Helas pour moi

Jean-Luc Godard’s most spiritual film to date (1991) is also his most opaque; if you’re looking for a paraphrasable plot, don’t come near this. But the beauty of his work — framed image and Dolby sound, all shot and recorded in rural Switzerland — is often breathtaking, and I’d much rather hear Godard talking to himself than Spielberg addressing half the planet. The poems and reflections of Giacomo Leopardi (1798-1837) and the Greek myth about Zeus impersonating and cuckolding Amphytrion, especially as treated by Jean Giraudoux — both having to do with cosmic injustice and the relationship between love and war — are two of the principal points of reference. Gerard Depardieu, who turns up in a village wearing a raincoat and carrying the London Observer, is the Amphytrion figure, and Zeus is a croaking voice on the sound track, dimly reminiscent of the voice of the computer in Alphaville. I also spotted references to Kierkegaard, Hitchcock’s I Confess (known as La loi de silence in French), and Straub-Huillet’s From the Cloud to the Resistance and Antigone. But for all its hermetic poetry and esoteric mysticism, the film also has concrete things to say about the bombing of Baghdad and the slaughter in Bosnia. The discursive style and manner are a logical development of the religious conceits of Hail Mary, the noirish moods of Detective, the formal polyphony of King Lear, the mosaic structure of Soigne ta droite, and the sociology and nature worship of Nouvelle vague, and even if you don’t grasp all the meanings, the rigorous form and the musical pacing are mesmerizing.

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