Townsend, Chris, Art Monthly
Jean-Luc Godard Centre Pompidou Paris May 11 to August 14
From an early point in a long career as a filmmaker and videomaker, Jean-Luc Godard had, I suspect, a somewhat jaundiced conception of utopia, whether as finished project or as an ideal at an end point of history. The cannibalistic, anti-materialist terrorists in Weekend, 1967, inhabiting a rural idyll in hippy innocence, are a parodic anticipation of the collapse of radical hopes into communal cultism after the failures of the Left in 1968. The little piece of heaven-on-earth at the end of Notre musique, 2004, turns out to be wire-fenced and guarded by US Marines. So an exhibition curated by Godard, on the theme of utopias, is going to be less a tour of selected historical disappointments than a somewhat frustrated meditation on the obsessive delusions of utopian thinking.
'Travel(s) in Utopia Jean-Luc Godard 1946-2006, In Search of a Lost Theorem' is a deliberately provisional show for a failed idea. Here too the exhibition resembles Weekend, which announces itself as 'a film found on the scrap heap'. In the first room, 'The Day Before Yesterday', the paintwork on the walls is unfinished; there are pencil marks around the wall texts and piles of debris swept to one side. The room is dominated by a series of models for rooms, each dedicated to a leading 20th-century thinker, with films within them on tiny digital screens. The exhibition announces a shared theme with Godard's filmic project. What emerges in the 60s is his concern with the unstable function of signs, and the ethics of their deployment. (Le Gai Savoir, 1968, and Letter to Jane, 1972, are about little else.) Utopia, for Godard, is perhaps the unattainable point at which the signs add up. That there must exist a limit to meaning is the promise of film, not only apodictic but animated in its relation of referent to image. In this sense cinema seems a wholly eschatological medium, more firmly within the conventions of western epistemology than literature or art. Not only does film, as technology, unwind linearly towards an end point of meaning (eschaton), but all the signs it contains produce chains of meaning that apparently, in themselves, slip backwards towards a fixed point of origin. It is this epistemic model that Godard is challenging, I think, when he scatters a quotation from Henri Bergson across all three rooms, leaving the spectator to reassemble knowledge out of the complexities of interiorising experience.
But film's self-subverting potential is on view in the second room ('Yesterday') where Godard includes a striking fragment from Orson Welles' unfinished film Don Quixote. Here the baffled knight confronts 20th-century technology in full armour and on horseback. Welles demonstrates the capacity for film to mingle temporal regimes as effectively as any magic realist novelist, without appearing whimsical or surreal. …