Godard's 'Love': Something's Lost in the Translation

By Ann Hornaday
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, June 20, 2003

Jean-Luc Godard helped redefine cinema in the 1960s with such classics as "Breathless" and "Contempt" and "Alphaville." They hover over his newest film, "In Praise of Love," like wistful ghosts. The movie, which has the air of a culmination for the 72-year-old director, revisits -- literally -- the territory Godard covered when he filmed in Paris decades ago; since he hasn't worked there in 30 years, it looks at once familiar and rediscovered. "In Praise of Love," a ponderous, often impenetrable meditation on relationships, language and history, also often represents Godard at his most willfully obtuse.

As structurally complex as it is narratively dense, "In Praise of Love" is ostensibly about a Paris filmmaker named Edgar (Bruno Putzulu), who is setting out to make a movie about the nature of romantic love. He constructs his project in four parts, with three different couples: young people who have just met, adults in the throes of physical passion and then separation, and an elderly couple who reunite after a long absence. As Edgar starts to cast the endeavor, he realizes that a true "adult" is difficult to find, and he sets out to track down a woman he'd met two years earlier in Brittany.

The first half of "In Praise of Love" is shot in velvety black-and-white and takes place in present-day Paris. The second half, filmed in color, takes place in Brittany. (This sequence, which Godard taped in digital video, is particularly splotchy and unattractive after the glamour and tonal expressiveness of the black-and-white footage.)

The narrative strands in "In Praise of Love" are too numerous and, frankly, too indecipherable to parse in one review and besides, Godard is so clearly trying to subvert conventional filmmaking structure that a synopsis would be an insult. "In Praise of Love" unfolds like a series of still shots and brief vignettes, accompanied by gnomic pronouncements on the nature of life and art. The words and images pour forth in a tidal gush of cinematic, literary and historical references, from Jean Vigo and Max Ophuls to Victor Hugo and George Bataille; from Simone Weil and Hannah Arendt to John Ford and Steven Spielberg. The latter comes in for special drubbing by Godard, who is obviously incensed at American popular culture's colonization of historical and moral imagination. "In Praise of Love" features as a subplot a couple who fought in the French Resistance who are selling their story to Spielberg's Hollywood production company.

Despite the film's title, Godard seems most concerned with the United States, which he feels is too young and callow to appreciate or even comprehend its own history. More accurately, that's one of many central points in a film that seems to aspire to cram every idea of the 20th century into an hour and a half: The easiest way to watch "In Praise of Love" is simply to let it wash over you and savor those bits of philosophical flotsam that stick.

Or maybe the easiest thing would be to skip the movie altogether. Godard has created such a hermetic, uncompromising world that only the hardiest cinematic spelunkers are likely to appreciate its depths. The rest of us mortals, Godard presumably believes, will be satisfied with the purveyors of Hollywood hegemony. His rage may be understandable, even justified, but if he really believes that beauty and meaning can't be found somewhere between Godard at his most opaque and Spielberg at his most manipulative, he's either hopelessly embittered or he's not paying attention.

In Praise of Love (98 minutes, in French with subtitles, at Visions Cinema-Bistro-Lounge) is unrated.

© 2003 The Washington Post Company