Eloge de l’amour

France, 2001

Directed by Jean-Luc Godard

With Bruno Putzulu (Edgar), Cécile Camp (Berthe), Philippe Lyrette (Philippe), Claude Baignières (Mr. Rosenthal)

The black and white cinematography smoothly wraps and highlights characters who have however barely the time to make a lasting impression, as the editing goes fast from one odd situation to another – yet faces can be wonderfully shot and mesmerize, the director more energized than ever to capture the beauty of a woman’s face in particular, remarkably inspired when it comes to shoot, with a tinge of dark humor, puzzling behaviors and dialogues filled with references to history, philosophy, ethics, art. Actually, the film moves forward just as fast as the pages of the book that are flipped by its agitated owner, a leitmotif both focusing back the attention on the lead character, Edgar, and stoking bewilderment and curiosity – for those pages so nicely bound into a fine big book, are empty, a perfect white space which the cinematography makes only more glaring.

Trying to make a film, to make sense of the past and the present, to meet the lady again: Bruno Putzulu

Yet this is not so preposterous: it turns out the plot deals with a film in the making, the effort by an artist to prepare his next film – so he needs to choose a cast, to convince people to give funds, to couch on paper his ideas. The theme has already be given by the real, that is being now watched, film: praising love – which Edgar intents to do by examining the life of three couples, each from a different, traditional age bracket, the youth, the adulthood, the old age. But even with the constant, effective help of his personal assistant Philippe and the backing of an art dealer, Mr. Rosenthal, Edgar struggles to make progress. A first big issue is that he cannot find a satisfying way to define adulthood and to put it in a plot and before a camera; the other big issue, vaguely related to the previous, is that he finds it hard to meet again with a woman he met away from Paris some time ago, and once he runs into Berthe, fails to convince her to take part in his film.

The film does not only depict meetings and their various, confused outcomes: it is a stroll in Paris, especially by night. Street lights, neon signs, running cars, landmarks, an event in a book shop, a café: this is not quite the nightly scenes of “A bout de souffle – Breathless” (1960) but night life, night beauty, night sadness are as striking and poetic as ever. That would inject even more emotion in the long talk between Edgar and the woman he is after, a talk that would last the day after but still does not help much Edgar’s project.

The black and white chronicle keeps unfolding till a few lines surprisingly between the director and his aide suggest an astonishing leap forward in time: a long time has actually passed away, Edgar has given up on his project, Philippe is no longer his assistant, but life goes on.

And then it goes back to the beginning: the film switches to a deeply saturated color cinematography. In an amazingly vivid corner of Brittany Edgar travels to meet people for his project, which started to be first to be a kind of opera, and far more involved in politics than what the long black and white section has suggested. He talks with a historian about Catholicism, and especially the part it played among people who fought against the Nazi Germany, and gets in touch with an old Jewish couple who were the founders and leaders of a small Résistance group and are now bargaining with Hollywood producers keen on turning their personal history into a dramatic movie. Their daughter is quite unenthusiastic – and she proves to be the Berthe that Edgar was so obsessed with in the first part and the one he chats with inside her car the night he leaves Brittany, a moment echoing a key section of the first part, like the beginning of everything.

Is the promised praise for love just a memory? It could as well be the struggle to put a face on a fleeting but vital sentiment the artist needs to explore. Or is it too a political affair? Jean-Luc Godard has long been concerned with the state of the current affairs and the wider society, and even took part to highly radical activist groups. “Eloge de l’amour” does not avoid politics, far from it: the desultory and elegiac Parisian night involves a talk in a book shop about the war in Kosovo while it is by nature at the forefront of the talks Edgar has during the flashback section. They may be cause for criticism: a clear anti-American feeling is easy to notice, to say the least. The young film reviewer and nascent filmmaker is rather remembered for his love of the American cinema, his willingness to embrace the Hollywood genres, even though it is well-known he slammed a foreign policy associated with imperialism, and has mocked consumerism, a kind of society the United States can be viewed as a perfect embodiment and actually the native ground.

Paying attention to the disgruntled lines point to a harsh but specific, striking criticism: the United States – or is it Hollywood? Or perhaps the political culture of the country – is too young a state to have real memories, strong history, so they just grab what other, essentially European cultures, have experienced and turn them into images that look like fresh, national memories – and mass culture. If something is lamented, it is a lack of identity which invites to meddle into other cultures, a poor imagination just exploiting the rest of the world. That sound a fairly bitter complaint from a man who wrote in Les Cahiers du Cinéma and shot “A bout de souffle”, a scathing view of the way the American cinema got stuck in consumerism and a fiery attack on the wider notion of American civilization, the dismay for an entertainment underpinned by the principle stating, “Trade follows films” (and trade can also shape films, and way too much: in the first part Edgar explains he cannot hire an actress as she has simply made too much television stuff).

To the contrary, the characters of “Eloge de l’amour” stand, or in fact stagger, on the tectonic plates of a complicated and tragic past, and the artist strives to picture the genuine face of people and life, not really stirred by a material and political need, but, in a wonderful way, haunted by a woman who revealed and thought so much but is never fully shot up close by the camera. Edgar does not need a bunch of lawyers and assistants, promises of stars and money, to build up his project – the quest is enough to make him push the limits, a brief encounter is enough to dazzle and move him, even if the effort comes to naught eventually. An artisan animated by the sense of the past, and the willingness to investigate it, versus a nation that has turned itself into a business, a counterfeiter, a thief, the imagination of love versus the delusion of storytelling – the love that matters lies in a nightly stroll, or the gaudy colors of a field, a young woman’s face playing a part or the posters of a Robert Bresson film or an Iranian arthouse production: that may be the opposition giving the film a meaning, even though it still looks, on those terms, like a simplistic and self-reassuring view of the world, but nevertheless shot in a fascinating, demanding manner that elicits serious debate.

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