Dir. Jean-Luc Godard
It would be impossible in an article of this size to discuss the career of Jean-Luc Godard, from critic to Nouvella Vague iconoclast, to Marxist video-collective, to Brechtian film essayist, videographer, and now digital 3D innovator. In over six decades of devotion to cinema he has never ceased in finding the new, eschewing the norm, even if it is one he has established himself. His is a cinema of constant revolution, to use Marxian terminology and, at 84, his latest film has carried on his search.
If there is one thing that has driven Godard’s work throughout his remarkable career, it is his belief in the primacy of the image. Cinema, to him, had to surpass its origins and become a truly unique art, with the cinematic image being more important than the word. To this extent he regarded the screenplay with some scorn, as the word dictating the image. Whilst not advocating total improvisation (something that was frequently posed to his early films), Godard would famously only have notes, or write the scenes on the day of shooting. Further, he would construct his films more in the editing stage than anywhere else, notably the incredible work of collage and montage that made up “Histoire(s) du Cinéma” , a(nother) turning point in his career that marks his output after this as recognisably so.
All of this is cursory and prologue to what could be seen as the culmination of this direction so far, and yet another step into exploratory waters. Many were surprised when Godard, the arch-outsider, announced he was shooting his next film in 3D, a device normally reserved for big budget sci-fi, fantasy or action films laden with special effects. Godard took 3D (using a low budget, home-made set up rather than high end Hollywood effects) and made it a part of the film’s vocabulary, not as a spectacle of impact. I am not technically savvy enough to discuss the methods he and his cinematographer Fabrice Aragno used to break down and re-write the rules of 3D filming, my concern is with the effect and import that the finished result creates, and the overall result of the film.
The film, however, discards traditional narrative almost entirely, thus rendering most approaches to criticism redundant. In classic Godardian way, he demands a new discourse with cinema and with the images we see on screen. While he has made video and film essays before, this is far less didactic and dry in approach. The best way I could describe this, then, is as a cinematic poem and as such I will review it as a work of poetry, as opposed to a work of narrative fiction. In poetry, the author works to create emotions through the imagery and style of the writing. People approach poetry with different expectations than narrative fiction. For example, when Wordsworth wrote
“I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.,”
One doesn’t ask where he was wandering, what he was doing, where those hills and vales were, where the lake was, how big it was, why he was there. What is important is that we see, in our mind’s eye, a person wandering alone, a solitary cloud in the sky, and then a host of yellow flowers beside a lake and under some trees in a breeze. Such a description may be used as the opening of a screenplay, the setting for the action to take place, but for this film, what we see and hear serve as emotional and intellectual stanzas, elements of the text just as a sentence or use of rhyme or metre are in poetry. So what do we actually see?
There are two similar (and very loose) narratives that concern a couple having an affair. Both of these take place in the Geneva municipality of Nyon, on the lakeside and are labelled “1Nature” and “2 Metaphor”. The actors for each couple bear a great physical resemblance to each other, and they both are connected to another character who seems to be one of the character’s professor. They live at a house, and have various conversations, often unclothed. Seasons change as we switch between 1 Nature and 2 Metaphor, and their actions and dialogue echo and reflect each other. Further connecting the two couples is Roxy, a dog (not just any dog, but Godard and his partner Anne-Marie Miéville’s dog) who is taken in by each couple in turn. Roxy also acts as a kind of third part to the film, as a fair chunk of it consists of shots of her wandering around wooded pathways, walking in the snow and rain, standing by the lakeside and a jetty or sitting on the sofa. We hear a voiceover that seems to be expressing Roxy’s thoughts, a display of un-ironic emotion and sentimentality from the infamously grumpy old soul. This being a late-period Godard, there is substantial use of archive footage and clips from other films interspersed with the rest of the film. All of this is shot on a variety of cameras, from Canon 5D dslr’s, GoPro, flip-cams and a phone camera, with slow motion, over-saturation, cuts to black, title cards and grainy barely lit night time footage all creating a vivid arrangement of textures.
But what does all of this mean, reviewers and critics have asked. “Adieu au Langage” draws attention to its subject immediately, by its very title: language. And like the film itself, the title bears further scrutiny. Adieu, in the region of Switzerland where Godard lives and works, means hello as well as goodbye, and so immediately we are awakened to the duality and complexity of communication and language that is to be explored herein. 3D involves two eyes, dual images, and this film duplicates and echoes itself throughout its succinct 69 minutes. As for the text as a whole, I would bring up the comparison to poetry when trying to approach such a dense and unconventional film. Looking for character, exposition, psychological motivation, plot arcs, denouement and conventional chronology will lead the viewer nowhere and end only with bafflement and frustration. I approached this looking at each image, each sequence, each piece of dialogue, each quote (both spoken and from use of archive) as a poetic element. For example, early on there is reference to Tom Thumb and communication, and we cut to three people (framed so that we see no faces or heads, just body and hands, a recurrent device) feverishly using their thumbs on their smart-phones. This kind of association exists in the editing, where a shot of rain in a muddy puddle cuts to close up of black paint stroked onto a canvas, and then to the black wet hair on the head of the dog, Roxy. There is a rhyming structure, too, between the actions of the two couples, as Godard cuts between them with gleeful disregard for chronology. Although they seem to be almost the same person, this similarity and similarity of actions, is clearly meant as a hook to connect the scenes to each other in the minds of the viewer.
All of this and I have not mentioned the use of 3D, which will have to wait for another time as I have difficulty seeing 3D video and as such have only seen the 2D. There is much discussion elsewhere online about the remarkable “Separation Shot”, truly a new entry in the lexicon of cinematic grammar, all the more remarkable when one thinks that is has taken an 84 year old to produce something truly innovative from the latest technological fad. I found “Adieu au Langage” to be opaque, elliptical, confusing at times, surprising, and yet equally unforgettable and containing a vivid joy of cinema that is genuinely rare now.