Jean-Luc Godard's in-house skepticism of mainstream cultural discourse has by now reached the level of public performance art; already somewhat famously, his latest film screens abroad without complete subtitle translations, but rather with "Navajo subtitles" assembling three or for key words and topics from the dialogue— "watch no tell time" or "Cinemascope 16-9 uncle"—the effect not so different, ultimately, from the slideshow triptychs projected behind the Talking Heads during "Making Flippy Floppy" in Stop Making Sense.
In Cannes, this had the perhaps intended effect of rendering couple of a number of Americans comically, ragingly indignant (one of them, Todd McCarthy, made nice when the film was picked by the NYFF selection committee on which he himself sits).
But the presumption that there is a fixed meaning being withheld from us is, according to at least one Francophone of my acquaintance, a wrongheaded one. Discussing Film Socialisme in his great, great Cannes round-up for Film Comment, Kent Jones argued as much, and reminded us there's always been plenty about Godard's mental montage that has resisted a literal understanding, legible subtitles or no:
Despite the fact that his thinking has always been relational and associative, his films continue to be misperceived as Rosetta stones in need of decoding. Peter Handke once observed that there are instants in Godard’s cinema which have the clarifying effect of a blade slicing through the curtain of reality. These instants fall within movements of layering and juxtaposition, which are sometimes thrilling but which sometimes result in nothing much beyond layering and juxtaposition. The dead stretches of antic gesturing, the recitations of texts by compliant young people and old curmudgeons, or the recycling of moves from earlier in the film lay the groundwork for the intrusion of another precious instant.
Or, more simply, it's not as if there's going to be subtitle that offers a satisfactory explanation for why the family in one section of Film Socialisme keeps a llama tied to a gas pump.
And I don't mind trying to invent one—I don't mind, that is, being forced to spend not quite two hours at the outer limits of my power of comprehension, grappling with relations and associations that are being less than satisfactorily explained to me. (It might in fact be argued that this is what a lot of great art does.) JLG wants us to feel at sea with his film—which is why one section takes place on a cruise ship. (The film, like the Navajo subtitles, consists of three unconnected but ephemerally related parts: the cruise ship, where a family, international agents of uncertain association, and, briefly, Patti Smith, stroll and converse and film each other above- and belowdecks; the gas station, where a TV news crew dresses up to film what is probably not a dialectial family therapy session; and a stock footage montage culling political iconography from all along the Mediterranean.) Watching the film, we're exactly where Godard wants us, or wants us to realize we are these days: in international waters, receiving more big ideas than we can fully absorb ("light because darkness").
The film is obscure, sure, but not unsubtle—it's in fact very literal, frequently pitched at the lowest common denominator of international understanding: not just those talking-point subtitles but also the broad word-association cultural signifiers in the montage: hieroglyphics for Egypt, the words "right of return" for Palestine, the Odessa Steps sequence for Odessa. Even visually, the film is structured around big elementary particles, ugly exploded viral-digital looking video of cruise-ship revelers intercut in the cruise ship section, otherwise shot with a gorgeously saturated Raoul Coutard-style palette, the blues and yellows practically throbbing. (The gas station, meanwhile, is as bright and sunny an ironic late-capitalist oasis as it was in 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her.) Beginning from the opening credits' citations of philosophers, novelists, artists and others, flashing past too fast to catch 'em all, your experience of Film Socialisme will depend in large part on which parts of Godard's thought process you're previously familiar with, which then serves to define in opposition the rest of the film. As Godard gets older, and stops making sense, it's time for us to start.