Oh, what is that rapscallion Godard up to now?”
For the 55 years since À bout de souffle was released, and even beforehand, Jean-Luc Godard has prided himself on playing fast and loose with the language of cinema. Why cut the shots of Jean Seberg from the same angle together so haphazardly? Because he could! Godard’s manipulation of cinematic language through the years has been so forthright and antagonistic in both form and content that it’s reassuring to see his anger hasn’t subsided. Indeed language, both verbal and cinematic, is the subject of his newest filmic rebellion.
Goodbye To Language is a cheeky, frustrated and frustrating chapter in Godard’s decades-long eulogy for cinema. Given that most filmmaking is still very much subject to the tyranny of the narrative, one can’t help but feel that Godard’s pronunciations about cinema’s end just feed into his own needs and desires as a filmmaker. Still, give him points for gumption; Goodbye To Language is a reminder of just how singular and how angry a directorial vision can be. Alexandre Astruc would be proud; Godard doesn’t wield the camera like a pen so much as a sword. Complacency is not an option. You may have a headache after seeing Goodbye To Language; you will have an opinion.
The film opens with numbers and titles layered over each other through the magic of 3D. If a use of 3D could be described as aggressive, this is it. Explaining the plot will do little to prepare the viewer for the experience. Nominally, it revolves around a couple (Héloise Godet and Kamel Abdeli) and their increasing inability to communicate with one another. All of this takes place in surroundings so badly shot that the film automatically alienates the viewer. The film itself is already refusing to communicate openly. The 3D could instigate many a migraine whilst the sound, one minute booming and completely cut out the next, is a purposeful irritant. The film is an immersion in filmmaking chaos; if we can tolerate retrograde 3D and deafening sound from the latest Transformers film, we can tolerate it here.
As unlikely as one might have thought, the 3D here gifts us one of the most memorable shots of any film in recent memory. A woman sits on a bench talking with a man, then gets up to argue with a suited aggressor nearby. Thanks to the 3D, even though the camera pans right and the first man should be out of shot, the 3D ensures all parties appear to remain in the shot. Each man sits in one viewer’s eyeball, while the woman moves between the two. The grammar of cinema is manipulated again, to an unexpected effect. This tool probably shouldn’t be used this way (The likely ensuing headaches will be proof), but it gives us two views at once, like the eyes of a chameleon working independently of each other. This is cinema-going at its most active; you have to hold your gaze. The audience is forced to think about what they are watching and how they are watching it. Godard loves cinema too much to allow it to be a passive pacifier.
Later scenes see husband and wife in their home, their domestic surrounds standing in contrast to their proclivity for nudity and discussions while using the lavatory (All in 3D!). Their chatter touches on typical Godard-ian topics (Hitler, the Holocaust and imperialism all get an airing) before proceedings are interrupted by another soundtrack attack or a repeated shot of a ship setting sail. If this wasn’t in 3D and from Godard, would we dismiss all this? It’s likely, but then Godard is one of those people who would have to be invented if he didn’t already exist. He may be in his eighties, but he still pushes buttons like no-one else can. His camera is a wrecking ball; if you bought the adverts proclaiming Avatar’s revolutionary 3D, this is a must-see film for you.
The only presence or character we come to appreciate is a dog (Godard’s own pet, Mieville). He crops up now and again, enjoying leisurely walks and the sights and sounds of nature. He doesn’t say anything and he doesn’t antagonise; he just exists in the rare moments that allow us to forget the film is in 3D. He is our unlikely source of calm in the storm. Otherwise, Goodbye To Language is an exercise in frustration, and sometimes that is necessary. It’s easy to dismiss on the surface, but by the time the film ends on the high-pitched wails of a baby, its memorability is secure. Even if Godard manages to piss everyone in the cinema off, you can almost hear his voice every time a character utters the repeated line “Ça m’est égal!” (“I don’t care”).