Jean-Luc Godard has never been one to shy away from a paradox. He might well appreciate the irony that his form-busting use of 3D in “Goodbye to Language” — the very element that has made this by far his most passionately embraced work in years — is precisely what could keep the film from reaching the wider audience it deserves. There are two equally stubborn realities at work here: (1) Relatively few arthouse exhibitors are equipped to screen movies in the stereoscopic format, and (2) “Goodbye to Language,” an intoxicating swirl of deep-focus imagery and eye-popping, mind-bending visual layers, would lose much of its potency if stripped of that format. This is a movie that demands to be seen in 3D or not at all.
Similar things were said, of course, about the likes of “Avatar” and “Gravity,” two mega-budget 3D extravaganzas that deserve mention in the same breath as “Goodbye to Language” as meaningful counterpoint if nothing else. Lovingly applied by a big-studio auteur like James Cameron or Alfonso Cuaron, 3D becomes a vital yet secondary element, visually enhancing a dramatic narrative that would work just as well in two dimensions. It’s an immersive tool that deepens our engagement with a meticulously designed fictional world.
In the Godard film, the world is recognizably our own, albeit richer, stranger and more painterly than we’re accustomed to, thanks to a diverse and disorienting panoply of digital camera formats and lo-fi optical tricks. Immersion is decidedly beside the point. Getting used to the oddity of what we’re seeing, after all, would merely negate its impact — which may explain why even the most transporting stereoscopic effects tend to lose their novelty and become less and less noticeable over time. “Goodbye to Language,” by contrast, makes us intensely aware of its experimentation for the duration of its 70-minute running time, to sometimes bewildering, always stimulating effect. It’s a bracing reminder that a tool co-opted by the studios and typically used for the mass amplification of spectacle can, in different hands, reveal a treasure trove of unexplored aesthetic possibilities.
Virtually alone among filmmakers of his stature, Godard remains impishly devoted to the virtues of rupture and discontinuity — a jagged interpolation of footage from “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” here, a regular music cue cutting off abruptly there. No less than the film’s steady stream of textual references and philosophical queries, its proliferation of puns and poop jokes, the weave of visual layers here is dizzyingly dense and largely resistant to interpretation — which is not to say that interpretation should be resisted. (I’m surely not the only one grateful for David Bordwell’s invaluable in-depth assessment.)
What makes the formal and intellectual convulsions of “Goodbye to Language” so uniquely disarming is the sheer fun that Godard appears to be having at any given moment, and the pleasure proves infectious. In the film’s most audacious formal gambit, the director and his cinematographer, Fabrice Aragno, use a swiveling camera pan to pull the image into two overlapping planes, turning right eye and left eye against each other. It’s a description that does little justice to the actual effect onscreen; suffice to say that it’s about as literal a metaphor for expanding the possibilities of the motion-picture image as you could imagine. Eyestrain never felt so ecstatic.
In “Goodbye to Language,” sensation is all but inseparable from meaning, and the language to which the title seems to be bidding adieu is nothing less than the traditional language of cinema as we know it. For those who persist in questioning what the film is about — and even after two viewings, I don’t blame them — I’d respond that, on the simplest level, it’s about one artist’s determination to subvert the ways in which our eyes, ears and minds have been conditioned to receive movies. And given how essential the 3D is to the film’s impact, it’s no surprise that Godard has insisted that it be exhibited only in that format.
As a Los Angeles resident, I count myself fortunate to have been able to see and wrestle with “Goodbye to Language” on the international festival circuit, first in Cannes (where the film shared the jury prize with Xavier Dolan’s “Mommy”) and then in Busan. I’m looking forward to a third go-round, though I have no idea when that will be, given that the Kino Lorber release is not currently scheduled to open in L.A. — or, of that matter, in other key arthouse markets like Chicago, Boston and Washington, D.C.
Gary Palmucci, VP of theatrical distribution for Kino Lorber, hopes those circumstances will change in light of the picture’s stellar commercial performance so far: After opening exclusively in New York on Oct. 29, it topped the weekend’s specialty box office with $27,000 from just two New York screens, the IFC Center and the Film Society of Lincoln Center, for a terrific per-screen average of $13,500. With a cume so far of more than $38,000, the film has already outgrossed Godard’s previous feature, “Film socialisme” (2010), despite having opened on far fewer screens. Outside New York, “Goodbye to Language” has booked two-week engagements at San Rafael’s Smith Rafael Film Center, the Miami Beach Cinematheque and Toronto’s Bell Lightbox, plus shorter runs at Minneapolis’ Walter Art Center, the UW-Madison Cinematheque and the Cleveland Cinematheque, among others.
“Goodbye to Language” has, in short, all the makings of a critically acclaimed, word-of-mouth-driven hit, were it not for the infuriating circumstance that many theaters that would be inclined to show the film cannot, and many that can show the film aren’t interested in doing so. Focusing strictly on L.A., where Kino Lorber is seeking at minimum a weeklong run, none of the city’s numerous, normally Godard-friendly Laemmle screens is 3D-ready. Palmucci said that Kino Lorber’s conversations with three 3D-enabled venues — the Landmark in West L.A., Pacific Theaters’ Arclight Cinemas in Hollywood, and the Aero Theater in Santa Monica — have been unproductive so far.
“I thought to myself that because of the success of ‘Cave of Forgotten Dreams’ and ‘Pina,’ there must be plenty of 3D arthouses in the world that could accommodate this film,” Palmucci said. “We’re finding that to be more difficult than we thought.”
By way of comparison, “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” played eight weeks in 3D at the Arclight, while “Pina” had an Academy-qualifying run at the 3D-equipped AMC Covina 30. Both documentaries became sizable hits, but they also had awards prospects and many more marketing dollars behind them, as well as the benefit of 2D showings. They also were unencumbered by the Godard imprimatur and all the knee-jerk assumptions of difficulty and obscurantism that it provokes, which can unfairly overwhelm a work as unapologetically challenging — yet also as generous and thrilling — as “Goodbye to Language.”
Compounding the blow for L.A. cinephiles, this month’s AFI Fest will not be screening Godard’s latest, despite having presented the director’s previous three features (“Film socialisme,” “Notre musique” and “In Praise of Love”). In the end, Kino Lorber opted not to submit the film to the festival, reluctant to further undercut its potential audience in an already hard-to-crack market. All of which is incredibly dispiriting, if hardly surprising, for a city whose film culture has long been overshadowed by the demands of the mainstream movie industry, and whose steadily dwindling abundance of cinematic alternatives we take for granted at our peril. For decades, Godard been an erratic but heroic emblem of those alternatives, and its title notwithstanding, “Goodbye to Language” feels less like a farewell than an invitation. Here’s hoping it’s one that many more will have the chance to accept.