Slay-ing It: Why Film Socialisme is One of the Most Important Movies of the 21st Century

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“The socialism of the film is the undermining of the idea of property, beginning with that of artworks” – Jean-Luc Godard

“It’s impossible to dissociate sound from meaning” – Roman Jakobson, quoted in Film Socialisme

It’s impossible to formulate thoughts outside the circumscribing systems of language, just as it’s impossible to produce cinematic images without being restricted by the particular technological limitations of whatever instruments you’re using – two issues that braid together in Godard’s exceptional Film Socialisme. While there is no shortage of recent films that thematise the shift from analog to digital technologies, only a few reach outwards to reflect on the wider cultural transition towards digitization, and how these changes affect capital, architecture, and the sensation of temporality. Film Socialisme is one of them. In a time when sophisticated image-making technologies can now be carried around in an average person’s pocket, when the image has been democratized, Godard breaks down the traditional hierarchy between amateur and professionally helmed productions.

It’s appropriate that the film opens with an image of parrots – these birds demonstrate their intelligence by absorbing and redeploying words. Parrots are essentially plagiarists, and, in the process, drain linguistic signifiers of all meaning and context. The entire idea of intellectual property is placed under question. How can one define an idea? And how can one protect an idea without, in the process, turning it into a commodity? These questions have always been prevalent in culture – and Godard’s own filmography – but has taken on a new urgency in a world saturated by digital technologies. There is a dominant narrative thread running through Film Socialisme, though it is so heavily obscured by associative detours that it becomes nearly impossible to follow. During the Spanish civil war in 1936, the Spanish Republicans shipped a vast sum of gold from the Spanish Republican Treasury to the Soviet Union, yet it disappeared en route to Odessa, and is believed to have been used by Nazis in conjunction with Soviets to fund the holocaust, as well as a 1941 massacre that took place in Odessa. In Godard’s film, a young Russian lawman and a former Nazi triple spy, search for it, and are eventually joined by a French investigative journalist, who abandons his quest to find a missing French resistance fighter.

If Godard’s recent output can be summed up in a single artistic principle, it may be “the beauty of imperfection”. Godard’s late period started proper with his 2000 masterpiece In Praise of Love, in which the pictorially beautiful, black-and-white classicism of the first half abruptly gave way to the frenzied, grainy, super-saturated fauvism of the second, shot on primitive digital cameras that were, at the time, generally deemed nowhere near fit to shoot features on. The first act of Film Socialisme is an abrasive cacophony of imagery that’s perhaps the closest any filmmaker has come to capturing the sensation of T.S. Eliot’s poetry on screen. This isn’t to say that Film Socialisme is an ugly film – far from it, but it specializes in the sort of rough beauty of the digital noise created by an iPhone pointed at the sun, the blown out whites of an early DV camera filming lapping waves, the pixelated saturation of a disco ball in an under-lit room. These images make us reflect on the limitations of the particular apparatus used to create them. Does form dictate content, or vice versa? At one point does technology become an active agent, seeming to offer its user an unlimited medium for their own personal expression, but actually circumscribes their means of expression.

This isn’t the only way in which Godard investigates the notion of artistic property. The film concludes with the famous FBI copyright warning, over which a quotation from Pascal is super-imposed: “If the law is unjust, justice proceeds past the law.” This notion of copyright is one that has fascinated Godard since, at least, 1987’s King Lear. How does one copyright an image? Unlike a sentence, which can be plagiarized word for word, a cinematic image is created through the organization of pro-filmic elements that exist independently of the camera. Any attempts to re-create it at a different time will inevitably result in the creation of a new, different image, whether it’s down to the change in light, ripening of leaves, or shade thrown on the ground.

On another level, if one takes an image from an existing film and cinematically re-contextualizes it, the implications and meanings of that image is immediately changed. If montage is the essence of Godard’s cinema, that the primary power of the image relies on its relationship with the images that precede and follow it, so does taking an existing and re-contextualizing it make him an author or a plagiarist, and where can that line be drawn? Godard is less concerned with answering these questions than throwing them out there for consideration.

Digitization has removed both money and cinema from its embodied, material dimension; both now exist in dematerialised realms, to be circulated at will. Abstracted money runs through the ship; an Anglo-Israeli passenger is questioned about the Bank of Palenstine’s gold, and an Israeli lecturer describes her research on the convergences between the abstraction of financial creation and the abstraction of art. “Money is a public good” is the very first line of the film, intoned over an image of waves lapping gently. At another point, a passenger notes that a dollar bill has the same dimensions as the Cinemascope aspect ratio.

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English student, filmmaker and writer for Alternate Takes, MUBI Notebook, Film International, Mcsweeney's, Senses of Cinema, The Vulgar Cinema and Sound on Sight. Aspiring Jacques Rivette and fiend for mojitos.

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