To borrow one of the year’s most overhyped It words: Jean-Luc Godard’s Goodbye to Language has to instantly rank as one of the most “disruptive” movies ever made. The Swiss auteur’s latest feature-length endeavor initially comes off both faster and angrier than both Histoire(s) du Cinéma and Film Socialisme, the 3D introducing itself as a function of ridicule: basic Verdana titles with hideously digital edges are asymmetrically splashed over one another, dominating the frame. As ever, Godard is trading in demonstrable ironies and contradictions, and for the transparency of its thrust alone, the film feels like one of his most transparent—which isn’t to say accessible—works. In their memories, viewers exiting the theater will clutch onto different slivers of Godard’s headache-inviting barrage, but that appears to be its maker’s intent. The editing is so granular that nothing lasts on screen much longer than it can be registered by the eye, to repeatedly destabilizing effect.
Within chapters entitled “La Nature” and “La Metaphor,” both of which will restart again later, the filmmaker displays his findings not in linear, cascading waves, but as isolated pinpricks. Sometimes a scene will begin, only to cut to black, yet the audio (music or otherwise) will continue to trail after the corresponding images have vanished, as if Godard were de-splicing the medium’s taken-for-granted marriage of sound and image before your very eyes. The sturdiest foundation is made of cellphone footage from what appears to be a number of free-winding nature walks with his dog, Roxy; Godard paraphrases Rilke’s concept of “the interpreted world” as a roadblock to truth, concurring via voiceover that only an animal can see the world as it really is. Or, as Heidegger said (quoted by Juliette Jansson in 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her), “Language is the house man lives in”—for both better and worse. (Godard dryly notes that a declaration of animal rights was announced in 1989, implying that the parameters for human rights are still being worked out.)
The film’s most celebrated formal canard—and the most pressing of many reasons why Goodbye to Language demands to be seen in a theater, without the power of playback—is its simple demolition of the 3D “eye.” Shooting with two cameras spaced against one another in stereoscopic parallel, Godard keeps them rolling as he widens the distance between their lenses: one slowly pans right, while the other stays stationary. Or does it pan left? In 3D, the two frames appear plainly on top of one another; you’ll need to shut one eye in order to see the corresponding other frame. In a short space of time, Godard invites the audience to create montage for themselves, making it physically impossible to “see both sides of an issue”—in one pointed example, during a disagreement between two lovers—at the same time before the shots are reunited as one.
A fervent conversation between a couple about Rodin’s sculpture The Thinker—the woman standing naked and the man seated on a toilet—culminates in a denouement and a line of dialogue that are both literally “shit,” because, as he explains, it’s the one thing that makes everybody equal. An empty seat in a public square takes on new worlds of potential meaning after a besuited hitman steps out of a luxury vehicle and snuffs out an innocent bystander; as onlookers run for safety, only the seat remains. It seems a comment on both the Eurozone crisis and also on public passivity; even in times of crisis, we have all come to think of ourselves first as spectators. A character denounces “the law which denounces its own violence” as a law of cheating, and we know that even as he basks in its paths not taken nearly often enough, Godard is referring to the moving image. Cinema is a vernacular of domination; quaking with revelations both formal and personal, Goodbye to Language attests that Godard has spent his career apologizing for it.