Goodbye to Language (2014)
Goodbye to Language is a crazy quilt of the obsessions of Jean-Luc Godard. War imagery collides with domestic hostility collides with footage of the filmmaker’s dog. The scenes change like channels on some spastic, possessed television. For many, the film may play like unwatchable chaos – all noise and no signal. Getting on its wavelength requires a certain level of masochism. You have to enjoy, to some degree, getting provoked and assaulted by Jean-Luc Godard. I’m here to tell you that it’s possible.
Godard is that rare filmmaker who’s grown more jagged-edged with age. Could the man ever go soft? More than 50 years after he popularized the jump cut to disrupt the film-watching experience, Godard continues to antagonize us with moving images that look nothing like the ones we consume on a daily basis.
For many, the film may play like unwatchable chaos – all noise and no signal. Getting on its wavelength requires a certain level of masochism. You have to enjoy, to some degree, getting provoked and assaulted by Jean-Luc Godard.
The difference between peak-period Godard and the 83-year-old of today, however, comes down to a line from Goodbye to Language: “I hate characters.” Contemporary Godard has no interest in the quirks of individual humans. His cinema has long ago entered the realm of pure abstraction. He’s weaponized the harsh sound design, abrupt transitions, and non-sequiturs of his beloved ‘60s films. Cinema is now a tool to explore his passions, full stop, and he uses it like a master with no care for such niceties as plot, character development, or coherence.
Goodbye to Language won’t come as such a shock to the system for those who saw Film Socialisme, his frenzied film essay from 2010. Compared to that one – which ran 30 minutes longer and had subtitles in broken English – Goodbye to Language feels almost agreeable. No lucid storyline appears over the film’s 70 minutes, though a number of abstract preoccupations do emerge. A couple has an affair spiked with pettiness and resentment. The world goes to shit amid bombs and iPhones. A dog named Roxy sees all and prefers to amble through the woods, away from mankind’s madness.
Godard films his musings in 3D, a first for the director. Much of the pleasure of Goodbye to Language comes from watching him subvert and play with the medium. The film will likely be remembered above all for a moment in which Godard splits the separate visual tracks that create a 3D image and realigns them in a single shot. We don’t even have a name yet for this bit of formal magic (i.e. the “Hitchcock shot” or “Matrix effect”). The disorienting, double-exposure effect it creates is like the film itself: quite literally hard to look at, and yet so daring and that you can’t look away.
Goodbye to Language is a profoundly frustrating film, but the act of running to keep up with it is not without some pleasure.
Elsewhere, Godard plays with depth of field and the more traditional strengths of 3D to exquisite effect. We see a pond littered with leaves – some sunk to the bottom in deep space, others floating atop the water in vivid foreground. Images that approach conventional beauty clash with garish digital blurs as the film jumps from one fixation to another. Almost every scene holds the promise of some narrative arc or logical thread, only to be undermined by Godard (fatal drinking game: take a swig every time Goodbye to Language appears to move toward some coherent discourse, only to have Godard smash cut to the next scene). Goodbye to Language is a profoundly frustrating film, but the act of running to keep up with it is not without some pleasure.
The film finds its soul, and ultimately its humanity, in Godard’s dog. Roxy is the hook on which Godard can hang his every stray observation about society, war, gender, and language. She’s the innocent amidst the director’s cynical vision of the world. The premise here is the stuff of children’s literature: A dog, perplexed by man-made horrors, lives as an outsider in the forest. Within an otherwise anarchic film, Roxy offers respite. Her presence leaves open the possibility of life outside the societal decay depicted within the rest of the film. Roxy also reminds us that Jean-Luc Godard is a human being, like any other, and sometimes he just wants to put his dog in a movie.
More than 50 years into his career, Jean-Luc Godard is still finding ways to provoke and destabilize viewers. With Goodbye to Language, he does so with considerable artistry, innovation, and even sweetness. Godard’s assaultive style hasn’t gone down this easy in quite some time.