An admitted anti-Zionist with a history of ardent support for Palestinian opposition to Israel, Jean-Luc Godard frequently uses his films as a forum in which to ruminate on this contentious political conflict. The French nouvelle vague auteur first cinematically explored this conflict in his unfinished documentary Jusqu’à la victoire (Until Victory, 1970), which was co-financed by the Arab League during the height of his militant filmmaking with Jean-Pierre Gorin and the Dziga Vertov Group. The production was halted shortly after filming began due to both financial difficulties and the fact that several of the film’s characters, who belonged to the Palestinian Liberation Organisation, were among the 25,000 Palestinians killed by King Hussein’s Jordanian Armed Forces during the infamous Black September (1). Five years later, Godard and Anne-Marie Miéville repurposed the footage from Jusqu’à la victoire for their film Ici et ailleurs (Here and Elsewhere, 1975), which, in part, re-examined how Godard and Gorin had previously interpreted the footage in a predetermined fashion for their own didactic purposes (2). Through the process of this self-reflection, Ici et ailleurs makes a significant comment on how the conflict was being misrepresented by the French media for bourgeois consumption.
The political ideology exhibited in these films (most contentiously represented in Ici et ailleurs with its fusion of flickering images of Adolf Hitler and former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir, while an audio excerpt from a Hitler speech penetrates the soundtrack) have caused some commentators to accuse Godard of anti-Semitism, as discussed in much-debated articles in The New York Times and The Jewish Journal in 2010, which relied heavily on Richard Brody’s biography Everything is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard (3). However, Godard’s relationship with both Jews and the contentious Israeli-Palestinian conflict, like his always provocative and challenging films, cannot be summed up that easily. As French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy commented on the controversy:
It’s a problem that Godard’s relation to The Jew is complex, contradictory, ambiguous, as is his support at the start of the 70s, in Ici et ailleurs, for example, of the most extreme Palestinian points of view […] But to go from that to “Godard the anti-Semite” and to attempt to discredit the whole oeuvre on the basis of this supposed anti-Semitism – a maneuver that is more and more common in this era of art- and thought-police – does an injury to a considerable artist and at the same time plays with a word, “anti-Semitism”, that should be used, I repeat, only with the greatest prudence. (4)
If Jusqu’à la victoire and Ici et ailleurs present the director at his most politically radical, Notre musique (Our Music, 2004) shows him at his most politically meditative. This French-Swiss co-production is the filmmaker’s most equitable examination of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and, more vitally, the impediments preventing constructive discourse between both sides.
Composed in a three-part narrative structure inspired by Dante’s 14th century epic poem The Divine Comedy, Notre musique is cited by film scholar Laura Rascaroli as “an experimental, hybrid form” of cinema that “cross[es] boundaries between fictional and nonfictional approaches to filmmaking” by synthesising key elements of the art film, documentary, essay film, and experimental cinema (5). Following an ominous, unattributed quote from the 18th century political treatise The Spirit of Laws by French philosopher Montesquieu that states that “after the floods and the rains, armed men crawled out of the ground and exterminated one another” (6), Godard’s first segment, “Hell”, links images of a penguin and monkeys retreating into the ocean with a series of images of armed soldiers emerging out of similar waters. This implication that mankind is responsible for unleashing violence into the world initiates a montage sequence that (echoing Dante’s journey with Virgil through the nine circles of Hell) escorts the audience through a nine-minute inferno combining footage from the Holocaust, both world wars, and the wars in Vietnam and the Middle East with disturbing images from such films as Bronenosets Potyomkin (Battleship Potemkin, Sergei Eisenstein, 1925), Aleksandr Nevskiy (Alexander Nevsky, Eisenstein, 1938), Les Anges du péché (Robert Bresson, 1943), Fort Apache (John Ford, 1948), Kiss Me Deadly (Robert Aldrich, 1955), Zulu (Cy Endfield, 1964), Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola, 1979), and Ran (Akira Kurosawa, 1985). Godard employs thematic montage in this sequence to both suggest the blurred boundaries between the heroic romanticism and the horrific reality of war, and that “text” (whether in the form of political or religious rhetoric, literature, or the fictional film narrative) is deceptive and cannot on its own demonstrate the interminable scars that colonialism, imperialism, genocide and ethnic cleansing have left upon the world.
Godard’s distrustful attitude toward text is developed in the film’s second segment, “Purgatory”, which occurs in the still-reconstructing city of Sarajevo: “a place where reconciliation seemed possible”, as one character posits. Almost a decade after the siege by the Army of Republika Srpska, the Bosnian capital is playing host to a series of intersecting visitors, both fictional and real, in town for the annual European Literature Encounters conference at the Centre André Malraux. These visitors include Judith Lerner (Sarah Adler), an Israeli newspaper journalist from Tel Aviv, who made the journey to interview Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, but also hopes to persuade the French Ambassador to Bosnia (Simon Eine) to help her organise a meeting to discuss Israeli and Palestinian problems; Olga Brodsky (Nade Dieu), a Russian-French Jew en route to Jerusalem to commit suicide; and a series of prestigious writers and artists, including Godard, Darwish, French novelist Pierre Bergounioux, French philosopher Jean-Paul Curnier, and Spanish novelist Juan Goytisolo, all of whom play themselves.
The dialogue delivered by this diverse group of visitors is comprised of an amalgamation of historical references and unattributed quotations from literature, philosophy, religion and politics (notably “The Lord’s Prayer” and the writings of Darwish, Goytisolo, Malraux, and Hannah Arendt), which is often-inscrutable and, ironically, provides resonance to Olga’s remark, “If anyone understands me, then I wasn’t clear”. Nevertheless, even without this specialised knowledge, close observers will notice how Godard prevents the audience from trusting the text by repeatedly having the dialogue spoken by characters who either have their backs to the camera, or are on the periphery of the frame. Even more noticeably, dialogue comes from non-diegetic sources such as narration and voiceovers from unseen characters who may or may not inhabit the story’s landscape.
This antagonism toward text is eventually foregrounded by Godard himself during a recreation of his seminar “The Text and the Image”, which he had delivered on his actual past visits to the European Literature Encounters conference (7). The filmmaker discusses his thesis on the dialectical relationship between text and image, and Israelis and Palestinians through a close visual analysis of still photographs of Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell from the classical Hollywood comedy His Girl Friday (Howard Hawks, 1940). Just as classical Hollywood editing utilises the shot/reverse shot (the editing of two separate images of characters looking off-screen to imply that they are conversing with one another) to create the illusion of narrative continuity, text (fiction) and image (documentary) interact dialectically and influence our perception of each. Godard alludes cryptically that the Jewish exodus and the Palestinian displacement that followed the 1948 Arab-Israeli War is analogous to the shot/reverse shot. This “truth with two faces” demonstrates that binary oppositions like text/image, fiction/documentary, and Israel/Palestine derive their significance from the other. This recognition may not lead to positive resolution (as also implied by the bitter irony of the third segment, “Heaven”), but it may lead to understanding.
- Richard Brody, Everything is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard, Metropolitan, New York, 2008, pp. 351-353; and Colin MacCabe, Godard: A Portrait of the Artist at Seventy, Faber, New York, 2003, pp. 230-231.
- Brody, pp. 375-377.
- Brody, pp. 557-560; Michael Cieply, “An Honorary Oscar Revives a Controversy”, The New York Times 1 November 2010: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/02/movies/02godard.html; and Tom Tugend, “Is Jean-Luc Godard an Anti-Semite?”, The Jewish Journal 6 October 2010: http://www.jewishjournal.com/cover_story/article/jean-luc_godard_to_get_honorary_oscar_questions_of_anti-semitism_remain_201.
- This quotation is taken from film scholar Bill Krohn’s English translation of Lévy’s original post on the French-language blog La Règle du jeu. Reprinted at David E’s Fablog: http://fablog.ehrensteinland.com/2010/11/03/.
- Laura Rascaroli, “Performance in and of the Essay Film: Jean-Luc Godard plays Jean-Luc Godard in Notre musique”, Studies in French Cinema vol. 9, no. 1, 2009, p. 51.
- In Thomas Nugent’s English translation of The Spirit of Laws, Montesquieu states, “Thus, in the fabulous times, after the inundations and the deluge, there arose out of the earth armed men, who exterminated one another”. M. De Secondat Baron de Montesquieu, The Spirit of Laws, vol. 2, Clarke, Cincinnati, 1873, p. 114.
- Brody, p. 620.
Notre musique/Our Music (2004 France/Switzerland 80 minutes)
Prod Co: Avventura Films/Les Films Alain Sarde/Périphéria/France 3 Cinéma/Canal+/Télévision Suisse-Romande/Vega Film Prod: Alain Sarde, Ruth Waldburger Dir, Scr, Ed: Phot: Julien Hirsch Art Dir: Anne-Marie Miéville
Cast: Sarah Adler, Pierre Bergounioux, Jean-Christophe Bouvet, Mahmoud Darwish, Nade Dieu, Jean-Luc Godard, Juan Goytisolo, Rony Kramer