LFF film review: Goodbye to Language Print
Written by Ivan Radford   
Monday, 13 October 2014 19:38

When Avatar first arrived in 2009, it was hailed as the groundbreaking movie that would change everything: the definitive 3D film, created by James Cameron, the king of this new, uncharted realm. Whoever thought that, in 2014, an 83 year old French man would break into the kingdom's back door and reveal himself to be the rightful ruler?

It may be telling that Goodbye to Language closes with the sound of a baby crying: while plastic glasses have been a part of the cinema-going experience for a while now, this feels like the actual birth of the new technology. Jean-Luc Godard revolutionised cinema when he first made Breathless, jump cutting ahead of the crowd. Now, he may have done the same thing for 3D.

It's hard to imagine a movie less like Avatar. Where that was an undemanding, formulaic, two-hour action-packed popcorn flick, this is a challeng, 70-minute experimental art piece. Avatar had mechanised warriors and flying CGI monsters. Goodbye to Language has a dog.

In fact, it's Godard's own dog, who pops up every few minutes to wander through autumnal forests. It's par for the course for Jean-Luc, who loads the screen with tiny details and absurd contradictions. People discuss economics, chat philosophy, debate Nazism. Meanwhile, a man and a woman continually argue, sometimes with no clothes on. It's an assault that makes no compromises, daring the viewer to interpret what they're seeing. To say it's not for everyone is an understatement. But when was the last time you left a cinema with your brain racing to keep up?

What's so mind-boggling is the way he presents his collage of… stuff. 3D requires the project of two images, one for each eye, which your brain then places on top of each other to create the illusion of depth. Godard responds accordingly: by layering the heck out of everything. Immediately, you're greeted by the word ADIEU in bright, red letters, sitting over the top of smaller text in white. That's only the start of it. Every shot is pointedly composed to showcase the foreground and background. And so we don't just see a house. We see a house with a wall in front of it, with cars passing by in front of them, all of those placed behind a bollard, cheekily poking out of the corner of the screen. Sometimes, this intricate positioning seems to be central to the message at hand: one repeated clip sees a bunch of people on their phones, swiping, texting, tapping, while a table of classic literature under our noses goes unnoticed.

"Soon people will need an interpreter to understand the words coming out of their mouths," the film argues. Is it decrying the deterioration - or, as the title suggests, the departure - of language in a modern civilisation? Is it mocking the very idea that 3D can add realism to the language of cinema? Goodness knows. Everything is assembled with a low-fi aesthetic that makes it like an old-fashioned video. Or is it a new video filmed on a smartphone? The structure, meanwhile, is divided into two chapters - Nature and Metaphor - perhaps framing human existence as a constant act of trying to reconcile these fractured juxtapositions. Foreground vs background, Nature vs metaphor. Humans vs dogs.

The most bravura moment, though, arrives when the bickering partners walk away from each other - and the picture does the same. Not through split-screen, but split-eyes: two different images are projected to each retina, the woman in your left, the man in your right. The result is a disorienting experience that leaves you winking in disbelief, struggling to assemble the couple; a divorce literally captured on camera. It's such a simple device that it's hard to believe no one has done it before, the kind of lateral thinking that conventional Hollywood directors apparently don't consider. It's a stunning reminder that 3D is a tool, not a genre or prescriptive format. If the future of cinema arrived five years ago, what exactly have filmmakers been doing this time? All the while, Godard's dog runs around, free of language, happily understanding what's going on - or just laughing at the whole thing.