In Praise of Love

Éloge de l’amour

Director: Jean-Luc Godard
Year: 2001
Country: France
Running time: 98 mins
Switzerland
Producer/Screenplay: Jean-Luc Godard
Production co: Peripheria/Avventura Films/Arte France Cinéma/Vega Film/DFI/TSR
Photography: Christophe Pollock, Julien Hirsch
Editor: Raphaële Urtin
Sound: François Musy, Christian Monheim, Gabriel Hafner
In French with English subtitles
98 minutes

Cast
Edgar: Bruno Putzulu
The Woman: Cécile Camp
Grandfather: Jean Davy
Grandmother: Françoise Verney
Eglantine: Audrey Klebaner
Perceval: Jérémy Lippmann
Mr Rosenthal: Claude Baignères
Mr Forlani: Remo Forlani
US journalist: Mark Hunter
Historian: Jean Lacouture

Festivals: Cannes (In Competition), Toronto, New York, London 2001; Rotterdam 2002
Like Napoleon returning from Russia with the snow on his boots, Jean-Luc Godard may here have begun the long retreat from the whimsy, the obscurity and the eccentricity of his recent work, to filmmaking that is closer to intelligibility and accessibility, and to filmmaking that shows real people for whom real issues are really at stake.

Perhaps most pertinently, he has returned to Paris for the first time in 35 years, which in the first half of this movie is photographed by Christophe Pollock in the most classically beautiful black and white. It is as if those streetscapes themselves have gone some way to returning Godard to the wellspring of his youthful inspiration. Éloge de l’amour (which translates as In Praise of Love) is speckled with all the stylistic tics and naïve rhetorical mannerisms that have progressively alienated even his most sympathetic audiences. But this, his latest film – a meditation on history, politics and love – unarguably has substance and a seriousness in its address to the viewer.

The director’s protagonist is Edgar, played by Bruno Putzulu, a handsome boyish figure, evidently of considerable personal means furnished for him by a wealthy artistic family. Edgar is brooding on the genesis of a project about love, but is unsure whether it should be a novel, a play, a film or an opera. Edgar’s hesitancy certainly demonstrates a wonderful disregard for the practicalities that harass every other mortal artist in any of these media: a very Godardian note of semi-intentional comedy. But any dilettante-ish tone is dispelled by his intense interest in one of the young women he has auditioned for this project, who subsequently commits suicide.
The poignancy with which Godard invests this discovery is coloured by the memory of Edgar having met her three years earlier, along with her grandparents, resistance fighters who were with De Gaulle in London. Edgar, typically high-minded, wishes to consult with them for a cantata he is writing about Simone Weil. But some boorish and arrogant US producers are there too, attempting to railroad them into signing over rights for what is assumed to be a crassly illiterate Hollywood movie. It is in this second half, the platform for vintage anti-Americanism, that Godard switches from his luminous monochrome to a colour-saturated video, a mischievous épat.

This film has the air of a celluloid commonplace book, a forum for Godard’s fragments and doodlings about love and history – fascinating in many ways, and pregnant with meaning, but often frustrating. Edgar’s reading in the classics has given him a taste for the epigram. ‘Most people have the courage to live their lives,’ he ponders, ‘but not to imagine them.’ A brilliant aperçu, but one we have to pay for with yards of maundering and meandering. Both Godard and Edgar are in search of the meaning of adulthood, that intensely realised period of self between the homogeneity of childhood and old age: it is a time in which the individual’s relationship with the constituent and determinant factors of history are most fully realised.

Director and protagonist find their pivotal shift towards these political determinants in a happily chosen line from Georges Bataille: ‘The antithesis of the loved one is the state whose sovereignty takes precedence.’ This oppressive ‘state’ finds, for Godard, its apotheosis in the United States, which he excoriates as a place without history – a place that tries to appropriate others’ history: typical Yankee intellectual imperialism.

This is bolstered with some very unconvincing bluster about Sarajevo, Kosovo and Vietnam. Since September 11, of course, the debate about ‘anti-Americanism’ – a respectable dissenting viewpoint, or crypto-racism and chippiness? – has attained a new currency. But Godard’s blundering, dated naïvety is not exonerated by any of this: he behaves as if France had no history of colonialism. For all this, his observations about American cultural imperialism are not without wit. His characters find themselves, at one point, standing in front of a movie poster for Bresson’s Pickpocket, next to one for The Matrix. Later, Edgar reads aloud from Bresson’s Notes on the Cinematographer, a passage about the primacy of stillness and silence, and some children come to the door, in historical dress, petitioning for state funds to dub The Matrix into Breton!

It is a very arch mode of drollery. Perhaps more striking is that great shift from celluloid monochrome to video colour. It could be a comment on the nature of modernity, but the shift is for going back in time. Perhaps, Godard is humorously implying, black-and-white photography is the most fiercely modern invention for representing reality: after all, no-one had thought before that of painting in black and white. At all events, it is a coup of a sort and In Praise of Love, like a cinematic poem, is a difficult work, sometimes baffling and redundant, but often challenging and affecting. — Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian, 23/1/01