Film of the Week: Goodbye to Language
Watching Jean-Luc Godard’s recent work can be a source of joy, but also of terror—especially if you’re trying to write about it. Your eyes are bombarded with violent, abrupt changes of texture, color, and form, sometimes obliged to take in several superimposed images and captions at once—and now, in Goodbye to Language, with the additional stimulus, or demand, of a very idiosyncratic use of 3-D. Your ears, meanwhile, try to apprehend snatches of text, often spoken off screen, fragments of music that start and stop with equal suddenness, and a dizzying array of sound effects—barking dogs, gunshots, a particular intense burst of cawing crows that, in this new film, had me putting my hands to my ears. The sheer assaultive power of Goodbye to Language makes it Godard’s most vibrant and exciting film for some time and, you might say, his most terroristic: he’s never been so true to André Breton’s dictum, “Beauty will be convulsive or not at all.”
But imagine trying to write about all this. You sit there in the dark, barely able to see your notepad because of the 3-D glasses, and you’re only halfway through scribbling down one gnomic caption or literary quotation—and I mean just scribbling, never mind attempting to absorb or interpret—when two more have followed. Godard, or his film, may ostensibly be saying goodbye to language, but if so, it’s as if the Word is being thrown a spectacular bender of a going-away party. Propositions, allusions, sounds, images rush on in wave after wave, each building a new layer on top of—or violently erasing—what’s immediately gone before. Trying to make any sense of it all, even in the most rudimentary or provisional way, is an anguish-inducing process. What’s more, as a critic you’re aware of the armies of commentators who appear to take Godardian complexity in their stride, and of the academic specialists among them: you feel gauche even noting that all this stuff is hard to take in, when you know that there’s someone out there just waiting to point out, “And of course, you failed to notice that the two-second burst of Sibelius signals Godard’s volte-face on his previous position vis-à-vis the Lacanian Real.” Put it this way: I love Goodbye to Language and I couldn’t have missed writing about it, but part of me wishes I’d taken on Ouija instead.
That’s why I was relieved, and filled with admiration, when I read David Bordwell’s enthusiastic analysis of Goodbye to Language on his website, in which he dares state something that’s often considered inadmissible in discussions of Godard. That is, not only is it hard to tell what’s going on in the film in terms of narrative, but it’s also hard to make sense of the relentless flood of text. Before embarking on a useful analysis of the film’s formal qualities, and exactly why they make the film so hard to read, Bordwell refers to Ted Fendt’s extensive list of texts and films quoted or alluded to in Goodbye to Language. Fendt himself admits that knowing Godard’s sources may only be “about as useful to ‘unlocking’ the films and videos as reading a heavily footnoted copy of The Waste Land.” Still, a blockage of understanding is surely essential to an understanding of a Godard work as it is when dealing with any hermetic or gnostic text: bafflement is the first necessary step to eventual (if endlessly deferred) enlightenment.
As always for Godard, Goodbye makes use of an intriguing mixture of familiar and unfamiliar names, and some unlikely ones that you wouldn’t have expected Godard to refer to. Whether or not these texts are part of his all-time personal reference library, or his current bedtime reading, or simply things that he happens to have skimmed recently (as someone is seen flicking through Dostoevsky in an early shot), you always come away with a list of suggestions for further reading. Each film is no more prescriptive for further investigation than, say, a musician’s playlist. We’re told what’s on the (real or imaginary) JLG shelf right now, which is to say: what’s on his mind. Thus, Goodbye contains plugs for the paintings of Nicolas de Staël; the science fiction of A.E. van Vogt (whose novel Null-A Three is seen in French translation) and Clifford Simak (whose City is quoted, unattributed, in a moving passage about puppies listening to stories about humans); V.S. Naipaul (dialogue about Africa alludes to “a bend in the river,” the title of his 1979 novel); the philosopher Jacques Ellul; and the mathematician Laurent Schwartz, whose work in the theory of distribution and the Dirac delta function seemingly informs the film on some level that I couldn’t begin to speculate about.
The question is what this torrent of references might all mean—or rather, how we as viewers/listeners are encouraged to make it mean something. The great riddle of the quotations in Godard’s films is the way that they are taken out of context, used as free-floating emblems, without clear indications of where they’re from, or how they relate to the new text in which they are embedded. The way a phrase will appear enigmatically isolated on screen has the autonomously provocative force of an unexplained slogan on a T-shirt; if Godard had turned up in Cannes this year, he could well have worn one emblazoned with the closing caption of his last feature Film Socialisme: “NO COMMENT.”
Godard’s textual borrowings are often delivered by off-screen voices, so that we can’t easily decide whether the words are being spoken firsthand by characters in the film (if they really qualify as “characters”), quoted by them as overt quotation, or being spoken by the film itself, as it were. Borrowed language is simply absorbed into the film’s overall texture, just as assorted images are implanted directly in the surface of Rauschenberg’s collages on canvas or metal; or just as literary quotations, both modified and unmodified, were stitched seamlessly into the writing of Isidore Ducasse, aka the Comte de Lautréamont, who declared in his Poésies (1870), “Plagiarism is necessary,” thereby offering a militant manifesto for sampling culture avant la lettre.
As for the way Godard’s textual uncertainty confounds and stimulates, take a simple example from Goodbye, heard more than once. A young woman’s off-screen voice asks: “Monsieur, is it possible to produce a concept of Africa?” Fendt attributes the line to philosopher Jocelyn Benoist, but without knowing the original context, it’s hard to say what it means—nor why producing a concept of Africa is the most urgent of priorities, when the continent’s current woes perhaps demand more pragmatic solutions. But the line prods us violently, given its cryptic nature, and given the urgent, even militant tone that it’s given by the voice of the young woman who may be one of the several women seen in the film. The “Monsieur” so urgently addressed may be a teacher—which an older, raincoated man named Davidson (Christian Gregori) who is seen reading, appears to be. Or it may be Godard himself—or the Academy, as it were, Western knowledge embodied and (to judge by the woman’s delivery) found wanting.
But as for knowledge, there’s often a rather hectoring, impatient note in Godard’s films, as if this obsessively eclectic polymath were reproaching us all for not getting the obvious connections that he has made in his studies of politics, history, and culture. For example, a voice (possibly Davidson’s, but I could be wrong) points out that television was invented in 1933 by the Russian inventor Vladimir Zvorykin, then says, “1933—ça vous dit quelque chose?” (“That mean anything to you?”), before pointing out that 1933 was the year that Hitler came to power. We’re free to object that, so what, this tells us nothing, that nothing is proved or really revealed. Yet it’s the impatience implicit in “ça vous dit quelque chose?” that feels dismissive and superior, telling us off for being obtuse, for lagging too far behind Godard’s historical-culture mastery. (Fendt is no doubt right that knowing Godard’s sources may not advance us much, but let me suggest this. You might be closer to understanding a Godard film if you’d read everything the director had read—but then you’d also have to have read it all in exactly the same way that he had read it, making the same connections).
So much for the language to which Godard is supposedly bidding adieu. But what’s the film actually like? Again, hard to describe. The poetic official synopsis gives a seed of narrative of which you can make what you will: “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.” Etc. Like the man said, the idea is simple.
As usual, some responses to the film have been infuriated, with some critics indeed pretty much reduced to barking or crying. But even given the fragments of narrative that Godard has dangled before us in recent features (2001’s In Praise of Love now looks, compared to this, like an old-fashioned movie about movie-making), we long ago abandoned the idea that narrative in Godard is related to mere storytelling, or that filmmaking is about putting a movie on the screen, in the conventional sense. Godard’s recent features are less films, as we usually understand them, than events (both in the media and the ontological senses) and objects. And in Goodbye, Godard’s use of 3-D is a matter of using the screen (with its illusory extra dimension of depth) as a multimedia space in the true sense: he’s creating both a painting and a sculpture.
He has also incorporated the question of 3-D cinema and its nature into the texture and the logic of his film: Goodbye to Language could almost be regarded as an extended visual pun on the 3-D phenomenon. Godard’s short exploratory essay in the form, in the 2013 portmanteau 3x3D, was called Les Trois Désastres (The Three Disasters): 3-D-sasters, get it? He similarly puns in Goodbye by showing us children playing with three dice—trois dés.
Three, however, isn’t the film’s emblematic number—two is. As we know, the third dimension of 3-D is illusory, something created by our eyes’ and brains’ response to two projected images, and Godard is interested in 3-D as a phenomenon of duality. The film is ostensibly divided into two sections, entitled “Nature” and “Metaphor,” but sections under each title alternate throughout, and aren’t immediately easily to pick apart. Both strands involve a man and a woman who are having an affair, as well as, apparently, the German husband of one or the other woman, or both, who suddenly jumps out of a fancy car waving a gun in one of those breakneck, abrupt pieces of desultorily thriller-esque action that’s been a Godard trademark throughout his entire career. Someone gets shot, someone bleeds, but it’s hard to say who, or why.
Both sets of lovers are then seen naked at one or the other partner’s home, sometimes with a TV showing film extracts in the background; one couple consists of Josette and Gédéon (Héloïse Godet and Kamel Abdelli), the other of Ivitch and Marcus (Zoé Bruneau and Richard Chevallier), and at different times both men are seen sitting naked on the toilet. The reference is to Rodin’s Thinker, which as every schoolchild knows, is really of a man taking a crap; sitting in the same position, Gédéon, or possibly Marcus, points out that Rodin’s statue is the image of equality. We all crap, after all—both Gédéon and Marcus do it with accompanying comedy sound effects—but furthermore, “thought finds its place in crap” (“la pensée retrouve sa place dans le caca), shit itself being the emblem of equality because (I think I’m quoting this right) “Dans le caca, il y a ‘ça’ et ‘ça’”—an untranslatable play on the word caca and, I assume, the psychoanalytic connotations of ça (literally ‘that’ but also implying le Ça, the Id).
Anyway, go figure—and Godard’s use of language, whether high-flown or basely punning, is always a provocation to us to do just that, to go off and think about it for ourselves. In fact, the idea that Godard may be working on a higher conceptual plane than the rest of us is always undermined by his willful use of throwaway, facetious, even excruciating gags: Davidson, early on, makes heavy weather of a riff on pouce (thumb), pousser (to push), and Le petit Poucet (Tom Thumb), all by way of telling us that we’re spending too much of our time jabbing at iPhones.
As for how Godard uses the visual qualities of 3-D duality, that’s something else again. The film is shot on a variety of cameras, including the Canon 5D Mark II and lower-end devices by GoPro and Lumix. The types of image and texture are exhilaratingly diverse, causing you to constantly adjust your receptivity. Images of blazingly colored intensity (the wild primaries of In Praise of Love or palettes that echo Warhol’s flower paintings) are juxtaposed with chromatically muted ones. Blurry shots follow ones that are hyper-precise and vivid, like a gorgeously pellucid image of a woman’s hands among fallen leaves in clear water. And images that use 3-D to more or less neutral realistic effect are interspersed with others that heighten the spatial dynamics to startlingly overt effect, e.g. the image of a naked Bruneau holding a bowl of fruit towards the camera. (Forget the proverbial “girl and a gun”—this may well be Godard’s ideal of cinema: a naked girl and a grapefruit.)
As Bordwell points out, in most 3-D films the effect of three-dimensionality eventually wanes, as our eyes and brains simply get used to the illusion (I’m glad he mentioned this, as I’d always worried it was just me). But in Godard’s radically anti-illusionistic use of the medium, you never forget you’re watching 3-D: keeping all its possibilities in play all the time, he somehow finds a further dimension within the three-dimensional. This is nowhere truer than in two magical shots that had people gasping with delight at the film’s Cannes premiere. In both, a woman walks away from a man who remains stationary, as the screen separates into two superimposed images, one moving, one static, one for each eye; even more magically, the woman then moves back to first position, and the divided image somehow regains its initial unity. It’s in-camera magic of a Méliès vintage: a piece of cheap trickery, but brilliantly and simply carried off, finding hitherto unsuspected delight in a simple “improper” use of 3-D. (As Godard has said, the function of 3-D is precisely to remind us that we have two eyes.)
Finally, a man, a woman—and a dog. I haven’t yet talked about the third part of the Godardian couple—which also happens to be the third part of his own couple, a mutt credited as “Roxy Miéville,” and the pet of Godard and his partner Anne-Marie Miéville. It’s easy to get fuzzy about Roxy having more screen presence than any of the humans in the film, which some critics have claimed, and which isn’t altogether true; after all, he (Roxy is male) is just a dog, and no more or less charming than any other dog you might see on screen. The fact is, he’s Godard’s dog, and who would have suspected Godard was a softie about dogs? Roxy may represent nature, but dogs are also one of the fundamental metaphors by which we represent nature to ourselves in our daily lives. Roxy clearly gets Godard out and about—away from the editing suite, and into the hills around his Swiss home of Rolle. And Roxy’s wanderings in the film—he’s seen trotting through woods, sniffing the air on a riverbank, at one point floating down the river in a perilous-looking manner—go paw in paw with the film’s wanderings through certain dog-related thoughts. Dogs are the survivors of the human apocalypse in Simak’s City; a dog is the only living creature that loves you more than it loves itself (according to Darwin, quoting Buffon); “There is no nudity in nature. And the animal, therefore, is not nude because he is nude” (according to Derrida).
It’s very convenient for us, as viewers, to say that we’re more interested in the film’s dog than in its people: it allows us a sentimental escape route to avoid engaging with the film’s own enduring, if jaundiced, interest in humanity. But that’s only something that Godard encourages us to do: when Roxy is on screen, it’s as if Godard, and his camera, are themselves taking a welcome breather, getting away from the cacophony and clutter of human and social concerns. Roxy, after all, sleeps, and seems to be the only one here who does. Two humans (Godard and Miéville?) are heard off-screen speculating about the dozing beast, and the woman speculates that he’s “dreaming of the Marquesas Islands.” (Why? No idea, except possibly that the islands are the subject of a Jacques Brel song.) There’s a hint of envy here: just as Solzhenitsyn (Davidson tells us) didn’t need Google to find his subtitle to The Gulag Archipelago, Roxy doesn’t need the Canon 5D to make his own mental movie about the Marquesas.
But then you suspect that what Godard admires in animals, and envies them for, is the fact that they couldn’t care less about cinema, or about language—just as he himself now has now claimed, in various recent statements, to be outside both areas of human culture. He has also said of dogs that “ils ne communiquent pas, ils communient”—roughly translated as “they don’t communicate, they commune,” although my French dictionary defines communier as “to be, to live, in communion.” Or, perhaps, to create a commonality between things which do not otherwise seem to have anything in common. Could that be a description of Godard’s cinema in general, or of this film in particular? I’m tempted to answer that by quoting a famous line, attributed in Goodbye to Language to Mao Zedong, although it was apparently Zhou Enlai, who when asked about the effects of the French Revolution, replied: “It’s too early to say.”