Comment on "No Comment"

"No Comment," reads the final title card of Film Socialisme. Despite being on screen for only a few seconds, it's become—in the year or so since Film Socialisme played at Cannes—the film's calling card, an endlessly Tweeted cinephilic in-joke repurposed as often to express love for the film as frustration with it. Coming at the end of a stridently polyglot movie stuffed with statements, "No Comment" stands out by being 1) a well-known English phrase and 2) the ultimate non-statement. On its own, it appears to be a puckish deflection, a great big jokey shrug to ward off interpretation and criticism, but within the context of the film—and, most importantly, as the last thing the audience sees—it reveals itself as the opposite.

Film Socialisme ranks as one of Jean-Luc Godard's most optimistic films, one of his most idealistic, for the simple reason that it seems to have been made for a better world. For his entire career, Godard has positioned himself stubbornly, permanently, tragically at the terminal end of cinema—or whatever "cinema" may constitute at any given moment in his life, be it the playground of profound hokum and momentous moving pictures of the mid-20th century, or the melancholy world of conflicting images of the present. His body of work attempts—amongst many other things—to address a medium on its own continually-shifting terms; Histoire(s) du cinéma, for one, sometimes resembles a letter or a poem that expresses an unrequited love using the private language and personal history shared by the lover and the object of his affection.

Unlike, say, Notre musique, Film Socialisme lacks any aura of private correspondence; it's not a work addressed to something that the audience is privy to, but a work addressed directly to its audience. Profoundly sincere and therefore destined for rejection, Film Socialisme wants an audience that is willing to be make the film's images its own. In an age when films are largely seen (or at least advertised) as foreign objects to be consumed in order to satisfy immediate, specific desires, wanting this sort of audience involvement—personal, intellectual, emotional—is idealistic. Whether in the movie theater or on the living room TV, movies are often expected to serve roughly the same purpose as cheap take-out. Half-a-century ago the idea of a movie made for everyone that played off an audience's yearnings was a model for good business; in the 21st century, it seems downright Utopian. In this day and age, a film made for everyone might as well be made for no one (it goes without saying that the makers of second-tier "slow cinema" features meant for the Rotterdam crowd are playing to the expectations of a target demographic just as carefully as the folks behind X-Men: First Class); similarly, a film whose specific meanings are open to a degree of personal interpretation by the viewer appears obscure or even meaningless.

"No Comment" is not a deflection of responsibility, but a declination (from, of course, the master of declining) of authorial control. That is: he has declined to comment so that others might instead. Directly preceding this final statement in Film Socialisme is the second-to-last image of the film, in which the FBI anti-piracy warning that usually goes at the beginning of DVDs is overlayed with the words, in French, "When the law becomes unjust, justice comes before the law."

Godard's made a few comments lately about his stance against copyright, and a few gestures, too, including a token contribution to a pirate's legal defense fund. Being, in part, a film about how culture is (or isn't) transmitted and repurposed, Film Socialisme is also a film about copyright. Copyright law replaces authorship with ownership; it institutionalizes the barrier between the creator of a work and his or her audience. So, in a world where the more draconian expressions of copyright—the transformation of a work into a property to be sold and controlled, instead of a protection of the authors' rights—are givens, the only way to resist is to cease being an author yourself. The notorious Navajo English subtitles, then, begin to look less like a fuck you and more like an invitation to play "author" along with uncle JLG. The bare-bones English subtitling removes both the actors' and the writer's authorship from the dialogue; sentences are boiled down to sets of nouns that—free of style or ideology—the viewer can use as guide-posts to establish their own statements.  (Two important stories should be mentioned here: the one about how the old Cahiers gang used to watch unsubtitled prints at the Cinematheque and the one about how Godard supposedly asks his actors to write the lines of dialogue out themselves in order to learn them, in a sense letting them become authors of the work.) So while the bootleg-English-subtitled version of the film that's been circulating since last year is closer to the actual content of Film Socialisme, the "Navajo subtitles" are closer to its intentions.

And yet very few want to come out and play. For all its (comparative) looseness and goofy humor, for all of its bursts of familial warmth, Film Socialisme—unconsummable, unmonetizable, organized and yet not hierarchical—seems alien, a film made for a world that accepts images instead of merely digesting them.

Responses

17 responses to this post.  Join the discussion

  • Badger O Stripey One

    I think this film was wonderfully summed up by The Telegraph’s Sukhdev Sandhu:

    ‘senescent dribble’

  • BrianInAtlanta

    Now I don’t feel so bad about downloading it!

    An incredibly beautiful film. Probably Godard’s best in years. Why would you even bother watching (or reviewing) a Godard if you don’t want to see him play with the form? And who else does this now?

  • David Ehrenstein

    Next to no one.

    Excellent remarks, IV. There’s been so much smug hysteria about this movie — and so little insight. Thanks!

  • Sam Anderson

    Thank-you for these thoughts. ‘Unconsummable’ was a description that came to mind for me as well. For all its provocations, the film is an invitation to conceive something new, which you describe wonderfully.

  • Zachary Phillip Brailsford

    Ignatiy, I love your fierce devotion to this film – your review for it on At the Movies, while you were being funny, as well, showed almost a bit of frustration toward the notion that some people do not attempt to understand what it is, that they sit through it once, don’t get it, and then think that it’s garbage. Your comments always seem very strong, because a film that does what this film is doing is going to need defenders who see it for what it really is. Thanks for all your talk on it. I should be watching it soon.

    Savvy

  • localdjango

    The review on “Ebert Presents…” was pretty funny.

  • Andy Rector

    Thank you Ignatiy for further opening up this film, when elsewhere the tendency has been to close it down. For a film that addresses so much of the world (who else does that now? FS is Vertov-[One Sixth of the World]-intensity addressing!) it’s good to read something that actually helps one along in that adventure, even helps by saying how specifically hard it will be to rise to its image/sound occasions, if we bother to do so. I look forward to your future botherings, lifelong it sounds like it’ll be, on this film!

  • Sachin

    Thanks so much for your wonderful words Ignatiy.

  • Bobby Wise

    Great article, as usual. But count me among the unconvinced of the film’s greatness — though I will continue listening to opening (and closing) arguments. I agree with practically everything you say and you revealed some interesting areas of examination. However, I think the film is ultimately too repetitive of previous tropes that Godard has used. For me, it has the feel of an impotent victory lap. I don’t think it’s a bad film. Just rather average and par for the course for late 20th/early 21st century Godard. Does he have anything left to say with found footage montages after “Histoire”?

  • Ben Sachs

    It’s interesting how similar are these arguments about late Godard to those about late Woody Allen. Maybe Godard needs to make “Meetin’ W.A. Part II”?

  • Ignatiy Vishnevetsky

    Davd, Sam, Sachin & Zach,

    Thank you for the kind words.

    Andy,

    I’ve been watching Film Socialisme for a year now, so it seems like it was about time to write something. It was time to “man up.” The thing to get over, I think, with approaching a film like FS is a fear of “misinterpretation” — if any films was okay with being misinterpreted, it’s this one.

    Bobby,

    I think the montages of the end of Film Socialisme approach subjects that didn’t even exist at the time Histoire(s) was made. At the time, the transmission of culture he’s so fascinated with wasn’t so actively legislated…

    Ben,

    We both know there’s a world of difference between late JLG and late WA.

  • nrh

    Thank you for mentioning that Godard is funny. That might not seem like much, but to deny the man his sense of humor (“Keep Your Right Up”? “Detective”?) seems disingenuous at the very least. Thank you for sticking up for that llama, the one at the gas station.

  • Bobby Wise

    Maybe the montage at the end approaches subjects that didn’t exist at the time of “Histoires”, but as much as I can remember he recycles images he’s used many times, for example “Potemkin”. My memory isn’t crystal clear so I could be wrong but my impression was that the montage did not create surprising juxtapositions.

    Much more interesting is the first act of the film, which is basically an extended montage. There is a great rhythm to his editing and this is the section of the film that seems to pulse with life.

  • Slowcloud

    Nice to see some discussion on this amazing cinematic experience. I wrote a lengthy review (with only a little analysis, I would rather prefer to hold back, so others can make their minds) ahead of its debut in Miami:
    http://indieethos.wordpress.com/2011/06/07/godards-film-socialisme-and-the-entrancing-music-of-visuals/

  • Ignatiy Vishnevetsky

    NRH,

    It’s only recently been pointed out to me that the llama at the gas station may be there to buy a pack of Camels.

    Bobby Wise,

    Potemkin is something he’s used a lot before (hasn’t everyone?), but visiting the actual Odessa Steps — and the documentary footage involved in it — is unlike anything he’s done before; the relationship between the images being intercut is more literal, less metaphorical.

    I’ll admit, though, that I too prefer the first cruise ship section.

  • David Ehrenstein

    Ignaty have you seen “Grandeur et decadence d’un petit commere de cinema”? It’s quite something, and ought to be better known.

  • Otie Wheeler

    Unmentioned: the part when the boy is painting the Renoir, the woman asks him what he’s thinking, and he says—of your back. Is it really that interesting? she asks. No comment, he answers.

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