of Russian descent who attends Godard's lecture and wanders through Sarajevo, which is depicted as a lively, cosmopolitan place, though pocked with bombed-out landmarks including the Mostar Bridge and the city's grandly desolate public library.
But what Notre Musique is mostly is a frame from which Godard hangs observations and insights about the world. Most of these are simply communicated through his characteristically aphoristic dialogue. "Why aren't revolutions started by the most humane people?" someone asks Godard, who replies drily, "Humane people don't start revolutions." "Killing a man to defend an idea isn't defending an idea, it's killing a man," says Goytisolo. Another: "We always discuss the key to the problem, never the lock."
Some of this talk is truly engaging -- including, naturally, Godard's own lecture on cinema. Darwish has a provocative chat with Judith in which he posits that Palestinians are famed because their enemy is Israel: "You brought us defeat and renown." A few observations are more shopworn. But some of Godard's most memorable effects are imagistic: An indelible sequence finds Goytisolio wandering that library's ruins reciting a poem while in a huge empty chamber strewn with dust and slashed by sunlight, a scrivener furiously copies notes out of battered volumes plucked from a heap on the floor -- civilization's half-forgotten refuse. Likewise there are the characters of a Native American man and woman who first appear in the library and thereafter pop up around the city like nomadic ghosts. While their initial speechifying borders on didactic self-parody, their presence eventually ripens into a potent reminder of both colonial oppression and the way romantic imagery can disrupt our perception of reality.
Notre Musique comes to a point, however, with Olga's story. If somewhere in the film there's hopefulness, it resides not in Olga, who ponders suicide and whose symbolic fate is related in the phone call that concludes "Purgatory." "If the house is already on fire, it's mad to save the furniture," she says. It's a line that you feel summarizes Godard's darker thoughts about the inefficacy of intellectuals giving lectures about film form while civilization eats itself. Especially when Olga reappears in "Heaven," sharing an apple of forgetfulness with a young man in a symbolic Eden where armed guards man the entryways from the outside world.
Still, as Godard's own mantra in the film goes, "The truth has two faces," and after a half-century of filmmaking, whatever he has left to contribute to world culture might have less to do with what he has to say than how he says it. Godard's latter-day films -- Forever Mozart, last year's In Praise of Love -- engage similarly ambitious themes. He evokes these themes like no one else, with sadness, anger and intelligence, and it might be churlish to demand more. In French, with subtitles.