Godard presents an additional challenge to mainstream cinema through his emphasis on alternative narrative forms. Mainstream cinema is characterized by a lack of ambiguity and an absence of ironic juxtaposition. In the case of mainstream war films, the banality of spectacle does not expose the banality of war. With narrative and visual asymmetries ironed-out and spectacularized, such films project a misleading vision of war. These visions are complete opposite from those of Les Carabiniers, an anti-spectacle war film in which absurdity, lunacy, and randomness of violence rule. The two main protagonists, named sarcastically Ulysses and Michael-Ange, are village idiots lured into warfare by the prospect of plundering. They ask of a recruiter,
“In the war can we take slot machines? No charges if we take old man’s eye glasses? Can we break a kid’s arm? Both arms? Stab a guy in the back? Rob apartments? Burn towns? Burn women?... If we want, can we massacre the innocent people?”
The response in the film is “Yes. Yes. That is war.” Misled, fooled, debilitated by violence, Ulysses and Michael-Ange finally end up killed themselves. Stam argued further that Les Carabiniers also represents an antidote to the anti-war film, establishing instead a cinema of reflexivity, a meditation on warfare in film. [open endnotes in new window]
This vision discerns two motifs, both I argue in part unwieldy: the absurdity and purposelessness of all wars (hence their equation), and the incapacity of cinema to confront this notion, that is, to ever create an anti-war message. These motifs perhaps need to be situated in the contexts of a post-Hiroshima disenchantment with heroic narratives and the ideological misuses of World War Two by both blocs during the Cold War. A “just war” narrative is in this manner reduced to a product of ideological representation, and the cinematic powers of spectacle function to further enhance the ideological display of power.
Les Carabiniers explicitly counters these hegemonies by placing a strong emphasis on the absurdity of war (although inspired by Brechtian techniques, Godard departs from theater through advanced visual grammar). Les Carabiniers renders the anti-war message implausible, and consequently, the cinema of liberty an impostor. An intertitle towards the end of the film announces, “There is no victory. Only flags and fallen men.” By emphasizing detachment and avoiding the empathetic connections, Godard’s vision in Les Carabiniers in part flattens all other effects—the audience struggles to derive the capacity for confronting the horrors of war, making both Bazin’s and Kracauer’s realist approaches questionable. Viewing excludes the potential to contemplate positions of resistance, even if the film itself signifies “resistance.” Godard’s war cinema of visual and narrative challenge bears the mark of another cinematic representational crisis.
This point is particularly significant given Godard’s concern for relations between social and artistic responsibility, particularly in the historically specific, rather than allegorical (as is the case with Les Carabiniers) narratives of warfare in which the blurring of the past and the present contexts occurs. Leslie Hill argues that Godard's Histoire(s) du cinema posits engagement
“not only with the historical past, where ghosts reside, but also with the unhistorical future, the time without time when ghosts are always liable to return—to haunt us and recall us to our responsibilities.”
And, importantly, to recall is not only to remember a narrative, but to call up or conjure haunting images yet memories can also alter images, and "remembering through photographs eclipses other forms of understanding, and remembering." Histoire(s) du cinema is Godard's "memorial" to cinema, "repository of shards of cinema," his response to Shoah and the absence of archival footage of the concentration camps resulting in the rejection of documentary and historiography in film which meant "death of the European cinema and the triumph of American cinema." It cannot be omitted, however, that Godard excludes non-Western cinemas from Historie(s), neglecting Asian, African, Latin American cinemas, as well as the entire cinemas after 1960.
Godard’s earlier film from the Dziga Vertov phase, Ici et ailleurs, completed years after the interrupted shooting of his Palestinian-sponsored documentary Jusqu'à la victoire, cuts between the documentary footage of contestation in Palestine and in daily life of a middle-class family in France. Godard attempts to tackle relations between the two places in order to “learn to see here to understand elsewhere” as Anne-Marie Miéville, the film’s narrator, artistic director, and Godard’s long-term partner and collaborator, relates. “The others” are, as Miéville stresses, “the elsewhere of our here.” While establishing linkages across borders, Ici et ailleurs whose documentary footage that filmed many Palestinians who later died in combat, also questions the cinematic capacity to represent conflict and warfare. As Miéville narrates over intertitles—a marker of Godard's filmmaking since the 1960s—that read LE MORT, IMAGE, SON, SILENCE, SILENCE, VIVANT,
“Death is represented in this film by the flow of images. A flow of images and sounds that hide silence. A silence that becomes deadly because it is prevented to come alive.”
In Deleuzian terms, a sedimentation between the past and the present takes place; daily life in a middle-class Western setting has been falsified by the deaths taking place elsewhere—as a more recent theory of cinema, ironically, arrives much later than Godard's original contributions since the 1960s. The porousness of space is not simply confined to the actual settings where atrocities took place, as in Resnais’ Holocaust documentary Night and Fog, but rather signals global spatial interdependence and interconnectedness in a nascent form.
A rejoinder and a set of challenges to the visualization of historical memory can further be found in Godard’s more recent work. In a striking set of sequences in his film Éloge de l’amour (2001) for instance, an elderly French Holocaust survivor actually sells her memories to Steven Spielberg’s film producer. Godard bypasses the simplicity and crudeness of the anti-American critique by subverting the emphasis on the “great” cinematic “robbery” of the Bazinian ideal in a contrasting sequence that follows. In it, the Holocaust survivor’s granddaughter reads passages from, ironically, Robert Bresson’s Notes on the Cinematograph, and then queries the grandmother’s motives for selling her history, her inner recollections. The old lady replies that when lecturing in the U.S. about her war experiences, she felt only cold detachment from her audiences. This speaks to the powerlessness of both words and images, and also of the need for a genuine capacity for empathy, one that in Godard’s art would flow from reflexive engagement.
In For Ever Mozart (and also in Notre musique), this transference is mediated by the pure abstraction of classical music cadences. In the concert that ends the film, theoretically no trespass occurs; rather, the implied (and of course, problematic) purity of the artistic abstraction enables the immediacy of connection with the listener. The deceptive sublime bypasses both the social and the interpretative context, wishing for the exit of art from the world of shadows and indictment into the Platonic ideal—a strain that often resurfaces in Godard’s art to then be quickly subjected to irony and reversal.
In Éloge de l’amour, Godard's response to Shoah, Schindler's List, and Lucie Aubrac, Godard attempts a high-flown visual equivalent. He presents a beautiful dissolving shot of the beloved grandmother by lamplight that melts into a sky of refracted sunlight with albatrosses. She is letting go of her memories, and this parting, even through an uncertain, incomplete, fractured, and certainly commercialized mediation, brings liberation. Godard suggested "that for people who lived through such persecution, perhaps, the war never really ended." The Jews of Eloge de l'amour are thus according to Brody burdened by memory and Godard allows the images to serve as mute testimonies. This enables Godard’s cinema to exit the entrapments of absurdist narratives or simplicities of the predictable critique of Hollywood and mass media, while still challenging the more reductive languages of spectacle.
The visual lecture on “how the gaze collapsed” that is also a part of Éloge de l’amour liberates cinema for yet another renewal. In Deleuze’s terms, such framing moves away from the empty set of Les Carabiniers to a frame saturated with color and often imagery of nature— the image becomes at once visible and legible. (In another example, "[a]fter a close-up of the book Le Voyage d'Edgar, the film bursts from black-and-white into brilliant, acidic color, a seascape with the sea a fiery orange and the sky an acrid yellow, an image that introduces the title card "Two Years Earlier.") In Éloge de l’amour the natural imagery thus subverts the spatial geometry, suggesting gradations within the natural settings yet never allowing the audience to experience their weight or measure their scale (as in Antonioni’s films, for example).
Cinema on its own terms (“le cinéma seule”), returns to images and montage (as bridges between multiple meanings and visions), to the “greater possibility for reversibility, transfiguration and resurrection.” Film also does not reject the beauty of images (as in Les Carabiniers), nor does it give up on the narrative’s capacity (even if fractured or disorienting) to transform consciousness. The search for alternate forms of narrating the dogs and fools of war or conquest need not mean abandoning narrative’s redeeming capacity, although the question becomes more problematic if we consider the sources from which that capacity may be derived.
Reflexive cinema in turn wishes to propel the audience ahead although without leaving it completely behind (or rendering them fools as easily tricked as Michael-Ange in Les Carabiniers). Thus, if camera is a “trespasser” between the real and the imagined, it relies in part on both empathic and reflexive engagement to sustain the transgression and to unmask the manipulation (to “suspend disbelief” and to suspend itself). If the illicit aspects of the crossing can underscore active emotional (and intellectual) manipulation, they also speak to the cathartic powers of film (a synthesis of all other arts in one view) and the strength of its visual and narrative capacity. This can in fact be derived from a cinema of reflexivity. As Mary Ann Doane argues, cinema could be seen an “homage to possibility,” as Éloge de l’amour suggests. If then “the cinematic contingency is not the embodiment of history as mark of the real or referent but history as the mark of what could have been otherwise,” Notre musique, more than any recent Godard film and indeed more than many recent war films, takes us along the yet uncharted pathways of that cinematic journey. But Notre musique recasts as well the porousness of globally interconnected locations through the return to a narrative of traversals. As compelling as the notion of the visibility and legibility of the image may be in Deleuze’s terms in Éloge de l’amour, this quest is insufficient in the case Notre musique.
Notre musique’s triptych
Notre musique is a film about war narrated from the point of view of the search for reconciliation—a complete opposite to Godard’s earlier film Les Carabiniers, yet also its twin. Peace, after all, is not merely an empty void or a state of no-war; it represents a call for justice served, understanding attained, destroyed edifices rebuilt. It can offer as well a plea for reflexivity and remembrance (“do not forget” and “never again,” as art too has shown us, too easily trespasses onto the narratives of national pride). Here, amidst the dissolving shots of evoked history and the impermanence of remembrance, film art enters the realm of shadows. As Godard states at the beginning of Le Mépris (1963),
“Knowledge of the possibility of representation consoles us for being enslaved to life. Knowledge of life consoles us for the fact that representation is but a shadow.”
(It is not perhaps accidental that the same citation is repeated in For Ever Mozart, which also takes up the theme of the Bosnian conflict.) War film is but a shadow of the real horrors of devastation (hence, for instance, the quest for humble and not spectacular of Jean Renoir). Yet some of these shadows have imprinted themselves so profoundly onto our memories and selves—they have become in Annette Insdorf’s words, “indelible.” In the flattening, overexposed, montaged universe of Godard’s films, we find no shadows of this sort—rather, rescued from darkness and, for the most part, from dissolving shots of memory, “shadows” walk in the eternal present of the cinema screen as freely Godard himself does among the cast of his “real” and fictional characters.
Notre musique’s triptych unmasks the shadows of history in the documentary and fictional realms that permeate each other, presenting both the darkness of war and the hopefulness of reconciliation. This represents an example in which the trajectories of historical contingency have been subverted by cinematic sedimentation. Such sedimentation allows Godard to pose the following challenge: the film acknowledges the history of warfare as well as its image manipulations in film, but the alternate trajectories in Notre musique are not projected into the past. The contemporary moment is rather saturated with the sedimentation of destruction and ruin, and thus the trajectories within it, those that chart possibilities for reconciliation, are constantly arising anew and also being limited by the histories of conflict. Visions of Bosnian cities are critical in this respect.
Notre musique has the tripartite structure of Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy, in which the poet is led from Hell through Purgatory to Heaven. The theme of crossing into foreign territories, real and fictional, is likewise central to Notre musique, and the narrative significance of its crossings also lies in the possibilities they offer for reconciliation. In Notre musique, Godard rejects Sontag's claim that "it is intolerable to have one's own sufferings twinned with anybody else's." In that sense, my analysis here challenges Brody's view that Notre musique represents "a diatribe under the guise of meditation, a work of vituperative prejudice disguised as calm reflection, a work of venom dressed up as a masque."
In the film, the first section, Hell, is a montage of documentary and fictional wars: cowboys and Indians, the Crusaders, World War Two, Vietnam, the Bosnian War. In the present-time section, Purgatory, that follows, Godard deliberately introduces multiple crossings into a main narrative that takes place in post-war Bosnia which is not shown as a site of post-war resentments even if the latter remain real. We meet Godard, on his way to a “Literary Encounters” conference in Sarajevo to give a speech on representations of war and of beauty, of hell and heaven. He is accompanied by a fictional Israeli journalist, Judith Lerner (Sarah Adler), who comes to Bosnia in search of the key to reconciling the Israelis and Palestinians. (Importantly, both the Israeli-Palestinian and the Bosnian conflicts were, according to Sontag, "invested with the meaning of larger struggles.") They are joined in Sarajevo by the following:
- real-life Spanish novelist Juan Goytisolo ("whose Cahier pour Sarajevo Godard had cited in his video Je vous salue, Sarajevo in 1993 and in JLG/JLG")
- Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwich, along with
- a French-Israeli translator Ramos Garcia (Rony Kramer) ("who identified himself as a French Jew if Egyptian origin whose father had been an anti-Zionist Communist but whose mother had been a Zionist,"
- three fictional Native American Indians (a stereotype suggestive of white European fantasy of the First Nations) and
- several half-sketched Bosnians who rarely manage to speak for themselves.
Finally, we meet a Russian Jewish woman Olga (Nade Dieu), a filmmaker-revolutionary and a true Godardian heroine. Olga recounts her disillusionment with the politics of conflict in the Middle East and sets the stage for what will be her personal sacrifice mission.
In the final part of the trilogy, Heaven, martyred Olga is saved and walking around in a wooded island in springtime guarded by the U.S. Navy sailors (the soundtrack at one point includes part of the "Marine's Hymn," however). In the last sequence a U.S. Navy sailor literally stamps Olga’s arm with a virtual seal of approval as if to acknowledge her final redemptive journey into a protectorate or a rather unusual Heaven.