Goodbye to Language / Jean-Luc Godard / 2014 / fivestar

Active Ingredients: 3D; Thrilling blend of visual and thematic modes
Side Effects: Strange comedy; Lack of conclusive ending

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[Part of VARIABLES, a series of essays on the art and politics of Jean-Luc Godard]

Somewhat surprisingly, both terms in the title of Jean-Luc Godard’s newest film are equally important. Goodbye to Language 3D is as much about “goodbyes” as it is about “language.” Though, of course, it’s a third element of the title which describes the dominant experience of seeing the film: 3D.

Like other examples of late-period Godard (For Ever Mozart, Film socialisme), his newest film is a demanding, confounding and occasionally assaultive rumination. Determining the topic of this rumination, however, can be difficult. But there’s good news for daunted viewers: surrender to the unique logic of the film—infinitely more tactile than intellectual—and Godard dazzles with a flood of remarkable imagery, an articulation of a purely visual language that cannot and should not be reduced to a single meaning.

This articulation of a visual language beyond the realm of the verbal, the grammar and syntax of which Godard has developed throughout his half-century career in the moving image, makes Goodbye to Language a fitting title. And yet, it’s 2010’s Film socialisme which speaks in a pidgin language of fractured words and phrases (“people ignore others … ourselves mirror”). Perhaps Film socialisme, then, is a goodbye to language, while Godard’s newest film is instead a welcome to the image.

Semantics aside, Goodbye to Language sees Godard wrestling with a common theme: images as thought. From the infamous jump-cuts in Breathless to the layered superimpositions of Histoire(s) du cinema, Godard’s career has been marked by a ceaseless exploration of the interactions among images, and therefore, the generation of new ideas. For Godard (and some of his philosophical influences such as Gilles Deleuze), this ability to generate new modes of thinking represents the real power of film, and the primary duty of the filmmaker as an image-maker. And with his groundbreaking and rulebook-trashing use of 3D in Goodbye to Language, Godard adds another dimension with which to craft unexpected collisions of images.

[Check out my video essay on Godard for some more exploration on this topic.]

The most notable visual effect of the film is to dramatically divorce the two lenses used to capture a single 3D image. Typically, the two cameras are placed mere millimeters apart, and our eye works to reconstruct an image in depth formed by both parts. In two memorable sequences of Goodbye to Language, however, Godard separates the two halves of the image, leaving one lens stationary while the second follows a character far away, across a room or down a pier. The effect is disorienting, and it even produces a noticeable physical strain as the viewer tries to “reconstruct” an image that never was, an image of two people in two different physical realities. Yet beneath the novelty and discomfort of this experience, the film’s use of 3D creates a ghostly and somehow menacing new image: isolated figures sharing one screen, together and yet apart.

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This bracing new visual effect is central to the film’s impact, and offers a clue for deciphering some of its thematic concerns. Whatever plot can be said to exist in Goodbye to Language, it involves a couple on the verge of separating. More broadly, Godard investigates the necessity and impossibility of ever truly connecting with another. As verbal communication breaks down and the couple drifts apart, so too do the two camera lenses, but the resulting image creates an otherworldly new space, another dimension in which the separated pair somehow overlap.

The film plays with other binaries, too, looking at the spaces between two aesthetic or philosophical concepts—or else the space that results from their union. The principal dialectic of the film seems to be between nature and society, the elemental and eternal contrasted with the artificial and man-made. Out of this pair spiral other binaries in a complex web of interrelated ideas: woman and man; life and war; freedom and repression; images and language; 2D and 3D; flatness and depth.

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In its own way, Goodbye to Language seems to sketch an argument for the strain that society and its trappings (politics, war and even language) place on our relationship to the world around us. Or perhaps it’s a roadmap back to a more simpler, more primal existence—the film proceeds from a section titled “Nature” to one on “Metaphor” before setting back into “Nature.” For Godard, politics, war and language are all mere metaphor, all creations of a society divorced from reality. The only truths exist in Nature and The Image.

To represent these various concepts, Godard freely and abrasively jumps between images whose colors and textures contrast wildly. Cellphone footage abuts professional digital video and clips from long-forgotten films; highlights burst and colors are washed out in a pastel sea of manipulated contrast. Goodbye to Language creates a whole universe of aesthetic possibilities, and its meaning is as much about this visual universe as any conceptual framework used to evaluate its content. This wild and thrilling blend of visual modes is Godard’s true vocabulary. His images speak for themselves; they’re about the (considerable) visual impact they have, not any symbolic representation. And perhaps this too helps explain the film’s title. Goodbye to Language—and maybe even all of Godard’s films—isn’t about language and its significance, but rather the raw power of images and the unexpected results of their infinite combinations.

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