Somehow I missed the 16,400 internet posts reporting that the ill-fated luxury liner, Costa Concordia — presumably still on its side in the waters off Tuscany’s Isola del Giglio — was the setting for the first act of Jean-Luc Godard’s latest feature, Film Socialisme (2010).
The DVD of Film Socialisme was released on January 10th, and the Costa Concordia crashed on the 13th, so how weird is that? If you look upon the appearance of a festival film’s DVD as being akin to its general release, then the gap between metaphor and reality has now collapsed to a mere three days.
Ignorance, in this case, was a peculiar kind of bliss, as some of the most gorgeous footage ever captured on HD rolled past my eyes, initially unclouded by the cruelties of irony and fate.
It was just as the camera was descending in a glass elevator through the ship’s atrium to its inlaid hardwood floor — a sequence evocative (and probably deliberately so) of the famous rooftop-to-underwater tracking shot in Mikhail Kalatozov’s I Am Cuba (1964) — that my mind drifted to the wreck of the Costa Concordia.
Gazing at Godard’s lush montage of the cruise’s cheap thrills (eating, drinking, gambling) and social atomization (exacerbated by his use of radically elliptical subtitles, which have been analyzed elsewhere), I began to picture everything suddenly going sideways, an escapist fantasy unraveling in waves of incomprehension and horror.
Moments later, there was a shot of the gangplank with “Costa Concordia” emblazoned on its side.
This encroachment of future catastrophe upon a Marxist morality tale, as unnerving and grimly absurd as it was, somehow seemed altogether, and immediately, appropriate — a secret confirmation of a deep-seated, atavistic belief in the shaman’s power over the elements. It was as if Godard had aimed a laser at the Costa Concordia from afar, and it was only a matter of time before it lay on its side, half-submerged in the surf like an abandoned beach toy.
Godard’s gnomic persona, cultivated over his six-decade-long career, first as a critic and then an auteur, reaches a kind of apotheosis in this film. His view of his characters is entirely exterior; they squabble among themselves and pursue their paltry pleasures, but they remain distant and opaque. He surveys their folly but casts no judgment, a disinterested god leaving a lost race to its own devices.
He may send Patti Smith wandering through the ship like an avenging proletarian angel (pity the poor fan who watches this movie just to see her — what, 40 seconds? — of screen time) and he may invoke evils past and present through well-worn (okay, worn-out) political dichotomies (Stalin, Hitler and even the Odessa Steps), but the movie plays like a half-remembered reverie, a lament over the shallowness of a new century that is no match, in dynamism and danger, to the last.
The capsizing of the Costa Concordia (James Cameron’s Titanic as remade by Jacques Tati) all too neatly falls into the line of fate preordained by Godard, just as I Am Cuba, a distant piece of art-cum-agitprop by a Soviet filmmaker about the genesis of the Cuban Revolution, all too neatly foreshadows the recent rebellions that continue to ripple across the globe.
In the scene I mentioned — so magically mimicked in the “Spill the Wine” sequence of Paul Thomas Anderson’s homage-besotted Boogie Nights (1997) — the bikini-and-sunhat-clad bourgeoisie frolic in nonstop party mode while, elsewhere in the film, a virginal peasant woman is reduced to turning tricks in her shanty, and a sugar cane grower, kicked off his land, burns down his crop in an act of desperate self-immolation.
Godard’s seafaring gamblers are the nickel-slot descendants of Kalatozov’s deliciously decadent leisure class, and perhaps that comedown in villainy is one of the things Godard is mourning, and why his references to Hitler and Stalin seem so jarringly out of place.
But still. No matter how kneejerk his politics, how cavalier his aesthetic or exasperating his techniques, throughout the malign half-century since the Cuban Revolution, Godard has never failed to retrieve his lance and turn to face his foe. If we could all be so irascible.