Most filmmakers use the festival brochure to orient the audience with a synopsis. But Jean-Luc Godard is not most filmmakers — he seeks to disorient. Turn to the Le Livre D’Image (Image Book, French) page, and you get something that resembles free verse: “Do you still remember how long ago we trained our thoughts / Most often we’d start from a dream… / We wondered how, in total darkness / colours of such intensity could emerge within us. / In a soft low voice / Saying great things / Surprising, deep and accurate matters. / Image and words / Like a bad dream written on a stormy night / Under Western eyes / The lost paradise / War is here” Note the lack of a closing punctuation. A printing oversight? Or a statement that war goes on, without a stop?
The film — if it can be called that — was touted as an examination of the modern Arab world, but the first hour or so is an eyeball-frying collage of visuals and sound. Some amount of incomprehensibility is par for the course in Godard’s work after Week-end. (A man I was chatting with, while waiting in line, joked that he was convinced the real Godard was kidnapped in 1967, the year Week-end was released, and an alien took his place.) But how does one explain the utter lack of anything to do with the Arab world, the film’s purported theme? Instead we get a clip of Laurence Olivier as Hamlet, as a cock crows on the soundtrack — and a few seconds later, a mushroom cloud erupts in heaven-knows-where. I thought the experience was going to be little more than a notch on my cinematic belt. When I visited New York, top on my to-do list was to watch a Woody Allen movie in his city. (I saw Deconstructing Harry.) Likewise, this would be little more than the chance to say I watched a new Godard movie in Paris.
At first, the jumble of visuals seems to be simply an invitation for the cinephile to play Spot the Movie. Jaws. Le Plaisir. A miscast Audrey Hepburn jumping with glee in King Vidor’s version of War and Peace. One of the many S&M visuals from Pasolini’s Salò. The famous exchange from Johnny Guitar, where Sterling Hayden says, “Don’t go away,” and Joan Crawford replies, sarcastically, “I haven’t moved.” The scene from Vertigo where Kim Novak jumps into the sea, and James Stewart jumps in after her — but the colours are more saturated than you remember, and some French dialogue (from a Gérard Depardieu movie) echoes in the background. The aspect ratio keeps changing, as though unable to decide between a pan-and-scan and letterbox formats. Godard’s raspy narration comes at us from different speakers. At times, each word of a sentence comes from a different corner of the theatre. At other times, the sound goes off.
Godard is free-associating to a tune that only he can hear, based on a narrative that exists only in his head — but you could hang a frame around it, that his thesis is the manipulation of sound and image in the post-truth world. Slowly, I was hooked. Images of modern-day brutality are counterpointed by movie images, sometimes bunched together in “themes.” For instance, we get a series of visuals from train scenes, beginning with the tracking shot that introduces us to the characters in Jacques Tourneur’s Berlin Express. And then, another scene over which we get a line that sounds like this: “The words of Goethe had become terrible when heard in the small cars of Russian railways.” It’s hypnotic. It’s like poetry. Writing about it is difficult, and risks banalising the work. It demands to be experienced, to be felt.
A little before the one-hour mark (the film runs 1 hour 25 minutes), we get the first mention of Arabs: “The world is not interested in Arabs.” Maybe that is the point. By showing us other (unrelated) things, Godard has built up to this line — no one cares, so my movie isn’t going to “care” about Arabs either. By the end, I was enormously touched — not so much by the film but by the fact than this 87-year-old director was still pushing the boundaries of cinema. This must have been a hell of project to edit (each clip lasts just a few seconds) — and then, there’s all that complicated sound mixing. I was glad I caught it on the big screen. Many people say that they watch films like Avengers in theatres — films that “demand the big screen” — and watch the “smaller films” on their laptops. But I’d say that a difficult “small film” like Le Livre D’Image demands the big screen too. In a theatre, you pay more attention. You are more respectful. You engage more with the work, give it more of a chance. At home, I might have tuned out in 15 minutes.
The synopsis of Lukas Dhont’s Girl (French, Dutch) was more to the point: “Determined 15-year-old Lara is committed to becoming a ballerina. With the support of her father, she throws herself into this quest… but her body does not bend so easily to the strict discipline because she was a boy.” Lara (Victor Polster), who is frail and has shoulder-length hair, is on hormone treatments. When her psychiatrist asks her why, she says, “So that I look like a woman, have breasts and all that…” The doctor says, “But when I look at you, I only see a woman.” He means, of course, that you are what you feel you are — why bother about appearances? But then, if we were as kind to ourselves as others are to us, the world would be a much happier place.
At home, Lara — who has the world’s most understanding father (Arieh Worthalter) — stares obsessively at her flat chest, practically willing breasts into being. Even worse is the way she treats her penis, taping it inwards, so that it doesn’t bulge in her ballerina costume — ripping off the tape, later, results in raw, red welts. Lara’s difficulties with her body are contrasted with the ease with which the girls in her class inhabit theirs. In a scene set in a pool, they frolic like mermaids, while Lara hovers around hesitantly. And in ballet class, they enjoy themselves, while Lara’s lips are pursed in grim determination. The director isn’t after cheap drama. He doesn’t stage a reveal, where the kids in Lara’s class gasp when they find out about her. They already know, and are reasonably okay (if understandably puzzled) about it. But Lara is so uncommunicative about her feelings that we know it’s only a matter of time before an explosion. When it came, the whole theatre winced.
Eva Husson’s Les Filles Du Soleil (Girls of the Sun, in French, English and Kurdish), set “somewhere in Kurdistan,” is easily the most puzzling Competition selection this year. I knew I was in trouble when, in an early scene, Mathilde (Emmanuelle Bercot) explains her eyepatch (“shrapnel from a shell”), and in exchange, Bahar (Golshifteh Farahani) explains the tattoo on her hand (the names of her husband and son). This painfully earnest film spells everything out. Mathilde is a journalist, and she gives us a mission statement right away: “I want to do a long-form story…” She embeds herself with Bahar and her gang of women fighters, who seek to liberate their hometown from extremists. The narrative is filled with awful flashbacks and much “poetic” shot-taking (a slow pan up from a pool of blood to a tear-stained face). I lasted about an hour. It isn’t enough if the subject is worthy. The film has to be worthy, too.
Lead image courtesy: Cannes Film Festival