“I think what (Godard’s) talking about — and this is one of the reasons the dog Roxy is very prominent in the film — is that he’s trying to get people to look at the world in a kind of an unspoiled way. There are hints throughout the film that animal consciousness is kind of closer to the world than we are, that language sets up a barrier or filter or screen between us and what’s really there. And although the film is full of language, talk, printed text and so on, nevertheless I think there’s a sense he wants the viewer to scrape away a lot of the ordinary conceptions we have about how we communicate and look at the world afresh.”
— David Bordwell, interviewed on NPR
When I started my annual tradition, in December of 2010, of writing a blog post that anointed a certain director as White City Cinema’s “Filmmaker of the Year,” I thought I was doing so with an impish sense of humor: I wanted to give these “awards” to the directors whose films I had spent the most time watching and thinking about over the course of the calendar year, knowing full well that the directors in question, whose work would be extremely relevant to me personally, would also most likely be dead or have their best-known work decades behind them. (Hence, Fritz Lang, on the strength of the “Complete Metropolis” restoration, was my inaugural winner, followed by Orson Welles in 2011, Alfred Hitchcock in 2012 and John Ford in 2013.) I’m happy to announce that this year my Filmmaker of the Year award goes to the soon-to-be 84-year-old Jean-Luc Godard but not on the basis of past glories — although I certainly could have done that if only to celebrate the occasion of Rialto Pictures’ digital restoration and theatrical re-release of Alphaville, which arguably looks more prescient today than in 1965, and Cohen Media Group’s essential, extras-stacked Blu-rays of two of Godard’s best latter-day films: Hail Mary (1984) and For Ever Mozart (1996). No, JLG is, for me, the filmmaker of 2014 solely because of his revolutionary new 3D film, Goodbye to Language, which had its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival in May and which I was extremely fortunate to see in its sole Wisconsin screening on the evening of November 13th (a benefit fundraiser for the University of Wisconsin’s Cinematheque). I concur completely with film scholar David Bordwell, who introduced the screening I attended, when he said that it is both the best new film he has seen all year as well as the best 3D film he has ever seen.
While Godard has been a restless innovator for over half a century, his first foray into 3D feature filmmaking has been uncommonly fruitful, resulting in one of his most visually exciting movies. In an interview with the Canon camera company earlier this year, Godard spoke about his attraction to the 3D format by saying, “It is still a place where there are no rules.” In Goodbye to Language, Godard puts his money where his mouth is by intentionally breaking what little 3D rules there are (i.e., one should not allow too much separation between background and foreground objects, one should not allow more than six centimeters between the two cameras being used, etc.). As a result, Godard’s film is as far away as possible from the kind of banal and limited-in-conception 3D effects that one sees in contemporary Hollywood movies with 100 million dollar-plus budgets (where the actors frequently appear superimposed over flat-looking CGI backdrops). Instead, Godard and his cinematographer Fabrice Aragno use stereoscopic cinematography the way one imagines Orson Welles might have — to enhance the natural depth of field of an already deep-focus image; in some of the breathtaking seascape shots, for instance, the horizon appears to stretch out to infinity. But Goodbye to Language‘s most revelatory moment is one that so profoundly merges form and content that it has inspired spontaneous applause and laughter at many of the film’s screenings to date (including the Cannes premiere and the Madison show I attended): a 3D image of three characters splits apart to create two separate 2D images when one of the cameras in Godard’s homemade 3-D camera rig pans to follow two of the characters as they walk towards a lake while the other camera remains trained on the man who stays behind. The two separate images then resolve themselves back into a single 3D image when the three characters are reunited. To witness this retina-bursting shot on a theater screen is to witness the language of cinema expanding before one’s very eyes. It also renders utterly meaningless the possibility of watching a 2D version of the film, which takes the act of seeing and the concept of borders — whether linguistic, geographical or artistic — as its primary subjects.
Like most of Godard’s long-form work from the 1980s onwards, Goodbye to Language had an unusually long gestation period and grew out of other projects. Several ideas seem to stem from Film Socialisme, including the earlier film’s throwaway line “And when it comes time to talk about equality, I’ll tell you about crap,” which is greatly elaborated on here as a visual joke invoking Rodin’s “Thinker.” More substantially, Goodbye to Language has its origins in a 2006 museum exhibit entitled Voyage(s) en utopie, Godard, 1946-2006, for which the director wrote a “statement of purpose” that read, in part, “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?” (a Cartesian inquiry that itself has roots in Film Socialisme). Goodbye to Language recycles this question and also seeks to answer it with a resounding “no” by offering a philosophical meditation on the fractured nature of identity in our era of mass communication. Godard pointedly shows, through an impossibly rich tapestry of stereoscopic images and sounds, how language and technology have conspired to create barriers that separate humans not only from each other but also from themselves. I say “humans” because, although the film uses a bifurcated structure to tell the stories of two crumbling romantic relationships (represented by actors Héloïse Godet and Kamel Abdelli in the first half and Richard Chevallier and Zoé Bruneau in the second), the real “star” of Goodbye to Language is Godard’s mixed-breed dog Roxy, who is frequently depicted frolicking in nature, commanding both the most screen time and serving as the subject of some of the film’s most dazzling 3D effects. The shots of Roxy’s handsome snout in the maw of Godard’s camera, which convey an overwhelming feeling of love for the animal on the part of his owner/director, are so rapturously beautiful that they may make you want to cry. The film ends by juxtaposing the sounds of a dog barking with that of a baby wailing on the soundtrack, thus linking Roxy not only to nature but, implicitly, to a state of unspoiled innocence that humans possess only prior to learning to speak.
The main idea that I took away from this dense and allusive film — at least on first viewing — is that Godard believes the cinema itself has become a language that imprisons viewers through its technological inflexibility and over-reliance on traditional narrative structure. At one point, a female says, “In Russian, Kamera means prison,” a line that is complimented by a recurring shot of Ivitch (Bruneau’s character) standing behind a grate of metal bars with a lake in the background behind her. Ivitch grips the bars with her hand, which, thanks to Godard’s 3D camera, seems almost impossibly far in front of her. A man’s hand soon appears in the frame, gripping the bars on the other side of the grate. This image of imprisonment plays out like the negative version of the “empty hands” shots that recur throughout Nouvelle Vague (1990). But Goodbye to Language is thankfully much more than a movie about watching movies; it is also, as David Bordwell suggests, about how to see the world. In another incredibly striking shot, a little boy and a little girl run through a green grassy field beneath a hyper-saturated blue sky. A female voice tells us in voice-over that when she was a girl she “saw dogs all over” while her lover saw “the clouds and the sky.” The implication is that children look at nature with a sense of wonderment that adults lack (an idea the film shares with Pascale Ferran’s delightful Bird People). By contrast, the lead adult characters, all of whom are introduced in a prologue in an open-air book market, are depicted reading aloud texts from various books and an iPhone — locked into self-imposed isolation and not listening to each other. Later, one of the couples contemplates salvaging their relationship, and presumably regaining a sense of wonder, through the act of having a child or adopting a dog. If Goodbye to Language feels more optimistic than Godard’s other recent work, in spite of some disturbing asides about political and domestic violence, this is undoubtedly because the possibilities of 3D have allowed him to see the world afresh.
Apart from its artistic quality, Goodbye to Language has also established itself as something of a zeitgeist movie (at least for those of us who care passionately about cinema) through the mere fact of its existence. It is yet one more example, and perhaps the most profound such instance since 1987’s King Lear, of Godard throwing a wrench into the cinematic apparatus by making a movie that demands to be seen while simultaneously resisting easy commodification. It is Godard’s highest-profile film in quite some time — it won the Jury Prize at Cannes and has earned rave reviews from many mainstream American critics, including Manohla Dargis in the New York Times and Michael Phillips in the Chicago Tribune). During its first weekend alone, playing on only two screens in New York City, it won the “specialty box office” and made more money than Godard’s previous feature, Film Socialisme, did in its entire 20-week run. Yet in spite of the fact that Goodbye to Language has a U.S. distributor, the always-enterprising Kino/Lorber, and despite there being many U.S. theaters that would like to show it, the film is proving hard to see; so few American “arthouses” are equipped with 3D projectors that Kino/Lorber’s patchwork theatrical release schedule, which as of this writing still omits major markets like Chicago, has been the source of several hand-wringing editorials (see here, here and here). In an era when independent American and foreign-language movies are receiving ever-quicker assignments to the “Video On Demand” graveyard, Goodbye to Language feels like a form of protest (whether conscious on the director’s part or not). By creating an “art film” that can only be properly experienced in palaces devoted to mainstream “entertainment,” Godard has exposed the increasingly large gulf between such silly concepts and made a movie whose true viewership would seem to be some imaginary but more enlightened audience of the future.
Goodbye to Language rating: 10
My personal top 10 favorite Jean-Luc Godard films (in chronological order):
1. Vivre sa vie [My Life to Live] (1962)
2. Le Mepris [Contempt] (1963)
3. Alphaville (1965)
4. Pierrot le fou (1965)
5. Weekend (1967)
6. Prenom Carmen [First Name: Carmen] (1983)
7. Hail Mary (1984)
8. Nouvelle Vague [New Wave] (1990)
9. Histoire(s) du Cinema (1988-1998)
10. Adieu au langage [Goodbye to Language] (2014)
You can watch Kino/Lorber’s Goodbye to Language trailer via YouTube below: