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Empire of Light

A report from the Cannes Film Festival on the latest film by Godard

How to describe Jean-Luc Godard’s Adieu au langage. Is it a valedictory work? It certainly feels that way, but then so does almost everything Godard has ever made. It’s difficult to recall a moment from his body of work that doesn’t speak of last things (and first things, in the same breath). Adieu au langage is no exception. Let it be noted that Godard is now at work on a new film.

Let’s look at the film from another angle, that of Godard’s appointed role as diagnostician-superhero with the ability to see through the veil of appearances. True enough, but that role is often described in purely political terms, and this has had the paradoxical effect of reducing Godard by misdescribing him as a noble agitator, the Noam Chomsky of cinema. But the revelatory moments in his work always arrive suddenly, unexpectedly—you might even say that his core aesthetic practice is laying the groundwork for such moments. It’s difficult and perhaps impossible to find analogues in cinema, but far easier in poetry—temperamentally, practically, and spiritually, Godard is much closer to Emily Dickinson or William Carlos Williams than he is to Lang or Ophuls.

The words poetry and poetic have been employed liberally in film criticism, most often to describe visually or sensorially elevated passages that float above narrative concerns; the use of such language acquires an entirely different meaning in relation to a Stan Brakhage, who knew Robert Duncan and filmed Robert Creeley and Michael McClure, or Hollis Frampton, who was one of Ezra Pound’s regular visitors at St. Elizabeth’s. Godard’s case is something else again. We have cinema aligned with the spirit of poetry tending toward pure plasticity and/or musicality (Brakhage), we have narrative cinema with interludes set at a poetic pitch (Tarkovsky), we have poets who have adapted themselves to narrative cinema (Cocteau, Pasolini) and narrative artists with poetic sensibilities (Powell), and we have a few great individual film poems (Shoah, The Tree of Life). But I’ve come to believe that Godard is the only actual film poet, which is to say that he is the only filmmaker to address the audience in the sense described by Wallace Stevens in his essay “The Noble Rider and the Sound of Words”: the poet’s measure of himself as a poet, “in spite of all the passions of all the lovers of the truth, is the measure of his power to abstract himself, and to withdraw with him into his abstraction the reality on which the lovers of truth insist. He must be able to abstract himself and also to abstract reality, which he does by placing it in his imagination.” The “pressure of reality,” as Stevens calls it—the oppressively dull bottom line on which we must all supposedly agree in order to keep the machinery of society in good working order—is nullified by the poet, who takes responsibility for his or her own freedom and in so doing offers a model to the reader. Or, in this case, the viewer.

I cannot give you an accurate assessment of the “content” of Adieu au langage. One might say that previous Godard films begin with what pass for subjects—for instance, the protection of art from business concerns and the American co-opting of memory (In Praise of Love), or the bridge between love and work (Passion)—only to see them complicated and finally abstracted within Godard’s imagination. In his 43rd feature, made very far from anything even remotely resembling commercial considerations and pretty much in his own backyard, Godard’s subject, like Dickinson’s, becomes as vast as it is intimate. If pressed, you might call this subject the difficulty of being, which Cocteau long ago identified as a central concern of poetry. It could be said that Adieu au langage has some kind of narrative, an extremely compressed representation of Godard’s relationship with Anne-Marie Miéville. It also has a governing and unifying set of oppositions and contrasts—the clarifications and complications of language; being as opposed to the idea of being (Stevens again: “Not ideas about the thing but the thing itself”), embodied within the film by Godard and Miéville’s dog Roxy; rhetoric that addresses the I, the we, and the other, and thus charges the film’s 3-D images with a rich metaphorical energy. Godard was ostensibly attracted to 3-D because it remains unencumbered by any rules to speak of, but he eventually breaks its one implicit rule by drawing attention to the separation between the right-eye and left-eye images, most spectacularly in a mind-bending shot that I have yet to fully comprehend on a technical level (believe me: you’ll know it when you see it) and that actually drew a round of applause mid-screening in Cannes.

In Pierrot le fou Ferdinand quotes Elie Faure on Velazquez’s tendency to focus on the spaces between objects rather than the objects themselves. Faure’s observation can be just as aptly applied to Godard. Identifying the aesthetic strategies in Adieu au langage and enumerating the film’s visual elements runs the risk of reducing it to a neat succession of choices and preoccupations. But this is a Jean-Luc Godard movie, an unfolding of revelatory instants—the screen suddenly aflame with the vibrant reds and yellows of autumn, the two points of the 3-D perspective magically diverging and converging, a close image of Roxy looking us in the eye—that at once upend the ground beneath our feet and slice cleanly through the curtain of reality. Adieu au langage is a film that brings us face to face with doubt, despair, and everyday existential confusion, made in a state of pure liberty. It was the most exhilarating and ennobling film in Cannes.

Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner also looks at the difficulty of being… with others. “Humans…” muses Timothy Spall’s J.M.W. Turner, in conversation with an old gentleman (Karl Johnson) who is haunted by the horrors of his years piloting a slave ship. Like Maurice Pialat with Van Gogh, Leigh has assumed an extremely sophisticated approach to the task of recounting the life of a true giant of painting, who worked in the divinely inhuman realm of light. Dick Pope’s images stress the presence of light, while Leigh’s dramatic focus is on that which might one day be dissolved in light’s transcendence—indifference, callousness, cruelty, exploitation. Spall’s grunting Turner is all work, impulse, and devotion to the craft of painting and the rendering of light, always more refined, always more abstract, as his work goes in and then severely out of fashion. In the meantime, we come to understand that Turner’s single-mindedness is only possible thanks to others—the ex-wife (Ruth Sheen) and daughters that he has denied; the beloved, aging father (Paul Jesson) on whom he has come to depend; the dutiful and unimaginative Constable (James Fleet), in contrast to whom Turner’s genius is that much more dramatically alive; and Turner’s miserable and mousily compliant housekeeper Hannah (Dorothy Atkinson), unappreciated helpmate and abandoned lover. What is truly remarkable in Leigh’s film is his hero’s non-verbal recognition of his own failings as a human being, borne out in stray gestures and behaviors, in dramatic contrast to his all-too-human fear of owning up to them. By virtue of its subject and its obligation to cover a certain measure of biographical ground, Mr. Turner is a little more conventionally structured than previous Leigh films, but that’s not a complaint. Leigh and his cast achieve something rare—a work that dramatizes both everyday human cruelty and the unspoken longing to rise above it.

Lisandro Alonso also finds a new direction with Jauja. The better part of Alonso’s cinema has been wordless, allowing the physical journeys of his heroes and the terrain through which they travel to hypnotically evolve in lengthy stretches. Alonso ventures into places that few of his fellow filmmakers would consider visiting let alone filming, and he also has an uncanny way of finding landscapes with their own drama. Los Muertos, for instance, isn’t just “set” along the Paraná River: its hero’s every action is tied to this particular bend or that section of the bank under that tree or thicket. Similarly, in Jauja, the section of seashore and the series of pathways further and further inland and up the mountain taken by military engineer Gunnar Dinesen (Viggo Mortensen, who speaks only Danish and heavily accented Spanish), in search of his runaway daughter, are as integral to the texture and force of the film as the meticulously selected objects and costumes in Visconti’s work were. What is new here is the historical setting, laid out in the opening declamatory dialogues—the Conquest of the Desert in the 1870s, during which the Argentinean army attempted to drive all indigenous peoples out of Patagonia. The film gradually shifts emphasis, as Mortensen’s character advances up the mountain, from the historical to the mythical to the oneiric. Jauja, shot by Aki Kaurismäki’s usual DP Timo Salminen on 35mm in the 1.33:1 aspect ratio, is a stunning visual achievement: almost every image is an adventure in color and light, and there are many passages that manage to divine the color values of Manet without any apparent trickery or manipulation. Jauja is, like all of Alonso’s films, both a feat and a small-scale wonder, but the more intricate narrative framework actually adds a whole new dimension. It’s a film that continues to grow in the mind.