Full disclosure: I saw this film in the cinemas (albeit twice) without subtitles. My French is passable, but in the words of the fine film critic Bill Krohn, the French language in Godard’s hands “is a stiletto, not a blunderbuss.” Which is another way of saying that its nuances and intricacies – quotations, play on words, inversions – are almost definitely beyond my reach, which ought to be considered when reading this review.
When I heard a few years back that Jean-Luc Godard had begun work on a 3D film, I could hardly believe the news. Here was one of the most tireless innovators of the medium since WWII and one of the most outspoken critics of Hollywood cinema taking up its latest technical (re)-innovation, arguably the most commercially-focused since the popularisation of sound in 1927.1 Also, the working title was Adieu au Langage and a dog was reportedly the main character.The year is 2014 and Adieu au Langage recently premiered in 3D at Cannes,2where it shared the Jury Prize with Xavier Dolan’s Mommy. Godard’s own dog, Roxy Miéville, does indeed feature and probably receives as much screen time as any of its two-legged co-stars.
It almost goes without saying that despite its success, the film has divided critics, whose opinions have continued the tradition of stark partisanship in response to Godard’s work: thought-provoking/incomprehensible, genius/idiot, grand old master/grumpy old man. The mountain of writing that follows Godard’s films is testament to the fact that the dialectical impulse of critique (of balance, weight, duality) is often of little value in cinema criticism in comparison to occupying and holding fast to a side of the fence.
The 3D aspect notwithstanding, Adieu au Langage is very much a continuation of the philosophical concerns Godard has taken up since making his so-called return-to-cinema in the late 1970s. I specify this date because it marks his return to feature-length filmmaking with Sauve qui peut (la vie) [Every Man for Himself](1979) as well as the beginning of his work on the mammoth Histoire(s) du cinéma project. The latter grew out of a lecture series on the history of cinema he took over in 1978 after the death of Henri Langlois (curator of the Cinémathèque Française for over 40 years). The lectures were notable in that Godard would show segments of his own films and pair them with some of the major works of the past; Contempt (1963) was played alongside Dziga Vertov’s Man With a Movie Camera (1929), Vivre Sa Vie (1962)with Erich Stroheim’s Greed (1924)etc.. If his films have always been about – and grew out of – critiquing cinema, this period of Godard’s work has been above all about placing his own films in the history of cinema. More than that – and this was demonstrated above all in the Histoire(s) project – he has increasingly focused on the place of cinema in the history of art and history itself, especially with regards to some of the major traumas of the 20th century (WWII, the Balkan conflict, etc.). What the cinema has shown, what it hasn’t, the role it has played in providing a cardiograph of our times weighs heavily on the films from this period.
In Adieu au Langage, a love story is told, in the director’s words, twice. I can’t think of any Godard film with a happy love story, and this film continues that tradition. A man and woman meet and escape together (as in Pierrot le fou, Week-end), their relationship deteriorates as they spend more time with one another (Je Vous Salue Marie, Breathless, Pierrot). Two couples weave in and out of the film to play out this story, which is interrupted by two recurring intertitles: metaphor and nature. Their dialogue goes nowhere, language fails. A dog begins to appear more and more often, until it becomes the main focus of the film. Metaphor and nature.
As in much of the director’s work, this story is but one of the elements of the film, which blends in quotations from political theorists, philosophers, writers, as well as segments from other films and archival footage. These other currents chip away at this narrative, running into and taking over mid-scene at times. At one point a couple sit in a living room facing away from a television playing Rouben Mamoulian’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931). In the scene from Dr. Jekyll, Miriam Hopkins’s character (Ivy Pearson) is clearly naked and barely covering herself with a sheet while trying to seduce Dr. Jekyll. In the foreground Héloïse Godet, one of the leads in Godard’s film, is similarly dressed, yet the melancholy moment is far removed from the provocative pre-Code salaciousness of the Mamoulian film. Even in these intimate self-contained dramatic moments, film history cannot help but rear its head.
For Godard, a story may express an idea about the human condition in the same way that a quotation from Baudrillard on political economy might. 3 Godard traffics in concepts, in cinema at the speed of thought, and the film is an absolute onslaught on the eye, ear and brain.
The 3D aspect amplifies this effect. As with the hyper-stereo sound experiments using the new dual-speaker Dolby technology in King Lear (1987), Godard exploits the possibilities opened up by the new technology in a cinema-specific context in Adieu au Langage. While I wouldn’t go so far as saying it has pushed his filmmaking into the realm of installation art as others have, the filmmaker engages the site-specificity of the cinema-going experience in a way that he never has in the past, much like Jacques Tati did with Playtime (1967). I’ve not seen many films that make you as aware of the cinema space, of where you are sitting in the stall, or even the very physical act of looking at something. There are two or three shots – or effects, I don’t know what to call them – which I’ve certainly never seen before in any film and make you completely self-aware of your vision. I’m sure anyone who sees the film will recognise the effect immediately; apparently the audience at the Cannes premiere burst into spontaneous applause during the screenings upon first seeing them.
For all the film’s visual innovation, the approach to sound is just as successful in producing this bombardment of the senses. It comes in short, sharp bursts from one corner of the room and then from another, layered often to the point of incomprehensibility and as texturally complex as the image. Seemingly disconnected phrases in voice-over drop in and out, as if floating ideas that may or may not be taken up in another segment of the film.
If this description makes the film sound a little haphazard, it’s because the effect of watching Adieu au Langage is really quite disorienting. Godard’s maxim that “one should put everything in a film” makes trying to find some kind of key idea or takeaway message from his films a fruitless and often reductive task, and I don’t think that’s any different here. Depending on the viewer, this can make his films seem infuriating and deliberately obscurantist works of “intellectual counterfeit”, as Werner Herzog once put it. For another viewer, they are brilliant, stimulating works that have left profound marks on the medium, for the better. I belong largely to the second camp of viewers, but with reservations when it came to Adieu au Langage. There are admittedly moments when Godard seems a little out of touch, particularly when he takes aim at technology, and his penchant for aphorisms means that his take on politics can seem a little flippant at times.
But what struck me this time is that treating Godard’s films on a purely intellectual level is doing them an injustice. Particularly in the last fifteen minutes of Adieu, there are moments when these ideas, these thoughts about nature and metaphor that have floated throughout the film are expressed in truly beautiful ways. A lingering close up of a painter’s palette, bookended as it is by a painterly abstract digital approach that has crept into his work in the last decade, is a striking moment of reflection on the artistic process. As is a moving crane shot that captures the device’s own shadow before panning away, recalling the opening of Contempt, perhaps the director’s most striking meditation on filmmaking. And I maintain that no one has shot the colour blue more beautifully than Godard, especially in his late period. So how to summarise a work such as Adieu au Langage? It is, in short, another Godard outing – a complex, messy film that is in turn inscrutable and illuminating with many moments of great beauty, constituting another vital chapter in one of the most legendary careers in cinema.