Years ago, I had a friend who’d meet up with a few fellow literary scholars about once a week or so to work on “the Wake,” that high modernist puzzle, Finnigans Wake, finally published in 1939, seventeen years after James Joyce began working on it. And by “work,” she might have meant “deconstruct” or even simply “decipher,” but more likely, she meant “read” in the fullest sense of active engagement with the text. Since its premiere in Cannes, a cadre of Godardians has been hard at “work” on Goodbye to Language (Adieu au langage)—watching and listening and then putting down notes, as Craig Keller, for example, began doing in Cannes immediately following his first viewing.
He hasn’t stopped. A few weeks ago, he began posting a series of entries on the film, the first opening with links to a few must-reads (Danny Kasman, Kent Jones) before presenting his translation of a piece that appeared at Independencia in late May. Here, Arthur Mas and Martial Pisani approach Goodbye to Language by way of a series of observations: what’s seen and heard; what’s known about Godard and his concerns of late in general; allusions to track, capture and unpack. A second round appeared in June, and Craig Keller‘s translated this one as well.
By now you’ll have likely heard that David Bordwell has called Goodbye to Language “the best new film I’ve seen this year, and the best 3D film I’ve ever seen.” He also calls Godard the “youngest filmmaker at work today.” Godard “uses his citations opportunistically, scraping them against one another in collage fashion…. We ought to find problems of comprehension fascinating. They remind us of storytelling conventions we take for granted, and they push toward other ways of spinning yarns, or unraveling them.” So what Bordwell’s presented is “a four-layered entry”:
I’ll start general, with some sketchy comments on some of Late Godard’s narrative strategies. In a second section I make some speculative comments on Godard’s use of 3D. No real spoilers here.
Then I’ll offer an account of the opening fifteen minutes. If you haven’t yet seen the film, this section might be good preparation. But part of experiencing the film is feeling a bit at sea from the start, so this section might make the film more linear than it would appear on unaided viewing. You decide how much of a preview you want.
The last section briefly surveys the overall structure of the film, and it is littered with spoilers. Best read it after viewing.
“As far as purely aesthetic experiences go, I doubt anything I’ll see anywhere this year will beat Jean-Luc Godard’s Goodbye to Language,” Ignatiy Vishnevetsky‘s written in a dispatch back to the AV Club from Toronto. “Here, the ideas—most of them dealing with the relationship between human technology and speech and the natural world, which is embodied by a dog—are comparatively simple and straightforward, but the way in which Godard uses the stereoscopic format to express them is anything but. It’s easily the most imaginative use of 3D I’ve seen, and a few moments—notably, the scenes where one stereoscopic plane pans while the other remains stationary—marked the first times in my adult life that I’ve seen something on screen and couldn’t immediately figure out how it worked.”
“Within chapters entitled ‘La Nature’ and ‘La Metaphor,’ both of which will restart again later, the filmmaker displays his findings not in linear, cascading waves, but as isolated pinpricks,” writes Steve Macfarlane at Slant. “Sometimes a scene will begin, only to cut to black, yet the audio (music or otherwise) will continue to trail after the corresponding images have vanished, as if Godard were de-splicing the medium’s taken-for-granted marriage of sound and image before your very eyes…. A character denounces ‘the law which denounces its own violence’ as a law of cheating, and we know that even as he basks in its paths not taken nearly often enough, Godard is referring to the moving image. Cinema is a vernacular of domination; quaking with revelations both formal and personal, Goodbye to Language attests that Godard has spent his career apologizing for it.”
“Like Godard’s 1963 film Contempt, Goodbye to Language is a meditation on the history of art and literature set against the backdrop of a strained relationship,” writes Ben Kenigsberg at the AV Club. “In some ways, it’s a follow-up that examines the artistic and technological developments of the subsequent five decades…. Godard ruminates on how artists give life to ideas with an extended riff on Mary Shelley and the writing of Frankenstein, and he makes a star out of his dog, Roxy Miéville, who at one point, according to the narrator, wonders what the rapids of a stream are trying to communicate to him.”
Godard “has rendered 3D confusing, lurid, supple, deep—he’s made it visible,” writes John Magary at Hammer to Nail. “A pixel-smudged poem with the rigor of a lab experiment, Goodbye to Language resists/questions/destroys interpretation, but it is also, to my mind, one of the most emotional statements of his six-decades-old, never-to-be-equaled career.”
While Toronto was still on, Calum Marsh wrote up a fun riff in the National Post on the reappearance of Goodbye to Language and Xavier Dolan’s Mommy at the same festival again. At Cannes, “it was widely felt that their joint Jury Prize suggested something of an affinity between Dolan and Godard—that [Jury President Jane] Campion, in according the honor to Mommy and Adieu au Langage both, meant in some way to illuminate a hidden kinship between disparate auteurs. Critics at Cannes—a discerning group by nature—did not receive this implication warmly. Indeed, the gesture backfired: Much of the cheer that had greeted Mommy’s premiere seemed to curdle, practically the moment its award was announced, into thinly veiled contempt, and even those who admired Dolan’s work voiced their distaste at the suggestion that he was in some way Godard’s equal.” Mommy will not be screening at the New York Film Festival. Make of that what you will.
Updates, 9/28: Reverse Shot co-editor Michael Koresky: “When watching films like Nouvelle vague, In Praise of Love, or Film socialism we may feel like we’re divided into two people simultaneously: one who must be immersed in the world of the film and another who must keep an evaluative distance from it. It produces something like a perceptual psychotic split. This is perhaps why his choice to make his latest film, Goodbye to Language, in 3D seems such a natural one. The stereoscopic glasses further divide us, splitting our perception literally between our left and right eyes.”
For the New Yorker‘s Richard Brody, Godard’s “3D technique is the first advance in deep-focus camerawork since the heyday of Orson Welles; it lends the settings a sumptuous intimacy as it restores the astonishment of sheer perception to the art of the cinema. A concluding flourish—with Godard himself, a painter in his youth, giving a young artist lessons in watercolor—looks tenderly into the future.”
Update, 9/30: “[H]ow do you talk about Adieu au langage without falling in general hero-worship?” asks David Davidson:
In terms of a poetic documentary on Godard’s surrounding Switzerland, I thought Lettre à Freddy Buache (1982) was a prettier, more concise documentary on the Lausanne, Romandy of the time. (Buache, who by the way, is fascinating in his recent Hors-champs interview on the subject of Godard; I, II). Chris Marker, in his late age, when he makes his video-essay The Case of the Grinning Cat (2004) it feels more politically committed than what Godard is doing here. Film Socialisme also felt more social as it’s a contemporary look at a Europe in a state of economic and political crisis…. And even though I really want to read Zoé Bruneau’s experiences working on the film (En Attendant Godard)…, it still doesn’t sit right with me that he should have her be naked for most of her scenes…. But I guess where Godard fails in these other departments he succeeds elsewhere. Since Adieu au language still stands on its own as stunning object that shines by its imperfection. It’s the digital 3D equivalent of a painter’s draft of a self-portrait. Adieu.
Updates, 10/2: “Despite constant proclamations about the end of language and meaning, this film opens up more formal possibilities than possibly any Godard work,” writes Lesley Chow for Bright Lights. “In the way that David Hockney has been inspired by the iPad to come up with works that are bigger than life, Godard seems exhilarated over the new technology, keen to show that pixelation can be made to dance in 3D and textures can be put right in your face.” That said: “Godard hasn’t lost his taste for pretty girls who don’t object to being manhandled. These girls don’t resist interminable monologues or even physical shoving by the men, who are older, thuggish, and overweight. Part of this can be written off as sophisticated feminist-baiting (for instance, one of the girls only talks about sexual equality after removing her top), but the great critic Judith Williamson got it right when she wrote, very bluntly, that she didn’t see why Godard’s women had to be so much better-looking than the men.”
Listening (40’39”). Over the weekend, Indiewire‘s Eric Kohn moderated a discussion of Godard and Adieu. The participants: actress Héloïse Godet, Laurence Kardish, formerly of MoMA’s Department of Film and Media, the New Yorker‘s Richard Brody and critic Max Nelson.
Late Godard is full of whispering, stuttering, stammering and silence, language arrested or diminished: Isabelle Huppert‘s speech impediment in Passion, the irregular responses of the children in France/Tour/Détour/Deux/Enfants, the stretches of speechlessness in Six fois deux, the actress caught on one word in For Ever Mozart, the insistent repetitions of the phrase “Maybe nothing was said” in Éloge de l’amour, even the delay between the typing and the appearance of the words in Histoire(s) du cinéma. Seemingly resigned to the incapability of language to express anything concrete and real, Godard says in Mozart that “knowledge of the possibility of representation consoles us for being enslaved to life. Knowledge of life consoles for the fact that representation is but shadow,” which recalls Jean Narboni’s assertion in Two or Three Things I Know about Her: “Ce n’est pas le réel que nous pensons. C’est un fantôme du réel.” (It is tempting to suggest that Godard displaced language to Miéville; her films bristle with aphorism and elaborate speech.) As if to finally bid farewell to his old nemesis, the Word, Godard calls his summa Adieu au langage and states late in the film: “The words. I don’t want to hear about them.”
Update, 10/5: “As connections are made to television being invented and Hitler being elected, Solzhenitsyn and cell phones, or a conversation held about gender equality and toilets, viewers can piece together the images and text for meaning,” writes Gary M. Kramer for Film International. “Or they can just let the hypnotic experience that is Goodbye to Language wash over them.”
Update, 10/9: Scout Tafoya talks with Godet for RogerEbert.com.
Update, 10/12: “The release of a new Godard film or video means a new encounter with texts, films and music often familiar from the filmmaker’s earlier work—reworked and re-contextualized—as well as new discoveries to be sorted through and identified,” writes Ted Fendt in the Notebook. “This life-long interest in quotation often inspires much research around Godard’s work, such as Céline Scemama‘s amazing, second by second breakdown of Histoire(s) du cinéma or Adrian Martin’s ‘Recital: Three Lyrical Interludes in Godard’ in For Ever Godard. Last year I translated twenty-some of Godard’s videos for a retrospective at Film Society of the Lincoln Center and in the course of transcribing and translating, I became very familiar with Godard’s references. So after the first screening of Adieu au langage I attended and with much help from Google, I began working on identifying the works cited in the film.” The catalog that follows is a work-in-progress.
Update, 10/22: “The use of 3D in Jean-Luc Godard’s latest feature is so singular, so wrapped up in the director’s intellectual concerns with the material nature of cinema, that to call it the best ever application of the technology is almost underselling the achievement,” writes Jake Cole for the L.
Updates, 10/27: Godard “encouraged his cinematographer, Fabrice Aragno, to build customized camera rigs (much as, a half-century ago, he asked Raoul Coutard to use still-photography stock to shoot at night for Breathless),” notes Nicolas Rapold in the New York Times. “Mr. Aragno said in an interview that Mr. Godard had watched Avatar and Piranha 3D. In Paris, the two saw a live 3D theatrical broadcast of the 2010 World Cup, which piqued the director’s interest: ‘He said, “It’s incredible because we see everything like puppets,”‘ Mr. Aragno recalled.” Goodbye to Language 3D “features a couple in scenarios that are played out twice by different actors. The doubling suggests a parallel with how 3-D is shot using two cameras; similarly, small variations in Mr. Godard’s layered creations become part of the art.”
Updates, 10/28: “In the span of 70 combustibly loaded minutes, the film transforms the cinema’s use of stereoscope in the same way synchronization transformed its use of sound,” argues David Ehrlich at the Dissolve. “In its best and most visceral moments, Goodbye to Language feels like nothing less than the 21st-century equivalent of The Jazz Singer. That’s a flawed comparison, however, as Alan Crosland’s film introduced new technology, whereas Godard’s dismantles it. As the most memorable sequences in Goodbye to Language suggest, it would be more appropriate to liken Godard’s approach to 3-D with Ernest Rutherford’s approach to the atom—if he’s found its hidden purpose, he’s done so by splitting it apart.”
“In the 1960s, as Mr. Godard ascended to international culture-hero status, one of his most eloquent English-language champions was Susan Sontag,” writes A.O. Scott in the New York Times. “Nearly 50 years later, he may be returning the favor by making movies that uphold the arguments of her great essay
‘Against Interpretation,’ which protested culture and criticism’s tireless and tiresome hunt for meaning. ‘In place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art,’ she concluded, and Goodbye to Language rewards just such an approach. If you try, especially on a first viewing, to crack its code or plumb its depths, you are likely to pass a frustrated hour and 10 minutes. But if you surrender, you might have a good time. The earth might even move.”
“We might think of Godard’s didactic strokes as a preliminary test, and those who pass it understand that the best way to appreciate his films is in a state of liberation from familiar modes and pressures of narrative, interpretation, appreciation,” suggests Michelle Orange in the Voice. “When it manages to induce this liberation, rather than simply preach it, Goodbye to Language passes enigmatically enough, like a handsome black dog trotting solo down the street.”
Update, 10/29: David Barker, director of Daylight, at the Talkhouse Film: “The element of texture—so central to Godard’s films of the ’60s and ’70s, with their beautiful black-and-white cinematography using available light, and direct sound filled with interruptions and traffic—had essentially disappeared from his work in the last couple decades. However, it is gloriously resurrected here in the inspired use of lo-res 3D, shot on seven different consumer or pro-sumer camera systems ranging from Canon 5Ds to GoPros, often handheld. The effect of the 3D thrown at you in different formats, with wildly varying color palettes and resolutions, is both disorienting and invigorating, a sensual experience of texture combined with Godard’s typically rich and discordant use of sound.”
Updates, 10/30: Goodbye to Language “is unquestionably a milestone,” writes Ignatiy Vishnevetsky at the AV Club. “Godard has always been a technical innovator precisely because he has no interest in—or knack for—craft; from the handheld camerawork and jump cuts of his debut, Breathless, to the imaginative jumbling of video of his 1980s and 1990s projects, Godard has always worked by contravening technical convention, creating a style out of the things other films and filmmakers don’t do…. Almost every medium hits a turning point when it moves away from representing reality to creating a reality of its own; this is the turning point for 3D.”
The New Yorker‘s Richard Brody: “The 3D effect fulfills two functions at once—to make objects onscreen seem extremely close to the viewer, and to create the sense of extremely deep space. Making highly sophisticated effects by means of lightweight, hand-scale techniques achieves another effect, one that Godard has been pursuing for forty years: to make, almost casually and with the cinematic equivalent of a painter’s hand, images that have the grandeur and the solidity of the ones that he has always loved in the grand-scale masterworks of the history of cinema.”
Matt Zoller Seitz at RogerEbert.com: “If Terrence Malick tried to make a Godard film in the spirit of Godard, it might look something like this, though with less prolonged discussion of Hitler, the Holocaust, colonialism, imperialism and other favorite Godard subjects, but with Godard’s cryptic voice-over aphorisms (‘This morning is a dream. Each person must think that the other is the dreamer’).”
Salon‘s Andrew O’Hehir suggests that “if you can abandon yourself to the brain-sizzling, endlessly evocative and sometimes goofy aural-visual groove of Goodbye to Language, it’s nowhere near as ‘difficult’ as most of Godard’s later work…. I enjoyed this movie more thoroughly, and more liberated from frustration and ambivalence, than anything Godard has made in at least 20 years.”
Jonathan Romney for Film Comment: “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.'”
C. Mason Wells talks with Héloïse Godet for BlackBook.
Updates, 11/2: “I’ve now seen Jean-Luc Godard’s latest film twice, and I think I might be one more viewing away from finally being able to say what the hell it’s about,” writes Vulture‘s Bilge Ebiri. “That sounds like a condemnation, but a film you need to see again should be a film you want to see again, and the oblique beauty of Goodbye to Language… has a tractor-beam-like pull…. For all the film’s opacity, Godard’s overall theme is reasonably evident, since the film is called Goodbye to Language, and he’s been chronicling the fragility of expression since his very first film.”
Reporting for Thompson on Hollywood, Tom Brueggemann notes that “the film has not managed to find bookings in key markets like Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston and Washington. And that means, despite strong reviews and now a strong start, its future for many potential viewers remains in doubt.” Interesting tidbit: “A.O. Scott’s rave New York Times review” has prompted “interest from the ‘Bel Air circuit’ (top filmmakers and executives) for their private screening rooms.”
Eric Kohn talks with Godet for Indiewire.
Update, 11/3: David Bordwell‘s posted a second round of thoughts, “some scattered observations.” He’s reminded that “postproduction has long been a central aspect of Godard’s creative process.” As for 3D, “Part of his aim is to explore what happens if you ignore the rules…. Clearly, 3D is becoming something we cinephiles need to face up to. I balked at the beginning, but I’ve come around.”
He also points to an interview I missed somehow, Vadim Rizov‘s with cinematographer Fabrice Aragno for Filmmaker: “Before production began, Aragno decided to explore 3-D from the ground up. Building his own rigs to hold two cameras, he was determined not to be bound by convention or precedent. ‘When 3D became a new technique, at the same time very quickly there became rules,’ he explained. ‘People say, “You can’t be more than six centimeters between the two cameras. If the background and foreground are too far away, it cannot be good.” So I learned the rules, and I saw that it’s not very interesting with the rules.'”
Updates, 11/4: Setting down his first impressions of Goodbye to Language for the New York Review of Books, Geoffrey O’Brien notes that Godard’s “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.’ … 3D is an exclamation point on top of an exclamation point. What Goodbye to Language restores is the primordial shock before 3D, before