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How To Think About Nothing: Godard’s “Goodbye To Language”

How To Think About Nothing: Godard’s “Goodbye To Language”


At the very beginning of Jean-Luc Godard’s 3D film Goodbye to Language, onscreen text informs us that “It remains to be seen if non-thought contaminates thought.” Like most things in a modern Godard film, it is hard to tell whether this is a serious warning, a joke, a red herring, or something else entirely. What is non-thought? Furthermore: what is thought? Is language dead or dying, and what can be done about it? A film this aesthetically rigorous and abstruse would be very difficult to encapsulate in a few short paragraphs, and although we will tour some of its highlights, it would be unproductive to attempt a complete walkthrough. Goodbye to Language is a public act of experimental deconstruction, this film must be entered and explored rather than simply explained. This is partially because the 3D effect is integral to the film, but also because Godard would never allow us to settle on one explanation for anything he is doing.

The film follows a man and a woman who are slowly breaking up while naked in their apartment. It’s one of those long, philosophical breakup conversations that happen more often in art films than in real life. They also seem to be tangentially involved in some underground violent activity. To complicate things, the story is told twice, with different actors and slightly different depictions of the same events. These two versions of the same story are helpfully labelled (1 – Nature, 2 – Metaphor), but they are interspersed with images of water, World War II, violence in Africa, clips from early French and American cinema, and a dog named Roxy who frolics in a stream. It is as if the designers of Disneyland’s latest 3D attraction were equally inspired by the essay films of Chris Marker and the more boring parts of Last Tango in Paris. As the characters process their dissolving relationship, they exchange sentences that sound like the titles of doctoral theses on political philosophy, delivered by the actors in a flat, Bressonian manner. The woman asks “Is society willing to accept murder as a means to fight unemployment?” That question could encompass many of the film’s political meanderings, if only the characters didn’t raise so many other questions about Western hegemony. Godard’s stylistic fragmentation and relentless questioning unmoor us from the easy answers.

One question we could ask is “Why 3D?” Godard doesn’t really use 3D to tell his story, but something quite the opposite: the story often feels like a frame to support the three dimensional effect. Strikingly, Godard uses digital cameras of fairly low quality, and refrains from using any of the opulent techniques of, for instance, his technicolor epic Contempt. Because of this, much of the film resembles a home movie that happens to be in 3D. Chairs, table legs, and fences will appear in front of our eyes while his characters recede into the background; he lets colors bleed and digital artifacts float in front of our vision; at one point he tracks the right camera-eye away from the left eye, creating a bizarre simultaneous image. The viewer can choose to look at one image or the other by simply closing one eye, an effect that is impossible to recreate in 2D.

So, why 3D? Clearly Godard is experimenting with a newish technology, but he is also critiquing it. I struggled mightily to keep track of the story during my first viewing, until I finally settled for being immersed in the images and sounds. That is not to imply that the film is exclusively concerned with sensory pleasure, or that the plot has no purpose (it very well could have, maybe). All of the film’s varied scenes have their own thematic link to the central story, I presume, but it is sometimes unclear what that link is, and it’s hard to focus on that link as the 3D effect envelopes us. Perhaps this is what Godard meant by non-thought contaminating thought: the 3D effect threatens to overpower our intellectual curiosity. Easily the most memorable aspect of the film is Godard’s lush and serene outdoor footage of Roxy, the dog, who runs through woods that resemble a digital Monet painting rendered in 3D. The humans, by contrast, are seen mostly in an antiseptic apartment, while Godard films the dog alone, without humans, standing by a stream. These moments are so intoxicating that the rest of the film seems propped up as a buttress for Roxy’s star-making performance. Perhaps this is another of Godard’s jokes, making the animal more interesting than the humans.

Godard has always played philosopher and prankster at the same time, striving to offend the formal stuffiness of bourgeois cinema and bourgeois people. Midway through the film, the male character attempts to make a point about egalitarianism while on the toilet. Godard’s plot-doubling points to his deconstructionist impulse, where a story, cryptic dialogue, or long, unexplained scenes can be frameworks for playful ideas that may not amount to much. There’s not one lesson here, nor is all of it meant to be taken seriously. Music sometimes starts and abruptly stops before we can hear the entire melody. Each successive image is new and unpredictable. The collage-like atmosphere, as well as the litany of quotations, references, music cues, and puns, makes the film feel like an hour-long vacation inside Godard’s restless brain, a sort of Being Jean-Luc Godard. But then perhaps it is too complex and wearying, too contradictory for it to occupy the unified space of a single person. Instead it resembles the active thinking of many minds, memories colliding with one another and contradicting each other. Goodbye to Language is a pastiche, yes, but it is also original and daring. Even when it’s difficult to tell when Godard is throwing us a bone or just fucking with us, he makes it fun to explore. Onscreen text tells us early on that “Those lacking imagination take refuge in reality.” In 3D especially, Goodbye to Language is a treat for the intellectually and aesthetically curious. »

– Evan Burchfield