In one of the few narratively coherent scenes in Jean-Luc Godard's baffling 70-minute essay film "Goodbye to Language 3D," a couple look at their dog lazing on the sofa and attempt to understand his disposition. Is he bored? Or dreaming of a better life? Either way, the conversation implies that he's done with the human-dominated world around him—and it's safe to say, based on the stance that comes across in Godard's latest work, that the 83-year-old filmmaker can relate.
Aside from the novelty of watching the French New Wave legend play with 3-D technology (a feat he last displayed in a short segment produced for last year's omnibus project "3X3D"), "Goodbye to Language" offers anyone keen on the director's increasingly esoteric projects with a dense assemblage of signifiers, some more coherent than others. Overall, the concise, often impermeable experience does justice to the title by indicting a society on the verge of self-destruction with its own tools. It's his most outwardly aggressive statement against contemporary civilization since the barbaric climax of "Weekend." While far from a monumental achievement in a career littered with much stronger examples, for Godard junkies "Goodbye to Language" is rich with Godard's temperament—and thus an enjoyable provocation, even if it doesn't all add up. But what Godard movie truly does?
"Goodbye to Language" is also sprinkled with unexpectedly witty moments amid its collection of written dialogue and citations of literary and philosophical texts. The movie plays like the rascally, leaner sibling of 2010's "Film Socialism," another blend of half-formed fictional characters, cryptic onscreen text and collages of random visuals. "Goodbye to Language" barely coheres into a fully realized work, but that's part of its anarchic appeal. Collectively, the fragmentary moments form a confounding poem on the mass decline of human intelligence.
Yet the narrative, if one may be so bold as to call it that, remains simple: A pair of lovers (Heloise Godet and Kamel Abdelli) engage in meandering dialogue about life, art, and their troubled relationship. As we watch them wandering outside and parading around their house in the nude, the solitary canine looks on, while Godard scatters the rest his project with quotes from countless books in voiceover and a barrage of disparate images that range from wartime footage to scenes from classic movies.
To some degree, the overwhelming montage taps into the over-saturation of today's media climate, a point that Godard makes explicit several times: the recurring shot of a flat-screen television broadcasting static speaks for itself, as does a more comical bit in which two strangers continually tap away on their iPhones and exchange them, repeating the action. At one point, as the narration samples highlights from philosopher Jacques Ellul's essay "The Victory of Hitler," someone holds up a smartphone screen showing off the essay's contents. It doesn't take a lot of analysis to determine Godard's intentions: He portrays the information age as the dying breath of consciousness before intellectual thought becomes homogenized by digital advancements.
But that doesn't mean the quotes spread throughout "Goodbye to Language" have no significance. Ellul's essay ascertains the power of the state around the world to limit freedom, even if its citizens don't realize it. That point takes on further definition when the movie suggests humankind has grown limited by devices that tell us everything we think we need to know. Viewed in that context, the movie's incoherence has an unmistakable representational quality.
Godard has always taken a cynical approach to narrative. As early as his 1960 debut "Breathless," his movies have toyed with the superfluous nature of storytelling; sometimes (particularly since the advent of his experimental video work in the eighties), he just focuses on tearing it apart. The filmmaker's droll contempt for his characters takes on its most acerbic form in a scene where the male figure analyzes the meaning of Rodin's iconic sculpture "The Thinker" while sitting on the toilet (replete with scatological sound effects). Grumpy about the absence of daring attitudes and creativity in the mainstream, Godard finds that artistic discourse has been literally relegated to the crapper.
Aside from its critical perspective, "Goodbye to Language" packs plenty of innovation into its brief running time—particularly with regard to its use of 3-D, which highlights a dissonance between thought and imagery that has been exacerbated by our technological resources. In an early scene, Godard pretzels viewers' eyes by overlaying one shot over another as a woman walks off-frame—and into a shot superimposed over the previous one, then returns to her original location as the images merge once more. (That scene in particular elicited a round of applause from the Cannes audience, which tittered when the technique surfaced again during a nude scene featuring both actors' genitals.)
Of course, if any filmmaker other than Godard made a movie so implicitly smarmy and labyrinthine, it might not offer the same reward. But the director carries a set of expectations that inform his toolbox, and since we're looking for meaning in his movies before they even begin, it's safe to say that Godard gives the people what they want on his terms.
At one point, he includes a quote from Claude Monet, who instructs artists to "paint not what we see, for we see nothing, but paint that we don't see." Following suit, "Goodbye to Language" assails literal-mindedness, starting with a Google reference early on that points to the ease with which anyone has the power to conjure knowledge desired in the moment. "Eventually," one character asserts, "everyone will need an interpreter for their own speech."
Given that dreary prognosis, it's no surprise that "Goodbye to Language" concludes with the image of the aforementioned dog fleeing into the woods—not looking bored or lost in thought so much as just fed up. At Cannes, the cute little guy was a de facto stand-in for the director, who blew off the festival -- as he did with "Film Socialism" four years ago. But even if Godard failed to materialize before the eyes of his audience, he certainly managed to burrow behind them and tickle their minds—and that's been the essence of his career from the start.
"Goodbye to Language" premiered this week at the Cannes Film Festival.