Eloge De L’Amour



In Praise of Love : France 2001
director : Jean-Luc Godard
lead actors : Bruno Putzulu, Cecile Camp, Jean Davy
98 minutes

Plot? Subject matter? Accessibility? A Godard thinks not of such things. They’re outdated concepts – in the 15 years since his last UK release, Godard has relentlessly probed the farthest reaches of the moving image. The results have been uneven, but consistency never was his strong suit – for every A Bout de Souffle in his filmography, there’s a Tout Va Bien. For every Une Femme Est Une Femme, a 2 ou 3 Choses Que Je Sais d’Elle. But Eloge de l’Amour falls squarely into the former camp: next to this, all the other films that gained national circulation in the UK in 2001 (even a fractured objet d’art like Michael Haneke’s Code Unknown) seem like relics fished out of the Titanic.

Or should that be ‘fished out of Titanic‘? Among Godard’s preoccupations – as so often before – are cinema (good), America (bad), and their bastard hybrid, Hollywood. Godard deliberately positions himself at the other end of the spectrum: he uses distancing tactics (most disruptively, the obsessive repetition of blackouts and uninformative intertitles) to emphasise the elliptical falseness of what we’re watching. Godard’s real ‘subject’, the artificiality of film, is of course, exactly what Hollywood product like The Matrix spends so many millions of dollars to conceal.

Eloge starts off as smooth as the slickest film noir – the first hour is shot on conventional film, in luminoso monochrome. We follow a brooding intellectual, Edgar (Putzulu) as he scours Paris in search of a young woman for an art project he’s preparing: this project may a film, a play, a novel, or something totally different. Our hero keeps thinking of a certain girl (Camp) he met a couple of years ago, in a fishing village on the Breton coast.

The second, shorter section of the film is an extended flashback to this ‘incident’. It’s a complete geographical and stylistic shift, filmed on rough, handheld video, in garishly distorted colour. Edgar arrives to interview an elderly couple, wartime heroes of the French resistance (Davy, Francois Verny) as research on ‘a cantata for Simone Weil.’ The girl is the couple’s grand-daughter: she doesn’t pay Edgar much attention, and is more concerned about other visitors – Hollywood agents negotiating with her grandparents for the rights to their story. Representing ‘Spielberg Associates’, they reveal that Juliette Binoche has been approached to play the female lead.

Godard’s characters do speak ‘lines’, but it’s not the sort of dialogue we’re used to hearing in films, even in the rarefied world of the arthouse: Godard the scriptwriter has a fair crack at the record for the most names dropped in a single film. A word of advice – don’t try to keep up: the accumulation of highbrow references soon becomes a blizzard, tipping over into parody. Epigrams come thick and fast, most of them apparently referring to Eloge de l’Amour itself: “Things are right there in front of us – why make them up?” Like so much here, however, they’re arbitrary – if they sound right, they go in. Intellectualism is a toy for Godard, much like cinema itself: he can do whatever he wants with film grammar and syntax, but, he asks, so what?

What does it matter is such and such a shot is ‘beautiful’? Eloge is packed full of startling images, brilliantly crafted examples of the cinematographer’s art. It’s also studded with evocative piano music – which comes and goes, apparently at random. The randomness is exactly Godard’s point: he shows us this gorgeous view of Paris and plays us this gorgeous piece of music, and it has an effect on us. But it’s all a matter of technique, and all quite arbitrary: at one point, a young girl rollerskates up and down a flight of steps, and we’re startled, impressed. To her, it’s nothing – she skates off into the distance.

Godard pulls off similar feats with film and video. The Breton sequences see him occasionally freezing, holding, and unfreezing the image, sometimes to astonishing effect: there’s one especially breathtaking bit involving some fishing boats that’s no less ecstatic for being so apparently throwaway; later, a pair of characters do a kind of Fosbury flop over the camera and out of sight. It’s as good as anything in The Matrix, Godard’s apparent bete noire and the butt of Eloge‘s best belly-laugh. which this review won’t spoil.

And there are laughs – this is a much more lighthearted piece of work than initial impressions might suggest. While anybody who sees lots of films must see it, even casual cinemagoers should give it a try, if only for the first 20 minutes. It doesn’t change – it’s this good all the way through. Of course, Eloge de l’Amour isn’t for anybody, and many will dismiss it as pretentious nonsense. But they should take the trouble to actually watch it first.

4th January, 2002
(seen Jan-4-02, National Museum of Photography Film and Television, Bradford)

Notes on 2nd viewing (Tyneside Cinema, 2nd April 2002)

Eloge made rather more sense second time around, though it was also somewhat harder to watch, especially during the first half – I almost nodded off a few times, and soon realised my initial reaction was slightly over-enthusiastic. But, as with Lynch’s Mulholland Dr (and, indeed, Fire Walk With Me) the two parts must be taken together if the director’s themes and intentions are to be properly addressed. The contrast between the two sections indicates that while the ‘present’ is fractured, confusing, disorienting, the ‘past’ is (much) more seductive and (slightly) more coherent. Or perhaps that’s just how the past feels from the present’s tangled perspective. Or perhaps art is how we make sense of memory.

But art must rely on technology – and Godard’s techniques emphasise how completely both these visions of past and present are illusions, formed out of the mechanisms of film (the present) and video (the past). There’s a clear didactic purpose at work, but the lesson is much easier to take in the second half, when Godard occasionally uses humour to make his points. While his choice of targets isn’t especially original (the USA in general and Hollywood in particular) his line of attack is distinctive and fresh: “which united states of America? Brazil? Mexico? Canada?” Berthe asks a baffled Spielberg representative.

Whereas the earlier, Parisian sections seemed primarily concerned with laying bare the limitations of standard film conventions, the Brittany sequences seem invigorated by the newer medium of DV. Both parts strive fairly overtly towards a poetic combination of sound, text and image, but the pristine Parisian black-and-white images soon become repetitive and over-familiar. The coastal footage is rougher, more exhilarating, and by then we have a clearer idea of what Godard is up to: the obsessive accumulation of key phrases and epigrams, while initially irritating, eventually pays dividends as the second part builds to its genuinely elegaic climax.

This is due in no small part to the key figure of Mme Bayard, the wheezing Resistance heroine who signs up to have Juliette Binoche (“who has just won an Oscar”) play her on-screen. She doesn’t have a huge amount of screen time, and she doesn’t exactly do a great deal, but every time she appears Eloge de l’Amour suddenly broadens into previously unexplored emotional dimensions, bringing Godard’s somewhat dry preoccupations to blazingly vivid life.

Click here for the original, shorter version of the review

by Neil Young
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