Beautiful and hermetic, an objet d'art full of poetry and invective, Jean-Luc Godard's "In Praise of Love" is a film, I suppose, for the happy few. To anyone who tries to see it as a conventional movie - or even a conventional art film - "Praise" may seem perverse and maddeningly opaque. But those who know and admire the work of its revered (and sometimes reviled) 72-year-old director - an artist who changed the face of '60s cinema with films like "Pierrot le Fou" and "Bande a Part," - will find, to their delight, his best work in years. This is a visually stunning rumination on love, memory, history and the war between art and commerce.
One of his loveliest films - and one of his most characteristic - "In Praise of Love" is pure Godard. As much as "Vivre Sa Vie," "Weekend" or "Prenom: Carmen," it speaks to us in a voice achingly personal and distinct. With its elliptically told story of an idealistic young man pursuing quixotic dreams of romance and artistic creation, the film is a lightly mocking, inwardly sad exploration of Godard's own current predicament: how to create art or love honestly and well in an atmosphere that seems hostile to both.
His surrogate here is would-be artist/filmmaker Edgar (Bruno Putzulu), who is putting together in Paris an amorphous project (perhaps a film, perhaps something else) called "Eloge de l'Amour," supposedly based on the four stages of love: meeting, passion, separation and rediscovery. Bruno's "Eloge" was partly inspired by another project on Simone Weil and the Resistance memories of an old French couple, the Bayards (Jean Davy and Francoise Verny), whom he met two years earlier in Brittany. It was there that he first saw the Bayards' granddaughter Berthe, or "Elle," whom he now is trying, fruitlessly, to recruit as an actress for "Eloge."
Godard's film is divided neatly into two parts. The first two-thirds, shot in lustrous black and white in Paris, follows the vicissitudes of Bruno's contemporary Paris project. The last third, shot in garish, over-saturated color video, records his Brittany meeting with the Bayards and Elle, with whom he almost instantaneously falls in love. So by the end of the film, we have seen, in anti-chronological order, the failure and the birth of both his dreams. And though it's hard to care about Edgar as a person - he's chilly, pretentious and a bit of a dilettante - the dream and Elle herself do move us, deeply.
What moves us even more are the poetics of the film, the highly personal way Godard tells his story. The quotes and allusions stem from everywhere - scenes in "Praise" are shot at the old Seine location of Jean Vigo's 1934 classic "L'Atalante" and the railway embarkation point for Nazi death camps - and are amplified by the snatches of music that soar and abruptly break off, the black screens, the dialogues spoken while characters face away from the camera, the austere stylization of image and sound, and a whole battery of devices designed to distance us from the story while drawing us closer to the process of filmmaking.
Godard tends to make all his films into diaries or journals, records of his thoughts and feelings. That happens again in "Praise" - and some U.S. critics have reacted far too strongly to some of his jibes about American filmmaking, his critical but playful jokes about Steven Spielberg and "The Matrix." It's true that it's silly to make the direct link between American government and movie studios Elle makes here. It's also true that hers are the sort of comments a disaffected French intellectual might easily make.
More important is the beauty, intellect and sadness of "In Praise of Love." Like most Godard, it can be watched repeatedly, always yielding new secrets and beauties. Most profound of all, perhaps, are those incredible black-and-white images of Paris - Godard's Paris, city of the Nouvelle Vague and old joys and despairs - haunting our mind like reveries of love past.
4 stars (out of 4)
"In Praise of Love"
Directed and written by Jean-Luc Godard; photographed by Christophe Pollock, Julien Hirsch; music by Ketil Bjornstad, David Darling, Maurice Jaubert, others; produced by Alain Sarde, Ruth Walburger. A Manhattan Pictures International release; opens Friday at The Music Box Theatre. Running time: 1:38. No MPAA rating. No offensive material, but the film's themes are sophisticated and mature.
Edgar - Bruno Potzulu
Berthe (Elle) - Cecile Camp
Jean Bayard (Grand-pere) - Jean Davy
Francoise Bayard (Grand-mere) - Francoise Verny
Mr. Rosenthal - Claude Baigneres Forlani - Remo Forlani
Michael Wilmington is the Chicago Tribune Movie Critic.