Masterful Montage

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Review of 'Notre Musique', director Jean-Luc Godard

As a modernist simultaneously challenging the conventions of both society and cinema, veteran French cine-artist Jean-Luc Godard has produced this short but dense work, which rewards the multiple viewings afforded by the DVD format. Godard's themes here will have been echoed in many of our own recent political conversations: war and revolution, the mind-set of terrorists, the difficulties of achieving peaceful reconciliation in places like Bosnia and Palestine, the degradation of culture, especially poetry, in modern society, and the roles of text and images in mediating our knowledge and beliefs about these issues.

In the opening nine minutes of Notre Musique entitled 'Kingdom I: Hell' Godard presents a masterful montage of warfare, mixing fact and fantasy, from news and cinema clips of the 20th century. Colourised moving images of cowboys and Indians, and scenes from Ran, Zulu and Apocalypse Now, play alongside newsreel soldiers among a sparse piano soundtrack.

The interplay of text and image is also the subject of the lecture that Godard himself, his lisp more exaggerated than ever, gives in Sarajevo during the film's middle hour, 'Purgatory'. Set naturistically with a number of real literati attending a conference, mingled with fictional and mythic figures, this is a place where people constantly make portentous statements by reversing the order of a sentence. Someone asks as he enters a cab, 'Why don't humane people start revolutions?' Godard replies, 'Humane people are more likely to start libraries...' Spanish novelist Juan Goytisolo adds, '... or cemeteries'. The same author later says, 'Killing a man to defend an idea isn't defending an idea. It's killing a man.' When Judith Lerner (Sarah Adler), an Israeli journalist on Ha'aretz, finds the Frenchman who saved her parents in Vichy, France, in 1943, he is now the French ambassador. But she says she wants to talk with him person to person: 'Not a just conversation, just a conversation.'

These word games also embody the linguistic equivalent of the 'shot/reverse shot' theories in Godard's lecture, using stills from Howard Hawks' His Girl Friday. Lerner, who has come to Sarajevo to be in a place 'where reconciliation is possible', makes a trip to Mostar 50 miles south. Its famous bridge between Muslim and Christian sectors is under painstaking reconstruction. She is one of two female Israeli characters in Notre Musique. The other is Olga Brodsky (Nade Dieu), a young filmmaker riddled with the guilt of her Jewish identity in the never-ending war in the Middle East. She becomes in effect the living example of the film's description of a survivor of war: 'A survivor is not only changed, he becomes someone else.' Her fictional fate back in Jerusalem is revealed at the end of this section while Godard, who has returned home, is tending a garden full of begonias and fuchsias. This is about his only concession to the arc of character and plot development that viewers expect from mainstream narrative structures. In this sense Godard is exemplifying his quip 40 years ago that films have 'a beginning, middle and end - but not necessarily in that order!'

Part Three is set in the 'Kingdom of Heaven'. This is a lush forest guarded by relaxed, introspective American marines in their summer uniforms, who read, fish and laugh. At the film's end Olga and a soldier share an apple in this heavenly Eden - an ironic reconciliation between a victim and a presumed aggressor that is never mentioned in the preceding two sections, though represented by three displaced and aggrieved Native Americans.

Its hybrid genre, the mixture of real and scripted characters, a refusal to follow through the cause and effects of either traditional narration or debate, and the deadly seriousness of its many questions, rule the pleasure principle of comfortable norms out of this viewing experience. Our concentration is presumed to be acute.

But is it all worth the effort? Once or twice I did worry that the enormous complexity of human affairs was being contrasted to the regular simplicities of nature and its cycles of life. But on balance, I would answer, yes. What could be taken for pretentious dilettantism regarding its wide range of cultural references, I prefer to accept as an 'open text' where the audience is challenged to fill in the gaps of the emotions, experiences, thoughts, beliefs, hopes and fears starkly expressed on screen, albeit in soundbite-sized slogans and often unconnected scenes.

Having first seen this at last November's London Film Festival Notre Musique also made me want to visit Mostar, which I have since done. So in my case alone this has been, quite literally, a moving work.