Note. This review was originally published during our coverage of the Toronto International Film Festival.
“I confess that it is an extremely tiresome book, but it is the only book which I am able to write at present.” — James Joyce, on Finnegans Wake
Jean-Luc Godard has been making films for five decades now, and he has spent four of them largely toiling away from the attention of critics, who have ignored much of his post-Week-End career and mocked what little they’ve made an effort to see. But the fact remains that Godard, who has chased his muse through multiple permutations and a constantly evolving moral, thematic, and aesthetic sense, is one of the few filmmakers who has ever deserved the label of “genius.” Like all geniuses, Godard is imperfect, but also leagues ahead of any peer, to say nothing of those of us who simply view his work and attempt to extract meaning from it.
With Goodbye to Language, Godard branches out from his longstanding experiments in the dialectical properties of stereo sound to explore the stereoscopic images of 3D. The result is , beyond question, the finest way that the format has ever been put to use. Not only do objects seem to protrude more than any 3D effect I’ve ever seen (especially the snout of unofficial star, Godard and Anne-Marie Miéville’s dog, Roxy), but Godard at once accentuates and solves the problem of 3D’s favoring of shallow distances by splitting the foreground into several distance planes within itself. Watch the shot of a woman gripping a fence with her left hand: scarcely any distance actually separates the woman, the fence and her hand, yet the hand practically exists further toward the camera than the bar it grips, which in turn causes the woman’s face to recede.
More than once, Godard even executes an effect that leaves the impression of one stereoscopic camera trained on a shot while the other swivels to follow other action. This isolates two shots at once in each eye, and when viewed with 3D glasses, becomes a kind of superimposition. Godard’s late period has often resorted to using the material innovations of early cinema, especially as developed and codified by the Soviet theorists, in an attempt to “return to zero” and find new applications for cinema’s basic building blocks. But this is something else entirely, not simply a re-use but an outright reinvention.
This bravura achievement recalls the most elegant moment of Godard’s greatest film, King Lear, in the herculean, physically shattering effort to recreate the first image. Perhaps, though, the greatest link between that film and this one is the incorporation of scatalogy, in this case scenes of two lovers discussing sexual politics as the man loudly defecates. Their interactions, in turn, recall the literally and philosophically naked discussions of Numéro Deux. References to earlier Godard films abound, in fact; from the visible shadow of a crane shot à la Contempt to the mechanized voice of Alphaville set over a period dress scene redolent of the forest sequences of Week-End. Godard has always repudiated his earlier work to command focus on his present endeavors, but this slim feature reminds viewers that if he charges boldly ahead, he nonetheless acknowledges the past that lead him to this moment.
This jumble of internal references matches the generally allusive nature of the film’s hodgepodge of abruptly intercut scenes, perpetuating the free-associative style that has alienated so many from the director. Yet if other contemporary Godard films such as Histoire(s) du Cinéma, Eloge d’Amour, and Film Socialisme use their complex interplay of images and sounds to show the breakdown of thoughts and people and even narrative in the face of understanding modern history’s greatest atrocities, Goodbye to Language is concerned with more ephemeral, abstract questions. As the title implies, language itself is under the microscope, and the fragmentary, often incomprehensible nature of the collage visualizes the impossibility of true communication.
That may sound bleak, and from a certain point of view this could be said to be an apocalyptic film. But Godard has by now evolved into a keen sensualist, even at his most dizzying and confrontational, and Goodbye to Language manages to celebrate the ineffable even as it mourns the inability to articulate it. Shots of autumnal leaves on stripping tree branches are rendered otherworldly by extreme distortions of digital color contrasts. Some 3D shots of rain made on low-quality cameras are fuzzy but give the impression of the frame itself rippling as drops hit puddles. Roxy adorably capers around in the snow and on riverbanks as voiceover narration notes that animals are never naked because they don’t know they are naked. Speaking of dogs, the use of sound as a nearly physical object, so precisely isolated in channels as noise leaps around the theater, recalls an early passage in Ulysses, where the half-blind Stephen stands on a beach and “sees” a dog running toward him by registering the approaching bark, not the dog’s form.
Godard is regularly targeted by detractors as a pretentious, smarter-than-thou bore, yet even taking into consideration his irascibly stated opinions, the work he has made in the second half of his career has above all contained a great humility, whether in his inability to forgive the art form he lives and breathes for its failure to either prevent or adequately explain the Holocaust to, here, the failure of all his knowledge to help him elucidate his feelings and beliefs. Goodbye to Language bristles with polemics — a woman asking if it is possible to produce “a concept of Africa,” the male lover arguing that shitting and other base functions are the only true equality — but it is also, in many ways, an admission of failure. Godard elevates the dog because they are the only creatures “who love you more than they love themselves” (the most socialist animal?), and even that conclusion can only be drawn by quoting Darwin, who himself paraphrased a friend. Certainly it’s not every day that the world’s most advanced, challenging, cerebral filmmaker gives the last word to his pooch.