by Kathie Smith
Nearly a lifetime ago (or in my case, more than a lifetime ago), Jean-Luc Godard picked up a handheld 16mm camera and made Breathless with a sensibility that amounted to a perfect storm of artistic bravado, structural curiosity, bustling intellect and fearless experimental heart. Breathless and all its orchestrated chaos became a touchstone from which progressive film movements around the globe would be compared and qualified. Even among the films of Godard’s Nouvelle Vague colleagues, the insouciant idiosyncrasies of this crime noir set itself apart, leaving a first feature impression that lives on today (both despite and because of the overwhelming body of work Godard has created since). 54 years later, Godard wields digital 3D in Goodbye to Language 3D with the same creative charisma as he did with 16mm. But where Breathless could be compared to a reckless train that might jump the tracks at any moment, Goodbye to Language exercises control over its often abstract whirlwind of images, ideas, and scenarios.
Walker Art Center
November 7 & 8
Director: Jean-Luc Godard
Producers: Brahim Chioua, Vincent Maraval, Alain Sarde
Writer: Jean-Luc Godard
Cinematographer: Fabrice Aragno
Cast: Roxy Miéville, Héloise Godet, Kamel Abdeli, Richard Chevallier, Zoé Bruneau, Christian Gregori, Jessica Erickson, Marie Ruchat, Jeremy Zampatti, Jean-Luc Godard
Premiere: May 22, 2014 – Cannes Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: October 29, 2014
US Distributor: Kino Lorber
Said scenario, however, is elusive at best, stringing together a series of vignettes that suggest an affair, a murder, and an intimation of freedom (courtesy of a four legged canine docent by the name of Roxy). Split into two threads, labeled “Nature” and “Metaphor,” that are interspersed throughout the runtime, the narrative follows two couples, Josette and Gédéon (Héloïse Godet and Kamel Abdelli) and Ivitch and Marcus (Zoé Bruneau and Richard Chevallier), in various post-coital milieus and conversations. On first viewing, Goodbye to Language is a wave best ridden for the sheer pleasure of the experience—words, conversations, texts, and ideas juxtaposed with a visual cavalcade of technicolored hallucinations, sepia toned memories, and ghost-like dreams that defy the linear logic of storytelling. The themes, tightly woven into a 70-minute package, shoot off like fireworks in various directions and almost immediately move on. Godard’s piece is nothing short of a visual text that unspools with little time to contemplate or reflect until the credits roll.
Within the sporadic flow, shots are partitioned by sudden title cards—often flashing in full tilt 3D—and by momentary bursts of orchestral music. “OH LANGAGE” and “AH DIEUX” alternate in red and white on a black background, creating a strobe effect as if inviting a bit of Las Vegas into this essay on human nature. Godard keeps us in the moment, safeguarding us from the illusion of melodrama, even if it means a little shock therapy. The choice of music also toys with cinema’s addiction to false drama via theatrical score. Godard uses Tchaikovsky’s Slavic March as a musical refrain, but only the first five iconic chords before abruptly cutting it off to silence. He does the same thing with Sibelius’ Sad Waltz and the second movement of Beethoven’s 7th Symphony—both powerful pieces with great emotional textures—only to be lobbed off by Godard before they can prove their grandeur. But like most things in Goodbye to Language, Godard assumes that the Slavic March is part of his audience’s cultural inventory so he can cite their beauty through an abridged quote and then acknowledge his unwillingness to use them as a sympathetic crutch.
But Goodbye to Language should not be regard as intellectual tomfoolery. Although presented with conceptual crevasses almost on a second-by-second basis, it’s delivered with a gentle heart (and not-so-subtle critique) for humanity. If Godard finds beauty in a nude woman, then he finds grace in a dog, and specifically Godard’s own dog, Roxy. Roxy’s place in the story feels independent from the incessant rhetoric of his human masters, regardless of their presence. Roxy clearly represents a conscience uninhibited by economic and emotional marginalization, as her simple exploits are dispersed throughout the movie—romping through the weeds, traversing dangerous waters, and rolling in the snow—all with a genuine joy for life. If Godard truly wants to contemplate saying adieu au langage, he does so through the eternal optimism of man’s best friend. This innate gusto for life (I see it everyday in my own dog) is contrasted with human violence, intoned through images and referenced by texts (Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago and Shelly’s Frankenstein) and historical events (the Holocaust and the Tiananmen Square Massacre).
For all the very well deserved concern about the end of celluloid in both production and exhibition, this is a movie that proves there is a far more cinematic world to be explored with digital than just 40fps or green screen computer effects. Materiality, a term overused in the adoration of 16mm and 35mm film, lives on in digital form thanks to Godard’s playful post-production manipulations that makes video look tactile. Working with an infinite number of filters and adjustments (Instagram on steroids), Godard pushes and pulls color saturation and contrast nearly shot-for-shot to disorienting and beautiful ends.
Far more interesting, however, is the exploitation of 3D technology. 3D relies on two cameras or lenses fixed together that mimic the eye’s ability to perceive depth. In a number of instances, Godard and his cinematographer Fabrice Aragno allow those two cameras to deviate from a fixed position, like the independently moving eyes of a chameleon. The layered effect, two angles on one object, is like wordplay for the eyes—both an assault and an invitation. The most inspired use of this technique (and the most obvious, but only after seeing it) comes midway through Goodbye to Language when a single shot of two people transforms into two, as the man moves away from the woman and one of the cameras follows him. Close one eye and see the woman; close the other and see the man; open them both and have them layered on top of one another—a major metaphoric and visual moment.
There is undeniably a nut to crack in Goodbye to Language, but I most certainly won’t be the one to do it. (Not here and not now, at least.) Personally, I revel in the movie’s ambiguities as abstractions that haunt and inform a subconscious cavern, and one, in my case (and maybe yours too), that is over-stimulated by celluloid dreams. Only when I’m sleeping do my obsessions manifest themselves into unexplainable projections generated by grey matter. This is Godard’s gift (or curse) to his audience—a signature rococo puzzle in cinematic form with different doors for different people meant to be discovered and explored. As for a movie-going experience (likely echoing the same sentiment of those who saw Breathless in 1960), Goodbye to Language is unlike anything you’ve ever seen before.