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Adieu au langage and Film Socialisme: Godard’s Latest, Among His Greatest

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Jean-Luc Godard, and more specifically his 1965 film Pierrot le Fou, literally changed my life, and set me on a path toward intense and everlasting cinephilia. Since the first time I saw that film, it has remained my favorite movie of all time and Godard my favorite director. So when I finally had the chance to see Film socialisme in 2010, his first feature film in six years, I had high hopes that the old master was going to yet again bring something new to the table. Those hopes were assuredly met. I considered the film the best of that year and still believe it is an astonishing movie, rife with so much of what defines Godard in this is fourth(?), fifth(?), in any case, current, phase of his career.

The first words of Film socialisme, at least according to the “Navajo English” subtitles, are “money – public – water.” Literally, this refers to the key elements of the film’s first third, which revolves ostensibly around the quest for, or at least an inquest regarding, some Spanish gold long since missing. There is also the varied depiction of diverse individuals as they go about their leisurely routine aboard a cruise ship (oddly enough, the ill-fated Costa Concordia). And finally, the gold and the people were and are, of course, on the water. Now, this may seem like an obvious choice to include here (of course they’re on water; it’s a boat), but I think the purpose the water serves is crucial. It necessitates the requisite mode of transport (for the wealth and the public) and it is the container that assembles, and forces a sort of commingling of, its constricted temporary residents. The water is also the surface on which one travels to the diverse stops covered by the film, all of which bear political and historical significance.

Godard (3)This opening third, lasting about 45 minutes, is a barrage of camera angles, color, and sound. The images range from an internet video of cats purring to stock footage of wartime atrocities, from grainy neon footage of people dancing to poetic snapshots of scenic splendor; these are all cultural artifacts according to Godard. This, for better or worse, is representative of who we are and where we exist in the world. Consistently demonstrated in terms of visuals is a naturally occurring florescence juxtaposed with unnatural bursts of hyper real illumination and supplemental color. Equally eclectic are the sounds Godard chooses to focus on, ranging from pop music (Madonna’s “Material Girl” at one point), to the strains of Beethoven, a spontaneous song by Patti Smith, and a young woman mimicking the cat’s meow from the aforementioned cat clip.

The second segment of the film is where Godard, more than he usually does, takes a bit of a breath and gives us a fairly uncomplicated picture of one family. That’s not to say anything about the section is “typical,” but in honing in on the Martin family, their gas station and garage (and llama?), and the political ambitions that seem to put the whole house into a frenzy, Godard is painting a comparably stable domestic picture. The mother first has the desire to run for political office, but by the section’s end, it is the children who have thrown their hat in the ring. Covering the family and their political decisions, as well as the general difficulties of balancing family with work, is a local news crew. In the course of their election profile, the TV crew surveys the domestic strain and the domestic banality that is inherent in almost any family portrait.

Godard (4)“Our humanities” is the title that signifies the start of Film socialisme’s third and final chapter, a further discordant blend of images and sounds covering wars, violence, death, religion, and cinema. The collage of various civilizations wrought in moments of strife showcase most of the very regions traversed by the cruise ship: Egypt, Naples, Barcelona, Palestine.

As with much of Godard’s work, language is an ongoing and increasingly complex area of concern. In Film socialisme, we see written text appearing in everything from French to English to Hebrew, Arabic, and even in the form of hieroglyphics. Spoken language comes across in, at least as far as I can tell, French, German, English, and possibly some Russian. With language, history emerges, as it usually does, as a key component of Godard’s cinema, particularly World War II. The influence of controversial currency on the macro-global and micro-social scene is frequently alluded to, as are the cultural influences that have informed the multifaceted histories of the ship’s occupants.

Famously obtuse Godardian wordplay is playfully and frustratingly inserted throughout. For example: “They always say that you can only compare what is comparable. In fact, we can only compare what is incomparable, not comparable” and, “As the whole of these parts, where the sum of these parts, at a given moment, denies — as each contains the whole — the parts we are considering; as much as this part denies them, as the sum of the parts, again becoming the whole becomes the whole of the linked parts.” Say what?

Godard also brings in Hollywood history and film as a public entertainment as only he can, noting the Jewish founders of the industry while comparing the act of moviegoing (a group of people facing the same direction) to Muslim prayers toward Mecca. This must be the “dialectical thinking” referenced by one character.

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“NO COMMENT” are the final printed words of Film socialisme, but Godard would most certainly have something more to say.

This brings me to Goodbye to Language, Godard’s latest, a film even more hyped and critically lauded than Film socialisme. In this case, not only did the film again meet my expectations, but it exceeded them. Goodbye to Language is so much more than I thought it would be.

The struggle to communicate remains, and perhaps this is what Godard is saying “adieu” to. “Do something so I have something to say,” demands Josette (Héloise Godet), who at one point also suggests that people need a translator; not necessarily to understand what others are saying, but to translate and explain themselves. This difficulty with language (ironic given Godard’s mastery and perplexing use of it), falls in line with the “metaphor” category, one of two dividing intertitles that appear throughout the film. Metaphor as in words that take on other meanings, words that rely on other words to work, words that represent other words. All words that, in the end, fail.

If Godard is condemning this verbal complexity, or at least seeking a departure from it, to do so he takes us to the second category heading: “nature.” Here, by comparison, is simplicity. Nature is less complicated; it needs no words. Roxy the dog (apparently the screen name of Godard’s pet dog, Mieville, which is the last name of his long-time collaborator and partner Anne-Marie Miéville), is said not to be naked because a dog is naked. In other words, the defining characteristic we’ve created as “naked” does not apply in the world of nature and animals, where such a word is irrelevant. This, like all language, is something artificially constructed and misconstrued by people, to our benefit and detriment. A side note on Roxy/Mieville: he was the winner of the Palm Dog – Jury Prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. So there’s that.

Godard (5)This preference for the naturally simplistic and escape from the intellectually conceived also arises when Josette’s boyfriend Gédéon (Kamel Abdeli) posits that infinity and zero are the two of man’s greatest discoveries (or, depending on the translation, “inventions,” which make the whole exchange even more profound). These are abstract concepts that have a basis in reality but are more widely regarded as ideas theoretically applied. By contrast, Josette contends the greatest discoveries are sex and death: primordial, natural, necessary, and biologically fundamental. Yet, were they discovered (as in mankind gradually or suddenly realizing the scientific truths of sex and death) or were they invented (as in mankind knew these facts of life existed but had to assign the words to them)? What then was discovered or invented? The acts of death and sex or the terms coined to signify them? This evolution of language and its uses and conflicts is ever-present in much of Godard’s work, but as Goodbye to Language’s title suggests, it’s a primary concern here.

By this same token, and they are sequences that certainly stand out and even garner a chuckle from Godard’s staple high-brow audience, look at the scenes of Gédéon in the bathroom. Or rather, listen. Yes, it’s crude and disgusting, but it’s perfectly natural, perfectly ordinary, perfectly unmediated by manmade divisions or linguistic barriers. There may be a multitude of words for it, but to quote Tarō Gomi’s strangely popular text, “everyone poops.” Such an act therefore becomes a sort of common denominator beyond any constraints of language. Gédéon and Josette recurrently bicker about equality. Well, this is it.

All of the above regarding Goodbye to Language is undeniably up for debate. As per his tendency, Godard compiles a dense layer upon layer of narrative strands, character significance, and thematic concerns, very few of which are explicitly stated and depicted in any conventional sense. Subsequently, there is going to be considerable confusion about the plot, such as it is to begin with. But to me, this is secondary, and has been in many of Godard’s films, especially his more essayistic features (or as in the first and last portions of Film socialisme). More than any sort of storyteller, Godard is recently a visual artist first and foremost, with cinematic philosopher coming in second.

Save for that philosopher bit, this is similar to how I feel about Michael Bay. Yes, I’m comparing Jean-Luc Godard to Michael Bay, but hear me out. There is no denying that as a storyteller Bay lacks, shall we say, subtly and originality. Fine. Now to be sure, that part isn’t the same as Godard, but where they do both excel in similar ways is in their sheer devotion to imagining new images, to creating breathtaking or innovative pictures, reveling in the motion and aesthetic forms that are principal elements of motion pictures. This is, in a way, getting back to the earliest of films, those turn of the century movies that just wanted to present something that people hadn’t seen before: the “Cinema of Attractions,” as Tom Gunning dubs it.

Godard (6)Bay’s attractions might be explosions and CGI robots, but in many cases, they look spectacular, as do his camera maneuvers, camera placement, and his use of light and color. It’s all about the visually spectacular. The same goes for Godard, though with obviously different intentions, techniques, and effects. With Goodbye to Language, Godard creates some of his most captivating images yet: the bursts of blown out digital color (the shot of the children walking through a field peppered with flowers); the blood (or color red, as he might contend) against the white tub; a hand reaching down through water littered with leaves; trees, lots of trees; and fascinating angles that obscure part of a shot’s primary focus, provocatively leaving one to wonder if that point of focus was really the focus after all — where else, perhaps, should we be looking?

Such a visual tactic of foiling the viewer’s expectations is tantamount to Goodbye to Language, particularly in regards to Godard’s use of 3D, which is, as it has been noted by critics the world over, quite unlike anything done before. To start with some of the more understated examples, keeping in mind the inherent shift in depth when working in 3D, and simultaneously disregarding the need to properly adjust that depth of field, Godard frequently composes a 3D image where a small, not immediately perceptible point of the screen is in focus. Through the blurred rest of the image, we search for this focal point, which, once found, produces a notable effect of fuller visual context where, as alluded to above, we must alter our conception of where Godard is directing our vision.

When the camera is moving, such as a low angle track toward the end of the film, the impact is even more noticeable. This specific shot glides by table and chair legs as most of the image is a scattershot blur of lines close to the camera. Where should we be looking? It’s certainly not the foreground. It’s only once we’ve passed the table that we realize just how far in the background the focus is, but once that is established, the wider image comes into view.

Even more profound is the separation of a 3D image into two distinct 2D images via a single camera pan. This particular decision on Godard’s part, which I believe happens twice, has been commented upon by other critics, but for me, and admitting some slight hyperbole, this technique in it contemporary context is as groundbreaking as Godard’s jump cuts were in 1960. This represents not only a drastic alteration of preconceived notions concerning what 3D should or should not do (and many would contend this is something that definitely should not be done), but it is a further evolution in Godard’s continued exploration of multiple images and cinematic screens.

JLGAAL2As far as I can remember, a normal split screen is relatively rare in Godard’s work, but starting around the mid-1970s, with Numéro deux most notably, Godard began to incorporate multiple images via superimposition and the compilation of multiple screens in one image. In this 1975 film, for example, on screen at certain moments is Godard himself surrounded by up to three television monitors, each playing a different image, in effect creating a fusion of three or more screens within the standard viewing screen itself. With this 3D dual screen technique, Godard is again presenting distinct screens simultaneously, but now, not only are they both shown at the same time, but with the blink of an eye, the audience has the power to single out and alternate their chosen focus. It’s a remarkable experiment in cinematic technique and spectator interaction.

Detractors of Goodbye to Language (and no doubt there are many reasons why people would not like the film) are quick to point out the “amateurish” quality of Godard’s technique, or they will argue that they could have shot simple scenes of their dog and it wouldn’t be considered art like this film is. I understand this argument, but I fail to see what that actually takes away from Goodbye to Language. Sure, it is occasionally rough around the edges, and in his attempt to illustrate the inherent flaws of 3D, Godard creates some difficult viewing that genuinely does at times hurt the eyes, but I would contend that he turns even this into a positive aesthetic experience. Forget if it looks proper (which, who cares) or seamless (which, it doesn’t), Godard is exploring the bounds of 3D imagery, calling attention to the format in the process, as much deconstructing the format as he is the linguistic concepts noted earlier. With 3D, a format he considers to have no set rules as of yet, the parameters of possibility are even more spacious.

This is not unlike his frequent implementation of direct to camera character dialogue, his now famous editing disruptions, his switching to the negative in A Married Woman, or when he had cinematographer Raoul Coutard point the camera right at the audience in Contempt. It’s all a matter or exploiting and exposing the various artistic tools of filmmaking and the employed cinematic apparatuses: cameras, lights, tracks, even actors. This is paralleled by the shots of others taking pictures in Film socialisme, where a recording device is, in effect, recording devices in use; a self-reflexive portrait of art in and of itself. Godard’s emphasis is on the process of one capturing images and thus capturing reality or a memory. It’s a way of singling out methods for recording, manipulating, arranging, and disseminating images.

As consistent as the images are in Film socialisme, at least as far as their visual prominence and appeal, there is still a degree of technical variability. The digital devices used to capture and render certain shots are implemented with a varying degree of quality, some with a resolution as sharp as a tack, some as pixelated and as muddled as a bootleg copy of a poor VHS copy, but that’s how those instruments work. The sound of the wind outside and the beats of the dance music send reverberations crackling through the soundtrack, while on the visual field, focus is often murky to the point of being nonexistent. Godard was never one to adamantly insist on absolute technical perfection (dialogue misspoken or repeated, mismatched cutting, etc.), and here, these are technical faults that add to the sense of unstructured recording and to the idea that any of the contributing devices are imperfect modes of recording and transmission, just as language may be an imperfect mode of expression.

Godard (1)Why then would anyone be surprised by the fact that for a moment you see the crane’s shadow during one particular shot in Goodbye to Language? Godard has never tried to hide the fact that his movies were movies. 3D, he has argued, is something of a lie to start with, insofar as it is a flat screen that would have audiences believe it is not. The way Godard incorporates the format here, he is at once calling 3D’s bluff while also recognizing that in that false sense of perspective, one can still approach the illusory depth in an interesting way. It may not really be three dimensions, but what can be done with that illusion, to emphasize, criticize, and distort it?

Couched in the credits with the list of actors, the texts quoted, and the composers whose diverse music audibly accentuates Goodbye to Language’s imagery, is a list of equipment used. This isn’t uncommon with Godard, but it does, I think, stress the value of the technology. To Godard, the camera equipment used is just as integral as the performers or the dialogue. This film, arguably more than any of his others, is in large part actually about this technology. It would, of course, be watchable in 2D, but many of its artistic arguments would be lost. As fellow Sound on Sighter Kyle Turner noted in his review of the film, unlike Gravity and others, Goodbye to Language truly redefines 3D in film, and in so doing, I would say its makes 3D viewing a more than a necessity (not something that can be said for previous movies in the format); indeed, the film would be unthinkable and ineffective without it.

If the story (if it can even be called that) of Goodbye to Language seems muddled, this should be par for the course when it comes to recent Godard. In an interview around the time of the film’s screening at Cannes, Godard noted the unnecessity of a screenplay, even pointing out that it would only be needed after shooting, perhaps after editing. With this in mind, to approach Goodbye to Language as a normal narrative work is futile and bound to frustrate. If there is a plot here, a moral, a message, Godard suggests it is a “message in everyday life,” or the “absence of message.”

Finally, to return to the supposed “goodbye” or “farewell” that the French title of the film translates to, Godard has put forth the idea, in a characteristically linguistic turn of phrase, that in Vaud, Switzerland, where he resides, “adieu,” depending on the time of day and tone of voice, can also be a greeting. Godard is as ambiguous as ever when it comes to expounding on this potentially dual meaning of the film’s title, but with this in mind, perhaps the film is not a fond farewell to language after all. Perhaps it is a welcome, a recognition, or an arrival at a new approach toward communication, with whatever form or format possible. With Goodbye to Language, Godard has said he was seeking “to escape from ideas,” though I’m not sure how well he succeeded there. Yet at the same time, he sought to explore a certain kind of language that cinema still allows: “A mixture of words and images.” To that aim, I would say mission accomplished.


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