Despite having existed for almost a century, 3D technology still struggles for verisimilitude as an artistic tool in its own right; the vast majority of 3D films seem like 2D films loosely squeezed into a 3D-shape, with a few staid, shoe-honed-in tricks added for novelty (objects jutting from the screen). This is why – although the added dimension enhances the viewing experience – a film like Avatar can be converted to 2D without it feeling like there’s really anything missing. The odd thing about 3D is that instead of truly creating a look of a world in all its vast, nuanced perspective, 3D films work by splitting the screen into a few cleanly divided visual planes that themselves tend to look pretty flat. This creates a weird sensation that makes visual environments look like pop-up books. Though it’s generally used to aspire to realism, creating a binocular effect that in theory, is closer to the depth with which we view the actual world, the overall effect is oddly distancing, the choppiness of the organization of space constantly highlighting the constructed nature of the image in a way that 2D films don’t.
Godard’s latest, however, would literally not make any sense if it was screened in 2D; it’s meaning lies entirely in its use of 3-dimensional space. It’s no exaggeration to say that Goodbye to Language demonstrates by far the most accomplished, innovative use of the medium. The film foregrounds 3D’S aesthetic dissonance rather than trying to efface it; in other words, instead of trying to replicate the look of reality, it’s only interested in playing around with the capabilities of the medium to put together original images and compositions.
The plot – if that’s the right word for it – focuses on an adulterous couple whose deteriorating relationship is down to a fundamental inability to communicate. This is intercepted with seemingly images of their dog (Godard’s own, Roxy) wandering around a forest and a vague noir tale. As always in late Godard, the narrative functions as a loose framework for a multitude of digressions and musings, this time focusing mainly on the ways in which language (both verbal and cinematic) is circulated and drained of impact. In Godard’s eyes, language was created as a means to express inner life but, over time, it’s become a rigid system of signs that shapes the ways humans conceptualize the world. When a phrase (or a shot) gets circled around too often it turns into a standardized cliché and loses all vitality; it becomes insufficient for documenting the incredible richness of immediate experience. When words fail to capture the complexity of an emotion or sensation, this is when language doesn’t facilitate human connection but re-affirms the speaker’s isolation.
In a sense, Goodbye to Language works as a companion piece to Film Socialisme; though if the earlier film is about the democratizing qualities of digitisation – everyone granted a camera and streams of cultural information in their pocket – the latest is about its indoctrinating potential – self-documentation as an addiction, with social media sites providing standardized, impersonal creative channels through which the ways in which we process these experiences are shaped. The result is a networked society in which users – marked in the film by an odd combination of over-education and stagnation – are entrapped by choice, the nuance of human expression hijacked by the same forces of mass communication they depend on to facilitate it.
Our reliance on popular systems of language and interpretation, Godard suggests, is a product of apathy, and the way to prevent this is to become more attuned to the world and to constantly seek new forms of expression. Appropriately, the film contains images that I’ve genuinely not seen anything like before: a blown-out lake shot with a slightly reduced frame rate, it’s lapping current like a watercolour splotch; an upside-down rain-soaked street with treat signs reflected in the moisture, transformed by the huge focal length into something like the cinematic equivalent of a magic eye puzzle; a repeated technique whereby one of the paired stereoscopic cameras pans, mid-scene, while the other remains static, resulting in a disorientating, makeshift super-imposition of 2d images, before resolving back to the original 3d composition.
Godard has always been interested in finding of grandeur within the mundane, and a large part of the reason the film’s use of 3D feels so radical is because it was created with consumer-grade cameras. Godard’s favoured way of framing dialogue scenes – static wide-shots in over-stuffed domestic spaces, with actors placed unceremoniously in the centre, as if they’d happened to walk into a shot of the room itself – gives human forms a sculptural look when translated into 3D. Incredibly deep-focus compositions are shot with casually canted angles and objects in the extreme foreground. The film’s moral hero ultimately turns out to be Roxy, because unlike the film’s other characters, it doesn’t feel the need to constantly rationalize and conceptualize life; it’s guided by pure intuition and curiosity.
Goodbye To Language 3D, directed by Jean-Luc Godard, is released in the UK on DVD and Blu-ray disc by Studiocanal, Certificate 15.