You can’t teach old dog new tricks, they say. Some filmmakers become so set in their ways that others, like Quentin Tarantino or Steven Soderbergh, vow to hang up their viewfinders before they ever reach that point. But over 50 years after his feature-length debut “Breathless” turned the form on its head, and at the grand old age of 83, Jean-Luc Godard has returned to Cannes (not, it should be said, in person) with his first film in Competition in over a decade to prove them wrong. And prove them wrong he has: Godard’s bite-sized latest (running barely 70 minutes long) isn’t going to turn around anyone who gave up on the director long ago: it is very much a Jean-Luc Godard joint. But there’s also a lot to chew on here, and a sense of play that was decidedly lacking in “Film Socialisme,” not least when the director’s messing around with his new toy: 3D.
Godard hasn’t really cared about narrative for a long time, so obviously synopsizing the film would be a fool’s errand. After twenty minutes or so, there is a kind of continuity: a couple, and a dog. She wears clothes only very rarely (Jean-Luc’s male gaze very much being in evidence here), he likes to talk about shit, while taking a shit and the dog is drawn to the water, seemingly hearing its voice.
As ever, there are more elements going on: some kind of murder by a fountain, a boat coming into dock, glimpses of iPhones and televisions (showing clips including “The Cabinet Of Dr Caligari“), a brief riff on Mary Shelley‘s creation of “Frankenstein” near the end. They come thick and fast, repeating or playing out from different angles, and looping back in on themselves, creating a collage that almost every viewer will see differently. It’s at this point that the cards should probably go on the table: I’m, in general, more of a narrative cinema kind of person, and I’ve never been crazy about late period Godard, if you define “late period” as anything he made after the May ’68 riots. So it was unlikely that the film was ever going to be my favorite thing at the festival.
And there was stuff that bugged me, certainly, most notably the incessant voiceover, which is mostly the kind of 3 AM philosophizing that’s haunted the filmmaker’s most recent work and occasionally brought him to the brink of self-parody. There was certainly a part of me that wished that Godard had taken the title literally and scrubbed all of it. And that’s in part because the imagery is often so effective that the movie would work beautifully as a silent film. Godard’s full length take on 3D is bold, brilliant and exactly what the format needed — a iconoclast taking it and making his own, and almost every time he frames a shot in three dimensions, from opening credits to the final moments, there’s something attention-grabbing going on.
Best of all are two moments where Godard takes full advantage of the stereo look, by playing two scenes out simultaneously. Initially, you just see a headache-inducing blur, but you soon realize that if you close one eye, you’ll see one clear picture, and get another by closing the other. It’s a fourth-wall shattering conceit that might be his biggest coup-de-cinema in decades, and worth the watch alone. And by making something that’s quite literally difficult to watch, you begin to suspect that Godard’s in on the joke. Because again, the director’s brought a playfulness and sense of fun to the film that’s been somewhat latent of late, from the increasingly central role that the dog plays to, literally, poo jokes.Godard is growing old disgracefully, and it’s a rather beautiful thing to see.
Given my reservations about Godard in general, “Goodbye To Language” was never going to be something I could love unreservedly, but fans will certainly be in seventh heaven. And even for the skeptics there’s clearly such a density of ideas and images, even over the brief 70 minutes it runs, that there’s reason to return for more (and more and more). Is it difficult, abrasive and pretentious? Absolutely. But there are worse things to be than any of those. [B]