It’s been six years since James Cameron’s Avatar first introduced us to modern 3D film, and while the medium is still being weighed-out as a passing fad or a legitimate innovation, with notable landmarks such as Gravity and The Hobbit, enter Jean-Luc Godard. The newest offering from the 84-year-old master, Adieu au langage (“Goodbye to Language”), isn’t what most have come to expect from 3D cinema.
Disjointed, often violent narrative shifts and obscure literary references challenge the viewer’s ability to follow the story’s internal coherence. Meanwhile, Godard’s aggressive experimentation with the visual possibilities of 3D technology is path-breaking and often disorienting.
None of this should come as a surprise to fans of the legendary leader of French “New Wave” cinema, a movement which took Europe by storm in the late 1950s by shattering traditional notions of what techniques and topics counted as “serious” film. Over five decades later, Godard clearly still sees his mission in that light – pushing the boundaries of what is conventionally acceptable, often through experimentation simply for its own sake.
The result in “Goodbye to Language” is a cryptic one. The audience is left to sift through a series of interlocking stories centered loosely around a fundamental philosophical concern: our relationship to nature. Language itself plays a role in distancing us from that natural world – as well as from each other.
The plot revolves around two distinct couples. They look and act very similar and their interactions mirror each other in two phases: Part I, Nature, and Part II, Metaphor. Their stories are told via unrelated snippets, interspersed with sharp cuts to bold shots of both beauty (a ferry on Lake Geneva) or death (a fountain filling with the blood of a murdered man).
Woven through it all are peaceful scenes of a dark-furred dog wandering happily through the countryside – seemingly an extended, wordless commentary on humanity’s distance from the natural world. The director drives the idea home with a quote from the poet Rainer Maria Rilke.
“What is outside can be known only via an animal’s gaze.”
Rainer Maria Rilke.
Such quotes pepper the narration and the characters’ conversations, with references to Plato, Hitler, and Dostoyevsky among many others. Some of Godard’s trademark radical politics also make an appearance, including the suggestion that the modern democratic state has become essentially totalitarian.
More important is the mysticism at the heart of the film. For Godard, art allows us to access a more fundamental reality – one deeper than language can communicate. All of the film’s dialogue is just a way of circling around that inexpressible point, a point well made with a line of Claude Monet’s: “Paint not what we see, for we see nothing…but paint that we don’t see.”