Fandor’s Michael Atkinson lays out the ways in which even normally perceptive critics have been stupefied by Jean-Luc Godard’s latest film, Goodbye to Language, forgetting that narratively unconventional doesn’t mean incomprehensible and walking on critical eggshells as they warn viewers that they might have to do a little brain-work instead of watching passively. Lou Lumenick, who writes of Godard’s “private language only film critics and Upper West Side audiences pretend to understand at this point,” is the least subtle of these, but writing for the New York Post, he’s also the easiest fish in the barrel to shoot. Atkinson thankfully aims his sights a little higher.
The New York Times‘ A.O. Scott, no slouch generally, windily maintains that Godard “seems to divide the world into skeptics and worshipers, with not much middle ground,” hardly bothering to make a case as to what a middle ground would look like, or why the “skeptics” (as if Godard is a conspiracy theorist) are simply moviegoers that do not or will not consider anything out of the structural mainstream.
The routinely astute Andrew O’Hehir, at Salon, even seemed at a loss, writing what he said might be a “reader-proof” review of what might be a “viewer-proof” movie—gingerly saying that you “have to cast aside preconceptions about movies being entertaining, or at least about what you think that means, in order to enjoy Goodbye to Language, and that’s not possible for everybody.”
I could add to the critique. Atkinson says Eric Kohn “gets” Godard but his review also calls it “baffling,” “esoteric,” and “dense.” The always thoughtful Bilge Ebiri opens a positive review, “I’ve now seen Jean-Luc Godard’s latest film twice, and I think I might be one more viewing away from finally being able to say what the hell it’s about.”
It’s actually not very difficult to enjoy, and it’s not as purely cerebral as even its advocates make it seem, by which I mean it’s also viscerally fun and fascinating and challenging and worthwhile.
What I first wrote down the morning after: The film jumps with as much youthful curious spirit as Breathless did 50 years ago. It’s a film collage, with clips cut together occasionally cohering but sometimes just juxtaposing, sitting together like they do in life. Godard does all kinds of beautiful weird things with 3D, including 3D’ing totally ordinary things like a foregrounded chair – completely different than, say, Avatar (one of the few other movies I’ve seen in 3D), where it was used to amplify action, here it’s used in stark contrast with a background flattened like a painting, so much so that you just want to sit in that jutting-out chair and stare. In a couple shots he also uses a doubling effect so that if you just open your left eye, you’re seeing one thing, your right another, and with both a confluence that at first crosses your eyes but with some work is worth it. All of that plus echoing narratives, the bare bones of a plot, nature video oversaturated to look like paintings, voiceover philosophy like Malick in grad school, dramatic classical music repeated to comical effect, and Godard’s wonderfully happy dog scampering around – in just 70 minutes.
One narrator wonders, likely quoting someone else, “Is a society wiling to accept murder as a means to limit unemployment?” Oof.
It does take some physical work, occasionally forcing you to cover one eye and move your head to take in the whole frame. Bryant Frazer, who calls it the “most physically uncomfortable viewing experience at the New York Film Festival,” summarizes the split reaction, in a piece where he counts five rules of 3-D that Godard breaks:
Godard’s later work is polarizing, with many viewers either praising the unconventional films for what they appreciate as Godard’s intellectual passion and eye for beauty or condemning him for a perceived stubbornness and didacticism.
Michael Koresky writes,
There’s something almost comical about us critics bending over backward to write something meaningful about a film that so resists, even distrusts, words. Maybe we shouldn’t even try—exhilarating in the moment, Goodbye to Language is far more fun to watch than it is to write about, or maybe even think about after.
But for all of Godard’s musings on the ways in which language has failed us, the film has produced some great writing, including Koresky’s own review. Those who put in the time and energy to actively participate in their viewing relish a movie that interacts back with them so much.
A brief sampling of some popular writers:
Richard Brody writes of “Godard’s Revolutionary 3-D Film,”
…many of the shots in the film are like Monet paintings come to life—in particular, scenes of water, such as one in which the ripples on Lake Geneva leap off the screen like the impasto of oil paint, or another, of a pond, in which the smooth surface reveals depths that in turn reveal a subtle riot of color.
Rather than using 3-D as an effect to create a sensation of flight or to make a viewer feel like the target of propelled objects, Godard uses 3-D to emphasize the materiality, the physical properties, of the world at hand.
Armond White, contrasting Godard’s approach with how 3-D is more commonly used to pacify audiences, writes,
For Godard the only test — the only immersion — that matters is the dynamics of sexual, political, and artistic relations. That’s his movie’s theme, divided into Nature and Metaphor sections — acerbic satires of our screwed-up age. It’s the most visually astounding film seen all year.
Matt Zoller Seitz explains what critics really mean when they say they can’t convey it properly to viewers who are deciding between this and Interstellar:
The style might be irritating in a traditional narrative film. But it seems of a piece in a movie that is partly about (Godard’s films are always “about” more than one thing—and often only partly about any of them) the impossibility of focusing, concentrating, and comprehending history, and politics, and the written and spoken word, then making all of it make some kind of sense, if only to yourself.
Seitz has previously asked film critics to write about the filmmaking process, and perhaps Goodbye to Language makes so many critics uncomfortable because it forces them to think about that process and the way it makes them feel.
David Ehrlich, however, takes the opportunity to delve into Godard’s composition and camera choices:
The typical application of 3-D compresses that dynamic into the contours of a single shot, forcing the eye to ignore several planes of action within a frame in order to focus on only one. Godard, on the other hand, has no interest in submitting to the usual demands of the format. Shot on an array of consumer cameras (listed in the end credits) with their effect compounded in post-production, his film’s garish images are evenly focused from front to back, which results in a destabilizing effect that never for a moment allows the 3-D to settle or be forgotten. When one character observes that “In Russian, ‘kamera’ means ‘prison’,” he’s effectively translating the experience of watching the first part of Goodbye To Language, in which the tension between the depth of a shot and the finitude of its grasp allows the insufficiency of an image to become a genuine sensation.
Ehrlich also links to David Bordwell’s further technical exploration. Bordwell, who makes several insightful observations about composition and technique, also notes:
Critics put off by Godard, I think, have too limited a notion of what criticism is. They seem to think that their notion of cinema, fixed for all time, is a standard to which every movie has to measure up. They are notably resistant to a simple idea: We can learn something from films. Not only can we learn things about life but we also learn things about cinema. We learn things that we never realized that film can do.
But then, how many critics actually want to learn something about cinema, which can only happen the way we learn anything: by wrestling with something that strikes us as difficult?
Atkinson writes, “By now, you’d think Godard’s structural-aesthetic paradigm shift would be as ingrained in our brainpans as The Beatles and Philip Roth. Or, perhaps more accurately in terms of Godard’s hip radical project, Pink Floyd and Thomas Pynchon.” Instead, he’s marginalized as someone weirder than Philip Glass or Gary Lutz, who‘s also worth your active time.
Another of Goodbye to Language’s several narrators acerbically laments, “Those who lack imagination take refuge in reality.” Maybe Godard saw his critics coming.