Goodbye to Language (Adieu au langage) is (by rough count) Jean-Luc Godard’s thirty-fifth feature in a fifty-five-year directing career. He has slowed down substantially, but he’s eighty-four, so what do you expect? (Actually, he slowed down a long time ago: he made fifteen of those films in his first eight years, the rest in the subsequent forty-seven.)
The most consistent facet throughout his work is an excitement about the form and possibilities of cinema. But few who have followed his career would have predicted the latest element to inspire him (hold your breath) … 3D.
That’s right, 3D — probably the most critically despised cinematic development since Duo-Vision. (Look it up.) Most films released in 3D would be just as good in 2D, with the added dimension no more than an excuse for higher ticket prices. And for those of a certain age — i.e., those old enough to have followed Godard’s career since the 1960s — it often ruins the experience by inducing headaches, eye strain, and nausea.
The first fifty years of commercial 3D were sporadic — a few releases for novelty before sputtering out. After numerous attempts, it took James Cameron’s Avatar to vault the concept into the 21st century. Even those who disliked every other aspect of that film had to acknowledge that the 3D was a breakthrough, technically and aesthetically. As in the awkward transition to sound eighty years ago, only a handful of great filmmakers immediately found interesting ways to use it — Martin Scorsese in Hugo, Werner Herzog in Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Wim Wenders in Pina.
Godard uses it differently than anyone else, or at least it seems different in the context of Goodbye to Language … if only the context were comprehensible. Rather than try to summarize the “plot,” let’s merely reprint Godard’s own synopsis:
The idea is simple:
A married woman and a single man meet.
They love, they argue, fists fly,
A dog strays between town and country.
The seasons pass.
The man and woman meet again.
The dog finds itself between them.
The other is in one
the one is in the other
and they are three.
The former husband shatters everything.
A second film begins:
The same as the first,
And yet not.
From the human race we pass to metaphor.
This ends in barking
And a baby’s cries.
While you try to figure out just what all that means, let me add that the film itself is more opaque … way more opaque. There is a couple … and at least one doggie … and off-screen violence … and the seasons do indeed pass. Oh, how they pass — in what feels like real time. As in much of Godard’s later work, characters quote writers back and forth, and the music sometimes cuts off abruptly in mid-note. (Theater owners will need to announce that there is nothing wrong with the sound system; Godard will drop one track or switch from one side to the other or make a channel sound distorted.)
Let me be the first person on Earth to find a similarity between James Cameron and Jean-Luc Godard: Like Avatar, the most interesting aspect of Goodbye to Language is its use of 3D. Godard creates a much larger than usual depth in the images, as though the nearest object is six inches from your eyes and the furthest is one hundred feet, with both in focus. This destroys some of our sense of reality. It looks artificial, and Godard augments that with gaudy objects that appear to be colorized or solarized.
He also uses it in totally abstract ways. For years he has flashed or scrolled giant words on the screen. Here he gets to use one word on top of another without them being hard to distinguish. Early on, he puns on the French title: The word “Ah” floats in front of the word “dieux,” then “Oh” in front of “langage.”
At one point, he plays a dirty but powerful trick. He disorients us by splitting an image: Two characters are talking, then one walks off to the right, and Godard keeps one eye static and lets the other pan along to the right. It’s literally physically jarring, even sickening, as our brains try to assemble contradictory images.
Goodbye to Language was named the 2014 Best Film of the Year by the National Society of Film Critics and won one of the big awards at the Cannes Film Festival. Many have expressed eagerness to see it a second time. I have happily followed Godard through decades of experiments and shifts, but this time I can’t agree; I actually dread seeing it a second time. Maybe it’s the 3D that made me feel out of my depth.