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Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Review: Goodbye to Language (2014)


Director: Jean-Luc Godard
Starring: Heloise Godet, Kamel Abdeli, Richard Chevallier, Zoe Bruneau

To start with I'll clarify that the lack of star rating should not, in any respect, be taken as a measure of the quality of Jean-Luc Godard's Goodbye to Language. It's merely an acknowledgment of the fact that I didn't see the film in its intended form and, after some thought, decided that in light of that it wouldn't be fair to rate it on a scale. The full title of the film is Goodbye to Language 3D and it's clear from watching it in 2D that, unlike a lot of 3D films, this really does need to be watched in that format to get the full and intended artistic effect of what Godard is trying to do. However, as a 3D, non-English, experimental arthouse film whose title warns that the filmmaker is tossing out cinematic language as we know it is unlikely ever to hit a theater anywhere near me, I had to settle for the 2D version. That version is interesting enough, but it's also obviously missing something.

Goodbye to Language is divided into two stories: "1 Nature" and "2 Metaphor," each of which tells essentially the same narrative about a couple having an affair. In "1 Nature," Gedeon (Kamel Abdeli) watches as Josette (Heloise Godet) is verbally assaulted by her German-speaking husband and then, after the husband leaves (and after shots are fired), approaches Josette and tells her that he is at her service. Gedeon and Josette have an affair and stay together in a house where they are eventually joined by a dog, who just sort of hops into their car one day and is left behind sometime later. In "2 Metaphor," Ivitch (Zoe Bruneau) is approached by Marcus (Richard Chevallier), who tells her that he's at her service after she's yelled at in German by her husband and threatened with a gun. Ivitch and Marcus have an affair and stay together in a house (the same as Gedeon and Josette, though those two occupy it in summer, while Ivitch and Marcus occupy it in winter), and things possibly become violent as the image of a bloodied knife makes an appearance after a scene in which the couple argues. An epilogue unfolds the remainder of the story from the point of view of the dog, whose thoughts are expressed by an unseen narrator.

Goodbye to Language unfolds in fragmentary fashion, with the film moving back and forth between the couples of "1 Nature" and "2 Metaphor" and the juxtaposition of images sometimes seeming to be thrown in at random (the images aren't random, but the the number of cutaways can feel overwhelming and give that impression as a result). By design, the two couples bear a strong physical resemblance to each other, so it's not always easy to distinguish between them at first, however, as the film carries on and you get a feel for the conversational interests of each couple, it becomes easier. The story, such as it is, is basically just conversation, with discussions ranging from people's reliance on smartphones, Hitler's legacy, the French Revolution and Mao Zedong's thoughts on same, Mary Shelley's writing of Frankenstein in the presence of Percy Shelley and Lord Byron, the difference between Russians and Europeans, and the relationship between humans and dogs. In addition to the cultural works and historical events and people directly and openly discussed, the film also makes reference to numerous other works of art (far too many for me to list here) which, like the seemingly random cuts, can feel a bit overwhelming. Goodbye to Language is not a film that can, in any way, be accused of being "accessible," but even in the moments when it feels most difficult to get a handle on it, it nevertheless always feels like Godard knows exactly what he's doing and that the his objectives never slip out of his own grasp.

Going on the paragraphs above, you might be thinking that it doesn't matter whether one sees Goodbye to Language in 3D or 2D because a bare description of some of what's going on probably just makes it sound like the usual difficult for the sake of being difficult art film, but the fact that the film really isn't meant for any format except 3D is apparent in the way that the 2D version sometimes assembles images to suggest the 3D effect, and it's clear when watching parts of the film that a layer of experience is missing. From what I understand, in the proper version the images are put together so that what you see when you close one eye is different from what you would see if you closed the other, and both are different from what you would see with both eyes open, which essentially leaves it to the viewer to make editorial decisions and choose how they watch the movie as they're watching it. I find this idea intriguing (even if it also sounds possibly headache inducing) and wish I could have experienced it as it sounds like an interesting take on the notion that form itself can be content. It's not that the film doesn't have more to offer than just its structural design - if you're a Godard fan there should be plenty here to delight you - but there is definitely a piece missing in terms of both the experience and the overall meaning of the film if you have to settle for seeing Goodbye to Language in a traditional format.