Jean-Luc Godard’s overpowering but insanely confusing new film “Notre Musique” is an astonishing symphony of garish colors, violent images and a jarring musical score. Godard, an icon of the French New Wave, uses every technique at his disposal to create a solemn reflection on the questions of war, evil and human nature. But the film’s grave, weighty maxims don’t really add up to any clear profundities. The film is a bizarre and ambitious experiment — a mixture of narrative fiction film with documentary — but it ultimately leaves its audience behind.
The structure of “Notre Musique,” modeled on Dante’s “Divine Comedy,” is divided into three parts: Hell, Purgatory and Paradise. The homage to Dante is one of the most obvious references in a film filled with them, which tends to amount to allusion for allusion’s sake. Godard is well known for his practice of quoting, paraphrasing and referring to past works of art, though his tastes are so obscure that it’s nearly impossible to follow along.
The first segment, Hell, is a disturbing ten-minute collage of images of war. The short clips were culled from all sorts of sources; Nazis from the Holocaust documentary “Night and Fog” play alongside stereotyped Native Americans from Hollywood Westerns.
Godard’s tremendous skill as an editor is evident throughout “Musique,” especially during this first sequence. He weds violence and brutality to the powerful music of numerous classical composers, including Sibelius and Tchaikovsky. The effect of the perpetually pounding pianos is overwhelming, though numbing rather than emotional. The same is true for the section in its entirety; showing scene after scene of gruesome death, Godard does not so much affect his audience as alienate them.
The second part of the movie, Purgatory, is its bulk. Its loose narrative is centered on a real-life conference, European Literary Encounters, held in Sarajevo. Godard follows a cast of tangentially related fictional and real-life characters as they travel in Sarajevo during the conference. Among the people playing themselves are Godard, the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwich, the Spanish author Juan Goytisolo and French authors Pierre Bergounioux and Jean-Paul Curnier. The internationality of this real-life artistic community is particularly interesting, especially in the way Godard uses it in order to universalize his messages.
The protagonist of the film is Judith Lerner (Sarah Adler), an Israeli journalist from Tel Aviv. She and Olga Brodsky (Nade Dieu), a French Jewish woman, wrestle with the Israeli-Palestinian crisis, which serves as Godard’s microcosm for modern armed conflict. In one of the movie’s most memorable scenes, Judith interviews Darwich about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The poet argues that even as they have suffered under the Israeli occupation, the Palestinians have benefited in publicity. “The world cares about you, not about us,” Darwich says. “You’ve brought us defeat and renown.” Judith’s response rings all too true: “We are your propaganda ministry.”
But identifying with this scene, as with the entire film, requires genuine knowledge on the subject, making “Notre Musique” something of an elitist work of art. The other obvious shortcoming is the rapidness and arbitrariness with which Godard moves from character to character and idea to idea, leaving the audience no time to absorb them. As a result, the film’s many self-consciously profound insights into the world come off as glib and even shallow. (For example, one character randomly remarks, with a straight face, that Russians have no concept of evil because of Russian syntax.)
The scenes in Purgatory have little thematic connection or character development to speak of. Instead, where Godard envisions Hell as absurd and inexplicable war, he seems to regard Purgatory as a world of perpetually fruitless wrestling with morality. Though this idea sounds wonderful in concept, the film’s open-ended nature quickly becomes tiresome.
Perhaps the most interesting part of Purgatory is its setting, Sarajevo, the city where World War I originated. The film shows it to be a damaged and wounded city, though one undergoing a healing process; the run-down bridge in the city that Judith visits during its reconstruction is an elegant symbol of this transition.
The centerpiece of the film is an address Godard gives at the conference. He speaks on the subject of “text and image,” using a cinematic technique he refers to as “shot and counter-shot” as a metaphor for the duality of human nature. He shows a scene from the 1940 “His Girl Friday,” arguing that Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell are two halves of one whole. It is infinitely confusing, but a wonderful moment nevertheless.
The title of the film translates to “Our Music,” a phrase that seems to refer more to film than anything else. By mixing real-life and fictional characters, Godard challenges the boundary between movies and real life, suggesting that the first can help us come to terms with the second. But this abstract message is the closest the film gets to a concrete moral: it is often much more content to observe rather than comment. Detrimentally, “Notre Musique” observes the world at a mile per minute.
During the climactic lecture, one of his students asks the filmmaker, “Can the little digital cameras save cinema?” Godard does not respond. He doesn’t seem to know about saving cinema, nor does he begin to contemplate saving the world. It seems, at times, that he doesn’t even want to make sense of it.