You Have to See… is a weekly feature here at 4:3, where one staff writer picks a film they love and makes a group of other writers watch it for the first time. Once this group has seen the film, the suggestor writes a piece advocating the film and the others respond below. Whilst not explicitly spoiling the film, the article is detailed. We would recommend seeking out and watching the film each week, then joining in the debate in the comments section.
This week Sarinah Masukor looks at Jean-Luc Godard’s 2001 feature Éloge de l’amour (In Praise of Love).
Wind up cinema
Something is already happening when Éloge de l’amour begins. A director is auditioning or rehearsing actors. He’s a bit of a prick, this guy, searching for something in the actors, snapping at them in a state of high tension. He wants to make something, something about something, quel que chose: an opera, or a play or a film. Perhaps he’ll write his story into a cantata. It’s a history. To a young woman who will play another young woman named Eglantine, he says, “Do you understand it’s not Eglantine’s story, but a moment in history…History moving through Eglantine?” The bodies in Éloge de l’amour are not characters, or even vessels for narrative. They are figures in the most basic sense of the word, sketches that move across the screen, through places, which, along with the thick, layered soundtrack that supports them, are the only things in the film that are truly alive. History is dead, a litany of bodies, atrocities and physical suffering. The actors are mannequins, representing the bodies upon which history was wrought. Gestures are performances, recreations, approximations. Eglantine holds up her hands. One is she; the other is Perceval, her lover. She moves her fingers to show two elements drawn together by a magnetic force. The film stops then starts again, as if the projector is being hand-cranked. The history that is living before us isn’t the history of human love, it’s the history of technology, which is another kind of love altogether.
Éloge de l’amour is a film of two textures. The first, black and white section is wet. The images are fluid, moving like lava over the screen, oozing and viscous. Patches of bright light and deep dark flow into each other, forms disappear into the black space around them. Then, when the film snaps into colour with a shot of a red sea, it is suddenly dry. The surface of the image looks parched. The depth of the previous section is replaced with surface. Now the image is the screen. If you touched the screen during the black and white part of the film your hand would go in deep. If you touched it during the colour section, it’d feel like a sheet of dry bark. You could argue the difference is technological – celluloid to video – but I prefer to think of it as the visualisation of two different mental states. The dry practicalities of purchasing someone else’s story, buttressed against the fluid process of trying to turn ungraspable scraps of life into art, and failing to make sense, of course, because history, no matter how one vocalises it, isn’t narrative.
The soundtrack in Éloge de l’amour leads the image. There is a piano, there is a violin, there is a cello. Mixed into the dominant melodic line are snatches of other films, broadcasts, murmurs, atmospheres. When the film turns to arid colour the scraping of the violin’s bow against the string offers an aural equivalent to the image’s dryness. Godard has used his sympathy for the qualities of the bow before, in Prénom Carmen (1983), when the sounds of the string quartet transform mid-stroke into the cry of seagulls careening above the waves.
The speed and flow of the images mirror the rhythmic shifts of score’s melodic line. Just as the music changes tempo, slowing down then picking up, soaring then dropping, there are the moments when the image pauses, hangs on a freeze frame before accelerating to 24 fps and levelling out. This motion is matched by the closeness of the sound recording. As the violin climbs in pitch and volume you can sense the increased friction and the pressure of the bow changes, the slight lag as the pull turns into a push. Sometimes the acceleration is inside the frame. The figure is still. The colours are oversaturated, applied in blocks. The image could be a painting, but then there’s a breath, but then the figure moves, breaking the illusion. As mentioned, gestures in Éloge de l’amour are not really gestures, but movements. Eglantine lifts her hand to her neck and pulls at an imaginary necklace with a move that shows no sign of emotion. It’s movement as shorthand for something, the body passing through space without expression. And somewhere around the middle of the film, a man is transported from a country road to a city street, via a sparkling cinematic wrinkle in space-time. Tension, friction, velocity. The movement of a fluid body against a static one. The liquid image against the dry. Affect transmitted through sound and motion. Love. L’amour. Why do you have to see Éloge de l’amour? Because the sensation of music, colour, atmospheric sound and visual texture together enact on the viewer an affect of incomprehensible beauty. Love isn’t represented, it is affected, through an incommensurable combination of sound and image that give the viewer the gift of sensation without thought.
Conor Bateman: It’s interesting to compare, at least on a surface level, Éloge de l’amour to our first You Have To See… feature, David Lynch’s Inland Empire, particularly in how each auteur uses a digital aesthetic to engage the viewer in unusual ways. For Lynch, it’s about both a heightened sense of reality (and thus enabling a greater sense of dread and fear) through the intimacy of the camera and a loss of the filmic zeal that is embedded in his previous films. Godard, though, five years earlier, experimented with digital in a completely different fashion – saturating the frame with vibrant, unreal colour, taking the sequences of the ‘past’ that appear at the film’s end and depicting them as near fever dream, running counter to the fairly dull dialogue and narrative within those scenes. This ‘narrative’ is a detour from the framework that sets up the hour-long black and white (and 35mm) portion of the film, the digital narrative sees Godard railing against Americanisation, which feels old hat and unsophisticated. Instead of following on from the initial intrigue of a self-driven exploration of love and adutlhood, Godard takes the almost throwaway lines against American culture and turns them into plot point, with the manifestation of America (remember – United States of America in the North, the nameless ones) as a film company that namechecks Steven Spielberg and asserts to be merely a cog in the government machine. The unwritten and untold, the mystery of the blank novel and the idea of creation of art is thrown aside in favour of a repetitive railing against society’s waning sense of its own history. Éloge shows a visual master bogged down by his bubbling fury.
I’m drawn to Sarinah’s discussion of texture in the film, one of the most engaging elements, for me, was Godard’s usage of black and white storytelling in the first hour of the film. It felt like every sequence was emerging from nothingness – every light, every visible figure or image rises from the darkness, the elliptical narrative adding to this sense of intrigue. Each character’s relationship to one another is never clearly defined and this fluidity seems almost a part of the central project of discovering adulthood – the mystery of narrative echoes the inability to ascertain a single truth with regards to adult love. Though the visual experimentation of the final half-hour of the film is compelling, Godard’s continual mockery of time (the jumping back of 2 years happens only once for real but the title card is shown multiple times), which echoes a character’s dialogue about old age, does tend to detract from the appeal of the first hour of the film. I’d agree with Sarinah, then, that Éloge is to be treated as a splendor of the senses and, if you can ignore the sanctimonious narrative elements, it remains engaging viewing.
Jake Moody: The sheer range of Godard’s oeuvre makes approaching one of his films for the first time the definition of risky. My own reactions to his work have ranged from mesmerised (by 1967’s Week-End, a savage satire up there with the best of them) to derisive (at 1975’s Numéro Deux, whose elaborate metaphor for industrial relations centred primarily on sodomy did not sway me, for some reason). Everything I’ve read on In Praise of Love seems to focus on Godard’s exploration of (post)modern love through the narrative and dialogic content of the film rather than stylistics, which makes Sarinah’s close emphasis on colour and sound fascinating.
The duality between the monochrome and colour sections of the film was for me one of its more powerful elements; while the luscious noirish black-and-white evokes the hopeless, youthful romanticism of both early Godard and the American films he sought to emulate, the burnt-out colour of the third act does indeed look flat. A surface-only image is perfect for a narrative dealing with the commodification of history, as the ostensible protagonist Edgar, a screenwriter, negotiates an exploitative film deal with now-elderly WWII resistance fighters. The film’s soundtrack, filled with seemingly incongruous swells of strings, classical piano, and snatches of overlapped and incomplete dialogue, also effectively gives a sense of a fragmented world, in which, we may infer, love is entwined with history, truth, fiction, politics, and probably everything else. There are some great moments: when Edgar, in search of his lost love, wistfully relays how a once-forested Roman-era battleground is now (like her) lost amid an impersonal city of millions, the scene cuts abruptly to the Bois du Boulogne, a preserved Parisian woodland. The cinematography, jangly piano music and forest setting then call to mind Robert Bresson’s romance Les Dames du Bois du Boulogne (1945), as if we have been transported into the wrong film entirely. The flattening of history as we jump from 50 B.C. to the film era; reference to Bresson and his influence on both Godard, metatextually, and Edgar, narratively; the loss of romantic love in a modern city of commodity; and, ultimately, the articulation of the relationship between love and history, all in about five seconds – spectacular.
Here’s the but. Taking Sarinah’s approach and thinking about In Praise of Love as an emotional palette, using film style to render the struggle between art and modernity, is sure as hell the only way I could enjoy it. As I mentioned, everything else I have read on the film is concerned more with its characterisation and narrative. This is probably due in equal parts to those aspects of the film’s construction being unusual for recent Godard in their orthodoxy, and also to those aspects so often being totally stupid. Godard builds a bittersweet elegiac premise, and then makes every effort to torpedo it by shoehorning in high school-level anti-Americanism (why do they get to be called Americans when there are several other countries on the continent?), and by complementing Edgar’s desire to create a work of art about love with a heavy dose of pseudo-intellectualism (if he doesn’t complete the script, then Hollywood will just make another Julia Roberts film – the horror). At one point, as a character stands at a bus stop marked “Drancy Avenir,” the voiceover asks: “But what connects Drancy with the future?” Eager to understand the reference, I hurried to Google – avenir is French for ‘future’, and Drancy Avenir is a shopping centre in a suburb named Drancy. Seriously, that’s it. This kind of pedantic wordplay becomes tedious very quickly. In Praise of Love is a bizarre film, really, in that it would have worked better if it made less sense – its visceral audiovisual texture deals with its subject matter far better than its actual exposition. Nevertheless, this column is called ‘You Have To See…’, and I can’t help but agree that you have to see it, even if only to experience something quintessentially Godardian, or even just to bathe in its gorgeous images and sounds.
Ivan Cerecina: Late-period Godard films aren’t easy to write about, though Sarinah has done an excellent job in her write up here. Difficulties exist, not just, as David Bordwell has pointed out, in the interpretative challenges they pose; for me, the films are most often difficult to come to grips with on a purely descriptive level. What is Eloge de l’amour? It has a narrative and characters that enact it, but I’ll confess that like with so many of these “late” films, I required a read over the press kit to fill in my sketchy guesses as to what exactly the contents of this story were (full disclosure: I was about 65% right). It is concerned (most often, tangentially to this narrative) with several historical events and political disputes. Some are recent – the Kosovo conflict of the late 90s. Others aren’t – the battle between Gallic and Roman forces in modern day Paris in 52 BC. It almost goes without saying that the chief historical touchstones for Godard in the last three decades of his filmmaking feature prominently: namely, the complex and troubled legacy of French collaboration and resistance in WWII, and the American cultural hegemony that followed this cataclysmic war. As both Conor and Jake have pointed out, Godard’s revulsion at the latter manifests itself in a crude anti-Americanism that surely constitutes the worst aspect of Eloge de l’amour. The film’s second half, with its none-to-subtle pot shots at Spielberg and Schindler’s List, suffers as a result.1
Yet Eloge de l’amour is a success precisely because of the difficulties its protean nature poses to description. Midway through the film, the protagonist, Edgar, says: “You can only think of something if you think of something else. For instance, you see a landscape that is new to you. But it’s new to you because you compare it to another landscape that is known to you.” In a way, this quotation echoes Godard’s filmmaking: he approaches every idea through another idea. The litany of references, sounds and images is montage in the French understanding of the word, that is of building and construction in order to show something (“to mount”). Watching this process at work in Éloge, I was reminded of Gilles Deleuze’s apt description of Godard as an artist who is and works “completely alone,” but at the same time enjoys an “extraordinarily populous solitude,” being able to conjure a whole history of disparate ideas and currents of thought in building his solitary vision. To quibble with a criticism that Jake made, it is in this way that I imagine that the obscure reference to Arnaud des Pallières’ 1997 film Drancy avenir was struck upon. Pallières’ film, an essay on French collaboration with Nazi Germany in the extermination of their native Jewish population, takes its name from the ironically-named tramway stop we see in Éloge de l’amour: Drancy was the site of a transit camp from which Jews were transported from France for extermination.2 The question heard in voiceover (“But what connects Drancy with the future (avenir)?”) thus crystallises many of the concerns that Godard repeatedly invokes about cultural trauma and memory that pervade the film. It is these moments of clarity – bringing together image, sound, and reference into idea – that makes persevering with Eloge de l’amour and Godard in general worthwhile.