The eternally avant-garde French filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard’s latest cryptogram is structured like Dante’s Divine Comedy, with the emphasis on Purgatory. The first section, Hell, only runs about 10 minutes, but it’s a montage tour de force of the violence and devastation of war, mixing documentary snippets with film clips, including the famous battle-on-the-ice sequence from Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky and the apocalyptic ending of Robert Aldrich’s proto-New Wave Mike Hammer film, Kiss Me Deadly.
Obviously this is territory for buffs and, as becomes apparent moving through the film’s three sections, not just film buffs. Godard peppers the sound track with recontextualized quotes, offering snippets of Tchaikovsky and Sibelius, Meredith Monk and Arvo Pärt, and aphoristic insights from Dostoevsky, Maurice Blanchot and other eminences. This is familiar territory for Godard’s later works, with pellets of high (and low) culture raining down on the viewer in a seemingly free-associative manner.
In the main body of the film, Purgatory, a story of sorts emerges. Godard, playing himself, arrives at a literary conference in Sarajevo to give a lecture. He also meets a young woman with a depressive obsession with the Israeli/Palestinian conflict; her fate is revealed in the film’s brief final section, Heaven.
The density of Godard’s films makes repeated viewings essential and the three star rating is based on a first impression. Having made 40-odd feature films since 1959, his elliptical style is beginning to seem like an exercise more clever than profound, with a fairly naive political viewpoint lurking beneath. Waiting for Godard to make a film with the impact of one of his ’60s classics is like waiting to be young again.
Showing at 7:30 p.m., Monday, Feb. 28, at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-3237).
Richard C. Walls writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].