Eighty-three-year-old Jean-Luc Godard's visually innovative film Goodbye to Language won the Jury Prize this year at Cannes, an honor it shared with Xavier Dolan's Mommy. A 3D experience, the veteran director's latest offering has two parts. The first is a series of random conversations at a pier (during which a buoy seems to float out toward the spectator) where strangers broach the topics of totalitarianism, male-female relations and Nazism, identifying them as key issues in the 20th century. Throughout these conversations are numerous close-ups of hands texting on cellphones, introducing the major theme of this movie: the limits of communication and the failure of language.
In the second half of the film, the story consists of a staccato conversation between a married woman and her lover, who are, most of the time, naked and posing philosophical questions that either cannot be understood (a sudden noise will block off a sentence) or cannot be answered. After much philosophical effort, the naked man defecates on a toilet and concludes, "All thought is crap." In between these snippets of conversations, a dog -- Godard's own -- runs about, sniffing at the earth and observing. Only the dog "truly sees," the man notes; only he experiences the world as is. Unlike the linguistically gifted human, the dog has no verbal consciousness; he is naked but never "nude." In contrast, the human beings in this film struggle with "producing concepts" and "metaphors."
Nonetheless, the film betrays an old-fashioned nostalgia for great concepts: Second-hand books by Dostoyevsky and Levinas appear on a vendor's table on the pier in the opening scenes of the movie, while young men text and Internet-search on their smartphones, oblivious, over the book-laden table. The ending credits are a list of classic authors, some of whom are referenced in the film. And like a man nostalgic for a life he glimpsed but fears he did not live, the film repeats classic images of seasons: an autumn scene in the woods, with burnt red leaves; a spring scene of children running across the field; repetitive shots of the pier in the summer, with turbulent water that churns and goes nowhere. The nostalgia eads nowhere.
"I say no to your happiness," says one of the lovers at one point. "I am sick of it." Godard's "adieu" is cynical. Language, he concludes, in this silver season of his life, is a failure. "Soon everyone will need an interpreter to understand the words from their own mouth." The dog is the only character in the film who is truly alive, rolling in the dirt.
The last sound in the film, of a baby screaming offscreen -- a symbol of life going on nonetheless -- is agonized.
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