Earlier this week I saw Jean-Luc Godard’s Goodbye to Language, finally playing here in Boston. It’s a masterful film, one that resembles Godard’s other late-period work in its density and difficulty but that experiments with form in ways that feel refreshingly playful and comic. It may be the most vital film Godard has made in many, many years—certainly his best since the completion of Histoire(s) du Cinema in 1998. (I’ve gone back and added it to my list of favorite films from 2014.)
Goodbye to Language must be approached as an experimental film in which Godard uses repetition, recitation, and citation rather than plot, character, and dialogue, and in which we are continually prevented from getting swept up in the conventions of narrative cinema. Godard teases us with the fragments of a narrative (a couple, a house, a dog) as if daring us to relate to them emotionally before yanking them away, much in the same way that he introduces, then cuts off, fragments of music on the soundtrack. Since the beginning of his career Godard has systematically taken apart and reassembled the elements of cinema in order to get us to think about how they work. The difficulty of Godard, especially the late films, has to do with his denying us the things that we are accustomed to hanging onto when we watch movies.
But where Godard’s other late-period films sometimes risk collapsing under their own intellectual weight, Goodbye to Language is light and fleet. (It runs a mere 70 minutes.) It’s a film in which Godard recovers the innocence of the cinema by returning us to cinema’s origins: his use of 3D—which is sometimes sophisticated, sometimes whimsical, sometimes direct—seems designed to recreate the experience of seeing film itself as if for the first time. The very act of looking at a flower, a dog, a naked body becomes endlessly fascinating. These were the subjects of the very first films made by Muybridge, Edison, Smith, and the Lumiere brothers at the end of the nineteenth century. As Tom Gunning has argued, the visceral appeal of these films had less to do with telling stories or communicating ideas than with involving audiences in the sheer power of the image, and with using the “magic” of cinema technology to defamiliarize recognizable subject matter (animals, machines, the human body).