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Godard's Haunting 'Musique'

By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 10, 2004; Page WE40

AT THE beginning of Jean-Luc Godard's "Notre Musique," jarring piano chords accompany documentary footage of concentration camp bodies being bulldozed, soldiers going to battle in Hollywood movies, and other images of war. There are guns and bayonets, swords and shields, cavalry and infantry, victors and vanquished in this exhilarating but disconcerting montage. Humankind's penchant, not for war, but its pictorial glorification comes through loud and clear.

This "Kingdom: Hell" segment, which opens a Dantelike, three-part opus about our eternal relationship with warfare, is both beautiful and repellent. It's about how we idolize, understand and poeticize it in images, storytelling and sounds. We succumb to these pictures, expect them, desire them, need them. In this and the other two "Kingdom" chapters ("Purgatory" and "Heaven"), the 74-year-old French director makes a forceful, poetic case for how war has become our music.

In his film "Notre Musique," about the impact of war on society, director Jean-Luc Godard appears as himself, lecturing students on the ties between image and text. (Wellspring)

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"Notre Musique" is really a poetic essay, masterfully intermixing the director's mournful-toned, philosophical narration with documentary and staged moments. There are real people here, appearing as themselves, such as Godard, who visits Sarajevo to lecture on one of his trademark subjects: the relationship between text and image; and Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, who mourns Israel's metaphorical domination of his culture.

There are also actors playing fictional characters, such as the two Native Americans (George Aguilar and Leticia Gutierrez) who complain about Columbus's devastating effect on their culture, an unnamed ambassador (Simone Eine), and an Israeli journalist named Judith Lerner (Sarah Adler) who engages Darwish in a fascinating dialogue. Palestinians have the misfortune and fortune of having Israel as an enemy, Darwish says. The world's attention is so drawn to Israel and its history, the result has been a sort of wanted and unwanted celebrity status for Palestine.

"We are your propaganda ministry," Lerner says.

As always with his work, Godard's film is filled with provocative ideas and observations. The Elsinor Castle in Denmark, Godard says by way of an anecdote, is just another castle until you learn it's Hamlet's castle. Then you're suddenly drawn to its myth.

Says one observer as he rides in a taxi through postwar Sarajevo, "Killing a man to defend an idea isn't defending an idea, it's killing a man."

Humane people never start revolutions, Godard declares. They open libraries.

To watch this short movie (it's a mere 79 minutes) feels like an epic journey; as with so many of Godard's films, you are put into a profound dialogue with the director, with life, and ultimately with yourself. Yes, there are many purposes to a movie, most of them having to do with entertainment and escapism. This film, which awakens your inner philosopher and encourages it to breathe, may not be an experience for everyone; if only it were.

NOTRE MUSIQUE (Unrated, 79 minutes) -- Contains images of wartime atrocities. In French with subtitles. At Landmark's E Street Cinema.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company