The film starts with murmurs, and ends with the statement “Maybe nothing was said.” In between, we see a young director named Edgar auditioning actors of all age groups, from all social classes, for an ambitious—eventually failed—film project about love. But the project is not exactly just about love. “Do you understand it's not a story about Eglantine,” he asks his actress, “but a story about a moment in history, about history moving through Eglantine?”
And this is what troubles Edgar: his insistence on historicizing love. He claims that the film has to include people of three age groups, youngsters, adults, and the elderly, to capture how love evolves and erodes with the passage of time and the accumulation of memories. “Or else the project’s dead,” he says to his producer. “It becomes a Julia Roberts film…. Hollywood, not history.” To his dismay, the kind of filmmaking that he despises is taking over. In the second part of the film, he visits an old couple who are veterans from French Resistance. They have just decided to sell their life stories to Steven Spielberg, to be adapted into a blockbuster in which “all the young girls will get undressed.” The old couple’s granddaughter, who wants to to prevent this transaction together with Edgar, asks him, “When did the gaze collapse?”
Edgar doesn’t know. He is disappointed about the state of cinema, but he is equally frustrated about his own inability to make the kind of film he wants. He doesn’t know how to present the complexities of love—or any other emotions—and their connections with history and memory. After all, how can one possibly historicize love? At museums, one sees ancient artifacts with descriptions such as “It was a cooking utensil,” or “It was given from the king to the queen to embody her status,” but one rarely sees descriptions such as “It was kept by its owner because it reminded him of the smell of what his mother would cook for him on a cold winter morning,” or “It was given from the king to the queen because he was madly in love with her.” It would be unfair to blame archeologists for such exclusions, since emotions are by their nature amorphous and elusive, less easily reconstructed than material objects. Nevertheless, one should not forget that emotions are in fact events that happen in history, and when she loses their trace she is losing a whole dimension of truth that is integral to any historical artifact. “It’s strange, in fact, how things take on meaning when the story ends,” Edgar says to the veteran’s granddaughter as he recalls a breakup with an old lover. “It’s because History is coming in, with a big H,” she says.
The whole point of Edgar’s project is to preserve emotions as a dimension of history, but he too loses trace of them as they dissolve in time. However, as the film unfolds, it nevertheless takes the shape of a history of love: that of Edgar’s own. We realize that he is in love with the veterans’ granddaughter and that he wants her to play the protagonist in his project. We also get a clearer grasp of the narrative: The first part of “In Praise of Love,” in which Edgar is auditioning actors, takes place in the present time, and the second part, in which Edgar meets the veterans’ granddaughter, happened two years ago and is recalled by Edgar as he struggles with his project. In a twist typical of the film’s director Jean-Luc Godard, the present is shot in velvety black-and-white film, and the past in almost Fauvist color video, which could have been a counterintuitive decision for most other filmmakers. The visual experimentations blend the boundary between past, present, memory, and imagination—the blown-out video footage reminds the audience of the decay of memories, while shooting the present in black and white seems to suggest that every present moment will eventually become a point in history and memory (Can one really distinguish the two?). The second part of the film helps the audience understand Edgar’s motivation in the first, and eventually we realize that this is not a history of love as it actually is, but a history of love as it is remembered, recalled, and reconstructed by Edgar. This is why he can never make his film: As soon as emotions are recorded in an external, objective, medium, they lose the subjective qualities that define them. They can only exist in the boundary of one’s body.
This is Godard’s answer to Edgar’s question of historicizing love, one that is grim but not completely devoid of hope. Even if emotions can not be preserved by external media and have to eventually fade away, we as human beings are vessels of our own memories. As we keep on living, we carry with us a portion of human memories that cannot be replicated, and our personal histories—constructed by emotions—connect to the present by impacting who we are and how we perceive the world. Towards the end of the film, Edgar makes an observation that he repeats in the opening, “You can only think about something if you think of something else. For instance, I see a landscape that is new to me, but it’s new to me because I compare it in my mind to another landscape, an older one, one that I knew.”
—Staff writer Tianxing V. Lan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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