A single viewing of Jean-Luc Godard’s new 3-D film Goodbye to Language has equipped me neither to summarize its storyline, to the extent that any linear story can be said to exist, nor to provide anything like an interpretation. There is a couple; or rather two couples, who may perhaps be the same couple in different aspects, or in different possible lives. History is discussed: the invention of television, the French Revolution, Hitler and the death camps. Flaubert and Mao and Borges are quoted. The thought of Jacques Ellul is considered. Strong assertions are made by different voices: “Interior experience is now forbidden.” “I have come to say no to you and to die.” Quarrels occur. A woman stands naked in her kitchen. A man discusses philosophy while sitting on the toilet. A gun is fired, offscreen. Someone is stabbed, offscreen, and copious amounts of blood are splashed in a bathtub. Books are displayed and sometimes passed back and forth: Dostoyevsky, Solzhenitsyn, Ezra Pound, A. E. Van Vogt. Movies are shown on television: Only Angels Have Wings, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Metropolis. Titles announce themes: NATURE. METAPHOR. A ferryboat moves over water. People depart for Africa or America. Children play with dice. Mary Shelley, in period costume, writes Frankenstein by the shore of Lake Geneva. Leaves change color in autumn. Music plays. Music is interrupted. A dog moves through a landscape.
Such a random inventory is a vain attempt to convey the texture of this newest essay of Godard’s. The inventory is random because chosen only from a few pieces that happened to stick, out of a saturation of phenomenal detail that does not let up for seventy-two minutes. To catalogue the contents of any three-minute segment would exceed the bounds of most reviews. These elements, and much else, are given to us in nothing like a neatly legible order. If you blink—for example to make a note in a dark screening room—you probably miss two or three potentially crucial details, and it is fair to say that for Godard every detail is potentially crucial and every beat of the film equal in importance. His form of collage seems to contain almost everything, including a plentiful supply of gaps and concealments and disguises. He creates a surface as dense as a page of Pound’s “Section: Rock-Drill” or Ashbery’s “The Tennis Court Oath.” The abstraction and opacity are in the surface of an underlying formal equilibrium defined, here, through a phrase of the mathematician Bernhard Riemann: “A landscape where each point is transformed into music.”
Goodbye to Language is a film not different in kind from such other works of Godard’s late period (he is now eighty-four) as Germany Year 90 Nine Zero (1991), Histoire(s) du Cinema (1998), Elegy for Love (2001), or Our Music (2004). It is marked by the same fondness for citation and repetition and deliberately jarring discontinuity, the same taste for punning and paradox indulged with a kind of sublime compulsion, the insistent cross-layering of word and image. But it is different in the intensity of its impact. Filming in 3-D, Godard forces a reconsideration not only of his own films but of all films.
Not that he hasn’t been meditating on such forced reconsiderations throughout his career. In a 1959 review of Man of the West he wrote: “Each shot in Man of the West gives the impression that Anthony Mann is reinventing the western just as, let us say, Matisse’s pencil reinvents the line of Piero della Francesca,” describing Mann’s film as offering “the beauty of landscapes simultaneously with the explication of that beauty…art simultaneously with the theory of art…we have in each shot the analysis simultaneously with the synthesis.” In Goodbye to Language Godard might be said to reinvent not only 3-D but the worlds—natural and human—that film undertakes to represent. To question what 3-D does to perception is to question what any of the technologies of visual art and film and video do—and they all seem to show up here at one point or another, from painting to silent movies to smartphones—and by extension to question what the human gaze does to the world in which it finds itself.
The use of 3-D here—and Godard’s 3-D is not the smoothly seductive machinery of big-budget blockbusters but a home-made variety whose joins are often ragged—has a continuous shock effect. There is something inherently shocking about 3-D, but as many have noted the shock tends to wear off. The subtlest employment of it I’ve seen was in Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder, where the enlarged sense of space served paradoxically to reinforce claustrophobia. More recently, in Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Werner Herzog applied the medium to archaic cave paintings as a means of restoring depth perceptions intrinsic to the art as created but that the modern eye tends to flatten out. Others—Scorsese in Hugo, Wenders in Pina—have begun to tease out further untried capabilities.
Godard’s approach is more abrupt and more thorough-going. He wants to take the machine for a test run, pushing at the edges of what it can do. What would a smartphone image look like in 3-D? Or an image reflected upside down? Or the point of a quill pen spelling out words as Mary Shelley writes Frankenstein? Or, by way of contrast, the way a paint-laden watercolor brush makes contact with paper (while the painter discourses on flatness and depth)? Or human shadows distended on a road? Or the ashes on the tip of a burning cigarette, thrust toward the spectator? Or snowflakes falling against a dark sky? In the beginning, film was an exclamation point. A one-shot movie could say simply: Look, a tree! Look, a wall collapsing! Windshield wipers in heavy rain, filmed in 3-D from the inside of a moving car, establish an almost oppressively epic effect. Collage becomes mobile.
3-D is an exclamation point on top of an exclamation point. What Goodbye to Language restores is the primordial shock before 3-D, before movies, before even cave paintings. Tree! Fire! Water! Eyes! The colors of spring and autumn! It restores, too, the shock of not quite seeing, not recognizing. The bafflement of appearances, when one plane detaches from another: a man remains seated while a woman walks away from him out of the frame while we continue to follow her into a new frame, and then come back. The frame expands beyond its own boundaries, and then meets up with itself again. We have remained in a place and simultaneously left it. The camera is nosing against the limits of space, the limits of the body, seeing how far it can or can’t go. The effect finally is intimate. These are home movies, close-up views of ordinary unadorned things: flowers blooming or rain in autumn woods.
The visual intensity is accompanied by, or contrasted with, or actively opposed by, the noisiest soundtrack imaginable. The spatial extensions of 3-D are matched by sonic intrusions and violent dynamic shifts, symphonic fragments and animal outcries. And, of course, generous helpings of that language to which the film is supposedly a goodbye. More properly translated, a farewell: “see you soon” is not what is implied. Then again, when Godard punningly mashes up the title as “Oh, Langage! Ah, Dieux!” the suggestion might be that the announced farewell is more in the nature of wishful thinking. Someone says, or quotes: “I look for poverty in language.”
In any event the character who finally becomes central exists beyond human language. Godard’s dog, billed as Roxy Miéville, breaks effortlessly through the barrier of words to move through thickets or roll in snow. In Roxy, Godard finds a more heroic figure than has yet appeared in his films, a figure whose movements through the natural world, to the edge of the water, through the underbrush, do indeed reinvent a primal cinema at one with the world it represents. At some point the 3-D process becomes a metaphor for an animal perception of the world that we can only guess at. Or is it our own perception that we can only guess at? Rilke’s Eighth Duino Elegy is brought into play: “We know what is really out there only from the animal’s gaze.” Darwin is quoting Buffon to the effect that nudity does not exist in the animal world. A naked world, then, somehow forcing its way to us through mediating layers of cinema.
Jean-Luc Godard’s Goodbye to Language is now playing at select theaters. For a schedule, please visit kinolorber.com.