As filmgoers, many of us were programmed at an early age to take for granted that a movie had to have characters, plot and narrative to qualify as a, well, movie. Those safety nets would always be there for you to grasp onto for familiarity’s sake. This includes the notion that you could sit anonymously in the dark while the film’s events unspooled for your pleasure. As Kurt Cobain wrote: “Here we are now, entertain us.” In the works of Jean-Luc Godard, however, these givens are tossed out like bad trash. He lassoes you, often forcibly so, into his cinematic fray - best exemplified by the glorious final shot in Contempt (1968) where a camera inches closer before turning its big lens directly on you. Notre Musique is no different a specimen and is thus a highly unique, interesting yet sometimes frustrating cinematic experience.
Broken into three distinct parts, “Hell,” “Purgatory,” and “Heaven,” Musique weaves in the themes, respectively, of man’s violence at times of war, idleness in post-war, and serenity in after-life. “Hell” is made up of a furious onslaught of images of 20th century war, taken from Hollywood films and real battleground footage; presented sometimes in slow motion, divided by closed-eye blackness, and lyrically set to some hauntingly beautiful piano music. “Purgatory,” set in modern day Sarajevo, offers a vast array of characters, artists, journalists, poets, Native Americans, and Godard himself (giving a university lecture on text and the image) in a collage of varied lingual conversation. “Heaven” pictures a hushed final eternity on the sandy edge of a restless ocean. Watching this cine-poem unfold for 80 minutes is not unlike wandering dreamlike through a museum; presented with a series of images to behold and ponder without any true plot, character or narrative to rely on to guide you. Left alone, though, the mostly fractured dialogue occasionally borders on didactic or dense.
Godard’s most well-known work, the still-fresh New Wave classics (Breathless, Band Of Outsiders, Weekend) that he made during the furtive 1960s, can be viewed as composites of an infinite number of well-known and obscure literary, musical and cinematic influences and direct quotations – the post-modern style that today’s Tarantino only can hope to imitate. Notre Musique is similarly infused. In “Purgatory” there is a close-up of a book called “Minuet” by French-born American author Julian Green whose work often concerned man’s preoccupation with violence and death. In “Heaven,” a young male is reading “Streets of No Return” a noir-ish 1940s pulp novel by David Goodis that was later turned into a film by Sam Fuller, who was given the following dialogue as a character in Godard’s Pierre Le Fout (1963): “Film is a battlefield. Love. Hate. Action. Violence. Death. In one word, emotion.”
Someone once said that writing about music is like dancing about architecture – both an encouragement to the reader to experience the subject on their own and an admittance of fear on the writer’s behalf about conveying anything of substance about something substantial. Writing a review of a Godard film and even the film itself can present a similar quandary. So let me say it simply – have this dance.