Sean Reviews Jean-Luc Godard’s Goodbye to Language [NYFF 2014]

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It’s nothing new to say that Jean-Luc Godard is undoubtedly one of the most important figures in cinema history. His films have influenced countless filmmakers the world over, and his contributions to the Nouvelle Vague have attracted numerous imitators since his inimitable debut, Breathless, was released in 1960. But his track record for the last, oh, I don’t know, twenty-five years or so hasn’t been met with the same fanfare as most of the standard favorites.

Fans of Breathless, Band of Outsiders, Vivre Sa Vie, or even Masculin Féminin won’t find much of interest to latch on to, as the latter part of Godard’s career has mainly been peppered with the kinds of stuff only reserved for the most ardent philosophical admirers, film festival committees, and hopelessly snooty film students looking for deep cuts to cite in their thesis/sound smart in conversation. In a way, Godard has outlasted his notoriety simply by being the revolutionary he began his career as, and despite outward appearances he really doesn’t have much more to say in a cinematic sense, even when the prospect piques a playful interest like with his new movie Goodbye to Language.

That playfulness mostly relies on the fact that Goodbye to Language is in 3D, a characteristic usually saved for the next blockbuster Marvel movie to rake in the dough that nevertheless has become a method for master filmmakers (Scorsese with Hugo, Wenders with Pina, and Herzog in Cave of Forgotten Dreams to name but a few) to consider a heretofore unexplored dimension in their already-mastered medium. And who better to explore 3D than the devilish jump-cut king himself, someone who has tricked and deconstructed cinema before our very eyes even back with those standard favorites?

It turns out the 3D is almost the only thing to like about Godard’s Goodbye to Language, which is another in a long list of frustrating latter-day Godard pictures that depend on fragmented narrative and outdated Maoist pontificating to get its point across. What that point is? I’m not sure, and I don’t think Godard even knows or cares either. Anybody who says otherwise is—pretty laughably—grasping for straws. But don’t fret! If listening to an unseen narrator expound seemingly endless philosophical declarative sentences, or watching someone do so while taking a shit, is your thing then this is definitely your movie.

By its very nature Goodbye to Language is intentionally challenging and charmless. Even the title challenges you. Watching this movie is not an easy task both literally and figuratively. Figuratively because the schizophrenic scraps of narrative we get—a couple fighting in their apartment, strangers browsing a table of used books, a man arguing with someone on his cell phone, Godard’s own dog wandering aimlessly in the woods—remain impossible to parse. It’s literally challenging because the only thing the scenes have in common is that they form sort of glitchy mismatched collage with the audio purposefully cutting out at random times and disorienting dialogue seemingly subtitled at will over dreadfully over-saturated digital frames. Sometimes the screen will abruptly cut to black, other times one speaker will blare startling music and the other is completely silent. It’s vomit-cinema because most of it seems to be unexpectedly spewed all over.

Despite some lovely 3D imagery—including a womanslowly dipping her hand into water causing floating ripples that sway the frame—the most kitschy experimentation Godard pulls off is splitting the 3D so two images on the screen can only be seen depending on which eye you use to see it. This may sound appealing, but before you go commending Godard for breaking down even newer barriers just remember that it’s nothing more than kitsch with a wow factor rather than a technique that substantially contributes to the pseudo-philosophical ramblings the film has to offer.

Those that praise the film for the way it shows the breakdown of communication—possibly the only and most tenuous thesis statement anyone could squeeze out of this movie—don’t consider the way that even in disorder should there be a sense of order. Instead of a solid foundation of those pseudo-philosophical ramblings, which could have added up to something even in their randomness (the medium is the message after all), there are only flimsy strands of intellectual pap that come across as if an over zealous college freshman got ahold of Mao’s Little Red Book and began erratically shouting passages in their dorm hallway at 4 in the morning.

To Godard, contemporary cinema and modern life are a distraction, but his movie that portrays his opinion is more of a grueling and unbearable exercise than a viable execution of fairly interesting critical subject matter. Godard’s vaunted status in the latter part of his career is like when awards ceremonies give out gratuitous lifetime achievement awards to someone because that person allegedly never received the recognition they deserved. It’s ironic because Godard himself shuns all awards and appearances, and that type of attitude comes across in Goodbye to Language. Before he was a grumpy guy who actually had something to contribute to cinema, and now maybe he’s just too grumpy for everybody and everything…except his dog.

 

(The trailer is NSFW)

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