Who started the buzz prevalent at Cannes 2001? In Praise of Love (Eloge de l'Amour) was rumored to be a return to form of the Jean-Luc Godard of the giddy 1960s, Breathless through Weekend, when the Nouvelle Vague maven helmed more than a half dozen of the most amazing films of all time. If the Cannes rumor proved credible, what an historical moment! A rowdy crowd of international film critics gathered outside the first screening, far too many bodies for the probably 300-seat Salle Bazin.
Fortunately, I was very early up front and sheltered, with shoving and elbowing a bit behind me. As one of the first allowed into the theatre, I rushed in for a plum seat, hearing jeers at my back aimed at the poor ushers, also screams from critics irate that others of our noble profession had snuck into line. Things really got nasty. An American critic friend of mine came in with the next wave and plopped down beside me. He was gasping for breath, freaked out by the mosh-pit melee, and by the fact that his lovely shirt was ripped in several places.
The theatre was full. Many remained outside, sulking in the hallway. We inside looked eagerly to the screen: at last, In Praise of Love! But as the picture unfolded - cryptic epigrams, glib anti-Americanisms, the sketchiest of narrative, shadow characterizations, and melancholy pretention everywhere - many of us realized... that we had been had! We were prisoners to the usual "late Godard," "extreme Godard," the gnomic mishmash which the once-essential filmmaker has been giving us for more than two post-Vietnam, post-68, death-of-cinema, living-in-Swiss-exile decades.
In this one, a morose director, Edgar (Bruno Putzulu), obsessed with Simone Weil, is interviewing potential actors on camera for a movie/play/essay/novel (he doesn't know which) about love/failure/Catholic resistance/history/memory/adulthood. Whatever. He's especially interested in casting a Young Woman (Cecile Camp), but she resists him. I can't imagine why!
The next day at Cannes: Godard met the press, a much-depleted group from the screening. When the French moderator started the occasion by noting, "An Anglo-Saxon critic once said, 'In Godard, there is God,'" the iconoclastic filmmaker shook his head in exasperation, and lit a cigar. And braved himself for the first question from a journalist: "Why do you never allude to e-mail or the internet?"
"You mean talk about e-mail in my films?" Godard inquired back. "I'm not the right person to ask that question. I still have my very old typewriter. I bought 12 models of that typewriter which will take me to the end of my life. Typewriters were invented for blind people, so that's exactly what I need. As for the internet, I can't give you an answer. I don't use it."
As always when Godard speaks, his words at Cannes were both entertaining and exasperating to follow, forcing the audience to wade through sphinx-like utterances, and lots of name-dropping and culture-droppings. Yet there were lucid moments also.
On attacking Spielberg in this movie for appropriating Holocaust history: "I've never met him, I don't know him, I'm not so fond of his films, and at the time I was critical of him when he reconstructed Auschwitz [for Schindler's List.] As an artist and auteur, I felt it my duty to point a finger at him."
On why he doesn't like Spielberg films: "That would take too long to explain. I no longer enjoy making comments in my work about films from the past. Show me a film in a screening room, then I'll make comments."
On quotations in his film: "I do mention bits of paintings, bits of scenery, bits of lyrics, but it's the same as, with a shot of a car going by, a women driven home, you include a tree, a house, an avenue. They have meaning."
On literary quotations: "I skim over books and novels, and sometimes a sentence strikes my imagination. I put it in my notebook, then I check to see whether this phrase might fit in."
On why nobody smiles in his film: "I think there's a lot of irony and smiles even if the characters don't smile. It's not a love story of a man and woman in a California context."
On transformations in his films, and life: "What has changed most in my cinema? I'd like to say 'everything.' I know myself a little better. My character Edgar is a man trying to be an adult. He's not me. It took me some time to grow up and be an adult. I thought I'd make my first film at 25 like Orson Welles, but my first was at 30, and it's taken me 30 to 40 years since to find the balance of my film life and real life."
(Boston Phoenix, November, 2002)