Jean-Luc Godard's "Helas Pour Moi" ("Oh, Woe Is Me") is beautiful, terse, perplexing, allusive as it is elusive--and a stunning experience if you're prepared to bring to it near-total alertness and openness. It helps a lot if you're an admirer well versed in the films of the ever-evolving New Wave pioneer, one of the giants of the cinema.
Not a lot can be said for certain about what's going on in this most elliptical of films. It is set in an idyllic Swiss lakeside community both in the present and in unannounced flashes back to an incredible event said to have occurred there in July, 1989. A burly, middle-aged publisher, Abraham Klimt (Bernard Verley), has come to find out whether the body of Simon Donnadieu--which means God-given, hmm--(Gerard Depardieu), proprietor of the local inn, was in fact inhabited briefly by God.
Godard has helpfully stated that his shimmering fable of emotional and spiritual longing in the face of the remorseless decline of faith was in part inspired by Zeus' impersonation of Amphitryon so as to seduce Amphitryon's wife, Alcmene. Yet, there is a decidedly Christian cast to Godard's retelling. (The film's Zeus, barely glimpsed, arrives accompanied by a Mercury carrying a tennis racket.) "Helas pour moi" is what Simon's beautiful wife, Rachel (Laurence Masliah), exclaims when she realizes that she has discovered the "weakness of the flesh" when she was tempted to submit to God in the form of her own husband (who in the meantime may have set off on a trip to Italy to buy a small hotel). But Rachel, helas , is not interested in the promise of immortality in return for her favors.
Godard seems to be creating a paradox, expressing a belief on the one hand that the spirit must be made flesh if we are to know God and a suspicion on the other that such an experience, should it actually happen, may ultimately be merely transient rather than transforming for those who experienced it. The irony here is that the film can evoke an actual sense of spiritual awakening for those watching it, but then Godard insists that the best we can do is to arrive at an image of truth rather than truth itself.
"Helas Pour Moi," so radiantly photographed by Caroline Champtier, unfolds on two levels of reality while alternating between past and present. As in Eugene O'Neill's "Strange Interlude," the film's people, as they go about their daily routines, speak conversationally but also let loose with a sort of stream-of-consciousness barrage of Godard's trademark aphorisms (which also are heard on the soundtrack and written in intertitles on the screen). The film is a tantalizing miracle of economy: Godard will hold a moment as long as it has meaning; otherwise, he has assembled his film as a brisk flow of fragmented images. Yet no one can charge an image with so much emotion, so much thought.
Depardieu and Masliah bring to Simon and Rachel understated portrayals of absolute concentration and passion. Depardieu's God is deep-voiced, and trench-coated like Bogart--that is, if he actually manifests himself as one is tempted to believe he does.
As ferociously demanding as "Helas Pour Moi" is, it is not without Godard's characteristically dry, throwaway humor. Amid a plethora of religious and philosophical propositions, one line pretty much summons up the bemused, confounding spirit of the enterprise: "All the perfumes of Araby cannot remove a nonexistent stain."
* MPAA rating: Unrated. Times guidelines: It includes some nudity, adult themes and style of the utmost complexity.
'Helas Pour Moi'
Gerard Depardieu: Simon Donnadieu
Laurence Masliah: Rachel Donnadieu
Bernard Verley: Abraham Klimt
Jean-Louis Loca: Max Mercure
A Cinema Parallel release of a Franco-Swiss co-production: Vega Film AG (Zurich)/Les Films Alain Sarde (Paris). Writer-director-editor Jean-Luc Godard. Producer Ruth Waldburger. Cinematographer Caroline Champtier. In French with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 41 minutes.
* In limited release at the Sunset 5, Sunset Boulevard at Crescent Heights, West Hollywood. (213) 848-3500.