The experience of being eluded by Jean-Luc Godard has its consolations, foremost among them the 83-year-old director’s prerogative to elude. If a Godard film appears held together by random imagery, whispered non sequiturs, and a roll of duct tape, that’s exactly the point. To muddle through confusion, boredom, vaguely formed interest, brief elation, and confusion again is to experience the work as its creator intended. Especially with Godard’s later films, including Film Socialisme and now Goodbye to Language 3D, to lose the plot — or, indeed, to watch it marched off of a short pier — is to win.
That’s the story, anyway, currently attached to Godard’s work, and surely to his Goodbye to Language, a neon-tinged 3-D collage about couplehood, communication, canines, and, above all, aesthetic surrender that won this year’s Cannes Jury Prize. Godard’s inversion of narrative sensibility has created a companion narrative for his work, about sensibility itself. If you happen to like story, that companion narrative is there to help occupy you while watching a film like Goodbye to Language, which seems to divide from and collapse into itself, in alternating measures, against a canvas of dreamlike images both lovely and profane. His oblique approach tends to gather a wry, recursive coherence; it also fosters an almost wistful sense of Godard’s frustration that after five decades there has been invented no more direct portal into his consciousness, that he should find himself still bound by the limits of the screen.
Goodbye to Language begins with a thesis statement that’s also a kind of gauntlet: “Those lacking imagination take refuge in reality.” This is the Godard who engenders a sense of being tested, sending even (or especially) his fans into agonized flights of interpretation. This mania to answer his films correctly, to catch and organize every flashing minnow into some guiding, oceanic scheme, feels not just oppressive but counterproductive — for what is more unhappily bound to reality than a blackboard filled with checks and X’s? We might think of Godard’s didactic strokes as a preliminary test, and those who pass it understand that the best way to appreciate his films is in a state of liberation from familiar modes and pressures of narrative, interpretation, appreciation.
When it manages to induce this liberation, rather than simply preach it, Goodbye to Language passes enigmatically enough, like a handsome black dog trotting solo down the street. Godard’s own dog, a sleek-coated, soulful mutt named Roxy, threads through the film, an implied observer of urban scenes of disaffection and a couple’s (or maybe two couples’) more private moments of romantic and domestic distress. In the former, browsers at an outdoor table piled with books consult their cell phones; references to terrorism and GMOs flash by. “Sir, is it possible to produce a concept about Africa?” a woman’s voice calls out, more than once. Another voice wonders, in what might be foreshadowing, whether society is willing to accept murder as a solution to unemployment. A cruise ship filled with waving passengers keeps pulling in to (or out of) shore. Seasons pass.
The private scenes feature a man and woman, often naked, in mordant dialogue, with scenes from Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and The Snows of Kilimanjaro playing on a big-screen TV. Ruminations on equality between the sexes and the birth of fascism culminate with the male half of the couple on the toilet. “We need to get an interpreter,” the woman says. “Pretty soon everyone will need an interpreter to understand the words from their own mouth.” Aphorisms abound. Infinity and zero are the world’s greatest inventions. No, sex and death are. The Apache word for “world” is forest. Philosophers believe that signs have revolutionary force. Should they have a baby or just stick with the dog? Seasons pass.
Aptly enough, the sensory experience is what most recommends Goodbye to Language, though if you’re like me, you might fail even there. Intent on putting 3-D to anti-realist ends, at several moments Godard layers one image on top of the other, and as a result my eyeballs ceased to understand each other. What I didn’t figure out is that the effect produces separate images for each eye, visible only when the other eye is closed. To read about this coup after the fact is like discovering that at a party you attended Marcello Mastroianni and Tallulah Bankhead were locked in the bathroom, reinventing the party.
Eluded again. But there is consolation, at once playful and melancholy — in the chatter, the trench coats and Russian cigarettes, the Beethoven, the Baudelaire. Images jump from scratchy black-and-white to super-saturated, old footage to revolutionary effects; scenes blink between a sly dog at a brook and old Mary Shelley at her masterpiece. All the while a man chases a woman through a forest. Shit is the great equalizer. Seventy minutes pass.