Film

In Praise of Love (2001)

Jocelyn Szczepaniak-Gillece

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.


In Praise of Love

Director: Jean-Luc Godard
Cast: Bruno Putzulu, Cécile Camp, Jean Davy, Françoise Verny, Philippe Lyrette
MPAA rating: unrated
Studio: Manhattan Pictures International
First date: 2001
US Release Date: 2002-09-06 (Limited release)

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.

Music
Music

All Kinds of Time: Adam Schlesinger's Pursuit of Pure, Peerless Pop

Adam Schlesinger was a poet laureate of pure pop music. There was never a melody too bright, a lyrical conceit too playfully dumb, or a vibe full of radiation that he would shy away from. His sudden passing from COVID-19 means one of the brightest stars in the power-pop universe has suddenly dimmed.

Music

Folkie Eliza Gilkyson Turns Up the Heat on '2020'

Eliza Gilkyson aims to inspire the troops of resistance on her superb new album, 2020. The ten songs serve as a rallying cry for the long haul.

Music

Billy Corgan Brainwashed Me: '90s Alternative Rock and the Introspective Abyss

Once in its thrall, these days I find the overriding message of '90s alt-rock especially naïve and even dangerous.

Music

Human Impact Hit Home with a Seismic First Album From a Veteran Lineup

On their self-titled debut, Human Impact provide a soundtrack for this dislocated moment where both humanity and nature are crying out for relief.

Music

PopMatters Seeks Music Critics and Essayists

If you're a smart, historically-minded music critic or essayist, let your voice be heard by the quality readership of PopMatters.

Music

Monophonics Are an Ardent Blast of True Rock 'n' Soul on 'It's Only Us'

The third time's the charm as Bay Area soul sextet Monophonics release their shiniest record yet in It's Only Us.

Music

Bobby Previte / Jamie Saft / Nels Cline: Music from the Early 21st Century

A power-trio of electric guitar, keyboards, and drums takes on the challenge of free improvisation—but using primarily elements of rock and electronica as strongly as the usual creative music or jazz. The result is focused.

Music

JARV IS... - "House Music All Night Long" (Singles Going Steady)

"House Music All Night Long" is a song our inner, self-isolated freaks can jive to. JARV IS... cleverly captures how dazed and confused some of us may feel over the current pandemic, trapped in our homes.

Books
Books

Does Inclusivity Mean That Everyone Does the Same Thing?

What is the meaning of diversity in today's world? Russell Jacoby raises and addresses some pertinent questions in his latest work, On Diversity.

Books

Phuc Tran's Existential Trip of a Memoir, 'Sigh, Gone'

Phuc Tran's smart, tough memoir, Sigh, Gone, might launch a broken down kid to read 150 great books—for free, at the local library.

Books

Classic Shōjo Today: Moto Hagio's 'The Poe Clan'

Moto Hagio's The Poe Clan manga series a gender-fluid melodrama marked by deep psychological trauma.

Books

John Pham's ​J​&K​​ - It's a Matter of Perspective

In J&K, John Pham explores perspectives in the psychological sense. Like Picasso, he views things from more than one angle.

Film
Film

'Slay the Dragon' Is a Road Map of the GOP's Methods for Dividing and Conquering American Democracy

If a time traveler from the past wanted to learn how to subvert democracy for a few million bucks, gerrymandering documentary Slay the Dragon would be a superb guide.

Film

The Road to Murder in Love and War: Three Films from Claude Chabrol

The character's in Claude Chabrol's The Third Lover, Line of Demarcation, and The Champagne Murders are obsessively doubled and mirrored, reflecting and refracting their hunger for sex, love, money, and power.

Film

'Memento' Is the Movie of the Attention Economy

We are afraid of time, and so like Leonard in Memento, we kill it, compulsively and indiscriminately.

Film

What Lurks Beneath: 'Jaws' and Political Leadership in the Time of COVID-19

Boris Johnson admires the Mayor in Spielberg's Jaws. Remember him? He was the guy who wouldn't close the beaches -- and sacrifice that revenue source -- during a public crisis.

Recent
Music

JARV IS... - "House Music All Night Long" (Singles Going Steady)

"House Music All Night Long" is a song our inner, self-isolated freaks can jive to. JARV IS... cleverly captures how dazed and confused some of us may feel over the current pandemic, trapped in our homes.

Music

All Kinds of Time: Adam Schlesinger's Pursuit of Pure, Peerless Pop

Adam Schlesinger was a poet laureate of pure pop music. There was never a melody too bright, a lyrical conceit too playfully dumb, or a vibe full of radiation that he would shy away from. His sudden passing from COVID-19 means one of the brightest stars in the power-pop universe has suddenly dimmed.

Music

Folkie Eliza Gilkyson Turns Up the Heat on '2020'

Eliza Gilkyson aims to inspire the troops of resistance on her superb new album, 2020. The ten songs serve as a rallying cry for the long haul.

Music

Human Impact Hit Home with a Seismic First Album From a Veteran Lineup

On their self-titled debut, Human Impact provide a soundtrack for this dislocated moment where both humanity and nature are crying out for relief.

Music

Monophonics Are an Ardent Blast of True Rock 'n' Soul on 'It's Only Us'

The third time's the charm as Bay Area soul sextet Monophonics release their shiniest record yet in It's Only Us.

Film

'Slay the Dragon' Is a Road Map of the GOP's Methods for Dividing and Conquering American Democracy

If a time traveler from the past wanted to learn how to subvert democracy for a few million bucks, gerrymandering documentary Slay the Dragon would be a superb guide.

Music

Bobby Previte / Jamie Saft / Nels Cline: Music from the Early 21st Century

A power-trio of electric guitar, keyboards, and drums takes on the challenge of free improvisation—but using primarily elements of rock and electronica as strongly as the usual creative music or jazz. The result is focused.

Books

Does Inclusivity Mean That Everyone Does the Same Thing?

What is the meaning of diversity in today's world? Russell Jacoby raises and addresses some pertinent questions in his latest work, On Diversity.

Music

The Killers - "Caution" (Singles Going Steady)

The Killers go for the big hooks and singable anthems on "Caution", but opinion is sharply divided about the song's merits amongst our Singles Going Steady panel.

Music

Lilly Hiatt - "Some Kind of Drug" (Singles Going Steady)

Lilly Hiatt sings about a different kind of love on "Some Kind of Drug". Hers is for a city and the impact gentrification has had its soul.

Music

There's Never Enough Time for Folk Music's James Elkington

The sometimes Wilco and Richard Thompson sideman, in-demand producer, and songwriter, James Elkington, muses on why it's taking longer than he expects to achieve more in a week than most of us get done in a lifetime.

Music

Billy Corgan Brainwashed Me: '90s Alternative Rock and the Introspective Abyss

Once in its thrall, these days I find the overriding message of '90s alt-rock especially naïve and even dangerous.

Books

Classic Shōjo Today: Moto Hagio's 'The Poe Clan'

Moto Hagio's The Poe Clan manga series a gender-fluid melodrama marked by deep psychological trauma.

Music

Salsa Band LPT Hints at the Genre's Future

LPT's debut album, Sin Parar, hits all the right notes for a contemporary salsa album.

Music

Jennah Barry Offers Up a Warm, Sublime Collection of Memorable Tunes on 'Holiday'

Canadian indie folkster Jennah Barry returns with her long-awaited sophomore album, Holiday, which takes on a looser, more relaxed approach.

Music

Fotocrime's '80s-Inspired Rock Is Often Half-Baked

Fotocrime's South of Heaven is interesting mostly in that it's one of the most mediocre rock records I've heard in a long time.

Music

Maria McKee Puts Down Her Electric Guitar and Picks up Dante on 'La Vita Nuova'

"Show Me Heaven" was another country. Maria McKee has moved to England, immersed herself in the Classics and turned away from the 21st century.

Books

Phuc Tran's Existential Trip of a Memoir, 'Sigh, Gone'

Phuc Tran's smart, tough memoir, Sigh, Gone, might launch a broken down kid to read 150 great books—for free, at the local library.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews
Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.