Jean-Luc Godard has spent his lifetime in cinema more or less deconstructing the very essence of film. In so doing, he has moved from the very vanguard of the French New Wave and art-house cinema to its very fringes.
Best described as experiments in visual and verbal poetry, the films he has made since he abandoned narrative altogether deliberately baffle the viewer with randomness, misdirection and non sequiturs on the soundtrack.
When such films, made mostly in his home country of Switzerland, do get released, festival directors rejoice but only seldom do his works make their way to North America. And only then, as with his new film, “Goodbye to Language” (“Adieu au langage”), in specialty venues for highly limited release.
By this time though, festival awards and critics’ acclaim hang so heavily from each film that one is intimated by each declared “masterpiece.” “Goodbye to Language,” his 39th feature, not only shared the Jury Prize at Cannes 2014 but was voted best picture of the year by no less than the prestigious National Society of Film Critics.(Mind you, the film wasn’t even released in the U.S. in 2014!)
My critic friends have flipped out, calling it a “thrilling cinematic experience” (New York Times’ Manohla Dargis) and an “adrenaline shot to the brain” (Variety’s Scott Foundas).
Godard’s work reaches back to the traditions of avant-garde impressionism in the French silent era that included surrealism and dream logic. The most famous of these films, of course, is Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí’s “Un Chien andalou.”
In “Goodbye to Language” here are some of the sound and image fragments Godard throws at an audience, asking its members to make sense of it all:
A wandering dog that turns out to be the director’s own, named Roxy; water in the form of rivers and a waterfront that may be a sea or lake; a man and woman who meet then move inside a house where the two are often nude; sounds that cut off or drop out as if the projectionist were smoking crack; bits of Beethoven; and such arresting comments/questions as: “Monsieur, is it possible to produce a concept of Africa?” (said twice) or “Soon everyone will need an interpreter.”
Then an older man joins the woman, this apparently the husband she spoke of earlier whom she evidently is cuckolding with the younger man.
Later Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” is mentioned, then actors in costumes, portray her, Lord Byron and husband Percy Shelley, acting out a few moments from her writing the book. The movie ends — spoiler alert? — with the dog barking and a baby crying.
One more thing: The film is shot in 3D. Excellent 3D, in fact, some of the most three-dimensional I’ve seen but also some of the worst as Godard’s cameraman, Fabrice Aragno, moves the camera or chooses angles that make you feel like you’re losing your eyesight.
What to make of it all? Well, a repeat viewing would help. That wouldn’t be so awful because it’s only 70 minutes and Godard can put imagery and sound to such poetic use as to hypnotize a viewer.
The film is wildly suggestive, chaotic in its imagery and random in its musings about the demise of the dollar or power of the nation-stage. Perhaps it is an adrenaline shot to the brain.
On first viewing, especially when a non-French speaker must also wade through subtitles (that convey only part of the narration and dialogue) along with the flow of images, you cannot grasp all that Godard intends either as metaphor or playful nonsense.
Images go into overload as Godard inserts archival war footage and your eye gets drawn to a wide flat-screen TV that continually plays old movies in the background of the house. There are bold titles, sometime repetitive, and then as a man sits on a toilet the sound of him pooping hits the soundtrack.
One can either throw up hands in bafflement or embrace the liberating flow of sights and sounds that can add up to just about anything you want.
Godard is an original and at 84 has lost none of the youthful vitality he demonstrated in his first feature, “Breathless,” back in 1960. “Goodbye to Language” — didn’t he say goodbye to that long ago? — along with his last film, “Film Socialisme,” is certainly a farewell to conventional cinema.
I could’ve done without the guy pooping on the toilet, however.
Opens: January 23, 2015 (Kino Lorber)
Production companies: Wild Bunch
Cast: Heloise Godet, Kamel Abdelli, Richard Chevallier, Zoe Bruneau, Christian Gregori, Jessica Erickson, Alexandre Paita, Jean-Philippe Mayerat, Florence Colombani, Nicolas Graf, Marie Ruchat, Jeremy Zampatti, Daniel Ludwig, Gino Siconolfi, Jean-Luc Godard, Jean-Paul Battaggia, Fabrice Aragno
Director/screenwriter/editor/sound: Jean-Luc Godard
Producers: Brahim Chioua, Vincent Maraval, Alain Sarde
Executive producer: Alain Sarde
Director of photography: Fabrice Aragno
No rating, 70 minutes