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Goodbye to Language
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by Jay Seaver

"Much visual language, little narrative."
2 stars

My second impulse where Jean-Luc Godard's "Goodbye to Language" is concerned is to write nothing at all about it. That's in large part because my first is to cry that the emperor has no clothes, but I think I've got just enough awareness of what I know and what he's done that recognize that I'm in no position to make such a sweeping accusation. Still, he's made a film that seems to offer very little to those who do not look at cinema as a primarily academic pursuit.

There's a bit of a story, a woman leaving a violent husband and a dog wandering about, and plenty of time for characters to discus history, philosophy, and art. The film alternates between "Nature" and "Metaphor" segments, although they are not necessarily told in order, and much of the action happens off-screen. If you are coming to this film looking for a story, you are going to have to work for it, and likely come away disappointed.

But, I gather, nobody goes to Godard fims for that reason any more, nor have they had reason to do so for decades. Instead, the likes of Goodbye to Language are best approached as a sort of lecture, with Godard demonstrating different types of structure, speaking briefly about ideas that interest him, and experimenting with ways to shoot a scene that may, in their unconventional manner, tell the audience something not evident from a simple direct shot. Godard also cuts to clips of other works, archival footage, and home movies, creating something that while slow-moving, is undeniably dense with information.

It's arguably an unfair density, though, one that puts the onus of making an idea clear onto the listener rather than the speaker, demanding recognition of obscure film clips, the books characters briefly examine, or the scholars various characters discuss. And while there is nothing wrong with a filmmaker making works that target an audience better-read or schooled than myself, there are times when it feels like Godard does nothing but reference, stringing together brief quotations or rephrasing a question but doing nothing to investigate. He demonstrates how certain types of characters are used in movies, but does little to make the particular iterations individually interesting. It often seems like a great deal of rigor to say very little new.

Some of what has been hailed as new involves how Godard and cinematographer Fabrice Aragano use the third dimension. Unusually, Goodbye to Language is only playing theatrically in 3D (and thus having some trouble finding screens), and may very well only be released that way on home video. It's certainly unusual in how it is used, shooting at a lower resolution and in many ways ignoring the lessons that mainstream filmmakers have learned in terms of how to use the technique. Godard likes to put things in the extreme foreground or have them jut out from the screen, making it difficult for the audience to focus on what they really want to see further back. Provocative, but not particularly useful unless one wants to stretch it into meta-commentary. There's also a bit where he separates the two camera lenses, allowing one to pan while the other holds still, that invites the audience to edit the scene by alternately closing one eye and then the other behind their glasses, but that may not be immediately obvious and requires the viewer to know the film as well as the director in order to get much of a result.

That is in some ways "Goodbye to Language" in a nutshell - it takes a great deal of effort and likely repeated viewings to get much out of it, and I have my doubts that it has enough new or interesting to say to make the investment worthwhile. At its best, it plays like Godard's notebook of things that might be interesting to do in a movie, but not an actual finished film. Many scholars will be interested in Godard's notebooks, but I cannot say I'm among them.

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originally posted: 11/23/14 03:40:19
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 Cannes Film Festival For more in the 2014 Cannes Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 New York Film Festival For more in the 2014 New York Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 London Film Festival For more in the 2014 London Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 Vancouver Film Festival For more in the 2014 Vancouver Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 Nashville Film Festival For more in the 2015 Nashville Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

10/26/14 David Freiman I think Godard spent the entire movie trying hide his message and he largely succeeded. 2 stars
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  29-Oct-2014 (NR)
  DVD: 14-Apr-2015



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