Jean-Luc Godard's "Our Music" is divided into three kingdoms: Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven. Audiences who've bothered to keep up with Mr. Godard's post-1960s oeuvre tend to divide their experience into the exact same categories.
For some, the director's obscurity of thought, high-minded formalism, and rigorous eschewal of naturalistic conventions is nothing short of nightmarish. Before a single phrase of atonal music wells on the soundtrack, they're plugging their ears and rolling their eyes. Movies should have plots, characters, and dialogue. They should consist of more than a scattering of pretentious quotation. They should make sense sooner rather than later. It's okay for a poem to demand multiple readings, but a movie? Take that back to France!
So the Hell folks, many of them reconstructed Godardists, clamp their jaws and fume that the master of brainy 1960s pop has turned his back on the world, dried up in bitterness, and devolved into the most obnoxious kind of faux-intellectual. I'd be more inclined to reason with an Intelligent Design zealot than try to argue with this clique. It never ceases to amaze me what depths of difficulty and intellectualism people applaud when it glamorizes the white rooms of Chelsea or spirals up the Guggenheim ramp, but howl against when it presumes to infiltrate the movie screen.
Opposing the anti-Godardists are the Heaven set, ones who bliss out on the cranky maitre's every move. Guilty as charged. Points define a periphery, said cranky Ezra Pound, whose radically complex, radically concentrated method of composing poetry is very close to what Mr. Godard now does in film. Like many among the Heaven horde, my view of cinema is partly defined by the unwavering opinion that Mr. Godard is the greatest living filmmaker - with the emphasis on living. "Our Music" is a masterpiece.
The divide between Heaven and Hell isn't a gulf of intellect but of sensibility. Detractors balk at the obstacles to comprehension; defenders prize the challenge and excitement of this same intractability. With the recent passing of Stan Brakhage, no other living film maker has so ceaselessly lived up to Pound's great battle cry: Make it new! That's the simple secret to the passion of those of us who love him. In film after film, layer upon layer, shot after shot, Mr. Godard astounds with ceaseless innovation of form and remarkable audiovisual discoveries.
Consider Hell, the first kingdom of "Our Music." A percussive piano hammers repetitious angst over an unnervingly exquisite montage of war imagery. Culled from newsreel archives and Hollywood vaults, the images come in syncopated bursts, bleeding afterimages, and hemorrhaging associations. This is a montage of Brakhagian swiftness and delicacy, unequivocal in its virtuosity.
And the theme? First, that war and the representation of war spring from the same human sources - each illuminates the other. This may seem obvious, but remember that Mr. Godard believes a tracking shot to be a moral issue. Other themes simmer in the Hell montage and come to a boil as "Our Music" proceeds.
But now on to Purgatory, where Mr. Godard has arrived in Sarajevo to deliver a lecture on "text and the image" at a literary conference. He is relaxed, sipping a beer, making small talk with an Israeli translator. With this restful entree into the body of the film, those who find Mr. Godard's late work Purgatorial - painful, arduous, but not without hope of redemption - may begin to take heart.
"Our Music" has a plot, dialogue, and characters! Well, a plot of sorts. The film concerns two women. Journalist Judith Lerner (Sarah Adler) has come to Sarajevo "because of Palestine and because I live in Tel Aviv," and here is "a place where reconciliation seems possible." She will interview the French ambassador, a former resistance fighter, and, in the lobby of a Holiday Inn, the Arab poet Mahmoud Darwhich. "If they defeat us in poetry," says Mr. Darwhich on behalf of the Palestinians, "then it's the end. But there's another meaning. Neither a victim nor a defeat can be gauged in military terms."
The other woman is Olga (Nade Dieu), a beautiful, brooding Jew of Russian descent. She has come to attend the lecture, and to visit the restoration of Mostar Bridge. Her fate will bring "Our Music" to Heaven - which I leave you to discover for yourself - and comprise one of the most heart wrenching passages in all of Godard.
In the kingdom of Purgatory, storytelling and documentary complement each other in Heraclitean harmony, half a dozen languages mix on the soundtrack, images are wrestled away from darkness and arranged in a compact, scintillating collage. An example: From nowhere, a network of black branches cracks against a blue-grey sky. A bird's nest anchors the frame, its occupant performing a visual trill in the somber composition. We cut to several images of Mr. Godard and friends in a taxi, riding through the streets of Sarajevo, looking at the ruins and rebuilding of the city's architecture. Then a new image: three black helicopters traversing the sky.
The helicopters follow from the "narrative" of the taxi ride, but also rhyme in color and shape with the bird image - a simple act of montage from nature to machine, peace to war. Sharp eyes may recall a startling edit in Hell from a group of monkeys leaping in a stream to a group of American soldiers in Vietnam trudging through a swamp. Together, these four shots fuse in the imagination. They make an image as Pound understood the concept, as "an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time." There's a whole lotta montage goin' on here.
No one makes films like this. Mr. Godard sustains this rich poetry to the last note of "Our Music." Or so I can claim after four viewings of the film in seven months - "If anyone understands me, "Olga says at the end of Purgatory, "then I'm not being clear." Mr. Godard once put it another way: "Don't go showing all sides of things," he rasped, "keep a margin of the undefined." Naysayers take his resolute occupancy of the margin as a sign of defeat, as if Mr. Godard has ever lived any place else.
Au contraire, his value is in everything he is not, everything he resists: convention, occupation, tyranny in all forms - whether political or aesthetic. "Our Music" is a song from the margin, a hymn to the marginal. If that seems like a sad place for the great old man to have come to, take another hard look at "Le Petit Soldat." If "Our Music" proves the last of Mr. Godard's gifts to the cinema, it may rank his most touching, and in the company of his best.
At Film Forum until December 7 (209 W. Houston Street, between 6th Avenue and Varick Street, 212-727-8110).