'Notre Musique' - Film Review

Godard teaches a class

Nearly 50 years after he and the upstart Cahiers du Cinema crowd revolutionized filmmaking with the French New Wave movement, Jean-Luc Godard remains one of the greatest and most steadfastly principled auteurs working in film today. After 90 films, it would be easy to hide behind his reputation, dubbing each new film a masterpiece simply because it bears the name Godard, but "Notre Musique" takes no such route. With a voice as fresh as it was 40 years ago and the wisdom of age to boot, Godard has grown a bit less abrasive in his old age, but retained the rich sense of tone and thoughtfulness that has become the hallmark of his better works. Reining in the preachy elitism and condescending philosophizing that has plagued some of his more recent efforts, "Notre Musique" (Our Music) plays with thesis and antithesis, shot reverse shot, as Godard masterfully balances vision and philosophy, fantasy and reality - a work of cinematic antiwar poetry in three parts. Acting as our Virgil, Godard guides us through the three kingdoms of his - and our - creation: hell, purgatory and heaven.

A frenzied montage of cinematic warfare, Hell is a whirlwind trip through the agony, devastation and loss inherent in war. Filtered through Godard's lens, fact and fiction merge into one ghastly nightmare. Epic Griffith battle scenes are eroded and commingled with archival footage from the numerous wars mankind has waged. Showing only chaos and destruction while bombarding our ears with cacophonous din, Godard doesn't allow us to linger on any single image or identify with any character. There is no triumphant music here, no excitement at the action unfolding, no resolution or catharsis. Any semblance of glory and heroism has been stripped away, leaving only the grim realities of war, burning ghostly impressions in our minds as the visual and aural dissonance assault our senses for what seems like an eternity. This is Hell.

Two men speaking in Sarajevo

Comprising the bulk of the film, Godard's vision of Purgatory aptly begins by segueing into present-day Sarajevo, still recovering from the wounds of war. The film picks up the first signs of a coherent narrative in the crisscrossing stories of several people in town for the book discussions. A Jewish journalist talks with French ambassador and a Palestinian poet, Olga (Nade Dieu), a young Israeli of Russian origins visits the bomb riddled Mostar Bridge and the architect who's rebuilding it, along with a group of Native Americans, and Godard himself gives a lecture on cinema to a group of students.

The characters drift in and out of the film, embarking on discussions of peace, love, death, forgiveness, philosophy, cinema, poetry, and life as if they were stuck in a cosmic waiting room, attempting to puzzle out the world before them and their purpose within it. There is a pervasive sense that this is merely an indeterminate layover, a place to exchange ideas while seeking the truth in duality - in the fusion of opposites - an idea that Godard expounds upon with his shot reverse shot lecture.      

But it is Olga who finally turns words into actions. After informing her uncle of her intent to commit suicide, she goes into a movie theater in Jerusalem armed with nothing more than a sack of books. A phone call to Godard reveals that she was gunned down by Israeli police when they mistook the book bag for a bomb. As we are left to speculate on her intent, Godard leads us into the final kingdom - Heaven.


A lush green forest bordered by tranquil beaches, Godard's vision of heaven is a modern day Eden guarded by gun-toting U.S. Marines (perhaps an indictment of the arrogance of American foreign policy of late). Free of the mortal coil, Olga wanders through the forest, coming to rest on the peaceful shores of eternity as Godard's camera moves in closer, framing her in an image of transcendent beauty.

Filled with these types of poetic images, along with a myriad of meditations on duality -life and death, perception and imagination - "Notre Musique" is heady stuff. An antiwar opus too rich to be fully digested in one viewing, each meticulously constructed shot demonstrates Godard's fluency in the language of cinema, drawing us further into the film's world, raising new questions and searching for the truth within each pairing. This duality, the meaning born of the collision of thesis and antithesis - this is our music, and the truth lies somewhere within.   

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