At 72, Jean-Luc Godard stands as the world's most important living filmmaker, the greatest standing Colossus of a medium that has largely defined the past century. It is a career unlike any other. A critic before he was a filmmaker, Godard emerged in the '60s as the postmodern prophet of the movies, his first 15 films, made in only nine years, forever altering the medium in a manner that perhaps no other body of work, outside that of early pioneers D.W. Griffith and Sergei Eisenstein, has.
His first film, 1959's modest-on-the-surface letter-bomb Breathless, could be reasonably said to have reinvented the very idea of a movie. And the film that ended Godard's great early run, 1967's apocalyptic Weekend, was his attempt to destroy the medium. Everything since has been a long journey in the wilderness: experimental films and videos, leftist agitprop, the occasional semi-narrative "comeback." There is a growing sentiment among critics and historians that this later work, more than three decades' worth, is equal in its own way to Godard's early string of masterpieces. But it's difficult to judge: Godard's negation of anything close to traditional filmmaking coincided with a diminution of foreign-film distribution (and discussion) in the United States, and most of his work over the past few decades has screened in only the very largest cities and then only briefly and inconsistently. Video availability is equally hit-and-miss.
All of which makes the current local screening of Godard's latest "comeback," In Praise of Love -- the subject of great controversy at the Toronto and Cannes film festivals -- such an event. In Praise of Love, which opened at Muvico last week and which will be screened several times over the next month by the Memphis Digital Arts Cooperative at their space at Cooper-Young's First Congregational Church, is the most unlikely multiplex screening in Memphis since Mohsen Makhmalbaf's Kandahar screened at Studio on the Square last year and is the most difficult film to screen locally in recent memory. (Maybe the only truly difficult film, actually. Full Frontal wasn't difficult. It was just bad.)
The French title of the film is Eloge de l'amour, translating directly as eulogy of love, which is probably closer to the spirit of the film, though elegy is even better. An elegy and rumination, balancing rage and resignation, In Praise of Love is frequently maddening, only intermittently absorbing, always eye-popping, and with a gestalt that lingers. It is a film that I like better than I thought I did while I was watching it.
The first half of the film is shot in stunning black-and-white and is set in present-day Paris. It deals with the attempts of a young director, Edgar, to make a movie about three couples (one young, one old, one "adult") and the "four stages of love meeting, physical attraction, separation, reconciliation." Most of the "action" (this is a film in which much of the "plot" is what happens offscreen) concerns Edgar's casting of the film. There is one woman, Berthe, whom Edgar particularly desires to be in his film, and it is hinted that the two have a past.
In the second half of the film, which is shot in vibrantly oversaturated digital video, we learn a bit about that past. This section is set two years earlier (is this the first Godard film with a flashback?) in Brittany, as Edgar is interviewing figures from the French resistance for a different project. Berthe is the granddaughter of a couple who are in the process of selling their story to an American movie company. Berthe is, reluctantly, negotiating the contract for them.
Visually, In Praise of Love is marvelous. The black-and-white section (where Godard shoots on the streets of Paris for reportedly the first time in 30 years) is stunning, its blacks deeper than anything seen on the screen in years and its feel for street life true urban poetry. The close-up portraiture of women in the casting scenes is also breathtaking. The color section, by contrast, is surreal, its landscapes Martian Monet.
Meaning is much more problematic. The film's key line of dialogue may well be "There can be no resistance without memory." Resistance is the film's theme: Godard ruminating on the French resistance in WWII, which marked his youth, and the failures of the May '68 revolt, which stamped his adulthood, and the impossibility of resistance now in the face of what he clearly sees as American political and cultural imperialism. ("Trade follows film," an American State Department official explains, and Godard seems to agree.) In Godard's view, Hollywood has co-opted history, thus negating the possibility of resistance.
Having struggled through it twice now, it's easy to sympathize with Roger Ebert's recent pan of the film, though I didn't exactly agree with it. Ebert describes Godard "stumbl[ing] through the wreckage of this film like a baffled Lear" and writes, "If you agree with Noam Chomsky, you will have the feeling that you would agree with this film if only you could understand it." The funny thing is, Godard, while he would no doubt take offense with the sentiments, would probably appreciate the references. Lear and Chomsky --the first literary, the second leftist, both academic -- fit the references of this film and this reference-mad filmmaker.
The Lear reference is apt because In Praise of Love, more than anything, comes across as the night thoughts of an aging provocateur, causing one to wonder how much of his critique is legitimate and how much is a product of his own deterioration and resentment. Godard equates film history with political history with personal history and lashes out angrily at how Hollywood is devouring film culture around the world, summed up neatly in a shot of side-by-side movie posters for The Matrix and Robert Bresson's Pickpocket at a Paris theater.
"Americans have no real past, so they buy the past of others," one character says, no doubt speaking for Godard himself, who finds a handy shorthand for his ire in the form of "Spielberg," whose associates are attempting the buy the rights to the couple's resistance story in the film's second half. Godard is cruel to Spielberg, perhaps unfairly so. One wonders what Spielberg thinks of it, since he once cast Godard colleague Francois Truffaut in a film (Close Encounters of the Third Kind) in the same kind of respectful homage that Godard used in casting his own Hollywood heroes (Samuel Fuller and Fritz Lang, a German who made many of his best films in the American studio system). Indeed, Godard's early work was a celebration of American culture. Does he now renounce his love of classic Hollywood, trading in pop (America) for high art (Europe) once and for all? Or does he see the mainstream entertainments of Spielberg and contemporary Hollywood as a corruption of those older values? No doubt many American critics and filmmakers would be sympathetic to the latter argument, but Godard makes it with such single-minded force that it is problematic.
Of course, forcing the audience to grapple with the film in this way is part of the intent. From his conscious deployment of alienation effects to the way he puts ideas directly on the screen rather than merely filtering a "message" through a "story," Godard makes films that are meant to be interacted with, not passively absorbed. In Praise of Love is an awful lot to swallow in that regard. I'm still not sure to what degree the film confirms Godard's place as the medium's Jeremiah and to what degree he seems to have finally met the fate hinted at in the French title of his galvanic debut, A Bout de Souffle: Out of breath.
In Praise of Love will be shown at the First Congo Theatre 10 p.m., Saturday, February 22nd; 7:30 p.m., Saturday, March 1st; and 10 p.m., Saturday, March 15th. For more information on these screenings, see the MeDiA Co-op's Web site at mediaco-op.org or call 278-9077. -- Chris Herrington
Deliver Us From Eva has one of those great titles that movie critics love but only if the movie is terrible. It affords the opportunity to slam the film with just a pun or twist of phrase. There's so much you can do with titles like Very Bad Things, Mr. Wrong, or 10 Things I Hate about You. My favorite review headline of all time is that of a much-maligned production of a popular Stephen Sondheim musical in my native Lexington, Kentucky: "Nothing Funny Happened On The Way To The Forum." I leave the headline for the review of this so-so romantic "comedy" to your own imagination -- a Choose Your Own Adventure, if you will.
Deliver stars the promising and beautiful Gabrielle Union as Eva Dandridge, eldest of four sisters whose parents were killed in a car accident years ago. Eva has raised them ever since, and though they are now married or engaged adults, she hasn't yet softened her grip as family matriarch. The younger Dandridge sisters each has a wussy man in her life -- all of whom resent Eva's meddling and "advice" that she dispenses in high-pitched peals of feminist rants, using big words that these three buffoons can't understand.
The buffoons in question are played by Duane Martin, Mel Jackson, and Dartanyan Edmonds. The sisters are Essence Atkins, Robinne Lee, and Meagan Goode. Their character names are mostly irrelevant because we never get to know these six except as one-dimensional foils or disciples to the formidable Eva. They are deprived of individual personalities, and their dialogue is mostly interchangeable -- with the possible exception of Edmonds, who is given the most limited, unflattering urban vocabulary of the bunch.
Anyway, after their TV-viewing of the Big Game is interrupted by Eva's book-club viewing of Toni Morrison's Beloved, the men concoct a plot to be rid of Eva forever: They will pay a handsome "playa" to date her, make her fall in love with him, and then break her heart so badly that she moves away. Enter LL Cool J as Ray, studly meat deliverer and playa with a capital P. He is soon enlisted, at a price of $5,000, to play Romeo-for-hire. Ray is unlike his three buddies, however. He has a heart, a brain, and non-booty-related ambitions like moving up in his job and buying a house. It's only a matter of time before he really does fall for Eva, who is different from his other conquests: smart, tough, strong. So, the plan doesn't go according to these three stooges' design. Ray and Eva make a great couple, and there's no end to Eva in sight. That's when Plan B goes into effect, which is even more callous and terrible than the first. I will not spoil this for those of you who will, despite this review, elect to see this movie.
Deliver Us from Eva is a classic example of lowest-common-denominator comedy, where wit and character are sacrificed in favor of attitude and posturing. The three conspirators overact their one-dimensional undersex-edness with abandon, but there is nothing funny for them to say. One of them gets this line: "Tupperware? That's Eva's middle name." But this isn't just a man-bashing exercise. Nobody has funny lines, including the soul-sistah beauty-parlor queen, whose big tell-off scene amounts to little more than crass genital-belittling with no punchlines. Also in the salon is the obligatory acerbic gay commentator who breaks the tradition of stereotypical gay film depiction by being unfunny. In fact, he's kind of gross, with lines like, "You know you want the soul pole -- bam!"
LL fares best here, always poised and never losing his cool. This works against him later on when he spills the beans on the unsavory arrangement that brought them together. It would be nice to see some sensitivity behind his suave veneer. But, alas, neither the unsubtle direction nor the witless script allows him or Union to play anything better than a third-rate Taming of the Shrew. -- Bo List