Monday, October 27, 2014

Uncle Jean in three dimensions: 'Goodbye to Language'

Older filmmakers are not big on innovation. Funhouse deity Jean-Luc Godard is not your standard older filmmaker, though. He’s an icon, a cinema-poet who has always attempted to engage and provoke viewers. His latest feature, Goodbye to Language (opening in NYC this Wednesday “with a national release to follow”), is a prime example of this — shot in 3-D, the film is an exploration of themes that have obsessed him for decades. It is also a sensory experience in which nearly every shot seems composed with the notion of “deep focus” in mind.

3-D is a mostly ridiculous gimmick, which re-emerged about a decade ago for the same reason it was invented in the Fifties, to lure movie fans back into theaters. It has primarily been used for big-budget action movies and kiddie features. Three filmmakers have used the technique beautifully for artistic rather than commercial reasons: Werner Herzog (in Cave of Forgotten Dreams, 2010), Wim Wenders (in Pina, 2011), and Martin Scorsese (Hugo, 2011).

Godard has always been head and shoulders above most other filmmakers in terms of bringing cinema “back to zero.” With his use of 3-D here (he already experimented with the format for a short included in the 2013 feature 3x3D), he toys with the nature of image-making, the notion of counterpointing silence and sound, and the idea that a series of narrative incidents can be assembled into a plot if the viewer wishes (if not, just enjoy the ride).

Goodbye isn't meant to be “received” like the average multiplex movie, or even the latest indie or arthouse hit. It fills – and sometimes confuses – the senses, as Godard toys with the “life-like” clarity of digital filmmaking by editing crystal-clear, jarringly beautiful images together with shots that are disorienting (even sporadically out of 3-D “focus”) and take a few seconds to process.

The characters here act out the “battle of the sexes” that has been one of JLG's main concerns since Breathless (1960). In this instance, the film's action involves only a few characters, but only two really matter – a couple who spend time in an apartment talking, fucking, and arguing. The man (Kamel Abdelli) looks a great deal like Serge Gainsbourg and indulges in some Gainsbourgian toilet humor (the sensory trip here does briefly include shitting noises, a first for Uncle Jean's cinema!).

Both the man and the woman (Heloise Godet) are seen naked, but Godard as always dwells on the woman's body, providing us with yet another painterly study of a nude (see Passion, 1982). In this case one can't help but think that the woman's one imperfection – a scar above her lip – holds another fascination, since the 3-D allows Godard to “explore” his actors like never before.

The “performer” who attracts the most attention here, though, isn't one of the human actors, it's Godard's dog Roxy (whose last name is Mieville, meaning he is co-owned by Uncle Jean and his partner Anne-Marie Mieville). He uses the dog as a sort of “anchor” for the film, as it wanders from place to place and is shown both in beautiful, bucolic settings and in the apartment, where the two lovers have presumably “adopted” it.

Roxy takes part in his master's playful spacial dislocation. One of the many eye-catching shots in the film finds the dog in the foreground as the background is switched using digital effects. As is the case with all dogs, Roxy doesn't care, but we are reminded once more that the life-like quality of digital video is just one more element in the modern filmmaker's bag of tricks. 

Godard could've delivered a visually intoxicating feature, filled with gorgeous landscape shots and beautiful 3-D images like the one we repeatedly see of a woman and man behind a barred gate. Instead, as noted, he mingles crisp, visually arresting sequences with ones that are somewhat indistinct or “off.” He returns frequently to a dark image where our attention is grabbed by a small white dot – as in an eye exam, Godard wants your eye to travel exactly where he wants it to go.

But the moments that stay with one most deeply are indeed Godard's gorgeously composed exterior shots (many featuring his pooch) and his “studies” of the couple. He plays with the parameters of 3-D throughout, and in one case “violates” visual logic by having a character move from one space to another, visually “rupturing” the image. In the two instances in which he uses this technique, a character moves quickly to screen right, with one eye's visual information remaining static while the other's continues to move, until different images are being transmitted to the left and right eyes.

The character who broke the image serves as the focal point, and the images in both eyes coalesce shortly thereafter. It's a bravura editing trick that underscores how receptive Godard is to technical innovation, and also to new methods of conveying how artificial and manipulative film and video can be.

The content of Language is thus so inextricably linked to its form that I'm not certain how it will play as a 2-D feature. As it stands, the film is yet another of Godard's cinematic poems (with distinct elements of essay) that revels in objets trouvés – snippets of classical music, film clips (including moments from Les Enfants Terribles, Only Angels Have Wings, Metropolis, the Frederic March Dr. Jekyll and Mister Hyde, and The Snows of Kilamanjaro), and a plethora of quotations from a host of writers.

But the whole picture is tied together by the visual experimentation. In this regard, Goodbye continues the poetic and mostly non-narrative approaches of his recent films Film Socialisme (2010) and Notre Musique (2004). It helps, of course, if one has seen the recent work that JLG has been doing; his fragmentation of cinema started in his classic Sixties works, but he's been following a brilliant, very unique path since his best work of the 21st-century, In Praise of Love (2001), his first fiction feature to incorporate digital effects.

As I've noted before, we are very lucky to still have new Godard features coming out on a regular basis. It's rare than an octogenarian (Uncle Jean is currently 83) can continue to redefine the medium he's working in, but Godard does so with each new release, and will hopefully continue to do so for the foreseeable future.

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