This provocative new film from Jean-Luc Godard is one of the most beautiful films this year. Our Music is a dense blend of fact and fiction, essay and poem, and image and wordplay. Watching it is a tremendously rewarding, albeit humbling, experience.
The movie has three parts: Hell, Purgatory and Heaven. Godard spends a full hour of this 80-minute movie in purgatory, but only after dipping our feet into the flames of hell, which in this film is war, depicted by a montage of ugly video and harsh piano. The tender voice of a female narrator prays, “Let us be forgiven of our trespasses as we have forgiven those who trespass against us.” But then she adds, mournfully, sardonically, “Yes, in the same way,” which is to say: “not much.”
It’s a powerful, sorrowful opening that ends with a title that introduces the second segment, Purgatory, where the movie takes a sharp turn. Shot cleanly on film, it starts with a perfect image: two streetcars, one black, one white, one going one way, one going the other. The Purgatory segment has a narrative of sorts. It’s about a literary conference in Sarajevo at which Godard himself will give a lecture on “text and the image,” and Hell’s narrator appears as Olga, a young Jewish journalist who has come to Sarajevo “to see what reconciliation looks like.” She lives in Tel Aviv and is wrestling with the conflict between Israel and Palestine. She soon becomes the soul of the movie, the only character who appears in all three segments. As she tours the city with other people attending the conference, their conversations begin to sound symmetrical, like the structure of the movie itself. They talk about Serbia and Croatia; Palestine and Israel; individuals and the State; you and me.
But Godard quickly begins to subvert this clean, mirrored construction with an array of fascinating ideas that attempt to understand symbiotic but unequal relationships. “Why aren’t revolutions started by the most humane people?” someone asks. “Because humane people don’t start revolutions,” Godard answers, “they start libraries.” Someone else adds, “And cemeteries.”
Godard presents the poetic symmetries at such a rapid pace that it’s hard to process them. Some are tongue-in-cheek, while others seem born of deep despair.
Olga later gives a DVD of the lecture to Godard—the spectator is the filmmaker, the filmmaker is the subject—but he accepts it only through a surrogate. He’s distant, hardly aware of her, the “other.”
The Purgatory segment ends as it began, with Godard smoking a cigar in the airport. Or at least it seems like it’s going to, but then it continues—you were expecting perfect symmetry? Godard is at home when he receives a phone call about Olga, which he answers by dragging his phone, attached to the house by a long cord, into his Edenic garden, which leads to the final segment, Heaven. It’s another Edenic garden, but one guarded by relaxed American Marines who grant admittance to newcomers after marking their hands with an invisible rubber stamp. Where Hell consisted of masses of people, Heaven is individuals. They fish. They read. They form small teams to play volleyball with an invisible ball. The music is symphonic, in contrast to the harsh piano of Hell. And yet, while it’s tempting to see this as Hell’s mirror image, it’s not. It’s vague and indistinct, but Hell, despite its brevity, is vivid.
I’ve seen children sit at a piano and play “Chopsticks.” It’s simple math. But our music, the music of adults, uses those same notes, the high, low and middle, but in a complex, interlocking way that isn’t revealed by simple mirrors.
Our Music would make a good double feature with Claire Denis’ latest film, The Intruder. It would be an afternoon of abstraction, for sure, but a rewarding meditation on people and their relationships, each film hanging its story and irony on troubling symmetries. My wife suggested that you could round out the day with Richard Linklater’s Waking Life, but I think my head would explode. There are more nuggets to think about in any of these movies than I can possibly grasp in one or two viewings. I’ve seen Our Music twice, and I’m not sure I’ve scratched the surface.