The first Godard movie I saw upon its release in a movie theater was First Name: Carmen, in 1983, which overwhelmed me: I didn't yet understand that it's OK not to completely comprehend everything a filmmaker puts in front of you, especially if that filmmaker is Jean-Luc Godard. First Name: Carmen made me feel like a philistine, an impostor, a person who had been born a member of the wrong club. I didn't yet know that Godard fans aren't born, they're made: Later, I would backtrack and see -- and be dazzled and confounded and captivated by -- Masculin Fèminin, Band of Outsiders, Contempt, Pierrot le Fou, as well as, of course, the training-wheels Godard, Breathless, which, as his first full-length feature, was his training-wheels film too.
No matter how much I loved those films, by the 2000s I approached pictures like Notre Musique and In Praise of Love with more trepidation than excitement. The sourness that has always been present in Godard, at one time in tolerable, interesting doses, seemed to have surged to the fore. The late films, so often carrying more than a whiff of anti-Semitism, are challenging but dispiriting. I know I'm supposed to respect them, but I've trudged toward them like a crabby toddler being made to kiss a smelly uncle.
And then suddenly, on Wednesday afternoon, delight! In the form of a new Godard film, one that finds him in an unusually playful, if also contemplative, mood: In Goodbye to Language 3D -- or Adieu au langage -- the 83-year-old filmmaker reflects on the significance, and possibly the decay, of language, pondering the various rocks in the middle of the road blocking our ability to communicate.
Typical for Godard, it's filled with slogans, lines that entice and declaim, lecture and tease: "Soon everyone will need an interpreter to understand the words coming out of their own mouths." "I won't say a word. I am looking for poverty in language." There are blazingly bright images of flowers, and landscapes in Maxfield Parrish colors, all rendered in glorious 3D. (Godard has made one previous 3D film, the 2013 short The Three Disasters.) There's a used bookseller proffering editions by Solzhenitsyn and Dostoevsky perused by bored-looking patrons who clutch their cell phones the way people used to clutch books. There's a semi-narrative involving a woman and a man (Héloise Godet and Serge Gainsbourg lookalike Kamel Abdeli) who discuss the nature of equality, sometimes as the man sits on the can. There are people in trench coats, because Godard does love his trench coats.
Goodbye to Language also features the most innovative 3D effect I've ever seen, a marvelous, discombobulating visual joke in which a "ghost" figure overlays the main image -- until you realize that you're meant to blink at the screen, first with one eye and then the other, so that you see a distinct image in each. It's like a split-screen effect happening right inside your brain. When Godard revealed this technique in a sequence featuring a conversation between a man and a woman -- the man seen with one eye, the woman with the other -- the audience cheered and clapped. We also forgot to notice exactly what they were saying, or at least I did, but I presume that was part of Godard's plan. At his best, he's such a fox.
But the real star of Goodbye to Language, the non-actor who gets the best lines, the best Godardian slogans, and the best action shots, the one who conveys the most delicate whiskers of feeling, is Godard's own dog, credited as Roxy Miéville (the surname presumably comes from Godard's partner, Anne-Marie Miéville). Roxy is a handsome fellow, dark brown brushed with gold, possessed of a slender snout and quizzical eyes. When he greets the camera (and us), his 3D "hello" consists of an up-close-and-personal nose and a faraway wagging tail. As he shows off his lithe physique, nonchalant in his complete and utter confidence, the offscreen narrator explains, "Animals are not naked, because they are naked."
And there he is before us, naked as Brigitte Bardot in Contempt and just as beautiful, though of course in a distinctly canine way. Goodbye to Language is a fillip in the Godard canon. It probably can't be called a great film, but it's a teasing and exhilarating one, one that flirts with despair but somehow, I think, comes out on the side of joy. Godard -- genius, irritant, innovator, pain in the ass -- sometimes, perhaps by his own design, seems more god than man. In Goodbye to Language, he introduces us to his best friend. He must be human after all.