For the Love of God(ard)

When Adieu au langage/Goodbye to Language screened at Cannes this year, the audience reportedly broke out into fevered applause about halfway though the film. When the same film premiered at Baltimore’s Senator Theater last week, the response was quite different.

Heavy snoring – the kind that only comes from deep sleep—was perfectly audible in multiple directions around me in the theater. When the film ended, there was some scattered, hesitant applause. The most common dialogue between audience members as they exited the building into the dark, cold night went something like:

 “What did I just watch?”

“Well…it sure was something, wasn’t it.  Huh.”

[Uncomfortable laughter].

Why such an imbalance between these audiences’ responses? I would argue that it has something to do with what the name “Jean-Luc Godard” meant to each prior to sitting down for their respective screenings. Spectators at the Cannes Film Festival are much more likely to have seen other films in Godard’s recent film canon, for it is primarily at such festivals where his work is shown these days. When the Senator announced that it would be bringing Adieu au langage to its screen for two showings, cinephiles all over Baltimore cried out in joy. In an article for City Paper, Brandon Soderberg reflected on this rare chance to see such a film in Baltimore, saying, “We’re expected to just go to Washington, D.C. and bus it up to NYC to check out a lot of obscurities, revivals, and minor critically acclaimed new flicks or just sit patiently on our hands until they come to home video or streaming.” The problem is that art house films like Adieu are rarely profitable, so most theaters here can’t afford the risk of showing a film without a recognizable director or cast.

Though Godard does fit the criteria as being “recognizable” amongst film-lovers, he is generally not well-known for any films he made after 1968. The films he made during the New Wave of French cinema, such as Breathless (1960), Contempt (1963), and Pierrot le Fou (1965) have long been enjoyed as a comfortable crossroads of the avant garde and the commercial.  That is to say, that these films use traditional narrative structures that can be easily followed by broad Western audiences, while also bringing in complex allusions and technical innovations. As a child, I borrowed DVDs of some of these films from my local library, which speaks to their ubiquity.

"The Fight Continues"  poster from May 1968 in Paris
“The Fight Continues” poster from May 1968 in Paris

After France saw widespread strikes of students and factory workers in May 1968, Godard voluntarily quit commercial cinema completely. Even the Criterion Collection only carries one Godard film from after this shift. This “late Godard” is notoriously difficult to follow, extremely political, and hellbent on subverting technical expectations.

And here is where the Baltimore and the Cannes audiences diverge. While Cannes probably shows more Godard films from year to year than any other festival, how is Baltimore supposed to know about his recent films if there is no way to see them? It would make sense then that many of the spectators who went out to the Senator to see Adieu au langage couldn’t possibly have known what they were in for.

I have sought out and surreptitiously downloaded (because how else am I supposed to find them?) several of Godard’s later films.  Of course, I’m not an expert, but the impression I’ve gotten from this is: the narrative action in his films is secondary to the political/philosophical musings. My mentor, film historian Alan Williams, called him an “enfant terrible” of film, with his main objective, especially since 1968, not being to tell a story, but rather to subvert cinematic cliches of all kinds to the discomfort of the audience.

Adieu uses a beautiful and highly emotive music score over and over again. But just when, unconsciously, you have absorbed the music as your own emotional reaction to the scene, the sound cuts out abruptly. Then follows a moment of realization that, “Oh man, that was just the music making me feel sorrowful? I actually don’t even understand what’s happening right now!” which brings a sense of disillusionment and surprise. Even with this trick being played multiple times during the film, I fell for it almost every time. Godard effectively exposes the artifice of sentimental music and its cheap effect on the heartstrings.

Probably the most common way for an audience to understand the connection between scenes and shots is for these elements to work like puzzle pieces towards the greater picture of a story. This is so obvious in your normal experience watching a film, that you should never really have to think about it. For Godard to treat this fundamental principle as a “cliche” to then subvert, makes this and his other “late” films particularly difficult to watch. It can be mentally, or even physically, exhausting to recalibrate your whole schema of understanding an art-form. In a way, it’s almost like learning a new language.

Though there is supposedly a narrative (a man and a woman meet, they find a dog, time passes), the organizational principle that relates shots and scenes together is not narrative, but rather associative. A word or image or texture from one shot is followed by a quote or motion in the next, forming a sort of poetic collage. You’re never going to free associate in the same way as any other human being for an hour and a half, so rather than try to establish over and over again a logical framework to use to interpret the film, I recommend this simple trick: just give up.

The best way to watch a film like Adieu is to let its images, associations, and sounds wash over you. Stop trying to “figure it out,” because you won’t. Godard isn’t crafting a puzzle of a story or argument for you to understand. In one scene, the woman, sitting in front of a TV screen playing Metropolis, asserts over and over that she hates characters. This is likely a reflection of Godard’s own work, for though the man and the woman have a loose relationship to each other, they aren’t really characters as much as they are emissaries of Godard’s poetic and political vision. They’re the glue that keeps the collage of ideas and effects stuck together.

This is a highly tactile film, thanks greatly to the radical use of 3D. One of many ways you can enjoy this film is as a purely sensual offering, almost feeling the images rather than seeing them. Most Hollywood 3D films use the technology to enhance action scenes, making projectiles seem to erupt from the screen towards your face. That is not the goal here. Three dimensions make rippling water and human bodies touchable. Godard explores uses of 3D even beyond that of an extra dimension—but I won’t spoil what made the Cannes audience scream out in delight.

Because, if you can find a screening, you should try to see this film. All you need to do is let go of how you usually watch movies, because the sensual and aesthetic payoff is just plain worth it.

Image via Kino Lorber