This Friday, Jean-Luc Godard’s 3D film essay Goodbye to Language comes to Cambridge’s own Kendall Square Cinema, the culmination of one of the most confusing and frustrating release strategies in recent memory. Despite winning several prestigious critical awards and playing to sold-out crowds in New York (and New York alone), moviegoers in markets across the US that are famously friendly to art house cinema were stuck reading rave reviews in the national press about the legendary director’s adoption and subversion of what is usually seen as a cheap gimmick. It was almost as if Godard had found yet another new and exciting ways to alienate audiences a step further, moving from slowly destroying his chosen medium from the inside, to cutting out the middleman by making sure as few people saw the film as possible.
Now that the cinephiles of Boston and Cambridge have a chance to experience Goodbye to Language as it is rather than as it was described to us, the tactic of getting as much advance praise as possible before wide distribution makes sense; this one is a lot to take in, even for Godard. The plot, such as there is, centers around an oft-nude couple in Paris and their difficulty to communicate, which clears a path for the director to explore the nature of communication, how medium alters content in both its production and consumption, as well as systems of control placed on us by society, natural reality, the passage of time and our own psychology that is policed by our own personal Nazis.
Human nature’s inability to flourish under capitalism appears to be due to a clash between our desire to collaborate, cohabitate and communicate while living freely in our natural state (embodied in vignettes starring Godard’s own dog, Roxy Miéville). The ideas we produce are perfect and natural, but how we choose to convey, organize and employ them is flawed and inherently authoritative. Early in the film, a young woman is shown carelessly flinging books about at an open air market in way as to suggest that she is seeking something to edify herself yet is disdainful of the medium being presented to her. Later in the same scene, an older man chides another young woman for Googling the subtitle to Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago when the book is right in front of her. Later, we see Mary Shelley writing a masterpiece by putting quill to paper, which is agonizingly slow and makes an intolerable noise. Phone, printing press and quill each have their advantages and disadvantages, but none are capable of making us freer.
There is a virtuosic thrill quality to watching a Godard film, no matter how opaque or infuriating, for those who enjoy his particular brand of filmic francof*ckery. But rather than a knack for gripping action or cohesion of plot and metaphor, Godard’s passion is in getting audiences to not believe in—or at least be acutely aware of—how they are being manipulated by filmmaking techniques. The score nearly rips itself apart as it starts and stops unevenly and unpredictably, sometimes out of only one speaker, and the poor quality of the video is contrasted with occasional clips of classic films from the 1940s and ’50s. Even the credits are a joke on the medium; philosophers whose ideas are explored are listed in the style of a bibliography with as much prominence as the cast and crew.
This is where the 3D component of Goodbye to Language comes in; rather than immersive, it’s alienating. It’s another tool for Godard chew up and spit out in gleeful contempt. Text is piled on top of other text at different perceived distances, making them impossible to read simultaneously. Subtitles are sometimes positioned so you have to focus your eyes away from the action to read them. And at one point, a shot splits apart with each eye is operating independently, one fixed on an object as the other moves away to follow another action.
This, folks, is the Goodbye to Language 3D experience. You might hate it, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t see it anyway. (And we didn’t even get to the nude, emotional mid-defecation treatise on why poop is where we are all equal.) With Goodbye to Language, Godard has gone from fiery Maoist revolutionary to eccentric professor whose laughter is more infectious than his jokes are funny.
Not rated | 70 minutes