The film is amazing, one of the least appreciated treasures of Godard's career, and it is not much like any of his other films; perhaps it's a bit like an update of Masculine Feminine with the Maoist politics and more developed film critique of the "Letter to Jane," but that's a rough analogy at best. We might better think of it as a hybrid of Beckett and Debord, merging some of the minimalist aesthetics and intellectual foundationalism of Waiting for Godot with the overt media criticism of The Society of the Spectacle (and the techniques Debord used in his film version of that book are much in evidence here).
We see before us a pair of student-militant narrators, Jean-Pierre Leaud and Juliet Berto as Emile (Rousseau) and Patricia (Lumumba), on a blacked-out stage. They seem to be educating themselves, and us, in how to understand the world, and how to change it, over the course of three years (the first devoted to observing and theorizing, the second to self-critique, and the third to creation of experimental films). The film, and the education, seems to be their nighttime project, perhaps also their splinter group and/or love affair; they talk sometimes about leaving to go back to their more regular days of protest. Mostly, they voice their political and theoretical reflections over and between a sometimes breakneck montage of footage, sound, and image. There is too much material here to do more than gesture to everything it invokes: there are explicit nods to, and quotations from, everyone from Descartes to Derrida, Marx and Mao to "Marie-Claire." The sources of their ideas are usually what we might call philosophy of language, film theory and criticism, or third-worldist Marxism, but to list them this way implies a separation and systematization that the film quite pointedly refuses to provide. The film is often called a "manifesto," but apart from its politics this doesn't really describe what it says and shows to us: it isn't really declarative or polemical enough to merit the title, and it raises many more complicated questions than it gives simple answers. This would be a poor place to start with Godard for any but the most committedly theoretical cinephile, but it echoes and provides useful background for some of his more recent works, Histoire(s) du Cinema and Notre Musique particularly. And it is a rewarding work of film theory and cultural criticism in itself if you watch it with patience and are able to pick up on at least some of its allusions and quotations.
This DVD produced by Koch Lorber, however, is a travesty. The film is dark, scratched, and grainy, apparently having received minimal digital cleaning and restoration; there are some visible interlacing artifacts. And the subtitling is really astoundingly bad, perhaps the worst I've ever seen; on-screen text often goes untranslated, as does voice-over when it doesn't match the image. The subtitles we do have are riddled with lazy mistakes (e.g. "RAND Corporation" becomes "big corporation," because the subtitler wasn't listening closely, and several times a line repeated verbatim is subtitled differently the second time around). And, what's worse, the titles are full of solecisms and errors because the philosophically illiterate subtitler apparently didn't recognize the relevant quotations, allusions, or contexts. It's clear that subtitling this film, like most of Godard's work, is a difficult task, because of the difficulty of its language, its ideas, and its cinematography -- but surely any of a hundred film scholars would have been happy to help Koch Lorber save themselves from this embarrassment. This DVD is a truly shoddy job, and while we should be glad to be able to see the film at all, it deserves better. English-language viewers should watch this with caution, because the subtitles are often simply wrong.