The pen is mightier than the sword, they used to say, but nowadays the mightiest might well be the image. It’s likely that the Costa Concordia disaster will linger longer in the public imagination because of its ability to furnish such iconic, almost comic Titanic-style images of the ship lying on its side. (Though perhaps the best thing to emerge from this event is not iconic but rather the tragi-comic excuse of the ship’s captain, that he slipped and fell into a lifeboat. Falling, you know, is the essence of laughter.) But one further irony arises from this situation – that this good ship Concordia was the very same that Jean-Luc Godard used for his latest satire of European civilisation, Film Socialisme. Godard’s 2010 film (shot on HD) begins in a petrol station somewhere in the middle of France, and finds its way oneirically (that is to say: without plot, rhyme or reason) to a cruise ship – the now famous, now listed (HA) Concordia, where figures such as Patti Smith and Alain Badiou swan about in high-culture cameos.
Godard, whose work had a shift after the 1968 demonstrations in Paris to become more formally difficult and more critical of French society, particularly its increasing fidelity to capitalism, uses the ship to demonstrate tourism as emblematic of Europe now: the infertile emptiness of idly watching other people live, the fruitless activity of a society in decline. No warship, no ship of discovery, no fast fleet, the cruise ship Concordia simply floats around Odysseus’s old stomping grounds with its low-end, low-budget array of creature comforts — the kind of air-conditioned entertainments upper-class toffs on this isle still snub their noses at (under-floor heating? Bah!). The reference to Odysseus is not some clever name-drop, but rather precisely the kind of past (canonical) culture to which Godard looks and the loss of which he mourns. Film Socialisme, with its section title ‘Quo vadis, Europa?’ (Latin for ‘where are you going, Europe?’), is expressly about the West’s fall from its cultural high points: antiquity, the Renaissance, Beethoven, Arvö Part, the many foreign women he never slept with.
Not that war is absent from Godard’s film; rather, this also forms part of his lament — the film refers, by text that appears on the screen, crucially, not images, to the long-running conflicts (Algeria, Palestine, Yugoslavia, Iraq, Afghanistan) that have been pushed to the margins of Europe’s consciousness while still being fought in its name. Godard has in the past combated this marginality with attempts to utilise mainstream means of dissemination (TV channels and the like) to infiltrate the homes of the very people who do not want to hear what he has to say. Here, however, these references also suggest that Europe has lost a certain backbone that stems from fighting in wars — a comment that chimes slightly right-wing, we have to say (the glorification of armed conflict and all that), but which interestingly Godard articulates in the language of images, a focus that has long been the province of the left: ‘On se regarde dans les guerres comme dans un miroir’, the film’s voice-over says (‘During war one looks at oneself as if in a mirror’). (The focus on looking, the miroir, the sublimation of critical barb into metaphor — how political can political film really be? This is the question that keeps dogging Godard.) Facing up to oneself is a duty Europe no longer exercises, as it slides lower and lower into decay. We find, as the artist Herman Asselberghs writes in a discussion of this film as Godard’s late style (cf Edward Said), Badiou lecturing to an empty room.
But what more fitting end to Godard’s lament for Europe than for this ship itself to become trapped among the rocks of Italy — the toddler bed of Europe’s great civilisation, the land of Virgil and Caesar, Cicero and Horace! — with the captain ignominiously deserting ship. Is this Godard’s latest technical breakthrough — into operatic reality television? Vita longa, ars brevis.