What We Learn We Teach Ourselves: Jean-Luc Godard’s Film Socialisme

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Jean-Luc Godard skipped the press conference for his Film Socialisme when it screened at the Cannes film festival in 2010. However, not long afterwards, he held an almost two-hour long question-and-answer session with an audience that had just seen the film. A viewer asked Godard about the prominent role of black women in the film. As is Godard’s wont, he gave an answer that was apparently to a different question.

Godard responded by praising a book he had recently read, Jacques Rancière’s The Ignorant Schoolmaster (1987). In this work, Rancière examines the work of Joseph Jacotet, an early-19th-century French educator who believed that all students could teach themselves what they wanted to learn. While a teacher can guide students to a subject, it is not the teacher’s knowledge and transmission of this knowledge which constitutes education. Illiterate parents can “teach” their young to read by offering materials and challenges to willing children who can teach themselves. If a student depends on the teacher to explain the subject, this is stultifying and generates not learning, but a hierarchy of teacher and student. Explication by experts renders audiences unequal and powerless, preventing them from developing the qualities and confidence necessary to educate themselves.

The two women of color to whom the questioner referred, an African named Constance (Nadège Beausson-Diagne) and a camera operator filming for a European television network (Eye Haidara), are arguably the most perceptive adult characters in the film. Godard has these women of African origin take the roles of Jacotet’s model pupils, that is to say individuals not fully bound by European authority relationships, but people who want to learn. They make the best, most successful students for Godard. Film Socialisme is a triptych. Part one is set on a cruise ship traveling the Mediterranean with many partying, dancing, and gambling European tourists, seemingly oblivious to the heavies with (other) things on their minds who are being filmed by Godard. On the ship, it is Constance who gets perhaps the cleverest and most Godardian lines in the script. She is told some facts about French history during World War II, but teaches herself much more: “Poor Europe. Not purified, but corrupted by the suffering [la souf-France, a pun]. Not exalted, but humiliated by reconquered liberty.”