oturn home > Film: index page > Notre musique

Notre musique (2004, Jean-Luc Godard)

19 February 2009

Loading the player...

Section 1 of Film "Notre Musique"

The terms of the scandal

The immediate notion: the film confronts the scandal that men invent horror and death for each other, systematically, without personal motive, tries to come to terms with the fact that this goes on, continues to go on. The coming to terms is quite literal here: these terms start with the phenomena, the evidence, a deliberate 'too much' of evidence; then these image terms sink into the long reflective, dialogical, analytical part where they are obliquely processed, in 60 minutes of contested terminology and multi-layered discourse.

Enfer. Inescapable destruction and arrested images

The composition of footage of war, fictional and documentary, in the first part, enfer, renders violation and extermination as inescapable, unstoppable movement in which there is no moment of deliberation; herds of killers drive onwards, stabbing their vicims on the ground without losing pace; vehicles of war advance through the air and across land and sea; bombs sail down on their target; a bulldozer sweeps concentration camp's corpses into a mass grave. The constant drift of montage repeats this inescapability.

A few arrested images in between embody by the same token the position of victim, of dead or soon dead: the penguin seems to shy away from the solarized ocean, charged with after-images of glaring horror; the corpses; parts of corpses, like a charred hand; partisans hanged, imperceptively moved by a derisive breeze. The monkeys that ascend from the water are already up to something, linking to exterminating man (it seems permissable to use the male form here).

Klaus Theweleit [1], in a talk about Godard at the Hamburg Art School, HfbK, has pointed out a very brief shot that demonstrates a different type of arrested image: that of the war correspondent opposite the implied camera operator, talking fluently in a gesture of denial, of not facing the horror, of factoring it out in the very act of relating it. Her hand is tied by holding the mic, unable to help, her gaze locked to the invisible, imaginary viewer behind the eye of the camera.

Loading the player...

Section 2 of Film "Notre Musique"

Purgatoire. Connecting the disconnected, the poise of the dead and the alive

The function of the purgatory is to cleanse (a term with strong local resonance in the fragments of former Yugoslavia) the soul of sins before it enters into heaven. It is a process that seems to include the dead and the living in a pending space (the short time span of a conference): the Wikipedia article on purgatory relates that the "The Eastern Orthodox Church believes in the possibility of a change of situation for the souls of the dead through the prayers of the living and the offering of the Divine Liturgy, and many Orthodox, especially among ascetics, hope and pray for a general apocatastasis" (apocatastasisis is the notion of the restitution or restoration of a primordial condition). Both living and dead seem beyond life and death; the former are stunned and stunted by the hell, to the latter, death has already happened in earthly hell, they have time to hang around eternally. This way, the Red Indians, long ago slaughtered, linger in the library and during Judith Lerner's interview with the Palestinian author Mahmoud Darwish. We enter a curious space, represented by Sarajevo, to negotiate the possible improvement of the soul before its entry into heaven. And indeed the atmosphere of the purgatory section is unhurried, everything takes all the time it needs, no one interrupts the other, the fight is over, there is a deep interest in the root of abject violence, which still reverberates from enfer and is visible also in the physical surroundings (the scarred buildings). What people do is done with dreamlike poise: taking individual books to the writer's desk in the destroyed library; explaining; listening intently; taking pictures. Fujiwara [2] notes a search of reconciliation, a "sudden lingering emphasis (as in a shot of a waiter serving wine to the conference guests)". I also took note of this shot: the young (not to say virgin) waiter's face is calm and tense at the same time; is it a triple realism that he could be as much nervous for serving important people (actors playing diplomats) as for being filmed?

The medium of this togetherness is mostly without the immediacy of dialogue (apart from the longish conversation with the translator at the airport, at the beginning of purgatoire). Questions and answers do not meet in a way that would pretend to 'make sense', as if to avoid the resurrection of an existential (something to project onto, identify with). This film completely frustrates any expectation of person, plot, character, emerging conflict, etc. Where it lectures, we witness indeed a lecture (Godard's talk about images, shot and counter-shot) or an interview (with Darwish). Theweleit has pointed out the means of creating this kind of displaced dialogue through disconnections of image and sound. We often do not see the person talking; we see the one listening, or someone else listening in or filming (the Red Indian during the interview, a camera man sits down next to him); the translator; something else; we see little (no?) shot-countershot. Montage connects the disconnected, we can connect it in viewing. It is even difficult sometimes to differentiate between the two young female protagonists, Judith Lerner and Olga Brodsky. This doubling is hinted at in a passage that Thiele [3] describes as Olga's off-commentary to a scene in which she walks from the fond of an out-of-focus long shot into focus, and back into the blur: C'est comme une image. Et qui viendrait de loin. Ils sont deux, côte à côte. À côté d?elle, c'est moi. Elle, je ne l'ai jamais vue. Moi, je me reconnais."


Paradis / Heaven (10 mins): plain and unreal. Images of nature that evoke a feeling of backdrop without foreground. The disappointment seems purposeful: paradis relate to the first parts through the absence of violence or its traces and reverberations. The boredom, the contrived feeling of the scenes where we see people reading, relates again to Weekend where (if I remember correctly) nature is a backdrop for scenes of surreal regression and cannibalism. While everything seems stalled here, this paradise may disintegrate as quickly. I do not see the "calm, smooth lyricism" that Fujiwara [2] detects, just an absence pointing back at the uneasy life of purgatory.

The role of music

The music of Notre musique certainly avoids coating the film with emotion. Still there is an element of programmatic illustration that sometimes seems to slap its hand (brief pasages of late romantic music may end in a hard cut on street noise). At times, the usual order has seemingly been reversed: "En fait, pour ces séquences d'ouverture, je suis parti moins des images que de la musique, celle d'un compositeur allemand, Hans Otte. J'ai mis ensuite les images comme commentaire de cette musique" (Kantcheff 2005, quoted by Thiele[3]).

In Godard's use of music, there are truly inventive moments. In his prior film, Eloge de l'amour, a man, a sidekick in an actor's interview scene, starts singing and the off-music picks up the tune, accompanies him, then carries on alone. In Notre musique, the piano music (Music here by Hans Otte) of the first part, enfer, mutes its potential harshness with a lot of pedal, making it more 'atmospheric'. The horrific visuals make it hard to hear this 'tongue in cheek'; what remains is, after all, the emotional glue that binds the fragments together in a narration of horror. To me it seems that the music takes out subtler distinctions that might be made in the absence of such an overpowering score. I was reminded of Godard's remark (or that of one of his protagonists), I think in Weekend, that modern avantgarde music has been a complete failure, a roundabout dismissal that put me off then and still does.


[1] "Godard - Virtualität und Subjekt [mp3]". Opening talk at the Symposium "Virtualität + Kontrolle", HfbK, Hamburg (2008). This talk (which I heard on the radio, stopping the car at a service point because I felt I was leaving the transmitter radius) made me aware of the film.

[2] Chris Fujiwara: The whole cinema. Jean Luc-Godard's Notre musique. A perceptive description of the film.

[3] Ansgar Thiele's essay Schuss und Gegenschuss ist Krieg — Teil II Jean-Luc Godards Notre musique focuses on the role of metaphor in the film, which I cannot help but register as a denial of exposure to it. I know that analysis does not preclude experience but the link between both is not really attempted. Here, at least, some more thorough research has been done, even though the conclusion presents little more than the author's contention that metaphor permeates the film and also plays an important structuring role (and implicitly, that the film can demonstrably be treated to the given theoretical approach). There is no attempt to make value judgements, such as whether metaphor 'works', what it implies, or similar (in my view, it so often embarrasses films). Someone must have told Thiele that to be scientific means to abstain from experiential thought. I took this paper mainly as a refresher regarding the differences between metaphor, metonymy, and synecdoche.

Jim Clark's endless and eager review, which also contains a number of stills, enthusiastically repeats the film's surface structure, complete with a run through Godard's life and films and throwaway statements of his mastery. The review contains a great many detailed facts and (somewhat aimless) observations.

Last update: 23 January 2010 | Impressum—Imprint