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Mulling over the titles of the 52nd New York Film Festival, I was instantly struck by the promise of Goodbye to Language 3D. First off, NYFF has earned a reputation for bringing some of the best 3D the world has ever seen to its screens, be it the breathtaking Wim Wenders' dance documentary Pina or Ang Lee's dazzling adaptation of Life of Pi. But NYFF pedigree aside, Goodbye to Language 3D had added allure because it's a 3D film from the great French New Wave icon Jean-Luc Godard.
At 83, the director of Breathless and Vivre Sa Vie delves into 3D and experimental filmmaking to tell a story that's specifics are unclear, but that's intention is aggressively delivered. In a nutshell, Goodbye to Language 3D is an outraged rant against our modern age, where smart phones have made the whole world just keystrokes away. You know how some complain that people nowadays don't talk like they used to? Well, Godard has constructed their cacophonic war cry with a film that brazenly aims to frustrate its audience, forcing them to not only make sense of what's happening, but wonder why the film's maker is tormenting them so.
Watching Goodbye to Language 3D is torture. Godard gives us glimpses of scenes, like a couple quarreling, some strangers picking over a table of books, a man fiddling on his cell phone, a dog wandering aimlessly. How these things fit together will never be spelled out. Further frustrating the audiences' innate desire to make a story from these dissonant images is a sound design that is purposefully brutal. Scenes cut off in mid-sentence, creating audio glitches that will make you flinch. Sometimes sound will only come from one side of the theater, the other speakers eerily useless. Sometimes the dialogue will be subtitled. Sometimes it won't.
The visuals are similarly violent. Simple scenes of children frolicking or the aforementioned dog meandering are color corrected to a high saturation that makes them hideous eyesores. Archival footage is gritty and made dizzying through cross-dissolves. But the worst attack on the audience comes from the 3D.
There are moments of beauty, for instance, when a woman dips her hands into water, causing it to ripple and distort the look of her fingers. But Godard repeatedly uses the 3D to cause physical discomfort. Typically, when shooting in 3D, the two cameras are side by side, giving a slightly different angle that allows for the effect of enhanced depth when projected properly. Godard lets one of these cameras wander away from the other, forcing a dissolve onto your eyes that will not allow you to focus. You'll have to choose the view of the right eye or left eye, a naked woman sitting on a bed looking bored, or the naked man she's with who's strolling over to the window. Or you can strain to see both transposed over each other. Or you can close your eyes completely. (I won't blame you.)
Here's an idea of the film, courtesy of the NSFW trailer:
But what is all this for?
Why make a movie that nearly impossible to focus on? Where scenes lack cohesion and conversations drop without warning? I believe this is Godard's way of decrying the age of the internet. He's churned our cultural obsession with online porn, pet pics, and lazy philosophy into visuals: a blasé nude woman, a brightly colored dog, a man perched on the toilet, unashamedly shitting while pronouncing high concepts. The atrocious audio is meant as manifestations of the loss of communication that has come from having a cell phone as an ever-present distraction. The 3D splitting, a metaphor for our lives divided by what is happening now before us, and what distracts us elsewhere via our web-connected phone. Even the cut off dialogue has a cell phone analogue: texting, where conversations start and stop without warning, forming a long but not necessarily narrative tangle of words.
Godard believes we've made human communication into a snarl of beauty and ugliness, emotion and indifference, presence and distraction. To warn you of it, he offers Goodbye to Language 3D, a film that even at 70 minutes is grueling. All in all, it is intriguing exercise in social criticism. But it's an unpopular message delivered in an unbearable execution. Do you dare take it on?
Following its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival in May, Goodbye to Language 3D will make its US premiere at NYFF on September 27th.