Remember the “Deep Thoughts” pieces by Jack Handey that used to appear at the end of “Saturday Night Live”? Each ran for about twenty seconds and offered some absurd, deadpan observation that earned a mild chuckle. Jean-Luc Godard’s “In Praise of Love” is like a series of them that runs on for over an hour and a half; the only problem is that it wants you to take it seriously. One is expected to defer to the film because it’s an autumnal piece by an unaccountably revered filmmaker who’s now in his eighth decade, but the unhappy truth is that “Love” is a self-indulgent, chaotic and dull picture, in which thoroughly unsympathetic characters engage in incessant name-dropping and citation of passages from literary texts in an affected effort to elevate the material to a jigh level of supposed sophistication. It’s the embodiment of the worst aspects of Gallic culture, evincing a smug superiority and confusing angst-ridden navel-gazing with genuine profundity. Handey might be proud, with a grin, to call it his own, but you’ll probably wish that Godard had kept his reveries to himself.
The film is in two parts. The first, in black-and-white, has to do with a dour young man named Edgar (dull, undemonstrative Bruno Putzulu) who’s preparing a film about the various stages of love, discussing it with backers and trying to locate a cast for it by interviewing people in sessions that are meant, one supposes, to be coyly humorous and revealing but are actually just nasty and arch. The brief segments of this section, punctuated at irritatingly frequent intervals by pointless titles reading either “About Love” or “About Something”), are filled with pretentious blather apparently intended to raise, repeatedly, issues of time, history and truth. Suddenly the stock changes to garish color digital video, and we’re informed that we’re now two years in the past (apparently Edgar is recollecting an earlier meeting with an actress he’s just learned has died). Here the young man is traveling about the countryside preparing to compose a cantata to Simone Weil. For some reason he gets involved with an elderly couple, resistance fighters during the war, who are engaged in negotiations to sell the rights to their story to Steven Spielberg. The event is occasion for lots of anti-American rhetoric, centering on the way the denizens of a “new” country, without a history of its own, buy up the past of others and then transform it into the phony stuff of a popular culture that then dominates the world. (This complaint comes, of course, from an irascible old Frenchman who based much of his own career on appropriating the conventions of old Hollywood films to his own advantage.) As a whole the picture is apparently designed as a reverie about memory and regret, but the only thing you’ll regret is remembering the experience of sitting through it.
Godard’s film doesn’t really have much to say beyond banalities, but by dressing up its commonplaces in obscurity and cinematic flourish, it may persuade some viewers that it’s a significant statement about something, though few will be able to articulate what. Any praise of this “Love” will derive more from a misplaced sense of reverence for an aging lion of the New Wave than from any intrinsic value in the film itself. There is, however, one of the few pseudo-philosophical observations in the picture that viewers might be tempted to embrace, with a slight change. It comes when dour Edgar remarks (on more than one occasion), “When I think about something, I’m really thinking about something else.” Certainly when I was watching “In Praise of Love,” I was really wanting to be watching some other movie. Others may feel the same.