From the Archives: Goodbye to Language

Originally posted 2015 | Review by Amelia McConville

The latest offering from Jean Luc Godard is a colourful deluge of images, video, sound – in a series of sequences that are as intentionally ambiguous as they are encompassing. He seems to confront, toy with, undermine and celebrate his medium in this frustrating progression of non-sequitur scenes and disparate ideas. It serves as a manic gambol between the poles of relevance and irrelevance, the skittering attention roving over the elements of the film – sound, editing, filming all suffer in turn: dialogue melded together with intentional clumsiness, sound editing blocky and uncomfortable, the shots at times absurdly haphazard. At times it feels like there is frustration with the medium – haphazard splicing of footage featuring writing, then painting, with schizophrenic bursts of classical music and black and white film clips. We are shown screens within screens, film within film – and he toys with the incoherence and inconsistency, even letting the shadow of a camera crane fall into the frame in one shot, though whether this is a playful or angry move is unclear. At times it feels like a grand statement on the limits and possibilities of film, at others, a cheery home video about his dog.

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Amid the chaos, the trope of the self-involved couple recurs, albeit half-heartedly, though in a very characteristic way, via gratuitous nakedness and post-coital existential musings. Godard’s press notes for the film were merely: “The idea is simple: A married woman and a single man meet. They love, they argue, fists fly.” – these presumably indicating that his air of playfulness wins out over his apparent frustration. At times the couple tend towards the profound, deploying sweeping statements about sex and death, at others their talk is meaningless and trivial. Nothing like characterisation is allowed occur seriously, though certain elements of their awareness come across at times – ‘I hate characters,’ the woman complains, perhaps herself serving as a medium for the quibbles of the director. The film does not limit itself to any one aspect, yet seems to make up its mind as it goes along, toying with options, yet aware that this is at the detriment of the whole – one can’t help feeling that this might be exactly what Godard intended. The fact that it is also in 3D, which both distracts and disconcerts, seems to add only to the element of farce – yet does it serve as the nail in the coffin of cinema, or an enthusiastic endorsement of the possibilities of film?

One thing does seem clear – this an examination of the modern day attention span, dealt with a characteristic bluntness. The film restarts and recalls itself a few times, showing different aspects, playing with perspectives. Whether it wants to represent or parody divided attention, it takes great pleasure in unsteady footage of iphones being consulted before a book stall. Soap-like scenes occur intermittently, shakily filmed – splintered-off ends of other narratives noted but not examined. There are abstract voiceovers full of statements that resonate – ‘What’s difficult is to fit flatness into depth’ – but deciding whether this is with incoherence or aptness, it is frustratingly difficult to discern. Abstract political statements abound, as does an uncomfortable relationship with history and the present times – yet for all its manic movement, the film suggests a stasis at its core. Its preoccupation with asking where this is all going is tempered by a gleeful delight in leaving the question unanswered.

The only constant in the film is Godard’s dog – filmed blithely unaware of all the haphazardness and cacophony unfolding around it. The dog feels like a refuge – representing a cheerful ignorance of the onslaught of images, words and sound – a voice over intones that ‘a dog is the only animal that loves you more than it loves itself’ with implicit glee. If we are left uncertain about whether Godard is frustrated with cinema, at the the very least we can be sure he loves his dog. This film is an intentionally obscure offering from an auteur who can afford to treat his medium with equal reverence and irreverence: ‘Goodbye to Language’ is about everything yet also nothing – and is archly aware of the fact.

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