If legendary French director Jean-Luc Godard’s previous feature film was about cinematic form becoming a backhanded form of socialism, his latest 3D offering, Goodbye to Language, is something decidedly more democratic in tone. It won’t win very many converts to his oblique style, and Godard still requires his audience to put a lot of thought into what their seeing; never allowing audience members to become passive participants and forcing them to engage whether they like what they’re seeing or not.
That’s never been more evident than here, as Godard delivers his strongest film in nearly a decade. While some might see the film’s general title and tone as something offhanded and defeatist, there’s actually a well of positivity brewing beneath the surface of Godard’s sometimes hard to penetrate auteurist exterior. If Film Socialisme was just a wealth of anger that the filmmaker needed to constructively work out in front of an audience, Goodbye to Language marks an attempt on Godard’s part to understand the anger of others.
There’s very little story and even less of a throughline to follow, but it packs a lot to think about and puzzle over in 70 minutes. There are two couples (Kamel Abdeli and Héloise Godet and Richard Chevallier and Zoé Bruneau) and a dog. Each of their stories plays out in full. The couples aren’t happy, and the dog is having its own existential crisis, seemingly bummed out to be around humans.
Filled with occasional bursts of humour and even the occasional pithy one-liner, Godard has a renewed sense of playfulness and egalitarianism here. He’s a consummate artist that’s as uncompromising as ever, but he’s not purposefully trying to see how much the audience can handle in a single sitting. He’s trying once again to changes the nature of the cinematic conversation, but this time in a decidedly less egotistical way than he has been carrying out for the past several years. There’s an invitation to engage here, not a dare or even that many hoops to jump through.
The stories of the couples and the dog all come back to the same arguments about complacency and philosophy. While Godard’s railing against stagnancy in life and film is hardly anything new, his invitation to rail against sometimes overly complicated highfalutin mental acrobatics is.
Plenty of you who read that last sentence are probably scoffing and saying that’s precisely what Godard has been engaging in over the past several decades; “wasteful, wanton theorizing without a point or direction,” as one of my critical brethren once put it to me. For some of his films, that statement would be correct, but considering that Godard comes up with different arguments and subjects for his films, that’s not exactly an appropriate dismissal of a filmmakers work or worth. If anything, Godard seems to have mellowed out for a moment here to take the piss out of himself.
The general feeling that comes from Godard here is that everyone has a philosophy that they’re trying to foist on the people around them, and for the most part and in spite of the ego of the person dispensing said wisdom, everyone is basically wrong. Unencumbered by human need to assert dominance over other humans, the dog quickly and unequivocally becomes the most lovable character; a living entity devoid of the capacity to philosophize about its life to any great degree. The dog is honest, the humans are prone to deception, violence, and perhaps worst of all, ambivalence.
Godard himself allows the audience to call bullshit on him, literally via sequences where characters are carrying on conversations while atop the shitter. He knows that he has philosophized and he’s openly giving viewers if they hate what they see an out. He’s providing his detractors with their own ammunition. It’s a gutsy move to purposefully populate a film with knowing nods to one’s own shortcomings, but a gracious, and admittedly hilarious turn for someone many hold to be one of the most closed off and esoteric cinematic minds to ever live.
As for the 3D shooting style, it’s not only spectacular, but part of the appeal of thinking through the material. Sure, Godard playfully shoots things that simply look cool because he has access to the technology, but he also finds new ways to use it as different parts of scenes play out differently in each eye of the viewer – something possible only through the use of two cameras to capture the movement and action. In these moments, Godard again gives viewers the choice of who they want to follow and for how long before they switch eyes again. Even the visual style plays into the film’s motif of choice being an intrinsic part of the movie going experience.
If you still don’t like modern Godard, there’s nothing this film will give you other than the ability to laugh at his mastery and mock him, only this time he expects and invites such mockery. It’s a confident middle finger of a movie from a man who has become almost untouchable in his old age. There’s almost nothing more that can be said about him positively or negatively, so he just says it all at once here. If, however, you actually enjoy thinking about what you’ve just seen and whether you like it or not, Goodbye to Language is unlike any other immersive experience this year.