How appropriate that a movie titled Goodbye to Language should cast a spell difficult to put into words. It’s a sustained trip, lighting my brain on fire for the duration, then smoldering satisfactorily for days after. Its director is the legendary Jean-Luc Godard, now 84, who has long expressed through his work a deep love of what movies can do, and an eagerly experimental disregard for anything approaching conventional rules of filmmaking. A palpable presence behind the scenes, his guiding hand can be felt in every edit, each gesture, from his cool black-and-white jump-cut debut feature, 1960’s world cinema landmark Breathless, through his increasingly dense essayistic stream-of-consciousness musings – the towering achievement being Histoire(s) du Cinema, a 288 minute inquiry into the very nature of motion pictures.
Goodbye to Language is another pinnacle, a full expression of his idiosyncratic approaches that heads straight into an added dimension: 3D. Every other 3D film you’ll see uses the technology to trick the audience’s eyes into seeing vast depths to the background while the foreground looms closer, perhaps breaking the proscenium in ways that (theoretically) enhance a narrative. Godard uses these illusions, but doesn’t leave them at face value. He plays tricks, experiments. An animating question of the film seems to be, “Didja know 3D could do this?” It’s a film so lively and playful, it’s clear even he was not sure at the start. He lets us watch as he finds out. There’s continual visual astonishment at play here, stimulating and invigorating. With cinematographer Fabrice Aragno, Godard starts from the standard Hollywood setting, like a shot with metal bars, a hand reaching through them, and the fourth wall. But then he stretches, pulling the angles and distances between planes of depth in befuddling and exhilarating ways.
Extra perceptions of dimensionality provide added mind-altering qualities to the visual essay trickery Godard’s been up to for a few decades now. Superimpositions, layered dissolves, unexpected cuts, and off-kilter angles add up to a rough-hewn beauty of a visual experience. Even without dealing with the ideas the images contain, it’s a exhilarating pleasure to watch when 3D throws a title card right into your face, blocking out text underneath, or when a chair, or a dock, or a book is strangely disassociated from its surroundings, hovering neither here nor there in your field of vision. Or try this shot: a woman is holding her iPhone. The camera is perched next to her arm, which comes towards the audience. The phone and the images on it sit in the midground, the reflections on the screen simultaneously pulling deep into and floating out of the background. In every shot, Godard invites you to say goodbye to language and see the world anew on a visceral visual level.
But that doesn’t mean the film is silent or plotless, though the sound isn’t calibrated for clarity and the narrative, such as it is, isn’t entirely comprehensible on first glance. The soundtrack is filled with classical music, loud sound effects, and murmured dialogue. It cuts in and out, switches volumes and sources suddenly, shifting placement in the mix in startling changes. We hear epigrammatic philosophizing, arty muttering, arguments, and borrowed quotations, all the while watching a couple, two couples, sit by the water, lounge naked at home, perform their daily ablutions, have deep thoughts and arguments. At least twice there’s violent death, just off screen. One scene goes back in time to show us Mary Shelley. And there’s a dog, Godard’s pet Roxy, who wanders through several scenes, staring, thinking, playing, being. At one point she’s joined by a contemplative voice over you’d swear was written by Herzog if Monet wasn’t cited.
If this all sounds impenetrable to you, I hate to say I won’t solve the film here. Not on one viewing I won’t. But a Godard film is not a story problem to be solved. It’s for adventurous filmgoers who’ll find the playfulness of its experimentation its own reward. Get drunk on the delights within, and be left marveling at the possibilities of cinema yet unexplored. Godard has made a film that proceeds with its own logic, riffing on 3D’s doubling effect by doubling down on that symbolism: mirrors, repetitions, reflections, two sets of couples, juxtapositions, a dialectic methodical cleverness to forming ideas through interplay of image and sound, layers of references and signifiers. At one point, a man declares that the act of defecation is the only true equality in the world, the camera finding him sitting on the toilet as he speaks, Rodin’s The Thinker versus Taro Gomi’s Everyone Poops.
The doubling comes to a head in the two instances of the year’s best camera move, the one you’ve definitely heard of if you’ve heard anything at all about this film. The two cameras used to capture 3D follow different characters moving away from each other, in total a layered abstraction that’s also two separate shots you can edit between by closing one eye or the other. It’s a moment so head-splittingly novel, I found myself wanting to rewind the film and rewatch it right then and there.
Here’s a movie that gives you image after image, letting you add them up for yourself. Goodbye to Language makes as good an argument as any for the ease with which language and all its history, culture, and metaphor, can complicate what we’re actually trying to tell one another, and that cinema transcends language, moving images making pure ideas. This is, after all, the foundational cinematic idea, of making meaning out of nothing more than what’s in the frame and what’s out of it. Godard puts in his frame images you’ve never seen before.