One of the distinctions of Film Socialisme in Jean-Luc Godard’s oeuvre is its near-absence of cinemacentric references (the most prominent visual citation is from Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon, a film from the so-called experimental-film tradition, one that has played a slender part in Godard’s lifetime of cinematic reflections). This time around, Godard comes to the history of cinema from the outside, as in a sequence that features the voice-over remarks “My friends, I’ve found the black box: here’s why Hollywood is called the Mecca of cinema—the tomb of the Prophet—all gazes turned in the same direction—the movie theater.” Likening the movie screen to the Kaaba, Godard suggests that the secular Jews of Hollywood were also founders of a faith, of a devotion to the guided gaze, sacralized by the prophetic power of the image itself. Yet calling the discovery the “black box” suggests that Godard considers the definitive record of Hollywood’s influence also to be a disaster and its prophetic influence to be fraudulent. It also suggests the loss of faith that accounts for the absence of references to the classic cinema and, in particular, to the Hollywood movies that were the core of the tradition he inherited and perpetuated.
This voice-over is accompanied by a superb shot of a couple sitting at the rail of the ship and looking out at the ocean as if it were a movie screen, but it’s followed by another voice-over—“It’s strange that Hollywood was invented by Jews: Adolph Zukor, William Fox, David Selznick, Samuel Goldwyn, Marcus Loew, Carl Laemmle”—that is joined to an image, from a DVD menu, of gangsters in a shoot-out, as if these Hollywood pioneers were indeed gangsters, the perpetrators of a crime, the wielders of illegitimate and ill-gotten power.
Later in the film, as a woman declares, regarding the American role in defeating the Axis in World War II, that Europe has been “not purified but corrupted by suffering, not exalted but humiliated by reconquered freedom,” there follows an image of an American warship, then one of children dancing to American-style pop music, then one of adults at a disco, where the low-fi video of the disco floor, with its pulsating lights and the overloaded bursts of throbbing music resembling explosions, becomes a kind of war footage. American pop culture—Hollywood and rock—are depicted as the weapons with which Europe has been corrupted and humiliated.
The overall theme of Film Socialisme is Godard’s vision of a Mediterranean union, stretching from Barcelona, Naples, Greece, and Odessa, to Palestine, Egypt, Algeria, and Morocco—a union not of governments but of cultures and peoples, one that could resist America’s political and cultural power, its so-called Jewish-gangster media. The Mediterranean union would, in his view, get its legitimacy and its strength from being not an American-style melting pot that reduces multiplicity into unity, but a multicultural, multinational assemblage, a montage—a sociopolitical replica of what Godard considers the defining aspect of the art of the cinema.
Richard Brody is The New Yorker’s movies editor for Goings On About Town and the author of Everything Is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard.