You Have to See...Éloge de l’amour (Jean-Luc Godard, 2001)
Published in 4:3, October 2014
Wind up cinema
Something is already happening when Éloge de l’amour beings. A director is auditioning or rehearsing actors. He’s a bit of a prick, this guy, searching for something in the actors, snapping at them in a state of high tension. He wants to make something, something about something, quel que chose: an opera, or a play or a film. Perhaps he’ll write his story into a cantata. It’s a history. To a young woman who will play another young woman named Eglantine, he says, “Do you understand it’s not Eglantine’s story, but a moment in history…History moving through Eglantine?”
The bodies in Éloge de l’amour are not characters or even vessels for narrative. They are figures in the most basic sense of the word, sketches that move across the screen, through places, which, along with the thick, layered soundtrack that supports them, are the only things in the film that are truly alive. History is dead, a litany of bodies, atrocities and physical suffering. The actors are mannequins, representing the bodies upon which history was wrought. Gestures are performances, recreations, approximations. Eglantine holds up her hands. One is she; the other is Perceval, her lover. She moves her fingers to show two elements drawn together by a magnetic force.
The film stops then starts again, as if the projector is being hand cranked. The history that is living before us isn’t the history of human love, it’s the history of technology, which is another kind of love altogether.
Éloge de l’amour is a film of two textures. The first, black and white section is wet. The images are fluid, moving like lava over the screen, oozing and viscous. Patches of bright light and deep dark flow into each other, forms disappear into the black space around them. Then, when the film snaps into colour with a shot of a red sea, it is suddenly dry. The surface of the image looks parched. The depth of the previous section is replaced with surface. Now the image is the screen. If you touched the screen during the black and white part of the film your hand would go in deep. If you touched it during the colour section, it’d feel like a sheet of dry bark. You could argue the difference is technological – celluloid to video – but I prefer to think of it as the visualisation of two different mental states. The dry practicalities of purchasing someone else’s story, buttressed against the fluid process of trying to turn ungraspable scraps of life into art and failing to make sense, of course, because history, no matter how one vocalises it, isn’t narrative.
The soundtrack in Éloge de l’amour leads the image. There is a piano, there is a violin, there is a cello. Mixed into the dominant melodic line are snatches of other films, broadcasts, murmurs, atmospheres. When the film turns to arid colour the scraping of the violin’s bow against the string offers an aural equivalent to the image’s dryness. Godard has used his sympathy for the qualities of the bow before, in Prénom Carmen (1983), when the sounds of the string quartet transform mid-stroke into the cry of seagulls careening above the waves.
The speed and flow of the images mirror the rhythmic shifts of score’s melodic line. Just as the music changes tempo, slowing down then picking up, soaring then dropping, there are the moments when the image pauses, hangs on a freeze frame before accelerating to 24 fps and leveling out. This motion is matched by the closeness of the sound recording. As the violin climbs in pitch and volume you can sense the increased friction and the pressure of the bow changes, the slight lag as the pull turns into a push.
Sometimes the acceleration is inside the frame. The figure is still. The colours are oversaturated, applied in blocks. The image could be a painting, but then there’s a breath, but then the figure moves, breaking the illusion. As mentioned, gestures in Éloge de l’amour are not really gestures, but movements. Eglantine lifts her hand to her neck and pulls at an imaginary necklace with a move that shows no sign of emotion. It’s movement as shorthand for something, the body passing through space without expression. And somewhere around the middle of the film, a man is transported from a country road to a city street, via a sparkling cinematic wrinkle in space-time.
Tension, friction, velocity. The movement of a fluid body against a static one. The liquid image against the dry. Affect transmitted through sound and motion. Love. L’amour. Why do you have to see Éloge de l’amour? Because the sensation of music, colour, atmospheric sound and visual texture together enact on the viewer an affect of incomprehensible beauty. Love isn’t represented, it is affected through an incommensurable combination of sound and image that gives the viewer the gift of sensation without thought.