Godard and Goodbye to Language

Jean-Luc Godard
Jean-Luc Godard, pixelated

Only a few ripples remain. When the critic-filmmakers of the New Wave surged against the ramparts of the French “Tradition of Quality,” sweeping away in Cahiers du Cinema the detritus of many post World War II movies, they introduced a revitalized Gallic cinematic spirit, an élan as fresh as when Gance, Delluc, Epstein, Pagnol, Cocteau, Vigo, Clair, Renoir and Carne made French cinema an artistic equal of Hollywood in the 1920s and ’30s.

Even when James Monaco published his seminal book The New Wave in 1976, the five directors he profiled (Truffaut, Godard, Chabrol, Rohmer and Rivette) had years of filmmaking still in front of them. Today, a roll call of the Nouvelle Vague cineastes comes back with few shouts of “present.” Truffaut, Chabrol, Rohmer, Malle, Demy, Marker, Melville, Reichenbach, Resnais, Franju and Bresson are all absent. (The last five were not strictly part of the group, but worked in their ethos.) Though they are still with us, Rivette’s last credit is from 2009, and Agnes Varda’s from 2011, and Claude Lelouch remains a world unto himself. The last one standing at the lens and still prolific is the irascible, enigmatic, dogmatic, elusive Jean-Luc Godard, whose IMDB filmography lists 117 credits, more than three dozen of them scripted features — though “scripted” is not exactly accurate for a man who, from the beginning, scribbled his day’s shooting scenes on whatever scrap of paper was at hand while indulging in coffee and cigarettes in a café.

Godard’s most recent film is Adieu au Language, an ironic title for a Frenchman (Swiss, actually) whose linguistic preoccupations have never been muted, though in this film he argues for a “poverty” of language. (The film premiered at this year's Cannes festival and was much discussed.)

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But his often hectoring messages (frequently emblazoned onscreen) pose a contrast to his seeming public persona, or lack thereof. In September 2010, despite warnings of Godard’s elusiveness, the Board of Governors of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences offered him an honorary Oscar. He accepted, and even thanked the Academy with a handwritten note, but he didn’t show up for the awards ceremony. The Academy cannot have been surprised. Godard has blown off the Cannes Film Festival several times since he, Lelouch and Truffaut held the festival’s curtain closed in 1968, eventually halting all screenings in that tumultuous year.

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From left: Claude Lelouch, Godard and François Truffaut at the 1968 Cannes Film Festival.

Adieu au Language won the Prix du Jury at Cannes this year, but Godard did not show up for that screening either, nor for the press conference that followed, leaving his actors to fend for themselves. Of Godard’s stance toward the cinematic establishment, The Guardian wrote, “Clearly, JLG has effortlessly completed the transition from enfant terrible to Bad Grandpa.”

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Like Werner Herzog, another visionary and veteran director, Godard has produced film in 3-D. Scott Foundas, in his review of Adieu au Language for Variety, reflected:

Using 3-D for the second time (after his 2013 short ‘The Three Disasters’), Godard takes his already dense layering of images to new extremes. In addition to conventional stereoscopic effects, Godard experiments throughout with the placement of entirely different images in each eye, resulting in a series of strange superimpositions that almost seem to enter a fourth, unclassified dimension. The imagery itself ranges from crisp, color-saturated HD to intentionally degraded, pixelated consumer video, from formally ravishing compositions (including one unexpected, luxurious crane shot) to swooshing handheld nature scenes reminiscent of late Terrence Malick.

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Given Godard’s general elusiveness, it came as a surprise that he gave an expansive and freewheeling video interview last March for the Canon Promotional Network.

If you harbor in your mind’s eye the Godard of the early New Wave years, the quintessential chain-smoking, agitated French intellectual, it will be a shock to see him today, a clearly somewhat enfeebled man of 83 years, buried in a sofa, his mind initially making fragmented connections and waving a water bottle like a baton at the beginning of the interview. The interviewer, Cécile, first asks the director what inspired him to make Adieu au Language. In a classic sui generis quip, he says, “Well, it was to escape from ideas.” Godardian escapes from ideas, especially those framed in the intricacies of ironic and contradictory wordplay, are about as likely as Michael Bay embracing the "slow cinema" of Béla Tarr. Godard talks about how different languages “name” the same thing, using the film term “answer print” as an example. The first 12 minutes of the interview show a man of ideas talking about 3-D as a trick and about single-point perspective. He says, in a seeming contradiction, “What is difficult is to turn depth into flatness.” There are also excerpts from his 2004 film Notre Musique. In one clip he discusses editing (montage). “I realized that the screenplay came not only after the shooting, but [after] the editing.” In another he says, “The principle of cinema: to go to the light and shine it upon our night.” Does he mean a metaphysical night, as in St. John of the Cross’ “Dark Night of the Soul,” or something more literal?

It’s not always clear what Godard means, as there is a sense of ellipsis in his discursive reflections. But then, that’s always been true of his movies as well. What is so very interesting about this interview is how naked he seems to be in talking of himself. He sits there on the sofa with no cinematic technique to hide behind, just a series of fades that return again and again to the same image size. The interview reveals a frail, old man who has lived in the world of his mind for decades, a filmmaker who has stubbornly tried to use a non-intellectual medium of expression, the movies, to release and record his mind’s often clogged workings. Here is the first part of the interview:

Part 2 opens with a mini-glance back at Godard’s career. Overall, he seems to be having more fun in this section, as it references the work itself and avoids theory. He says he was not one of those filmmakers who “at the age of 3 saw a Mickey Mouse film and then decided I had to make film.” Au contraire! Godard came to cinema as a late-blooming teenager, one who loved books. He says that at the time of his birth, his parents had seen only silent films. Imagine Godard, born a generation earlier, as a Murnau or Pabst. The barrage of intertitles he'd have put on his silent films could have been released as a printed tome.

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Godard then gives us insight into his almost scrupulous avoidance of the public arena. “They welcome you with flowers. Then, you go and eat somewhere. Then, there is the screening. Then, they take you back to the hotel, and the next day, you find yourself alone. You came to see people, and, in fact, you don’t see anyone.” Does this sound a bit disingenuous, almost Garboesque, tainted perhaps with a soupçon of self-pity? What becomes clear in the final minutes of the interview is just how comfortable Godard is at monologue. But can he have a conversation? Few dogmatists can. One need only recall Godard’s venomous dismissal of his old chum Truffaut after he saw Day for Night, an attack that was done not in person, but with a letter, the ultimate monologue.

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Godard at work with Raoul Coutard (behind the director).

I probably am revealing my own ambivalent feelings about Godard as an artist, one who must be respected as a bold innovator (even “destroyer” of traditional cinematic narrative), but who some in the French intellectual community have regarded as a poseur, a man whose sense of self-importance far outweighs his intellect. Orson Welles once shared this mixed view of Godard:

… His gifts as a director are enormous. I just can’t take him very seriously as a thinker, and that’s where we seem to differ, because he does. His message is what he cares about these days, and, like most movie messages, it could be written on the head of a pin. But what’s so admirable about him is his marvelous contempt for the machinery of movies and even movies themselves — a kind of anarchistic, nihilistic contempt for the medium — which, when he’s at his best and most vigorous, is very exciting. 

One of Godard’s most arresting reflections in the Canon interview is that young filmmakers should document daily life from inside their own experiences, rather than as the “police” would do, as objective, disembodied fact. He draws a literary parallel: the minute detail and banalities of Leopold Bloom in Joyce’s Ulysses as he wanders the streets of Dublin during a single day. Instantly, I recalled how much Godard’s early films document such small episodes: in bars, on street corners, and in hotel rooms, as in A Bout de Souffle, Vivre Sa Vie and Masculin Féminin — real-time moments that one sees in American films of the time perhaps only with Cassavettes. Godard confesses he has had only a handful of friends, and he cites only one name, Glauber Rocha, the Brazilian director who died in 1981.

The interview concludes with a stream of doubletalk, the meaning of which may or may not be clear to Godard himself, but which I found to be a fascinating window into his mental workings; it’s almost as though a Quay Brothers marionette figure had had a cranial incision, exposing its brain to view. Referencing a statement Monet might have made about not seeing what he had to paint, Godard quotes Monet, “One has to paint what one cannot see. We should not paint what we are seeing, since we cannot see anything. We should not paint that we see nothing, because we should paint only what we see. So, there remains the option of painting what we do not see.” Sounds a bit like a syllogism from Heidegger. I hope you understand; I’m still unraveling it.

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I don’t mean to discourage you from watching this second part because, as with a lot of Godard, what comes across strongly is not the so-called message, but the medium, he being, admit it or not, a star pupil of McLuhan. It’s riveting to watch this lion in winter come alive with the dance of the very language to which he says he is bidding farewell, especially if you view the French New Wave with some still-flickering light in your heart. But if you consider those half-century-old images to be only cinematic embers, then consider also the possibility that one day you, too, will oscillate between basking in the warm twilight of work done with conviction, and the inability to recall much of it in substantive detail when it’s quoted back to you. It’s humbling, this slow march of age, and no moment is more rvealing than the end of the Canon interview, when Godard says to Cécile, not realizing the camera is still running as he struggles to stand, “Je vous fais de la peine.” This is subtitled, “I made an effort,” but in fact it’s a polite way of thanking her for helping him: “I have inconvenienced you.”

Early last month I saw Adieu au Language at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. Several issues stuck out — beyond the more than generous 3-D home video of Godard's beloved dog, Roxy, the movie's muse and canine amanuensis, shot by Godard himself over several years. In the New York Review of Books blog, the normally rational critic Geoffrey O'Brien launched into a panegyric about the dog as a near locus of metaphysics:

In Roxy, Godard finds a more heroic figure than has yet appeared in his films, a figure whose movements through the natural world, to the edge of the water, through the underbrush, do indeed reinvent a primal cinema at one with the world it represents.  

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Godard's dog, Roxy. (Photo: Kino Lorber Inc.)

I must have missed something when I had to close one eye. I could have sworn this was home video of an old man aiming the camera at his winsome pet.

As for Godard's so-called bold experiment in 3D----the extreme interaxial lens settings selected make the actors' faces look like elongated primitive masks, reducing the figures' scale so dramatically that the staging and shooting with very wide lenses lends the whole affair a dollhouse-like ambience. Constant edge violation of negative parallax causes objects and figures to jump to and fro in depth. Superimpositions (multiple 3-D images that intentionally go in and out of sync in panning shots) were so disorienting that I had to close one eye. Godard's cinematographer Fabrice Aragno recently discussed this in some detail in Film Comment. And if the interview is accurate, it's a window into Godard's increasing laissez-faire attitude toward "image capture" as mere prologue to the film itself, a perspective that cinematographer Aragno finds liberating.

Then, of course, all the archival footage was already 2-D. Most of this is in keeping with Godard's sense of alienation, disruption and self-referential cinema. All in all, a very Godardian "je m'en fous" to the viewer. It's why we love/hate him.

Rather than conclude this piece with the image of Godard as éminence grise, here he is with actress Anna Karina, as bow-tied suitor in the film-within-a-film clip from Varda’s Cléo from 5 to 7.

But just how fabulous is it, indeed, that an 80-something, cigar chomping artist, shooting 3-D with iPhones, can still stick his thumb in your eye? "Bad grandpa," indeed!

NEXT: John Adams and The Death of Klinghoffer.

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