Godard's ontological Dante quote in the screening scene (at 4:37) of Le Mépris "Learn whence you came; you were not meant to be, but to discover knowledge and morality" was, it would seem, selected for its anti-Cartesianism, a position that Godard would continue to revisit thereafter. Godard came of age when Sartre's Being and Nothingness was popular, and though he was and is influenced by him, his unease with Sartrean ontology was most directly expressed in 1967's La Chinoise (right), which included "a wall of shame that serves as .. archery.. adorned with a collage of images of Descartres, Sartre's book on Descartes, Himmler (inscribed Emmanuel Kant), the poet Novalis, Lyndon Johnson, Kosygin, and Leonid Brezhnev." In 2004, Godard proposed an exhibit at the Pompidou based on "a question (by Emmanuel Levinas): in the 'I think, therefore I am' is the 'I' of 'I am' no longer the same as the 'I' of 'I think,' and why? .. The project.. will seek to respond to this kind of question, more profoundly than the philosopher, in a sort of proof by nine courses.. to show and to demonstrate several aspects that have made and unmade 'la cinematographie..'"
Film Socialisme can be interpreted in part as a realization of this project, as it contains several ontological quips, including "Simone Weil, after Franco's victory when she learned the Germans had taken Paris, declared: 'A great day for Indochina.' You see, with the verb 'to be', the lack of reality becomes flagrant..." and encloses Alain Badiou, who wrote in 1988 "A post-Cartesian doctrine of the subject is unfolding" and "mathematics is ontology" into vertically aligned shots which develop an analogical relationship to the ideas he expresses. From overhead, Badiou says in a lecture: "Geometry as origin. The origin is always what one returns to. There has been, for decades, especially in Mathematics a return to Geometry. The idea is not that Geometry would return to its origin but rather that we return to Geometry, as origin and participate in the return to Geometry." The film cuts to a landscape of a rocky shoreline with the narrator's voiceover "The poor things. The only thing they own is the name that we impose on them" and then tourists looking at a historic city from a bridge "There's nothing more convenient than a text. We have only books to put into books, but when we must put reality in a book, and looking below the surface, we must put reality in reality."
1972's Letter to Jane's* voiceovers include "Uncle Bertolt came up with five difficulties with telling the truth back in his time." A Brechtian attempt to "put reality in reality" can't be a spoiler, so I can upload Film Socialisme's closing montage - which I would venture to guess, with the Markeresque use of Potemkin footage, the visual of Racine's Principles of Tragedy, and recitation of Phèdre suggests, is a revisitation of the arguments and models set forth in his 1952 Cahiers du Cinéma essay "Defense and Illustration of Classical Construction," where he refuted André Bazin's contention that the long take contained more truth content than montage:
I would like to note certain points common to the art of the eighteenth century and the mise-en-scène of recent years. Firstly, the attitude of the artist to nature: he acknowledges nature as art's principle model. And then in the fact that it was not the cinema which inherited a narrative technique from the novel, but the novel which inherited an art of dialogue - lost, one should add, since Corneille? Oh! how many imagine the Bérénice, the Phèdre of their dreams, leaving the trace of her tears on her screen. But I fear that harmony, even of the most beautiful song, will not suffice this most virtuous of the arts: it also needs to be encumbered with truth, to correct - in Delacroix's fine phrase - the reality of that perspective in which the eye takes too much pleasure not to want to falsify it. By this I mean it will not be content with imitating a reality 'seized at random' (Jean Renoir)
That "harmony.. needs to be encumbered with truth" is revisited when the soundtrack is mixed with the music that accompanies tour boats to Odessa, preceded by the voice over (before this clip) "During his second course at the New School in New York, Roman Jakobson shows during the winter of 1942-43, that it is impossible to separate sound from meaning and that only the concept of the phoneme can solve this mystery." Rod Smith's 2003 Music and Honesty contains "my/ oft inner floated mesquite/ self's Ismene suddenness/ is known spirals sleep and/ clear" which I'm certain without a doubt is where Godard got the idea to relate phonemes to Racinian personae out of context, even though like Balzac and Gide he isn't in the three opening credits frames full of authors quoted in the film.
Another vertical sight gag is used in describing the dialectic:
Voice Over: As the whole of these parts, where the sum of these parts, at a given moment, denies - as each contains the whole - the parts we are considering: as much as this part denies them, as the sum of the parts, again becoming the whole, becomes the whole of the linked parts.
Badiou (sitting on a spiral staircase, shouting): I'll train these two!
VO: Dialectical thinking is first of all, in the same movement, the study of a reality, inasmuch as it is part of the whole, inasmuch as it denies this whole, and inasmuch the whole contains it, conditions it and denies it, inasmuch as, consequently, it is at once positive and negative in relationship to the whole, inasmuch as its movement must be destructive and conservative movement in relation to the whole.
Scenes at gas stations appear repeatedly in Godard's films: Hail Mary is set there, and important action takes place there in Pierrot le fou, Weekend, La Chinoise (below), Le Mépris, etc. From the gas station section, later in the film:
"Please don't use the verb "to be".
"There, use the verb "to have" and things will go much better for France.
"---- Did you find that in Balzac, Flo?
"--- Florine. If you make fun of Balzac, I will kill you."
The gas station attendant (below) is reading Balzac's Lost Illusions**, the tragicomedy Lukács was talking about when he wrote: "Hegel saw clearly, in connection with Diderot (Rameau's Nephew, a precursor to Lost Illusions), that the voice of historical evolution is heard, not in the isolated portrayal of what is good, but in the negative, in what is evil and perverse. According to Hegel, the perverse consciousness sees the connection - while the illusory good has to be content with incidental and isolated details,"*** while flanked by a llama. Eric Bentley wrote "in Brecht's world, badness is active, goodness is passive."
The Dardenne Brothers also name Levinas as a primary influence. The most famous essay on Levinas, Derrida's "Violence and Metaphysics" came out a few years after Le Mépris, describing Levinas' post-Cartesianism as "thought (that) can make us tremble.. which.. no longer seeks to be a thought of Being and phenomenality, makes us dream of an inconceivable process of dismantling and dispossession," like one character's proposal for the post-Cartesian gas station. Godard's closing montage reflects Levinas' view of Greece, like others before him: "the medium.. in which all truth is reflected - Greek civilization, and to what it produced, to the logos, to the coherent discourse of reason, to life in a reasonable State. This is the true grounds for all understanding." Derrida adds: "Such a site of encounter cannot only offer occasional hospitality to a thought which would remain foreign to it. And still less may the Greek absent himself, having loaned his house and his language.." Godard: "You see, with the verb "to be", the lack of reality becomes flagrant. For example: Soon we will be in Barcelona. It would be better to say: Barcelona will welcome us soon."
* At 35:25 of Letter to Jane, the VO: ".. before the talkies, films had a materialist standpoint. The actors said, 'I am film, therefore I think, at least I think of the fact that I am being filmed. It's because I exist that I think.' After the talkies, there was a New Deal between the matter being filmed and thought. The actor begain saying 'I think that I am an actor, therefore I am film. It is because I think that I am. I think, therefore I am.'"
Godard's statement in the voiceover that photography's split second of representation was more easily manipulated by captions than the moving image came eight years before Barthes contradicted it in Camera Lucida: "I was overcome by an 'ontological' desire: I wanted to learn at all costs what Photography was 'in itself'..In the Photograph, the event is never transcended for the sake of something else.. it is.. the This.. the Occasion, the Encounter, the Real, in its indefatigable expression.. a photograph cannot be transformed philosophically.." Later: "All the world's photographs formed a labyrinth. I knew that at the center of this Labyrinth I would find nothing but this sole picture, fulfilling Nietzsche's prophecy: 'A labyrinthine man never seeks the truth, but only his Ariadne.' The Winter Garden Photograph (not shown) was my Ariadne, not because it would help me discover a secret thing (monster or treasure) but because it would tell me what constituted the thread which drew me towards Photography."
** The other books that appear in the film are Gide's Straight is the Gate, with a title taken from the Sermon of the Mount, about an upbringing preventing love, and Mahfouz' Akhenaten, Dweller in Truth.
*** Lukács also says Balzac's "social ideal was that compromise between aristocratic landowner and bourgeois capitalist.. when he censured the attitude of the French aristocracy, he based his criticism on an idealized conception of the English Tory nobility."