It’s hard to comment on Jean-Luc Godard’s 2001 film Eloge de l’amour(In Praise of Love) after only having seen it once (earlier today at the Seattle International Film Festival). But I’ll try…
The style of Eloge de l’amour, of course, is densely allusive and aphoristic, meditative and digressive rather than plot-driven, filled with literary and artistic citations, not to mention odd, off-kilter framings and elisions. The soundtrack mounts a collage of mournful declamation and snippets of classical music, while the image track juxtaposes close studies of faces with comtemplations of landscape, all done in shadowy natural lighting. This is all typical of late Godard, but here it all comes together, as never before, in a gorgeous poetry of melancholy.
Eloge de l’amour is a film about history, memory, and old age. Godard is now 71; and I am tempted to say that he captures and expresses old age as beautifully in this film, as he captured and expressed youth in his early films of the 1960s. We are told several times that the old think in terms of the timeless, because time and change remind them of their own mortality. This is one side of the film’s aestheticism, Godard reaching back to modernist (and earlier) masterpieces as a form of resistance against postmodern flux. But if the film invokes the timeless, it is also very much on the side of temporality, reminding us of the pastness of the past, and the way that presence and presentness are always shadowed–and given their depth–by memory, or by the way that the irrecoverable past continues to haunt them.
The film’s plot, such as it is, juxtaposes a filmmaker trying to make a film about the ages of life and the stages of love, against Steven Spielberg’s endeavor to buy the memories of World War II Resistance fighters in order to turn them into fast-paced erotic thrillers. (I recall that Godard once turned down a lifetime achievement award from the New York Film Critics Circle, saying that he didn’t deserve the award because “I was unable to prevent Mr. Spielberg from recreating Auschwitz”).
But Eloge de l’amour‘s sense of pastness and memory comes, not only from the dense web of literary allusions that it weaves around its core plot predicament, but also from the camera’s role as a witness. The first hour of the film–the present–unfolds in crisp black and white cinematography; the remainder–presented as a flashback–in supersaturated, almost surreal, video color.
In the 1960s, Godard was cinema’s most exhilarating radical voice (radical both formally and politically). Today, he might seem to come off as something of a reactionary, insisting on the classical virtues of film art, and setting himself against American superficiality and postmodern slickness. But reactionary is not a fair characterization for an artist as singular, as dedicated to exploring the possibilities of sound and image and the resonances of meaning, and as stubbornly, idiosyncratically original as Godard continues to be in his seventies. Say rather that Jean-Luc Godard is an untimely artist, using this word in the sense first used by Nietzsche and taken up by Gilles Deleuze: somebody who remains vitally contemporary precisely by virtue of the passionate way he confronts the present, and writes or films against it, not out of nostalgia or the desire for the past, but precisely in order to affirm a deep experience of time and change.