Notre Musique

Notre Musique

*****

Reviewed by: Chris

When you go on holiday, do you ever say, “Oh Look! Look at that”? How does sharing things make them different for us? How is the experience lessened when we don’t have another person there?

A scientist measures the position and momentum of a particle, but no matter how accurate the measurements, there is always an uncertainty in the results. This Nobel Prize theory is known as ‘Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle’ and has profound implications for physics and philosophy. (At the atomic and sub-atomic level, an act of observation noticeably affects what is being observed.)

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Godard mentions Heisenberg through one of the physicist's anecdotes. Godard’s main interest is funnelled through the cinematic device of shot/reverse angle shot. He examines how it can enlarge understanding of deeper issues. In Notre Musique, Godard is protagonist not for political ideology or social comment. He is flag-bearer. For film. For poetry. For film-as-poetry. Like Maya Deren in her copious writings on cinematic theory, he shoulders the burden of artist-filmmaker with all seriousness, proffering a new language. A different way to view the world. He becomes the lens. We make it our camera.

“Heisenberg and Bohr,” he says, “were walking in the Danish countryside, talking about physics. They come to Elsinore Castle. The German scientist said, ‘Oh, there’s nothing special about this castle.’ The Danish physicist said, ‘Yes, but if you say, “Hamlet’s Castle,” then it becomes special'."

Godard stars as himself in this mix of documentary, fiction and montage. He is speaking about text and image at the European Literary Encounters Conference in Bosnia. In the Heisenberg story, ‘Hamlet’s Castle’ becomes a literary ‘shot/reverse shot.’

Godard is concerned with the power of romanticism. His take on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is refreshingly non-judgemental. Notre Musique calls for a revolution of creative force “that reinforces memory, clarifies dreams and gives substance to images.” Continuing his discourse on the power of the ‘real’ and the ‘poetic,’ Godard explains how “the Jews become the stuff of fiction: the Palestinians, of documentary”. (Look at the cinematic output of both, and how Palestinians are defined largely in relation to Israel.) The romantic, creative force can be used in what art historian Jean Fisher or philosopher Paul Ricoeur might call an ‘enquiry into identity’. We use memory as a defining component in how “one narrates oneself in relation to place”, but avoiding the pitfall of ‘what’ we are – perpetrator/victim, or any other label.

One storyline concerns two young girls visiting Sarajevo – a place ‘where reconciliation seems possible’. Judith is an Israeli journalist. She interviews, among others, Palestinian intellectual and celebrated poet Mahmoud Darwich. (In Darwich’s work, Palestine becomes a metaphor for the loss of Eden, for birth and resurrection, and for the anguish of dispossession. As with Heisenberg, this contextual reference is not explained in the film itself. Understanding them is not essential but does enrich the enjoyment of Notre Musique.)

Also at the Encounters is Olga, a Jewish-French student of Russian descent. She videos Godard’s lecture and tries to give him a copy. In some ways, she is an alter-ego, a ‘shot/reverse shot’ of Judith.

The concept of dialogue (in a non-verbal sense) is developed as Godard critiques ‘shot/reverse shot’ as part of his lecture. This cinematic device, usually used when two people are talking to each other, reverses the camera so we see each person seemingly from the other’s viewpoint as they speak. The angle provides a mental continuity for us, even though both people are not on screen together. The actual change in camera angle, now a convention, is not really 180 degrees but anything from 120 to 160. The person is slightly offset, rather than directly facing the camera (which would also appear more confrontational).

When Godard duplicates the familiar camera angles or uses similar photographs of people from ‘opposing sides’ he foreshadows the work of artists such as Willie Doherty from Northern Ireland. Doherty, like Godard’s emaciated figures subsequently labelled ‘Jew’ or ‘Muslim,’ shows how the power of text overrides that of image. Godard extends shot/reverse shot to groups of people and ideas. In the film, revolutions of words are compared to those where, “Killing a man to defend an idea isn’t defending an idea. It’s killing a man.” We can also say truth ‘has two sides.’

Notre Musique is one of Godard’s most responsible, articulate and accessible works. Which makes it doubly shameful that many critics failed to expend the minimal energy required to engage with it, preferring instead to give a banal description that belies their clocking-on superficiality, and usually finishing with a self-satisfied dismissal by ‘cleverly’ observing that Godard has slightly misquoted something or that his ideas are too hard to follow. As if that mattered. (A more mature analysis was given by BFI writer Michael Witt who said the film “functions simultaneously as a bulwark against the tyranny of received ideas and as a laboratory for the generation of fresh perspectives”.)

Notre Musique is structured into a somewhat artificial triptych of Hell, Purgatory and Heaven. The first part covers the horrors of war through the ages up to the present. The second, mental scars left on survivors. The brief ‘heaven’ follows what might probably have been part two’s tragic conclusion (related by a disembodied voice over a phone at the end of the second act). The cinematography and editing have all of Godard’s hallmark crispness. Some of the subtitling is sloppy, even misspelling Bohr’s name (something that will irritate adherents of form over substance).

A glimpse of a penguin near the beginning gives it an almost anthropological tone, man portrayed as obsessively armed for the extermination of his own kind. Descending from the ‘age of fable,’ the hollowness of popular morality is hinted at briefly. A woman on her knees beseeches a soldier. The Lord’s Prayer is quoted: “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Irony is underlined in a refrain: “As we forgive them, and no differently,” which is twice repeated. It is not a song that has carried much weight against war. Can the music of artists and poets do any better?

Recently I watched a multiplex trailer for ‘this summer’s movies’. It asked, and ‘answered’ everything I supposedly ‘want’ from films. Thrills. Excitement. Explosions. Laughs. Being whisked off to an imaginary world. And so on. I listened to the end of the list waiting in vain for something like, “being mentally stimulated”. If you are also unsatisfied by the surfeit of cinematic trash that puts your brain on hold, this film might be for you. If, however, like the critics who simply rate it against competing blockbusters and find it lacking, you do not wish to exercise any of those mental muscles then, like this humble review, it will not be the welcome sunbeam that makes or doesn’t make your summer.

Reviewed on: 13 Jun 2009
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An exploration of perspective and the search for truth.
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Director: Jean-Luc Godard

Writer: Jean-Luc Godard

Starring: Nade Dieu, Sarah Adler, Rony Kramer, Simon Eine, George Aguilar, Jean-Christophe Bouvet, Mahmoud Darwich, Jean-Paul Curnier, Jean-Luc Godard

Year: 2004

Runtime: 80 minutes

BBFC: 12A - Adult Supervision

Country: France, Switzerland

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