Henri Matisse was 71 when his inspirational Zulma appeared at the Salon de Paris to rave reviews of its vitality and youthful experimentation. It is difficult not to cast your mind to Matisse when you see the latest film by Jean-Luc Godard, the 83-year-old French filmmaker whose Goodbye to Language (Adieu au Langage, 2013) appears in the ‘Masters’ strand of Toronto 2014. Like his compatriot, Godard is not willing to sit back in his dotage but strives to push at the boundaries of the medium, resulting in this rich, witty and thoroughly baffling provocation. Less of a narrative or a thesis than an esoteric patchwork visual essay condemning our fallen society, it’s intent on being as abrasive as possible in almost every way.
Godard has never been concerned with pandering to the lowest common denominator and in this regard the tricksy Goodbye to Language is no exception, challenging cinematic form and aesthetic with rigorous intellect and to startling effect. Jarring cuts, eye-straining overlaid stereoscopic titles and deafeningly abrupt musical cues are all deployed in the opening minute and things don’t let up from there. For seventy or so minutes, audiences are treated to – or, it’s likely that many will have to endure – a perplexing assault on the senses. There are eventually some coherent scenes from which one can glean some semblance of traditional notions of story and/or character, but this far from the intention. Yet any attempt at deeper understanding is of far less concern than supplication at the alter of montage.
The focus elliptically returns to the mooring of a cruise ship, a couple of students and their philosophising lecturer, various abstruse images of nature and consistently returns to a dog named Roxy – barking, sleeping, exploring etc. If this all sounds wearying, that is certain a risk but in amongst all the noise are some fantastic moments. A sense of humour is present throughout in the juxtaposition of image with its accompanying literary quotation, sly wordplay and even moments of toilet humour. The pretentious recitation of philosophers and academics is tongue-in-cheek as often as not and it is easy to imagine a wicked smile on the director’s face when constructing the more challenging sequences. Some of those include headache-inducing images that are fantastically bold in their stretching of 3D technology – arguably serving to undermine it as much as showcase it. For these reasons alone, Goodbye to Language is an essential kaleidoscopic gambol through Godard’s mind, even if many will be hard pressed to say that they like it.
Goodbye to Language featured in CineVue’s ‘Best films of 2014’ feature. You can read the full list here