Let me be straight with you: Jean-Luc Godard's Goodbye to Language is an exasperating viewing experience. It's alternately confusing, boring and irritating, and there are more than a few scenes likely to inspire words like “pretentious” and “masturbatory.” It's also - Dog help me - a fairly revolutionary cinematic experience. It must be admitted that “pretentious” and “masturbatory” are words critics occasionally use as defense mechanisms for their own reactions. How often is “pretentious” used to describe something a critic simply doesn't understand? How often is “masturbatory” used to describe a film in which the director does whatever he wants to do instead of what the critic wants him to do?
Godard changed the cinematic landscape when he burst onto the scene with his debut feature Breathless, delivering a film that significantly altered the visual language filmmakers used to tell stories. He attempts the same thing in Goodbye to Language, though it's unlikely that anyone will be bold enough (or crazy enough) to follow his lead this time around. For those who have followed Godard's career in recent years, the movie shouldn't come as a surprise. The director's latest effort feels a distillation of the work he's done lately – as the years have passed, he's moved further and further away from anything resembling traditional filmmaking. Goodbye to Language is a film that makes Terrence Malick's most elliptical work seem thoroughly straightforward.
The story is... well, not really a story, exactly. It's more a suggestion of a story, or rather a suggestion of multiple stories. There are two couples – both comprised of a middle-aged man and a somewhat younger woman – conducting affairs. Their scenes are given labels to help us keep track of which is which: “1 Nature” and “2 Metaphor.” There is also a dog, who initially appears in a handful of random shots and then ends up taking center stage for an extended stretch of the film. I liked the dog.
The men and women talk in hushed tones about philosophical subjects. Dozens and dozens of great thinkers are referenced and quoted, and Godard juxtaposes these quotes with a wide array of images: old movies, shots of sunny meadows, Nazi rallies and so on. There are also poop jokes, along with poop-based philosophy: one conversation meditates on “the equality of feces.” Godard is constantly fidgeting with the sound and the image, raising and lowering the volume, cutting from hi-def beauty to crappy cell phone footage, allowing the sound to bounce between the left and right channel, cranking up elegant classical music and abruptly cutting it off just as we start to recognize it... it's an incredibly restless film, always striving to provoke the viewer in some way.
So what is the movie about? It feels tiresome and lazy to say that, “it's up to the viewer to decide,” but it's up to the viewer to decide. I don't think Godard is trying to make a definitive point so much as he's trying to inspire viewers to really think about things. By referencing so many hot-button issues, philosophical ideas and recognizable moments – and by fusing those things with unexpected sights and sounds – the film seeks to trigger our own feelings, beliefs and memories. It nudges us in one direction or another, providing a series of springboards and leaving us to dive into the pool of our choice. If you're willing to accept the fact that the movie is jerking you around, it may well jerk you somewhere interesting.
A side note: I reviewed the 2D version of the film. In most cases, this wouldn't make much of an impact on my feelings about a movie, but reports indicate that Godard's use of 3D was as revolutionary and wildly experimental as everything else in the film. Thus, at least a portion of the film's intended effect was lost on me. Considering that, and considering the fact that it's nearly impossible to judge the film by the same standards one judges almost any other film, I've decided not to attach a star rating to this review. Should you watch it? Maybe, but only if you're an exceptionally adventurous viewer, a Godard devotee or a jaded cinephile who's seen so many conventional movies that you're desperate for something completely fresh.
Goodbye to Language
Rating: Hmmmm (out of Existentialism)
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 70 minutes
Release Year: 2014