Goodbye to Language (2014) — Image via kinolorber.com

Goodbye to Language

Directed by Jean-Luc Godard (2014)

I will start by admitting that, before attending this weekend’s screening of Goodbye to Language (Adieu au langage) at the Walker Art Center, I had not seen any films by Jean-Luc Godard more recent than 1972’s Brechtian agitprop opus Tout va bien and its wacky essay-film sidekick Letter to Jane. In the 42 years since then, Godard has made some 60 features, shorts, and videos, none of which I have ever sought out. But Goodbye to Language, Godard’s first 3D film, received more than the usual amount of buzz after sharing the Jury Prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, and I was intrigued enough to give it a shot. What I saw was a deliriously provocative assault on both established and emerging cinematic conventions, cramming an immense volume of conceptual and visceral material into an action-packed 70 minutes.

Goodbye to Language (2014) — Image via kinolorber.comWhat can be said to exist of the primary plot of Goodbye to Language revolves around two parallel couples — Josette (Héloise Godet) and Gédéon (Kamel Abdeli), and Ivitch (Zoé Bruneau) and Marcus (Richard Chevallier) — who each react to threats of violence from the women’s respective husbands, argue about philosophy, walk around naked, fart (yes, fart), and generally try and fail to communicate with one another. In between and surrounding their opaque stories, we encounter the habitués of a bookseller’s stand; Mary and Percy Shelley accompanied by Lord Byron; and Godard’s dog, Roxy, who wanders around the outdoors, seemingly bemused at the events of the rest of the film.

Godard’s use of 3D is, naturally, one of the most commented-upon aspects of Goodbye to Language. At times, the film presents us with exceptionally sharp, deep, naturalistic images. More frequently, however, Godard seems to be seeking out ways to shatter the illusion of stereoscopic technology. For instance, he often places objects — blades of grass, table legs, raindrops on a windshield, etc. — so close that they are either only visible to one of the twin cameras or represented by two irreconcilable images. Similarly, there will often be a glare or reflection that only one eye sees. And most famously, at two points in the film, the two cameras diverge, forcing the viewer to attempt to literally see two images of two people in two different places at the same time. It sounds like a gimmick, but when you experience it, something about the seemingly abstract concept comes to life. It also hurts, but thankfully not for long.

Goodbye to Language (2014) — Image via kinolorber.com3D is far from the only convention Godard attacks, though. As he did in the 60s, but even more so, he cuts in all the wrong places, creating a collage of images and sounds that always seems a little off balance. In the soundtrack, he seems to delight in selecting pieces of music that normally gain their power by accumulation (Tchaikovsky’s Marche Slave, the Allegretto from Beethoven’s 7th, Sibelius’s Valse triste, etc.) and cutting them off suddenly, making them sound more plodding than profound. He also, perhaps setting up a parallel between the novel illusion of 3D and the familiar illusion of stereo sound, has one channel or another give out or start clipping at various points. And then there is Godard’s approach to storytelling, which seems devised to ensure that the viewer will be as frustrated as all the characters are.

All the characters except Roxy, that is. Godard’s New Wave colleague Chris Marker one said that “a cat is never on the side of power.” Godard might reply that a dog is never on the side of language. Roxy’s raw experience of the forest, lake, and stream contrasts with everyone else’s failed attempts to interpret what is going on around them. And probably not coincidentally, we the audience, who do not have the advantage (?) of being dogs, never get to see Roxy in “perfect” 3D; there is always something a little off with the foreground images, the colors, or the focus. Is Godard saying that Roxy’s experience is more authentic than our own, or is he bemoaning humanity’s abandonment of language and reversion to a doglike state? Maybe a little of both. Or maybe he’s just having a laugh. After all, even Roxy has dreams.

Goodbye to Language (2014) — Image via kinolorber.comKino Lorber is reportedly having trouble securing U.S. theatrical runs for Goodbye to Language because the theaters that want to show it aren’t set up for 3D and the theaters that are set up for 3D don’t want to show it. That’s a shame, because it is really a film that demands to be seen in theater in its intended 3D format. Hopefully it will return to the Twin Cities so more people can have that experience. Godard’s film is pretentious as hell, but it seems to know that, and if you accept it on its own terms, it has plenty to offer the mind and the senses.

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Eric Prindle

administers Bad Entertainment. He is also an attorney who leads a team of legal marketing copywriters at FindLaw. He is not Eric Prindle, the mixed martial arts fighter.