‘Those lacking in imagination take refuge in reality’ declares a title card, somewhat ominously, at the beginning of Jean-Luc Godard’s Goodbye To Language. This hyperactive arthouse film was met with critical praise upon release but will certainly cause many who see it to throw their hands in the air through sheer exasperation and return to their imagination-free diet of straightforward, conventional, easily-digestible films, presuming that’s what Godard is suggesting. If his latest is a challenge to cinema audiences – even those familiar with the ups-and-downs and abrupt about-turns of his career – then it is one that I took on enthusiastically, but ultimately its skittish, wilfully-difficult, abstract and experimental nature left me feeling weary, exhausted, irritated and resoundingly defeated. I must indeed be lacking.
At the end of 2014, somewhat predictably, angry accusations of pretentiousness poured in from one side while, on the other, a number of respected film critics queued up to laud Godard with dubious over-bubbly praise; Goodbye To Language topped (or came near the top of) many end-of-year polls in 2014, though the idea of lobbing this work into a chart rundown for comparison with other cinema releases seems somewhat pointless, as well as being rather amusing. Anyway: my own adverse reaction to the film means that I’m left scratching my head and wondering what exactly I’ve missed. Certainly I have little-to-no idea what Godard is trying to say by including the many clips nestled around the threadbare story, most of which were unfamiliar to me beforehand, while sadly most of the references to art and literature – whether oblique or direct – went right over my head. Trying to appreciate Goodbye To Language at home, on a normal TV set, also puts me at a disadvantage: many of the film’s fans vociferously cited its ability to make them think differently about the medium of 3D, whereas I merely struggled to make sense of the jumble of overlapping images, text and saturated footage.
At the heart of the film there are two similar stories covering the relationships of two couples, both of which are affairs (or perhaps it’s the same story … with the same characters … but played by two different actors … and shot from different angles). One is named “1 Nature” while the other is “2 Metaphor” and, amusingly, an epilogue is given the untypically rule-following number “3”. The stories are told in a non-linear fashion and I struggled to follow them with anything approaching success, though I suspect I’m not the first and won’t be the last. The couples are often naked and there’s a dog in there, too; Godard’s own, Roxy.
Meanwhile there are regular digressions: shots of water (waterfalls, rain forming puddles), sudden cuts to black with white dots in the middle of the screen, freeze-frames, brief orchestral interludes, a few lines of Byron, a spot of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, archive footage of Hitler and Chairman Mao, all of which leaves me scratching my head and wondering why the exact same mélange gives other such pleasure (and that remains the case despite the fact I have read well-written, illuminating articles about the film such as this one).
My inability to get to grips with even the most basic content of this film means that I cannot offer anything approaching meaningful insight. I simply do not get it, although without wishing to sound patronising I have flickers of admiration for anyone able to make a film this challenging and different 50 or 60 years into their career. So despite my own apparent ignorance I don’t quite feel the same hatred toward Goodbye To Language as some but, equally, I don’t particularly feel the need to overly-celebrate Godard’s famed idiosyncratic, mischievous nature either. I’m more inclined to cling to the words of one respected filmmaker who often sails against the prevailing critical wind: Werner Herzog’s assertion that ‘someone like Jean-Luc Godard is for me intellectual counterfeit money when compared to a good kung fu film’ never seemed truer. I’m also left thinking about a cartoon I saw in a newspaper years ago, in which a serious-looking middle-aged white man wearing headphones sports an exasperated look. “Shhhh!” he exclaims to someone outside the frame, “I’m trying to appreciate Dizzee Rascal.”
Directed by: Jean-Luc Godard.
Written by: Jean-Luc Godard.
Starring: Héloïse Godet, Kamel Abdeli, Richard Chevallier, Zoé Bruneau.
Cinematography: Fabrice Aragno.
Editing: Jean-Luc Godard, Fabrice Aragno.
Running Time: 69 minutes.