Talking Movies: Godard’s ‘Goodbye to Language’ teases the limits of our visual and linguistic sensibilities

Goodbye to Language
Characters in Goodbye to Language serve not to advance a plot so much as communicate philosophical ideas.

One last chance to catch Goodbye to Language: Thursday, Dec. 11 at 5:30 p.m. at FilmScene.

I am not sure whether there is a better way to give you an idea of what Jean-Luc Godard’s 3-D film Goodbye to Language is, or what it is about, than simply pointing to its most remarkable aspect: At a couple somewhat confusing points in the film, two different shots are combined into one frame, which, of course, is how stereoscopic (3-D) technology always works. In most 3-D films, two slightly different angles of the same subject are combined and then separated again by the 3-D glasses (one image for each eye); here, instead of two angles on the same thing, we get two shots of entirely different subjects.

The occasionally controversial, always grumpy Godard has been at the forefront of the art cinema since his feature debut, 1959’s Breathless. He has, for good, if cantankerous reasons, been protective of his first 3-D film, not releasing a 2D version for less well-equipped theaters to play, insisting that it only be viewed in 3-D.

Godard’s peculiar exploitation of 3-D film reveals the particularities of its technology — and it might give you a headache. This unique device, part of the film’s confrontational style, seemingly demands that you either adapt to the technology, or resign yourself to at least feeling cross-eyed for several seconds. But here’s a pro-tip: to save yourself the discomfort, close one eye, then the other. You’ll now receive one image in each eye: since the shots are of characters talking to one another, you can now edit a “shot/reverse-shot” sequence purely by way of alternating winks.

Perhaps this — learning to adapt to a media environment, to use your body as a cinematic apparatus — is Godard’s point. Regardless, it’s clearly important that he uses 3-D not to enhance realism or spectacle, but to disrupt both: The 3-D technology is used as a new kind of avant-garde split-screen, one in which the splitting happens (or doesn’t) in the viewer’s own head. 3-D film turns the viewer into an editing machine.

It’s a fun discovery in a film full of them, despite its heavy thematic material. As with many Godard films, there is no plot in Goodbye to Language, and while there are people you might describe as characters, they’re more like ciphers for Godard’s thoughts on language, images and politics — or at least his assemblage of quotations from major philosophers of the last century on those topics. Covering everything from Nazism to smart phones, from Impressionism to post-colonial warfare, the film seems like it’s less about any one subject, and more about the search for one.

As viewers, we’re inundated with novel uses of 3-D technology, sudden format changes from hi-def to video, witty wordplay, vaguely deployed titles and Godard’s trademark jarring snippets of recognizable classical music. Just as we’re given only fragments and a loose structure, the (non-)characters in the film also lead fragmentary lives: one woman is continually interrupted by well-dressed, shouting German men, to whose accusations she responds “I don’t care.” … What are we to make of all of this?

Well, there is probably a lot to be gleaned from this often abrasive essay film. Certainly one of the things it would like to talk about is the decline of language — we allegedly live in a post-literate society — and the primacy of digital technology in our lives. Is this all a bit pedantic? Without a doubt. But toward the end, the film finally seems, after a long search, to settle on one subject: a dog, frolicking in tall grass and snow, and just generally being a dog.

It may sound banal, but the dog scenes, mostly shot on low-quality video processed into 3-D, really are the most playful and engaging parts of the film. What is a being without language? Well, an animal, of course, and as a woman recites in voiceover on the soundtrack, a dog is also “the only creature in the world who will love you more than it loves itself.”

Dog-ness, the ability to be naked without being naked, to unselfishly love another without having language — to poop just because it has to — becomes something like the ideal existence by the end of the film, and Godard’s charming dog really makes the movie coalesce.

Pat Brown teaches and learns Film Studies at the University of Iowa.


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