PRINT September 2014


Jean-Luc Godard’s Goodbye to Language

Jean-Luc Godard, Adieu au langage (Goodbye to Language), 2014, 3-D digital video, color, sound, 70 minutes. Josette (Héloise Godet).

AND SO, ADIEU. Jean-Luc Godard’s leave-taking from cinema and life began many years ago, his valedictory impulse intensifying in the trilogy of war requiems he initiated at the turn of the century. The mournful Godard found the end in our beginning, proclaiming the fin du monde as the new millennium commenced. In Éloge de l’amour (In Praise of Love, 2001), its French title announcing its lamenting mode, Godard’s sense of political futility and aesthetic impasse seemed almost suicidal, so insistently repeated was the film’s final refrain: “Maybe nothing was said.” Notre musique (2004) was set in the aftermath of the Bosnian War, a conflict that Godard had despairingly portrayed in For Ever Mozart (1996) as a reversion to the nationalistic fascism and ethnic cleansing of World War II. Film socialisme (2010) continued Musique’s concern with the annihilation of European culture, its opening sequences filmed on the doomed cruise ship Costa Concordia, which served in hindsight, as it foundered off the Italian coast, as Godard’s eerily prophetic metaphor for a continent drifting toward disaster.

Godard asserted that Socialisme was his last film, its abrupt closing text—NO COMMENT—appearing like a sardonic point final to his formidable career. But the irrepressible imagemaker, now eighty-three, countenanced retirement with the alacrity of a Manoel de Oliveira, or a Cher, and extended his farewell tour to accommodate his most recent feature, whose name again proclaims departure: Adieu au langage (Goodbye to Language). The film’s press book, appropriately terse for a work that lasts little more than an hour, offers Godard’s cryptic synopsis of Adieu’s narrative, written as a poem in lowercase: “the idea is simple / a married woman and a single man meet / they love, they argue, fists fly / a dog strays between town and country.” If the central “idea” is simple—a portrait of a failing relationship that looks back to the deteriorating marriage and apartment setting of Contempt (1963)—its elaboration is predictably dense, abstruse, and fragmentary. Accompanied by an assaultive sound track (bursts of shrieking violins; ambient noise that distorts into speaker-rattling crackle before collapsing into silence), Adieu’s images alternate between renunciation—the screen frequently going to protracted black as voices pronounce enigmatic maxims—and imposing plenitude. Godard’s additive aesthetic here finds new, ravishing ways to test the capacity of the image to contain more: thought, beauty, mystery.

Shot in 3-D on smartphones and GoPro cameras, Adieu employs the extra dimension not, as one might expect from the cantankerous Godard, to mock the post-Avatar mania for the gimmick—“What they call images are becoming the murder of the present,” he pronounces in the film—but to pay homage to cinema’s past and to use 3-D’s protrusive illusionism to amplify the everyday splendor on which the director has long doted: nighttime traffic, fields of flowers, bucolic lakeshores. Just as Godard once luxuriated in the possibilities of CinemaScope, as both an evocation of 1950s Hollywood and a means to cram more objects, signs, and text into his images, in Adieu he uses 3-D to recall primitive stereoscopic cinema dating back to the silent period, and to allow his compositions to burgeon, mostly with beauty. (Godard, obsessed as always with connecting his work with the traditions of Western art, no doubt also has in mind the convention of three-dimensional painterly effects, from Renaissance parapet paintings to Chardin’s drawers, pipes, and knives showily extending into the viewer’s space.) Occasionally resorting to the Fauvist chromaticism he introduced in Éloge de l’amour, Godard allows his color-distorted images to flourish with intensely tinted flowers (psychedelic daisies, eye-searing poppies), shoved into the foreground so they may intrude into our space, and fixates on found loveliness: the bonfire of a woman’s Botticellian mane, a yellow X pulsing on a rain-slicked crosswalk, snowflakes glittering in the air like a slow shower of crystals. “What’s difficult is to fit flatness into depth,” Godard asserts, near the end of the film, purportedly quoting Céline, but the director has no such problem, playing with the newfound density that 3-D offers. His impish wit emerges in compositions that exaggerate the effect, such as a chair that thrusts itself so forcefully from the frame that one is inclined, like a child entranced behind polarized goggles, to reach out and grasp it. The trickster Godard twice confounds our eyes—trompe l’oeil turned ocular mischief—by superimposing two 3-D images so that each eye sees a different picture simultaneously, the brain momentarily unable to decode what our orbs are beholding. (When the director sends a character shuttling from one image to the other, one eye to the other as it were, so that the composition finally snaps into legibility, the audience at the film’s premiere at this year’s Cannes Film Festival burst into wild applause.)

Though Godard seems to dispatch his old nemesis, the Word, both in the film’s title and in a statement late in Adieu—“Words. I don’t want to hear about them”—language, for all its unreliability and inadequacy, remains an obsession for the director. “Soon, everyone will need an interpreter to understand the words coming from their own mouths,” he suggests in one of the film’s many dire pronouncements, and our growing alienation from language in a screen-proliferating world compounds Godard’s worries about a culture adrift, unconcerned with history, philosophy, or art. (The chastising puritan in Godard makes a sour joke about those who need to google the subtitle of a Solzhenitsyn book and warns early in Adieu that “those lacking imagination take refuge in reality.”) Ironically, even as the director deforms language to emphasize its arbitrariness and inability to reveal the invisible, most drastically in the “Navajo English” subtitles of Film socialisme, which reduced already-gnomic dialogue into perversely truncated expressions and peculiar neologisms, each of his stray phrases tends to be treated by commentators as a vatic utterance. Some of his paradoxes cannot be unpicked, and a simple statement such as “Today, everyone is afraid,” uttered in Adieu, may mean just what it says. Rhetorical provocation, such as the assertion that “everything Hitler said, he accomplished,” or a proposal that society might accept murder as a solution to unemployment, is by now commonplace for Godard, who recently told Le Monde that Marine Le Pen should be appointed France’s prime minister. So, too, are the director’s pronouncements about the insidious State and the exhausted condition of “poor Europe,” and his ominous double entendres—kamera means “prison” in Russian, the film informs us—and jeux de mots that pry apart and recombine words and phrases. When Godard reconfigures adieu as AH DIEU in an intertitle, he is aware not only that dieu in English is contained within his own name but also that his hero Levinas considered adieu a crucial expression, as greeting, benediction, and farewell, the last sense culminating in death, as Derrida suggested in his Levinas eulogy, the word ultimately transforming into a last address to God (à Dieu).

Anagram-mad and prone to lexical games, the Godard who once found masque and cul (ass) hidden in masculin no doubt now discerns the anal cached in langage, given his long-held obsession with what Jean-Paul Belmondo’s character in Pierrot le fou (1965) called “the civilization of the rump.” Excrement, defecation, constipation, sodomy, and anal rape figure in several Godard films—from the punningly titled Numéro deux (1975) through Sauve qui peut (la vie) (Every Man for Himself, 1980) to For Ever Mozart, the last making an explicit Freudian equation between money and shit. Anality in Godard has often been associated with defilement and violence, bodies turned against themselves or each other, but in Adieu au langage, scatology becomes a sclerotic joke, Rodin’s Thinker recast as a contemplative man taking a dump. Amid amplified expulsions of gas and colossal plopping, Godard’s philosopher-king perches on his porcelain throne, averring that “thought regains its place in poop” and that the toilet is the great equalizer in an inequitable world (ignoring, of course, the impoverished millions who enjoy no such basics). Also relieving himself at one point, the film’s true star, a lurcher cross called Roxy Miéville, obviously co-owned by Godard’s partner, the filmmaker Anne-Marie Miéville, continues the enchanting menagerie of Film socialisme, Godard seeming to have added animal’s rights to his list of political concerns. (He quotes Darwin’s paraphrase of nineteenth-century American humorist Josh Billings—though Godard attributes the bromide to Buffon—to the effect that a dog is a creature that loves its owner more than it loves itself, leaving one to wonder what Godard makes of Levinas’s exclusion of animals from his bounteous humanism, arguing that the biblical proscription against killing does not apply to them.)

“All the films I’ve made in recent years, one has to look at three times to understand,” Godard recently confessed. Try twelve. Adieu lets sluice Godard’s customary deluge of cultural citations and references: literary (Rilke, Dostoyevsky, Faulkner, et al.), cinematic (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Les enfants terribles, The Snows of Kilimanjaro, etc.), painterly (a mention of Godard’s revered Nicolas de Staël, a re-creation of Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase that looks back to the director’s use of it in British Sounds [1969]), and musical, particularly the Allegretto from Beethoven’s Seventh, which Godard also uses in his concurrent short films, Le pont des soupirs (Bridge of Sighs) and Letter in Motion. The director finds in the movement, marked for a moderately brisk tempo, the funereal lament alternating “anguish and resignation” that Berlioz described in his analysis of Beethoven’s symphonies. Each film in Godard’s recent war trilogy was divided into two or three clearly delineated movements, but Adieu interleaves its two ostensible sections, labeled “Nature” and “Metaphor,” so that neither asserts any autonomous existence, compounding the difficulty of interpretation. As do willful ambiguity and incorrect citation: The identity of the film’s couple shifts between at least two pairs, and the koan-like directive that Godard ascribes to Monet, going so far as to affix the painter’s signature to it in the press kit, in fact belongs to Proust’s youthful appraisal of Monet in his unfinished early novel Jean Santeuil. (Even the film’s running time initially seemed indeterminate, cited variously as 69, 70, and 79 minutes.) Perhaps on the repeat viewings that Godard’s recent films all demand, some mysteries, such as the film’s emphasis on hybrid monsters (Jekyll/Hyde and Frankenstein’s, the latter in a strange interlude of costume drama) and an elusive offscreen murder will become clearer.

Whether the joyful cacophony with which Adieu ends, “in barking and a baby’s cries,” as Godard describes it in the synopsis, and the film’s reliance on Roxy—the mutt’s snout obtrudes adorably from the 3-D image into our laps—suggest a newly serene JLG, no longer the bitter embodiment of what Adorno famously dubbed “late style,” remains debatable. Amid the playful 3-D effects and rhapsodic imagery, one finds Godard’s habitual montages of blitzkrieg footage, his obsession with the Holocaust, and his despair at imminent mortality. In the end, the film’s extra dimension only augments the aged director’s regret that, as a young woman declares here, invoking George Sand’s last words, “I am going to die. Adieu, adieu.”

Adieu au langage will make its US debut at the 51st New York Film Festival (Sept. 27–Oct. 13) before opening in New York on October 29.

James Quandt is Senior Programmer at TIFF Cinematheque in Toronto.