A story of love affairs and artworks that never get underway, Jean-Luc Godard’s 2001 In Praise of Love is also about how our idea of Romance has changed since its beginnings in the Song of Songs, devotional Persian ghazals, Roman love poetry, and the medieval courts of Languedoc. This distantly beautiful film reveals its characters to us by their the way their bodies are disposed in spaces, and by the content of their utterances; the camera almost never dwells on human physiognomy: indeed we often look on from afar as these people walk to and fro, and we listen in on their words as they speak off-screen or while their backs are turned. Curiously this sometimes disorienting presentation has the enormously pleasing effect of piquing our interest in what’s happening, and our attention is held by an unusual fascination.
In her girlhood, Hélène, whose parents would be killed by the Nazis in 1942, and who would later commit suicide, rebuffed the advances of a boy whose father ran an art gallery along with hers – and now this boy, as the present-day Mayor of Paris (Rémo Forlani), is honoring her memory and his love for her by securing capital to underwrite the creative efforts of her orphaned bastard son Edgar (Bruno Putzulu): a piece called In Praise of Love.
In the throes of a breakup with his girlfriend of ten years, the sometime boxer Edgar travels to the coast of Brittany to research Catholics who took part in the Resistance, as part of his work on a cantata dedicated to the theologian and philosopher Simone Weil. While there, Edgar talks with the historian Jean Lacouture about World War II as a religious conflict, and about Anglo-French sympathies dating back to Shakespeare and earlier. He is invited to stay two more days, and meets an old couple (Françoise Verny and Jean Davy), two Resistance fighters who are selling their story to Steven Spielberg for a movie entitled Tristan and Isolde – after the Resistance network the couple founded – starring Juliette Binoche and written by William Styron. The old fighter, who sold out to Hollywood in order to save the family’s hotel, tells Edgar that in his opinion the Resistance had a youth and an old age without ever passing through adulthood.
In the blink of an eye, Edgar first glimpses the couple’s tubercular granddaughter (Cécile Camp) through a window, as a vision of bright yellows and reds; and he first hears her speak when she challenges the visiting movie executive (Lemmy Constantine) by asking him what exactly he means by the word “American,” and by informing him that although his people have no name and no history, and although therefore they need other people’s identities, this would still be all right if they only conducted their search amicably. She is rudely hushed by a State Department official (William Doherty) who has arrived by helicopter to make sure the deal goes through. She grumbles: “Mrs Schindler was never paid. She lives in poverty in Argentina.” The young woman sees Edgar outside and insists that he come in.
The other Resistance fighter, the old lady, prays, “Thank You, Father, for showing the babes what You hid from the wise and intelligent,” and gives the lie to all this negotiating and intellectualizing going on around her. It is revealed that long ago, when they were young, the old man, under orders, turned the old woman in, and only married her after she’d returned from Ravensbrück and converted to Catholicism as a result of having met Geneviève de Gaulle. The old lady says, “For four years, during the Resistance, money was reduced to a means, no longer an end.” The young woman asks her grandmother why she has kept her code name even after the war. Two children wearing traditional costumes arrive with a petition to overdub The Matrix in Breton. Edgar rides the train back to Paris reading Chateaubriand, disembarks and slowly crosses the crowded platform.
Two years later, with the help of the Mayor’s assistant Philippe (Philippe Lyrette), Edgar unsuccessfully conducts auditions for the adult roles of his project, and holds rehearsals with two young actors (Audrey Klebaner and Jérémie Lippmann) whom he has cast to play the parts of Eglantine and Perceval. He has arranged the end of his young characters’ affair like an algebraic equation into which he inserts them as if they were the arbitrarily assigned values of two variables. In despair and confusion at his inability to cast for the adult roles, he again seeks out the nameless young Bretonne woman (“She dared to speak her mind,” he recalls), whose parents, we learn, committed suicide when she was five years old: her son is now three, her boyfriend has left her, and she has been fired from an acting job and now works the third shift in a railyard, cleaning train cars and offices. She says, “Can’t you see I’m working?” and he replies, “So am I.” He waits for her to get off work, and they spend the rest of the night and into the next day talking and walking along the Seine. What does she whisper to him? What does he say to her on the other end of the phone line? As they get to know each other, he no longer talks to her about the project, having become interested in her as a person.
More time elapses; Edgar runs into Philippe and discusses the young Bretonne woman with him, saying: “True, in time she became pathetic.” We learn that the irresolute Edgar has given up on his project, and has taken up boxing again, along with his cantata, which he says is turning into an opera. “The days of phrases are over,” he whines, and watching him go Philippe pays him a dubious compliment: “He’s the only person trying to become an adult.” Edgar arrives at an appointment with a man who tells him the young Bretonne woman has ended her own life by euthanasia in Amsterdam, and that she wanted to leave him one of her books: he should take his pick. The man says: “You shouldn’t have dropped that project . . . . We had no news for three years. She believed in it, you know.” Edgar’s coldness is on display: “Her tone of voice interested me. It often brought ideas to life. As for the rest, she was a letdown.” The old man replies: “You’re the letdown.” And with that, the moment has passed.
The idea of a machinelike State is everywhere in this film, and Love’s counter-movements must assert themselves amid destitution and transience. The young Bretonne woman doesn’t say, “I was born in 1965,” she says, “I was born three years before May 1968.” Working as a bookstore salesperson, she chats with Edgar by phone during a talk on Kosovo given by the American journalist Mark Hunter, and Edgar says, “There are good Americans too. Mark left his country during the Reagan era.” Then there is this hypothesis:
EDGAR: I’m also thinking of love. Courtly love. They say it was the French, but it went on at court, the court of the king of England, Henry Plantagenet II. Essentially in Anjou, Normandy, the duchy of Aquitaine. Alienor was his wife. Here too, the originality of modern France is defined by its origins. In any case its highly original ties with England. Hence perhaps, despite what everyone says, with America today.
This film’s central theme is the notion that all people share a common Romantic heritage.
A study of youth, but also of an old and deeply entrenched artistic tradition which has reached an impasse, In Praise of Love proposes love’s melancholy as a kind of fortitude, and clears a space in the distracted mind where Romance might be restored to activity. The rhythms of the montage are what counts, not the chronological sequence. Surf pounds the Breton coast in intense color digital video. Figures enter and exit the frame against elegant interiors. Urban nightscapes in sumptuous black and white engulf disembodied voices. Now and then a scene is established by circumstantial dramas, and the story’s main characters pass through them incidentally. An exquisite musical refrain taken from a piano and cello duet by Ketil Bjornstad and David Darling punctuates the action.
In Praise of Love proposes History not as the alien force of fate but as a human construct (“Isn’t it strange how history has been replaced by technology?” one character laments); and it’s clear the film’s imagistic progressions draw upon a rich precedent: the young Bretonne woman’s godfather gives her a copy of Robert Bresson’s Notes on the Cinematographer to pass along to her grandmother, and she reads to the old lady from it on the subject of the difference between a metteur-en-scène and a director. There’s a lot of understated humor here too, as when Edgar enters a shopping mall after hours and walks past movie posters for Pickpocket and The Matrix side by side. You might say that the entire piece is the only possible answer to the failed artist Edgar’s very good questions: “Almost everyone has the courage to live their life, but not to imagine it. How am I supposed to do so for them?” And: “Things are there. Why make them up?”
Originally published in Adventure Amigos (2013)