Godard's film "Notre Musique" was released in 2004, at the height of the Iraq War. It's a moving hybrid of documentary, drama, journalism, history, music, and poetry on the theme of war. One of the main reasons Godard's post-Breathless films are not widely known is because they challenge our notions of what a movie is. Rather than being linear narratives with a clearly-defined plot, films like "Notre Musique" are experimental, abstract collages packed with information and ideas. The film forces the viewer to think critically, to internally make sense of al the fragmented parts, and this is difficult.
People tend to go to movies for escape or fantasy, to turn our brains off. Godard's films give us just the opposite. "Notre Musique" is difficult, but like a work of great literature or art, it is not interested in being easy. It is interested in challenging the audience to do the hard work of thinking for ourselves.
"Notre Musique" has a three-part structure, loosely based on Dante's Divine Comedy. Part I: Inferno (Hell) is a collage of film footage of war, spanning several decades and continents. Inter-spliced with real film footage are scenes from war movies. The overall effect of this fragmented collage is to show that war is a global/historical human problem. One thing Godard does throughout the film is draw parallels across times and places, to show the interconnectedness of human societies and individuals.
Part II: Purgatory is, by far, the longest part and comprises the bulk of the film. I could relate to this because a few years ago, I self-published and released a memoir of my 20s called An American Comedy, which also used Dante's three-part structure. The longest part of my book is also Purgatory. Hell and Paradise are almost book-ends for the lengthy waiting room of suffering and reflection that is symbolized in Dante's epic by the slow struggle up the mountain of Purgatory. Along his journey, the main character (the poet) wrestles with the past and tries to atone for and understand the trauma that brought him to where he is.
As a character in Godard's film says, "Violence leaves a deep scar." The characters in Purgatory are poets and intellectuals often sitting or standing in various places (an airport terminal, a ruined library, a destroyed bridge) waiting, thinking, discussing, and creating. The film shows the necessity of this slow and painful process of reflection to deal with and understand the bewildering traumas of the past.
One of the most powerful scenes in the film takes place in a bombed-out library in Sarajevo, a place where thousands of books (and humans) were burned and destroyed in the Bosnian civil war in the 1990s. A lonely man sits at a table, flipping through a book. Another man stands near a pile of discarded books. One character says, "Humane people don't start revolutions. They start libraries." Godard (who is now in his 80s and has made dozens of films) brings a lifetime of literature, film, and music knowledge into his films. The movie is packed with quotes from great works of literature. What we need, in the aftermath of such destruction and trauma, are books and writers "to clarify our memories." The only way forward is to truly understand the past, and Godard's characters spend much of the film trying to do that.
I could relate to this notion of trying to clarify the past. For the past couple years, I have been working on researching and writing a local history of my hometown of Fullerton, California, USA. Fullerton has a tragic history involving racism and segregation; however, like the post New-Wave films of Godard, most people don't know about these things (Or, if they do, they don't know how to make sense of them, so they choose not to deal with them). One theme of Godard's film is the necessity of memory in the process of healing.
The final section of "Notre Musique" is Paradise (Heaven). Like Hell, it is quite short compared to Purgatory. It's sort of a closing book-end. Paradise involves a young woman named Olga who was killed in a movie theater and is now in "heaven," which is an island guarded by fences and U.S. soldiers. It is an unsettling and fucked-up sort of paradise, as it is detached from the outside world. When you cut yourself off from the world, you may get safety, but you also get a very isolated, lonely, and empty place. The film urges us to not wait for some otherworldly paradise, but to engage with this real world, with all its trauma and pain. In my own life journey, I have learned that the only way to move forward and to escape the cycle of suffering is to plunge in head-first, to do the difficult (but necessary) work of trying to understand it, and to let that understanding transform who I am and how I live in this world.