I was fortunate to see two press screenings of Jean-Luc Godard’s Goodbye to Language in 3D this week in advance of the review I’m writing for Cine-File. Including the screening I caught in Wisconsin last year, this means that I’ve now seen the film three times from three different perspectives: the front row, the back row and the middle row of the theater. (Each position has its advantages but I recommend sitting as far back as possible on a first viewing — the better to “take it all in.”) I also feel that, after three viewings, I have a much better handle on what Godard is doing with this movie than when I first wrote about it in November; although Goodbye to Language is loose and wild and full of intellectual provocations and poetic flights of fancy — and it is absolutely possible to enjoy the film purely by grooving on Godard’s audacious and experimental use of image and sound — I should also point out that it does tell something of a story, one that is artfully chopped up and sprinkled across the 70-minute running time along with all of the fragmented poetic and philosophical ruminations. Many critics writing about the movie, aided no doubt by the cryptic synopsis written by Godard for the press kit, have pointed out that it’s about “a man and a woman” fighting. A closer look at the film reveals that it’s actually about two different couples who happen to look and act very much alike and who paradoxically may be two versions of the same couple. I think Godard’s idea here is to offer a portrait of a male/female relationship as a metaphor for 3D cinema, or perhaps it’s the other way around — that he’s using the 3D image, which consists, of course, of two separate images captured by two cameras placed side by side, as a metaphor for male/female relationships.
Goodbye to Language is divided into two alternating sections: “Nature” and “Metaphor.” Every time the number “1” appears as a title card onscreen (the “Nature” section), it is followed by scenes depicting the relationship of characters named Josette and Gedeon. Every time the number “2” appears as a title card onscreen, it is followed by scenes depicting the relationship of characters named Ivitch and Marcus. (First-time viewers looking to distinguish the characters may want to note that Josette has a scar above her upper lip and Ivitch doesn’t, while of the two men only Gedeon appears to be of Middle-Eastern origin.) Similarities abound: the women in both sections mention having ties to Africa where, they suggest, they were witness to some sort of political violence; both women are also married to a German man (perhaps the same man, who appears in only one scene); both couples can be seen conversing in the nude in a living room while clips from classic movies play on television in the background; and there are almost identical scenes of both men sitting on the toilet and talking to the women about equality. There is only one scene in which all four of these characters appear in the same location at the same time, a scene set at an outdoor book market. We see shots from this scene scattered throughout the movie, with the same action occasionally being repeated but captured from different vantage points. In this scene, the German husband appears brandishing a gun and angrily confronts Ivitch while she is conversing with her former teacher Mr. Davidson, a man who bears a strong resemblance to Godard. The husband then shoots someone offscreen. Although we see the victim lying face down in a pool of blood, we never get a clear look at his face. Did the husband shoot the “boyfriend?” If so, was it Gedeon, Marcus or somehow both men at the same time?
There is also a third section of Goodbye to Language, a kind of epilogue that begins with a title card reading “3D.” This brief section depicts the relationship between Jean-Luc Godard and Anne-Marie Mieville, whose voices are heard on the soundtrack but whose faces are not seen (although I have my suspicions that the old man’s hands that can be seen dipping a paintbrush into a tray of watercolors may be those of JLG). There is also an exceedingly lovely shot in this section of two empty chairs facing a television monitor displaying only static, which may be seen as a kind of “in absentia” self-portrait of Godard and his longtime companion and most important collaborator (Mieville did not co-direct this film, as she occasionally has with other Godard works in recent decades, but her name does appear in the closing credits among the honor roll of writers — alongside Faulkner, Artaud, Freud, et al — who are quoted throughout the movie). Is Godard perhaps saying that the images of this “third couple,” whose relationship has successfully endured for over 40 years, is somehow a synthesis of the images of the two unhappy couples we saw earlier? I think only their dog Roxy (the film’s true star) knows for sure, and he’s not telling, but I stick by my initial assertion that this is Godard’s most optimistic work in a long time. My Cine-File review will appear next Friday, the same day that Goodbye to Language opens at the Gene Siskel Film Center.
Speaking of Cine-File, my review of Ana Lily Amirpour’s misleadingly marketed and much-hyped “Iranian vampire western” A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night was posted there today. I’m not as high on it as a lot of folks but I think it’s an impressive and stylishly made first feature and I do recommend that you see it: http://cine-file.info/list-archive/2015/JAN-15-1.html
January 10th, 2015 at 6:22 am
Thanks so much for this thorough and enthusiastic introduction to Goodbye To Language. I feel that I shall read it over and over again if I decide to take the plunge and see it at the Siskel. I wonder if the magic of the film you hint at so nicely will be lost on someone who has not followed the vagaries of JLG’s career as closely as you have.
Still, this intro had piqued my interest. I may take the plunge.
Silly but practical question: are 3D glasses needed?
January 10th, 2015 at 9:08 am
I highly recommend that you see it, Mitchell. If nothing else, you will see 3-D used in ways that no one else has ever used it before! And, yes, the glasses are required.
April 29th, 2015 at 1:30 pm
I made the huge mistake of watching it on Netflix streaming, where it is obviously in 2D. I would say it shouldn’t even be offered that way. I missed it in 3D at the Siskel but now I really want to see it in 3D because it is dreadful in 2D. Well, still intriguing, but terribly odd.
December 30th, 2015 at 10:19 am
[…] review here. More thoughts here. Capsule review of the Blu-ray […]