Rueful and bleak, obsessed with memory, bad faith and failure, Jean-Luc Godard’s In Praise of Love is a doggedly serious film. In his youth, Godard littered his essayistic films with goofy jokes and non sequiturs, defusing even his most cerebral meditations with bumbling, puppyish charm. Even when those films didn’t work, there was a charge to the dense play of ideas and perverse aesthetic about-faces. ("It’s possible to hate half or two-thirds of what Godard does – or find it incomprehensible – and still be shattered by his brilliance," Pauline Kael wrote in 1967, and if anything, she skewed the numbers too low.) Godard tried out and tossed away more ideas in any single film than most good filmmakers can claim in a life’s work.
For the past twenty years, Godard’s films have been moving increasingly towards abstraction. His investment in storytelling was always shaky – his plots were pretexts for gags, parodic homages, recitations and, eventually, political diatribes – but his later work is maddeningly elliptical, stranding his befuddled actors with nothing to do. The energy in these films is purely formal, found in the sheer beauty of the images and the densely layered musique concrete of his soundtracks. The pacing is deliberate, often torpid: more than anything, the films suggest fussily arranged stasis.
What is so extraordinary about In Praise of Love, then, is its vitality. Working in a diptych, the first half shot in 35mm black and white, the second in color digital video, Godard has found material ideally suited to his recent gravity. The result is one of his most perfectly realized films. If the austere style he’s grown into has too often felt like a shunning of his gift for whirlwind, hit or miss exuberance, here it offers something richer: Godard has pared down his extravagances into a densely concentrated, resonant simplicity.
Bruno Putzulu plays Edgar, an artist in pre-production for an ambitious film called In Praise of Love. He’s settled on a few ideas and characters but still hasn’t decided whether film is the appropriate medium for the piece (he’s also considering a novel or an opera). He’s determined to cast a woman (Cecile Camp) he met two years ago while working on a cantata dedicated to Simone Weil. She’s reluctant, and the project seems doomed to fail. We then shift from the present to their first meeting. Her grandparents are in negotiations with an American movie studio (and the U.S. State Department: "Trade follows films") to sell the rights to the story of their involvement in the French resistance. It’s her understanding of what’s really at stake in the transaction – she sees that they’re making a deal not just for their story but for their souls – and her aggression towards the corporate functionaries that impresses Edgar.
In synopsis, the story is a cute postmodern conceit, a movie about the making of the movie we’re watching. (If only Anna Karina and Jean-Paul Belmondo marched out with a circus troupe at the end, we’d have the strangest Fellini parody ever made.) Godard is much less interested in dazzling us with a clever resolution than in exploring failure, however, and the plot becomes increasingly irrelevant just as its begins to cohere.
Most filmmakers use video for its immediacy, the easy association with documentary and home movies. Black and white film is reserved for period pieces, a fading art form standing in for the past. Godard inverts this usage, shooting the present in black and white and the past in supersaturated video. The second half of the film opens with an unearthly seascape, recast with roiling orange waves, blue sand and yellow sky. There’s no attempt to pass off the video as film: Godard (who has been working in video for 25 years now) instead embraces the differences in the media. Images erupt from stills or dissolve into multilayered, painterly washes of color and pixellation. The colors throb and pulsate, not recreating nature but reimagining it. It’s a singular approach to landscape, one that mines the familiar – the natural order itself – for lurking strangeness. Only Werner Herzog’s mirage film Fata Morgana and the deathly still landscapes of James Benning’s recent California trilogy (El Valley Centro, Los and Sogobi) provide comparably original approaches to nature photography.
At one point the question is posed, "To what extent does memory help us reclaim our lives?" In Praise of Love provides no comforting answer: memory fails everyone in this film, offering false hopes and creating impossible desires, leaving nothing substantial in its wake. This is an old man’s film, aching with loss and despair, bitterly aware of its own ineffectuality as it rails against the bullying influx of American culture and the spectacle of Americans happily replacing history with technology. The only solace offered is the film’s own beauty. It’s enough.