I remember stumbling across artist Marcel Duchamp’s infamous piece, “Fountain”, in the Liverpool Tate Modern art gallery a few years ago. The sculpture, if you’re audacious enough to label it as such, is simply a urinal tipped on its back. The only indication that this slab of utilitarian porcelain is in fact a piece of art and not a renovation cast-off is Mr. Duchamp’s inconspicuous signature next to the date.
When it was submitted for display in 1917, the traditional art aficionados unsurprisingly balked at the idea that a urinal could constitute art. Duchamp used “Fountain” as a way to illustrate how one can change an object’s meaning by merely changing its context. With that, he broadened the scope of modern art produced over the next ~100 years.
But to me, “Fountain” is merely a urinal on a plinth, no different to the ones that collect my urine on a fairly regular basis. To call it ‘art’ is just daft. Only the most ardently pro-avant-garde will uphold Duchamp’s work as a landmark achievement of the form.
I saw Jean-Luc Godard’s latest film in the neck achingly large London IMAX as part of the London Film Festival. The majority of the audience applauded at the end of what can only be described as total tosh. Like Duchamp’s urinal, Godard’s Goodbye to Language represents The Arts at their most painfully ridiculous. It may seem strange to compare a simple art installation with a technical exploration of film, but both rest on a simple truth: the emperor has no clothes.
Godard doesn’t aim to please or entertain, and that’s only become more clear in the latter half of his career. Goodbye to Language does neither as visual feast descends into ruinous din. The film is torturous viewing and arty cinema at its most reprehensible. I’m all for challenging the norm and negating stagnation in film. Unfortunately, like Duchamp’s “Fountain,” I can’t find real artistic merit or message in Goodbye to Language. All I see is dross.
Godard has never been one to shy away from breaking cinematic convention – reinventing the reel, as it were – but Goodbye to Language is a stylistic mess. Here, the legendary director resembles a desperate drunk mixing everything in his spirits cabinet in search of the perfect cocktail. The film is a wild collage, fragmentation or, probably most appropriately, montage of the cinematic form.
Godard distorts sounds from hi to lo-fi like someone dicking about with the speaker jack. He layers images sporadically in 3D. He weaves narrative in an almost non-existent smattering of loosely connected scenes. In combination, Goodbye to Language’s sole aim is to assault every one of the senses. Sitting in the theater was like experiencing a nervous breakdown onscreen.
Looking back at Ingmar Bergman’s great film Persona, there’s a scene early on where the reel itself appears to burn out and the narrative is replaced with a macabre collection of images that act as a visual representation of a film’s subconscious. Goodbye to Language is an almost 70 minute extension of Bergman’s innovation, but replaces subtlety with Godard’s own thematic obsessions.
For a different comparison, Godard’s film runs in the same vein as Buñuel’s influential An Andalusian Dog, albeit in a less surreal and striking way. Despite these similarities, however, Bergman and Buñuel show a confident, stylish grasp of nonlinear narrative that’s completely lacking with Godard.
It’s commendable of Godard to push cinematic boundaries, especially with regard to the gimmick of 3D. But with his latest film, there’s no purposeful application for his new ideas. The audience is privy to isolated pockets of raw talent here and there, but never to the assuredness of a stylistic masterpiece like Breathless.
Godard’s experiments come across as more of a technical demonstration than a coherent blueprint for a feature-length film. There are astounding moments in Goodbye to Language where Godard layers two scenes over each other, simultaneously running in either eye to essentially make watching two films at once possible. But even these sequences seem pointless when the film itself is so arduously unenjoyable.
The film’s vague attempt at a plot involves a married couple (Heloise Godet and Kamel Abdeli) meandering aimlessly, usually naked, speaking in Godardian aphorisms and contradictions. Rather than fully formed characters, the couple are merely empty vessels drilled in touting Godard’s politics and philosophy – all of which boil down to name-dropping like an angst-ridden sixth form philosopher. In the film’s highly politicized environment, it feels predictable and contrived when footage of Hitler is introduced, as if dated references to Nazis are the only way for Godard to put weight behind his message. The portentous drivel reaches its peak when a man preaches about gender equality and Rodin’s “The Thinker” as he straddles the toilet and flushes his bowels loudly.
Interspersed among the politics, riddles and sensory beatings are scenes following a dog called Roxy as she nonchalantly navigates a forest. Alluding to the film’s title, Roxy embodies the complexity of language and its subjective nature in the loosest possible way. On the surface, that the film’s message seems simple: dogs perceive the world differently than people.
Godard dashes any hope of exploring this this nascent, coherent message with Roxy when, towards the film’s end, we’re inexplicably thrown into a period drama featuring Mary Shelley (Jessica Erickson) and Lord Byron. How does Mary Shelley’s writing relate to Roxy the dog? Not only do scenes of her scratching her pen against page both add to the film’s sensory overload with awful high-pitched noise, but her contribution to the film ultimately comes across as unnecessary non-sequitur.
If you asked someone to make an extremely pretentious French film about language, Goodbye to Language would be the end result. Once you take away Godard’s sacrosanct name, the film resembles an amateur art student’s attempt at profundity and daring. It would seem that the once brilliant director has become a parody of himself.
Clearly some of Godard’s formal ideas should be harnessed by the industry (Godard’s layering use of 3D has huge potential, for example), but never again in any movie resembling Goodbye to Language. If the audience at the London IMAX that lasted the full 70 minute run time is anything like me, they left the theater with a thundering headache and light dose of motion sickness. Such is the intensity of Godard’s multi-tiered montage.
I now know how poor Alex Delarge felt in A Clockwork Orange as the prison forces him to watch those ghastly anti-violence conditioning videos. At least he didn’t have to listen to a Shelley’s quill screeching across the page. Lucky swine.
Movie Verdict: Fail
This article is part of a series of articles covering the 2014 London Film Festival.