The Undefined Loss
In terms of avant-garde credibility, nobody beats Jean-Luc Godard. While few of his post-‘60s films have seen release in the United States, classics such as Breathless and Weekend, with their revolutionary use of jump cuts, formality, and disjointed narrative, hold treasured places in the hearts, minds, and video shelves of film scholars and geeks alike.
Perhaps nobody beats Godard at his avant-garde game because nobody really wants to; his inaccessibility may mean avant-garde credentials, but it also means shoestring budgets and relative poverty. Still, few directors command such respect and awe from art film junkies, and such utter disorientation and confusion from the uninitiated (and even, though they may not care to admit it, many of his followers). Most tellingly, few filmmakers have the ability to keep making very fresh, esoteric but entrancing and aching films after 50 years, to say nothing of after fifty years of radical cinematic offerings.
In Praise of Love‘s American premiere was nearly a year ago at the 2001 New York Film Festival. Since then it has languished in the sad realm of pushed-back release dates, even for small screenings limited to New York City. It’s easy to see why (at least from a distributor’s perspective); In Praise of Love is difficult even for a Godard film, and its furiously vehement anti-Americanism could not have come at a worse time in terms of marketing. But to dismiss the film for these reasons would be a terrible mistake.
Sure, in comparison to easy, generic Hollywood storylines, it’s hard to figure out what, narratively, is going on for nearly the entire 97 minutes of screen time. Yes, two-thirds of the way through the film suddenly changes from uber-noir black and white (to the point where most of the characters’ faces are so shadowed that the only way to recognize them is by their voices) to extremely saturated, surreal DV. And, as mentioned, Godard launches a vitriolic attack on Hollywood, television, American foreign policy, and, perhaps unfairly, the United States’ lack of history. But this film is, quite simply, a work of art—it is cinema as melancholy catharsis, as an abstracted confessional poem and an elegy for youth, for history, for love, and for something all the more painful for its inexpressibility. What seems most inaccessible in In Praise of Love is precisely its most intriguing quality: its rephrasing of cinema and method by one of its all-time masters. Indeed, you may love Godard (as I do) or hate him, but you cannot dismiss his influence or achievements.
The plot of In Praise of Love bears little importance compared to its political agenda. And since the narrative is virtually impossible to follow, its inconsequentiality is welcome. We follow Edgar (Bruno Putzulu), a hapless Byronic young director trying to make a movie about the relationships of three couples at various stages in their lives. Along the way, he attempts to pursue an old love interest and, towards the end, interviews an aged couple who were spies in World War II (and whose sharp-tongued granddaughter is evidently the lost love from the beginning). All of this, however, is vague and circumstantial. Instead, the characters and their actions are largely vessels for philosophies and statements. “You can only think about something when you think about something else,” Edgar muses, remarking on how a new landscape is “new” only because he compares it, in his head, to a familiar one. And so Godard calls on us to think about history by watching a film, to think about film and its far-reaching influence through a consideration of war and imperialism, to think about love by discussing history, to think about anything by examining the spaces between things.
In its preoccupations with history, In Praise of Love suggests if one has no history, one has no basis for thinking about or defining oneself—this seems to be Godard’s main complaint against Americans. As one character argues, they “have no name—no wonder they need other people’s stories… Americans steal histories in Vietnam, Sarajevo…” It is perhaps unfair to say that the age of one’s country (i.e., one’s access to some sort of general cultural history) leads not only to identity crisis but a need to violently and militaristically plunder others’ historical and cultural troves, but Godard’s point is best understood in the context of Hollywood’s imperialism.
By becoming a global behemoth, Hollywood has indeed sapped the veins of individual cultural expression, just as gluttonous American imperialism dips its hand into any seemingly available cookie jar. Another sad-voiced character explains that, due to television “our gaze has become… subsidized.”
This is a way of explaining the classic passive viewer theory—that television stuffs wide open viewers with the foods of passivity and intellectual laziness—but with a uniquely modern and melancholy desperation based in the pervasiveness of corporate culture. Even our gaze has become subject to the all-encompassing meta-business, which has led to a depressing age of anti-intellectualism. You can almost hear Godard shouting: I’ve been saying this for 50 years and you still aren’t listening.
So the years have not dampened Godard’s zealous left-wing intellectualism. But In Praise of Love, which feels so like a thinly-veiled internal autobiography, almost a tour of Godard’s current thoughts and concerns, does not exist solely in the political world. Its incredibly beautiful cinematography, filled with achingly rich black and white footage, and equally breathtaking, if somewhat blinding, color footage, results in imagery so emotional it is almost painful. And like Manoel de Oliveira’s recent gorgeous work, I’m Going Home, In Praise of Love is also about an artist confronting the terror of age. “It’s true of all old people,” an old actress auditioning for Edgar remarks, “They can’t abide time for fear of wasting away,” showing some of the film’s tremendous sadness and weight. It’s as though Edgar knows he, in some way, bears the burdens of an old soul in a youthful body. His youth, in fact, is the means for the audience and director to think about old age and death; after all, as Edgar says several times, you can only think about something when you are thinking about something else.
That, in essence, is the reason for viewing and appreciating In Praise of Love. Much like the best poems, the film relies on what is not said, on what lies between the lines. “It’s strange,” Edgar muses towards the end, “how things take on meaning when the story ends.” “It’s because history is coming in,” responds his companion, “with a big H.” That history is both necessary and, because of our inability to change the past, horribly sad is Godard’s final emotional blow, and it’s a knockout. It’s possible to leave In Praise of Love confused, frustrated, and even angry; it’s impossible to leave without a deeply unsettling, permeating feeling of loss. What lack, in the end, constitutes this void? Youth? Love? Cultural identity? The significance of history, or some sort of global innocence? In Praise of Love is an elegy for the gradual disappearance of all of these things, and maybe more. But cataloguing what’s been lost is an impossible task, and, in the end, we can only know that something’s missing. This slippery, undefined, but gaping loss makes Godard’s forceful, elegant, and profound film all the more unshakable.