“Contempt” meets “Lassie,” sort of, in Jean-Luc Godard’s “Goodbye to Language,” a characteristically vigorous, playful, mordant commentary on everything from the state of movies to the state of the world from French cinema’s oldest living enfant terrible. Its title notwithstanding, Godard’s 39th feature-length work proves its maker has plenty left to say and plenty of new ways of saying it, from its freewheeling use of multiple video formats to its radical experiments in 3D. For 69 densely packed minutes that feel like an adrenaline shot to the brain, “Goodbye” continually reaffirms that no single filmmaker has done more to test and reassert the possibilities of the moving image during the last half-century of the art form. All but those who wish Godard had never ventured past what he was doing circa 1968 should take much pleasure in the result, which will be in high demand on the festival and cinematheque circuits following its Cannes premiere.
Godard’s first Cannes competition appearance since 2001’s “In Praise of Love,” “Goodbye” offers viewers a slightly more accessible entry point than 2010’s “Film Socialism” (with its famously obfuscated English subtitles), as it loosely traces the ups and downs of a couple in an adulterous relationship, a scenario previously explored by Godard in several ‘60s works, including “Contempt” and “A Married Woman.” As the director himself describes it in the movie’s press notes: “The idea is simple: A married woman and a single man meet. They love, they argue, fists fly.” But of course, nothing is so simple in Godard, including, by the end of “Goodbye to Language,” the question of whether we have been watching one couple, two couples, or two alternate versions of the same couple.
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“Those lacking imagination take refuge in reality,” reads an onscreen text at the film’s start, and what follows might, in Godard’s own aphoristic spirit, best be described as a descent into the reality of the filmmaker’s imagination. In an opening episode, we find ourselves outside a gas factory where a used-book seller is peddling the likes of Dostoevsky and Solzhenitsyn while blase onlookers Google the names on their iPhones. Solzhenitsyn didn’t need Google, one onlooker observes, while another notes that the anti-technology French philosopher Jacques Ellui “saw it all coming, almost.” Other of the overlapping voices on the choral soundtrack muse on such favored Godard themes as unregulated state power and global economic imbalance, in a movie that more than once suggests the Western world has descended into a fascistic nanny state.
But that risks making “Goodbye to Language” sound like heavier going than is actually the case for a movie that devotes much of its second half to a dog’s-eye view of the world and features one character declaring that “thought reclaims its place in poop” whilst sitting on the john, complete with scatalogical sound effects. (Call it Godard’s “Dumb and Dumber.”) For while Godard is 83 and clearly heavy with melancholy about many things in the world, he hasn’t lost his prankster side, and “Goodbye” alights with visual gags and punning wordplay, including various permutations of pic’s French title, “Adieu au langage,” as “Ah dieu” (“Oh God”) and “Oh langage.”
Rhetorical provocations abound (“Is it possible to produce a concept about Africa?” “Is society willing to accept murder as a means to fight unemployment?”), as do literary quotations (Aragon, Darwin, Faulkner, Sartre), blasts of classical music (Beethoven, Sibelius, Tchaikovsky), newsreel footage and classic film extracts (Miriam Hopkins frolicking on a bed in “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner staring at each other longingly in “The Snows of Kilimanjaro”). Interspersed throughout are extended domestic scenes showing the aforementioned couples in various states of love and betrayal, including what might be the screen’s most ambiguous offscreen murder since Michael Snow’s “Wavelength.” As if offering his riposte to the parade of biopics on Cannes screens this year, Godard even includes a detour into costume drama, depicting Byron and Mary Shelley on the banks of Lake Geneva during the writing of “Frankenstein.”
Using 3D for the second time (after his 2013 short “The Three Disasters”), Godard takes his already dense layering of images to new extremes. In addition to conventional stereoscopic effects, Godard experiments throughout with the placement of entirely different images in each eye, resulting in a series of strange superimpositions that almost seem to enter a fourth, unclassified dimension. The imagery itself ranges from crisp, color-saturated HD to intentionally degraded, pixelated consumer video, from formally ravishing compositions (including one unexpected, luxurious crane shot) to swooshing handheld nature scenes reminiscent of late Terrence Malick.
What does it all mean? Everything and nothing; that the world is going to the dogs or perhaps a dog’s world after all; that cinema is on its last legs or just maybe on the cusp of renewal. As in all Godard’s best work, precise meaning is subsumed in an exhilarating tide of sound and light, impish provocations and inspired philosophizing. “To make an end is to make a beginning,” wrote T.S. Eliot, and so in bidding “adieu,” Godard has only made another in his long series of reinventions and renewals.