A young man named Edgar is working on a “project” of sorts. Its exact identity is as confusing as his research process. His premise at least is definite—it involves couples and the four stages of love: initial meeting, physical passion, quarrels ending in separation, and reconciliation—but whether it will be a book, or cantata, or play, is never quite clear. He seeks guidance from his father, a famous art dealer, but the old man cannot seem to get beyond the basic arguments about art and history. He begins the process of “casting” his project by interviewing various people, both professional performers and everyday individuals, about their understanding of love: both the emotional (of the heart) and metaphysical (of the head).
He runs into a young woman on the street that he is sure he has met before. He wants to feature her in his project. She constantly avoids him. They do seem to get closer, but then he loses touch with her. Eventually she commits suicide and leaves him a few personal belongings, including a book that may be a hint as to when and where they met before. Apparently, two years earlier while researching a project on the French Resistance during World War II, Edgar met the young woman. In flashbacks, we see that she was the secretary for an old couple trying to sell their story to Steven Spielberg in Hollywood.
In Praise of Love is a work of staggering genius. It is also a self-indulgent exercise in mental masturbation. It’s a moving and visually stunning film of depth and soul. It is also a disjointed and meandering mess that can never quite get its valid points across clearly. It’s beautiful and it’s embarrassing, philosophical as well as rote and fundamentalist. While it is clearly not the greatest work of legendary French new wave genius Jean-Luc Godard (whose credits are too numerous and importance in film too great to attempt to explain in a single review), it does represent a return to form for the once formidable cinematic force of nature. Those unfamiliar with his work should seek out the many classics of his oeuvre post-haste (Breathless, Contempt, and Alphaville to name a few) to see why so many clamor about him.
But the uninitiated should perhaps steer clear of this arcane, artistic triumph that mixes the ethos of love with visually stunning imagery and a clear anti-American/Hollywood sentiment. This is just not a movie for the first timer. It’s not that Godard’s methods are totally inaccessible. Indeed, much of the film is painfully obvious. But just like tossing a neophyte into David Lynch’s Eraserhead unprepared, someone approaching In Praise of Love without at least some background in Godard’s method and ideology will feel lost and unimpressed. That is because for most of its running time, In Praise of Love functions as a jigsaw puzzle, an intricate combination of treatise, tease, and tone poem that uses the backdrop of Paris (Godard once again shooting in the city after a long absence) and its mostly shadowed inhabitants as pawns in an enormous examination of emotion. But the epiphanies are hidden in strange scene juxtapositions, missing scene sections, overlapping dialogue/narrative strings, and long dramatic pauses of pristine lushness.
As Godard is known for his experiments in pushing the boundaries of the cinematic art, a little overindulgence can be expected. But there are some aspects of In Praise of Love that will leave even those most seasoned convert rubbing their temples to reduce the irritating throb of confusion. One has to assume that the lack of a full English translation for the film is Godard’s intention (judging how much he hates Americans, it’s not much of an inference) and the resulting incompleteness leaves huge gaps in dialogue that a non-French speaking audience will never understand. It’s like the in-joke about immigrants talking about you behind your back as you stand in line at their convenience store. Godard obviously has punches to pull and he really yanks them back quite harshly.
He’s also not afraid to be vague and repetitious, using title cards and bits of music to re-emphasize issues over and over again (a series of cards that say—and this is a rough translation—“in consideration of…love” are flashed more often than the multiplication tables in a third grade math class) while failing to connect them to anything that remotely resembles what he wants to discuss. This manner of misdirection may just be the point, but it leaves a viewer feeling bitter and unaccompanied, as if they stumbled onto a play that they have neither the native tongue nor the necessary mental skills to understand. Idealistic rhetoric is bantered about in heavy-handed doses and those famous French hating allies from across the Atlantic take a definitely moralistic beating at the hands of the characters in this film. Steven Spielberg and, indirectly, his treatment of the Holocaust are leveled with one of the most mean spirited and spurious denouncements ever in a motion picture.
And yet, In Praise of Love is a sparkling diamond, a movie that contrasts crass commentary with the subtle black and white beauty (and eventually hyper-digital colorization) of France to make a universal point about love, life, history, and art. With a visual sense reminiscent of Woody Allen circa Manhattan and Stardust Memories, Godard’s Paris in In Praise of Love is a world of hazy lights and lazy shadows, of the ancient edifices being meshed with the technology of modern man to form a new version of the old architectural traditions. Just as the film champions history, this use of monochrome shows that pure art is best derived from simple, straightforward visual dramatics. When memories (or “archives” as they are title carded) are presented, they are seen in bright near-fluorescent digital video images that recall the paintings of the old masters combined with the unreality and incompleteness of recollection.
Godard wants it known that the opening exercise in shadow and light represents the real world, the indecipherable structure of meetings, greetings, lamentations, and pontifications. When we move into the times of yore, we become lost in the mind’s eye, an unreliable recorder of events that adds undue importance to the trivial and over-romanticizes the simplest things. Indeed, the main character’s search for “adulthood,” that missing sense of personal resonance between childhood and old age, can be seen as a battle between the eras, a war of the hues and the grays. While it can meander off into mean-spirited vitriolic attacks (which have some validity buried in their brutal truths) and be jagged for juxtaposition’s sake, In Praise of Love is still a brave, bold statement that will satisfy the cinematic urges as it completely confuses your linear logic leanings. Synapses may misfire, but they will do so in visual bliss.