Notre Musique

| February 2, 2005

It is the early afternoon in an Israeli cinematique. Fresh-faced moviegoers sit calmly in the red velvet seats of the theatre, as the celluloid image of a man and woman projects onto the main screen. It is The Big Sleep, and once again the hard-nosed Humphrey Bogart is having his way with the stunningly gorgeous Lauren Bacall.
Bacall: You go too far, Marlowe.
Bogart: Those are harsh words to throw at a man, especially when he’s walking out of your bedroom.
The theatergoers smile at Bogart’s remark, knowing quite well he is a hero for all seasons. As the audience enjoys the company of Bogart, Bacall, and each other, a strange light enters the dimly lit room. The door to the theatre has opened, and an unknown woman enters the premises. Even though it is nearly dark inside, the features of this mysterious woman are presented strangely clear from the light of the theater screen. With long, dark hair and piercing brown eyes, the woman resembles the elegance of a by-gone era. Much like the actors being watched on the screen. After looking about for a few moments, the woman makes her way slowly down one of the aisles of the theatre. An aura of calmness surrounds the woman, as she gracefully moves down the aisle with a bright, orange backpack gripped tightly in her hands. The woman soon arrives at the end of the aisle, and stands directly in front of the theatre screen. Her silhouette can be seen by the audience members, who quickly pummel her with insults.
Man: Hey, I paid good money to see this. Sit your ass down!
Woman: We’re trying to see what’s going on!
Man: Are you crazy lady? Get the hell out of the way!
As the barrage of insults continue to be thrown at the young woman, she suddenly grips tightly onto her orange backpack and holds it high above her head. With Bogart in the background, the woman begins shouting at the audience.
Olga: I am here on a mission. The needs and wants of a people have been suppressed for too long. Salvation is needed for freedom. Which is why I have come here today. In the bag above my head is a bomb. Which will be detonated on my command.
The theatre quickly becomes a madhouse. A combination of screaming and crying fills the air, as the audience members quickly move out of their seats trying to discover the best possible means of escape. The staff of the cinematique quickly identifies the problem, and notifies the authorities of the current situation. The young woman continues preaching as people free themselves through the theatre doors.
Olga: Who will join me? Which one of you will stand beside me, and free this place of the injustice it so desperately holds onto? Who will join!
It is not long before the police forces enter the main area of the theatre. Armed with automatic weapons, the officers slowly approach the young woman keeping their eyes locked on her every move. The woman looks at the officers in fright, and finally makes her statement.
Olga: This is for my people. This is for your people. This is for the world!
The woman suddenly brings the backpack down to her side. Like a burst of thunder, the rounds from the automatic rifles quickly begin falling upon the theatre floor. A few moments later, the woman is lying lifeless in a pool of blood, with the backpack near her side. The officers approach the woman cautiously, in anticipation for an explosion at any moment. Upon reaching the woman, one of the officers slowly picks up the backpack and examines it. Confusion quickly consumes the officer’s face, as he reaches into the bag, and pulls out several books that were inside. After close examination, it is revealed that nothing else exists within the bag.
A young woman with a dream, and the uncertainty of how to achieve it is the centerpiece behind Jean Luc Godard’s latest picture Notre Musique. Divided into the same three sections as Dante’s The Divine Comedy, the film wishes to explore the treachery of war and human nature, while searching for a possible humane escape from the torment.
The first part of the film is entitled Kingdom 1: Hell and strives to take the viewer on a journey through the many human atrocities committed throughout the ages. Accompanied by a haunting piano score, the viewer is immediately thrust into a sea of horrendous imagery. Everything is displayed in graphic detail; from Nazi’s bulldozing a mound of bodies into a ditch to napalm bombs exploding onto a Vietnamese jungle. As the images of war and injustice project onto the screen, Godard uses philosophical phrases in voice-over to potentially explain the reasons behind such actions. “Death can be seen in two different ways: as the possible of the impossible or the impossible of the possible.” The images continue in full force, creating an atmosphere most befitting to its title.
The film then transitions into the second part entitled “Kingdom 2: Purgatory.” Taking place at a conference in Sarajevo, the viewer follows around a young Israeli journalist named Olga, played by Nade Dieu. Along with a band of other conference attendees, including Godard himself, Olga makes her way through the ruins of the war-torn city photographing and interviewing the various members of the community. While exploring the hollowed out remains of the devastated city, Olga runs into a wide range of characters. Everyone from the ambassador to a group of Native Americans passes through her presence. Olga confides in these individuals, hoping for a possible solution to the crimes being committed. One member of her party simply states, “We always discuss the key of the problem and not the lock.” Olga eventually leaves Sarajevo unfulfilled and unsatisfied with the information she has received. Before going though, she pays a visit to Godard. Dropping off some photos she had taken of the ruined city.
The final act of the film entitled “Kingdom 3: Heaven,” begins in a garden in Switzerland. Godard is nursing some his homegrown flowers, when all of a sudden his telephone rings. Casually answering it, Godard is startled by receiving the news that young Olga has been killed while participating in a demonstration in Israel. It seems that Olga was mistakenly shot down in a movie theatre by armed officers who thought she was carrying a bomb, when in reality it was only a backpack full of books. Upon receiving this news, the viewer is unexpectedly transported into an idyllic forest. Moving through the various trees and fields is Olga. In a state of wondrous curiosity, Olga makes her way through the ethereal green world, while meeting various characters along the way. There are children laughing and playing, and even soldiers sitting beside chain-linked fences with their guns at their sides. Olga eventually makes her way to a beach. Sitting there on a tree is a young man. Olga sits beside the young man, and shares an apple with him. The two continue sharing each other’s company as the waves gently crash along the beach.
There is no doubt that Jean Luc Godard has helped to redefine and influence the language of cinema. The inventive and stylistic experimentations that developed in his early Nouvelle Vague films continue to educate and inspire a countless array of artists. Although Godard’s past films easily point out his genius in the medium, it seems that even though physically Godard has aged, his ideals and mindset have not. Which is not necessarily a good thing. With Notre Musique, Godard has crafted a work that attempts to expose the atrocities of war and the struggles for peace. This attempt however falls many miles short of the bar, and creates instead a tedious and irrelevant ordeal.
A major component that stifles the effectiveness of the narrative is the technical structure. Now the Dante-esque trinity that makes up the acts of the films are not the real concern, but rather the common Godardian elements found throughout his work. Like in Godard’s previous films, Notre Musique employs the use of voice-over narration, abrupt transitions between scenes and the insertion of classic film clips. Though these elements have found wide praise in Godard’s classic works such as A bout de Souffle and Band of Outsiders, they just do not properly support the narrative in question.
In Band of Outsiders, as with many of Godard’s early films, the instances of voice-over narration help to progress the story and reveal the humorous insights of the characters. But in the case of Notre Musique, though the voice-over may at times seem appropriately placed, in reality it is quite ineffective. This is most clearly apparent in the opening sequence of hell. As the images of destruction and carnage project before the audience, various poetical phrases are spoken by an unknown body. These graceful words are meant to give sagacity to the intended message, and in turn create an appreciation by the viewer. In reality though, the phrases are cumbersome and often seem amateurish. Something a high school philosophy student would write in order to sound profound. Contradictions such as death being the possible of the impossible are nearly laughable. Instead of contributing a helpful guide to the theme of the piece, Godard has instead misjudged the accuracy of these words and in turn distanced the audience from the main goal.
As with the voice-over narration, Godard’s depiction of the hell, purgatory and heaven of his film are more stereotypical than they are influential. Each section is composed of images, thoughts and ideals that have been expressed by thousands of individuals throughout the ages. The ideas of the film are neither fresh nor invigorating, but rather dull and overused. In the case of hell, Godard combines footage of actual war atrocities with those from classic pictures such as Zulu. The clips that are depicted in the film are so common among viewers, that it is quite possible they have seen them a thousand times during their school history courses. The same goes for the illustration of heaven. A young Olga walks through a picturesque Garden of Eden as birds sing and trees move in the wind. This grand idea of heaven is the accepted version among the majority of people, and seems quite unnatural for a Godard film.
Many have stated that Notre Musique is a deep meditation by Godard as a result of his ever-growing age. The film is far from profound and though the title translates into “Our Music” it seemingly pertains only to one individual. One can appreciate what Godard is trying to accomplish with this film. With its look at life, death and salvation, the film most certainly projects an admirable message. This message however is more shallow than it is deep; more familiar than it is unique; and more pessimistic than it is optimistic. Through the contradictions that are ever present throughout the film, it seems as if Godard is trying to comment on the dual nature of man. This is most readily seen in the basic set-up of the narrative itself. Godard begins the film with war and death and ends with life. As if trying to say we are born dead, and somehow blossom into a fruitful being. This hope for life though, just cannot grow. The roots of death are just too strong, and in the end, results in a misguided, unsuccessful experiment.

About the Author:

Matthew Vasiliauskas is a graduate of Columbia University. His work has appeared in publications such as Conjunctions, Berlin’s Sand Literary Journal, Chicago Literati and The Pennsylvania Review. Matthew currently lives and works in Los Angeles.
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