What strikes you as a fairly mundane question midway through Godard’s new 3D film, “Goodbye to Language”, turns out to be core thesis material. “Left and right were inverted, but not top to bottom. Why?” asks the narrator, like a film professor who’s paused the graceful tracking shot in Citizen Kane to talk about framing decisions, rather than letting the class enjoy the movie. Such is the poetic vision of what might be Godard’s final film: the focus is non-focus, and in-between moments.
Cannes critics have been going crazy over the film’s 3D optical effects; apparently one scene in particular made viewers involuntarily cross their eyes, breaking out a round of applause from the notoriously-tough festival crowd. Shot on two side-by-side DSLR cameras, Godard uses the lenses like eyes which can cross, occasionally overlapping in the same frame– and a whole bag of other tricks including sideways turns, off-center 3D, and depth of field in the title frames. But even a few minutes in, that feels beside the point; the device reads more as a constant philosophical suggestion that the world is made clear through opposing viewpoints, but the truth lies somewhere in the imperceptible center.
“Goodbye” follows a couple and a dog, through the director’s signature rapid-fire vignettes. The man and woman, in various stages of undress around their apartment, discuss philosophy, God, and gender equality, but they never see eye-to-eye (breaking occasionally into character tropes like film noir detective, damsel in distress); as the dog walks through the woods in different seasons, the narrator offers meditations on the inability of a dog to perceive war, and society. Philosophies intersperse throughout. For a filmmaker who has spent his career subverting social norms, the dog’s-eye view of the world tears down the last remaining narrative construct– the idea that reality is understood from the point of view of humanity.
Marked by two parts, “1) Idea” and “2) Metaphor”, the film establishes a series of scenarios (man and woman hanging out at home, dog in the woods, an off-camera conversation in a car) to be replayed, teased out, and realigned with new imagery. The Brechtian character breaks could be an exhausting trope in Godard’s earlier work, when it was used simply to subvert expectations. Here, though, each juxtaposition and narrative break adds a new facet of meaning and nuance to the filmmaker’s experience of reality. Every image has an answer, or a counterpart. A living room; an open field. Her breasts; his gnarly toes. And for a piece which has been interpreted as a cynical view of life, it doesn’t shy away from beauty– you want to roll in hyperreal 3D rippling ocean waves, and the shimmering rainbow carpet of leaves on the forest floor.
Moments even verge on Impressionistic; as we watch reflections of the fall foliage hovering above the surface of water in slightly-off-kilter 3D layering, we hear a quote from Claude Monet: “paint not what we see, for we see nothing, but paint that we don’t see.” The two lenses don’t quite align; instead, we sense that something is captured in between surface and reflection. But of course Godard never lets us rest. Just as Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 lulls viewers into a false sense of structure, we’re immediately thrust into the cold again with a blaring blast of wind on the audio recorder. If this is the director’s last film (and with its sendoff to words, to humanity, and Godard’s own personal “video letter” to Cannes, it feels that way), then the goodbye is also lighthearted. End credits are overlaid with audio of the sound of babies crying, interpreted as a last laugh at whining critics. Here’s a director who’s spent his life with eyes wide open, and “Goodbye” shows us the world, on and off screen; if you want to lay your head upon a cushy seat for two hours, then plant your ass at Loew’s.
The couple’s constant gender role playing also recall the push-and-pull antics of Godard couples in early New Wave films. She stands naked before him, as he takes a wet shit. “Each time I talk about equality, you take a poop.”
“That’s because we are equals,” he says, looking at the floor.
It’s a paradox; equality comes at the price of mutual compromise. No views truly align. “Soon everyone will need an interpreter to understand the words coming out of their mouths,” the woman muses, as she puts on her shoes. Later, she remarks that God could not have created us humble, so he made us humiliated.
But the greatest insights come from the dog, who later on takes an unselfconscious shit. “Animals are not naked because they are naked,” the narrator remarks. It’s a relief from the film device of building up metaphors and expectations only for the filmmaker to mathematically detonate them all in Act Two. This time around, social constructs unravel themselves simply when met by the facts of life.
“The world can only be known through an animal’s gaze,” reflects the male voice. The film insists in so many ways that human stories help to shape our understanding of the world, but also impossibly obscures reality. This is summed up in one elegant, understated shot: a shadow of a camera dolly on pavement, which, we realize, is the camera’s own shadow. As we pan up from dog-eye view of pavement, to human-eye view of the parking lot, to God’s-eye view of the city, the narrator speaks of the age-old questions that the dogs ask themselves. “What is a man? What is a city? What is a war?” The camera is the eye of God, but always seen through the lens of humans.
As we watch the dog stare off into the distance, the voice reminds us that the dog is the only animal that loves man more than it loves itself. If you look at something between that, and the lens of man, which can only love itself, it suggests, then you can get a rough idea of the full picture.