Goodbye to Language

Jean-Luc Godard has always exhibited a deep love of language. His work teems with puns and literary quotations; one of his most famous devices, which he introduced in A Woman Is a Woman (1961) and continues to employ liberally, is to fill the entire screen with words, or even a single word. The title of his latest cinematic poem, Goodbye to Language (“Adieu au Langage”), is a bit of wordplay; as Godard explained in a recent interview, adieu can mean good-bye or hello in the French-speaking part of Switzerland where he was raised. This dual meaning provides a clue to the movie’s meaning. At 84, Godard is still looking for new ways to express himself, though he thinks it harder than ever to achieve meaningful interpersonal communication in the information age. That’s saying a lot, given that he’s always presented such communication as a struggle (failed romance is a consistent theme of his narrative films).

Language is spectacular as well as cerebral, employing 3-D in ways I’ve never seen before. Like many 3-D movies, it was shot with two cameras placed side by side, and in two scenes Godard and cinematographer Fabrice Aragno keep one camera in place while turning the other to follow a character as he walks away. Onscreen you see two separate shots overlapping, the foreground and background determined by how you look at the screen. Throughout the movie Godard grades the colors from one camera slightly differently than those from the other; projected in 3-D, the colors combine like paints on an artist’s palette. (The director notes the similarity near the end of the movie, when he shows a painter mixing watercolors in close-up.)

Layered imagery has been central to Godard’s filmmaking since he started working with video editing in the mid 1970s—in the eight-part series Histoire(s) du Cinéma (1988-’98), the crowning achievement of his late period, almost every shot features a superimposition. Yet Godard achieves something new by layering images in 3-D; you never feel that one shot is sitting on top of another, rather that two shots are interacting in space. And since each shot in a Godard film provokes multiple associations (to history, philosophical concepts, personal experience, or other movies), watching Goodbye to Language feels like exploring the director’s brain.

Just as you can never understand completely what goes on in someone else’s head, you can’t—and shouldn’t—hope to make perfect sense of Language, which is challenging even by the standards of late-period Godard. You’re never certain who the characters are, why they’re interacting, or even, in many scenes, what they’re doing exactly; meanwhile the soundtrack overwhelms your ears with sound bites, snatches of music, and the voices of multiple narrators. That’s not to say the movie lacks for definite themes; it’s just that, in order to discern them, you have to interact with the images much as they interact with each other.

Fittingly the early passages revolve around social interaction in the Internet age, which Godard regards skeptically at best. In one scene he shows three sets of hands, one paying for a copy of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago at an outdoor book stand, the other two looking up information about the author on their smartphones. “The subtitle is An Experiment in Literary Investigation, but Solzhenitsyn didn’t need Google to tell him that,” says the man holding the book (a likely stand-in for Godard). He goes on to say that the Internet, by connecting us with an untold number of strangers and providing easy access to any information we want, makes us less inclined toward “interior experience,” which is where we figure things out on our own and define ourselves as individuals. Against archival footage of the Nazi era, a character observes in voice-over that the Internet might be giving rise to something like the mass consciousness envisioned by totalitarian rulers.

These observations occur in the first section, titled “Nature.” The second, titled “Metaphor,” features variations on some of the fragmentary scenes from the first, which depict the meeting of a man and woman, their visit to a sagelike professor, the man declaring his love for the woman, and the sudden murder of another man by a group of well-dressed thugs. (Only after a few viewings did I realize that the sections concern two different couples; in another disorienting doubling effect, Godard cast similar-looking actors to play similar characters.) Sections one and two take place mainly outdoors; three and four, also titled “Nature” and “Metaphor,” take place largely indoors and depict the man and woman negotiating their romantic partnership. Here the thematic focus shifts from the relationship between individual and society to the intimate bond between lovers; they acknowledge how little they really know each other, then try to reach a more meaningful understanding. Again the dizzying 3-D imagery reflects the thematic content, as the couple struggle to create harmony between discrete points of view.

Their endeavor, Godard suggests, is representative of how language evolves. A crucial refrain of the third and fourth sections is “Do something so I can speak to you”—that is, we need to make direct contact with others in order to articulate fully what goes on inside ourselves. The movie addresses another irony concerning language: we create distance between ourselves and what we experience whenever we try to put it into words. Among the ravishing images of natural beauty that flash between the dramatic fragments like spotlights in a fog are shots of Godard’s dog Roxy, shown wandering blissfully through the woods and around a lake. As a disembodied voice intones, there’s no distance between a dog and its experience, since dogs are incapable of speech. We humans might learn a thing or two from Roxy, we’re told: dogs, who can’t transform experience into words, are also capable of loving others more than they love themselves. That’s right—the hero of Goodbye to Language is a pet dog, further evidence that Godard, for all his philosophical brooding, remains as playful an artist as ever.