Sometimes it’s hard to say what’s more important: the book you are reading or your random thoughts generated by the reading? the music you are listening to or your seemingly irrelevant memories and emotions brought out by the music? the film you are watching or your feelings (including boredom) aggravated by the image and sound in front of you?

Sometimes it’s even harder to decide what’s the true intention of the artist (author/auteur) behind all his bombast or solemnity: Is he genuinely communicating his ideas and vision, or is he playing with words, images, and sound, simply to elicit responses from his audience? Such is the case with Jean-Luc Godard’s latest, Film Socialism, the very first screening of this year’s Toronto International Film Festival. 

I would not have known if Godard has anything important to say, for the film – mostly in French – was screened almost without subtitle, on purpose. However, as with other Godard’s works, this is a very verbal film. People on screen are talking all the time, yet what they are talking about, I suspect, is totally irrelevant. The only important thing is that they are talking, and you are watching and listening to their talking, and you are thinking, and you are observing your own thoughts in the darkness of the theatre among hundreds of others who may or may well not be thinking what you are thinking about, and you are observing this very last fact at the same time.

Yes, the Ryerson Theatre was packed. I’m sure Godard’s disciples among them were thrilled, for this is an exceedingly handsome film, digital cinematography at its best. If we treat cinema not as a dramatic form but a branch of visual arts, architecture, or music (the film is labeled as “a symphony in three movements”), if we don’t try to contemplate the meanings of the sight and sound in front us – don’t even care to understand the dialogues or voice-over (there is plenty here) and subtitles / intertitles – simply view them as part of overall design, we might see the film as what it is, with all its original beauty.

And I’m sure Cinematheque veterans who are not Godard’s disciples were well-prepared for this test and had a good time in turn.

And I’m sure there are many “newbie” who were completely puzzled and frustrated. The miracle is: although there was a continuing stream of audience fleeing the theatre, most of them stayed.

As I walked out into an autumnal Toronto evening after the screening, I overheard one young lad with lean figure, pale complexion and a big pair of glasses speaking cynically to his friends: “Next year, they will come back …”

Manohla Dargis of the New York Times thought “an improvement in my French and many more fully translated subtitles before I can begin to get a tentative grasp on it”. She was, of course, completely wrong. One might grasp the essence of the film without understanding one word of French, as this reviewer has brilliantly done.

What’s this film to me is not the film itself, but what it bought out in me. Often I don’t judge the film by how enjoyable it is in theatre, but by to what degree it would sharpen my ears and eyes whenI left the theatre. Indeed, Godard’s film has the power to shed new light on the streets outside theatres, and the film itself, because of its overall handsomeness and flashes of exquisteness, is not easily forgettable. For that reason alone, it is a success.

This one-minute trailer of Film Socialism is a masterpiece on its own –  slow it down and you almost have the complete 97-minute film:

 The closest thing in music:

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