Goodbye to Language (Adieu au langage, 2014)

Director/Screenwriter: Jean-Luc Godard

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

You know why I quit playing ballads? Cause I love playing ballads. —Miles Davis

The above quote by jazz great Miles Davis has always stuck in my mind. Why would someone give up on something they love? Why would they push themselves to the edges of their chosen form with sounds that couldn’t be more different from a ballad? Miles was frank about his reasons: “”You should never be comfortable, man. Being comfortable fouled up a lot of musicians.” Comfort has fouled up a lot of other people, too. Just see what some writers about movies have to say about the National Society of Film Critics’ choice for best picture of 2014—“…as stupid & self-congratulatory a choice NSFC could make” (David Poland, Movie City News); “snobbish and elitist” (Scott Feinberg, Hollywood Reporter). In an age of punditry, not being utterly accessible for critical parsing or two-line synopsizing is perhaps the greatest offense a film could make.

godardI, for one, congratulate the NSFC for their choice and wholeheartedly agree with it. Goodbye to Language is a joy, not least because the 84-year-old dean of French cinema, Jean-Luc Godard, continues to embrace new challenges and humbly said to the NSFC in a thank-you missive that he is “still learning.” Nobody insisted he keep making movies, and at his age, he would be forgiven for retiring on his laurels to write full time or tend his garden. Instead, while other directors have approached 3D technology timidly or in the pursuit of butts in seats just like its original aim in the 1950s, Godard has, like Roberto Benigni, chosen to “lie down in the firmament making love to everyone” with his warm and ground-breaking embrace of 3D cinematography.

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There are many knowledgeable Godardians who have done a far better job than I could of analyzing the content and technical aspects of his latest effort and contextualizing it within his oeuvre. Indeed, the excited discourse among Godardians is a juggernaut of its own, with the endless possibilities of Godard’s intentions being picked over like the booty in a dragon’s treasure chamber. For me, such detailed intellectual exercises are for the young. As an older film enthusiast who craves the immediacy of experience, I prefer to bask in the absolute beauty of Goodbye to Language.

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If I can be so presumptuous, it seems that Godard is a little tired of these mental roundelays as well. Goodbye to Language seems more like a repository of impressions, inspirations, even questions. While he drops a few references, images, and actions into the film regarding Africa and violence, his oft-repeated refrain, “There is no why!” challenges his seriousness of purpose in raising these subjects. For me, the film is a valentine to all the things Godard loves—nature, dogs (particularly his dog, Roxy), art, film, language, and his partner in life, Anne-Marie Miéville. As though to confirm that assertion, one enterprising writer at MUBI has catalogued many of the literary, visual, and musical quotes Godard incorporated into the film, and the range of his influences, from Derrida to Anouihl to Ezra Pound, reveals Godard’s far-ranging intellectual and cultural engagement that makes the title of his film all but impossible to take seriously. At the same time, Godard is dipping several toes into the media of today, commenting on and making use of the renaissance in 3D filmmaking and smartphone videography, the former with wild abandon, the latter with more petulant reservations.

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Goodbye to Language concerns itself with nature and metaphor in four alternating parts, preceded by an introductory scene at a book stand near Usine a Gaz, a cultural center in Nyon, Switzerland. Most amusing of the goings-on in this section is a professor named Davidson (Christian Gregori) looking at a copy of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago and telling a young woman not to look the writer up on Google. Godard juxtaposes book readers with smartphone readers and eventually shows a smartphone with a headshot of Solzhenitsyn on the screen. I laughed out loud at the futility of Davidson’s plea and at the way a man of towering importance concerned with the worst in state oppression in his writings could be reduced to a selfie by proxy.

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Godard uses two couples who strongly resemble each other to play almost identical scenes in parts 1 and 2, in what seemed to me to be an homage to his New Wave compatriot and former film editor Jackie Raynal, particularly her film Deux Fois (Two Times, 1968), in which she says goodbye not to language, but to meaning. At the same time, by using different actors, he is illustrating a very literal interpretation of the word “metaphor,” that is, a comparison of two unlike things that share something important—and no matter how much the pairs of actors (Héloïse Godet [Josette] and Kamel Abdelli [Gédéon]/Zoé Bruneau [Ivitch] and Richard Chevallier [Marcus]) resemble each other, they are not the same.

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Godard varies the scenes in ways that modulate the amount of alienation between the two couples. In a pierside scene, Josette is looking forlornly at the clouded sky from behind a set of bars when a man’s hand moves tentatively into the frame, but remains far from Josette’s hand. In the replayed scene, Marcus’ hand moves much closer to Ivitch’s. Josette and Gédéon are filmed in an apartment. Both are nude, but unlike Ivitch in the later sequence, Josette is conspicuous in her nakedness, putting a trench coat on at one point but allowing it to flap open. Gédéon says with disgust that there is no Nobel Prize for art, which must be his profession, and his unease spills through the scene. The couple’s unhappiness crystallized for me when Josette sits naked next to a vase of flowers, more subjugated objects for a painting than real and relatable. A shower scene shows Josette from behind, standing in the bathroom doorway urging Gédéon to finish so she can use the shower. The second couple tussle in the glassed-in shower, a scary scene considering that they could break through the glass, but at least they are showering together.

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Godard also offers sequences of violence (an apparent murder, water running in a blood-filled sink) and of low comedy (the men farting on a toilet while their women try to talk to them). Throughout, scenes from films appear as short snippets or on a large TV in the couples’ bedroom, drawing the eye away from the foreground. And that is literal, as Godard’s use of 3D allows us to separate the planes of background, foreground, and subtitles. The viewer has the freedom to close one eye or the other to get different angles and colors, reminiscent of the open-source films like Sita Sings the Blues (2008) that allow viewers to embellish and change the basic film.

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Godard even seems to send up his own rebellion against France’s so-called quality films and Oscar-bait period films by inserting an interlude of Mary Shelley with Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron as she pens Frankenstein. At the same time, he seems to suggest that the act of creation is a terrible beauty and that technology can unleash forces that can subvert our humanity. Is Godard a hypocrite, decrying smartphones while playing with 3D? I say we all draw our lines, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

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He saves his most dazzlingly colorful scenes for the nature sequences that feature his dog Roxy, which may be a proxy for Godard himself. Roxy is a philosopher queen in her natural world of trees, grass, and flowers ruminating on what the river knows, immediately putting me in mind of “Ole Man River” from Show Boat (1936/1951). Roxy is rejected by one couple, left standing on a pier while they go off in a boat; they may even have tossed her in the rapids. The other couple adopts her and takes her everywhere with them. Dogs, we are told in voiceover, are the only creatures that love others more than themselves, making them superior to human beings in their capacity for empathy and sacrifice. Godard, the old dog learning new tricks, may be wondering whether he will be accepted or rejected and signals in what I believe to be an almost total lack of ego that he really does what he does for us, not himself. The ungenerous criticisms flung at this sweet film show us to be the lesser—again.

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To quote from Miles Davis again: “If you understood everything I say, you’d be me!” It’s time to stop our own ego trips, give up on finding new ways to reduce his vision to a few paragraphs, and offer this consummate artist our sincere thanks for never giving up on us.

  • Eric Trommater spoke:
    16th/01/2015 to 11:00 am

    I have to disagree with you on this one, Marilyn. I was disapointed. I am one of those who actually appreciates a lot of Godard’s more forgotten quasi-documentary/journals, like “Germany 90 Year Zero” and “In Praise of Love.” This film and “Film Socialisme” both reminded me of Ingmar Bergman’s famous quote that Godard seems to make most of his movies for the critics. They are both very similar films in that they structured like a symphony instead of a traditional film. While this provides an easy handle for Godard to fit his material into it feels like a gimmick in both and soon wears thin.
    The 3-D and deep focus, to my eyes, worked together to give me a feeling of visual fatigue. Even during the more stirring moments of the film (like the above mentioned scene with Marcus and Ivitch in the apartment), I felt bored and kept waiting for the scenes to end, if only to move on to something different. The film never does seem to move on and that, to me, is what makes it unlikely that I will try and watch it again to see if I missed anything (as I did with “Film Socialisme,” to my regret). It’s an old cliche but in this case there really is no there, there.
    My favorite sections of “Goodbye to Language” were actually the silly bits of comedy. Those scenes reminded me of much better Godard movies. After watching this film and P.M. Anderson’s “Inherent Vice” (which has a long, Godardesque, nude, female monologue) back-to-back I went home and watched “Weekend” again, just to remind myself that there was a time when these stylistic techniques were used in pursuit of a greater work of art instead of existing for their own sake and actually made excellent movies.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    16th/01/2015 to 12:04 pm

    Eric – I appreciate your point of view, though I don’t agree with it. I definitely think there is a there there, but it isn’t necessarily narrative. To me, the film was very akin to Holy Motors, a master reviewing his life and works and offering viewers a playground of impressions and sensations. I had no trouble at all with eye fatigue, and I am prone to that. I admit the film lost a little energy toward the end, but it didn’t bother me too much. The guy loves his dog! I didn’t mention the punning in the review, but I love puns and that really carried me through as well.

  • Eric Trommater spoke:
    16th/01/2015 to 1:03 pm

    The Carax film is a great comparison. “Holy Motors” is a film I would watch again. A major difference, I think, is that Oscar is a very memorable character (as pointed by the fact that I remember his name 3 years after seeing the movie) and carried the film through it’s more boring scenes because I was interested in what was going to happen to him. I had to look in your review tofind the name of the couple in “Goodbye to Language” because once I left the theater I had completely forgotten them.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    16th/01/2015 to 1:09 pm

    Eric – This is an experimental film, which for all its zaniness, Holy Motors really is not. My first reaction after seeing it was that he didn’t go far enough, as I was ready to plunge into the briar patch and roll around. He hews to narrative, but in an experimental way, so the film gains force from repetition and different emphases. You either go with him or you don’t – I chose to go with him and found it fun and rewarding.

  • Eric Trommater spoke:
    16th/01/2015 to 1:14 pm

    As I wrote when I tweeted this article and shared it on Facebook, it was a very well written review and as good a defense of this film as I have read. I disagree with it but I can certainly see why you loved the movie the way you did.

  • michaelgsmith spoke:
    16th/01/2015 to 1:36 pm

    Terrific analytical writing — all the more impressive considering you only saw it once! Your penultimate paragraph (“Roxy as Godard proxy”) is one of my favorite things I’ve yet read about this dense and allusive film, which obviously is open to myriad interpretations. I’m intensely curious about what you see as a potential SHOW BOAT reference. I’ve not seen either SHOW BOAT but I wonder if Godard had the James Whale film in mind, which would be fitting given all of the FRANKENSTEIN references. In any event, I look forward to seeing it again with a general audience.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    16th/01/2015 to 1:44 pm

    Thanks, Eric. Much appreciated.

    Thanks, Mike. It’s when Roxy is considering what the river knows. Here is the chorus to “Ole Man River”:

    O’ man river,
    Dat ol’ man river,
    He mus’know sumpin’
    But don’t say nuthin’
    He jes’ keeps rollin’
    He keeps on rollin’ along.

    If you remember, at the screening I was singing it to you guys. You looked like you didn’t know what I was doing, which turns out to be true.

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