Monday, September 08, 2014

Adieu au langage: The Form of the Interview


This is the first in a series about Jean-Luc Godard's new 3D feature film, Adieu au langage, or Farewell to Language, which is being released in the States on September 29th following its New York Film Festival screening. (It's being released under the translation Goodbye to Language, but there's as much a difference between "farewell" and "goodbye" as there is between "adieu" and "au revoir.") After exiting the Cannes screening (the greatest experience of my life?), I ran into Danny Kasman and we chatted but it was definitely, at that moment for us, goodbye to language; luckily a few days later he got it together in spades and posted this magnificent appraisal at The Notebook. A couple minutes after, and then again a few days later, I had a chance to talk about the movie a little with Kent Jones, and some of what he expressed made it into his piece in Film Comment which is another must-read, here. With the tickets for the upcoming NYFF screening having sold out within two minutes, it's unlikely I'll be at Lincoln Center for the film's US premiere (I'll be seeing it over and over and over again during its regular run); but whether you're seeing it there or elsewhere (or, God forbid, have been sitting on the fence), you should, if you haven't already, check out Kent's words on the film in this interview at the Film Society at Lincoln Center website (he's the director and head programmer of the NYFF) here, where he has the following to say about the Godard:

"When I think of The 400 Blows, for instance, I see it’s a movie about childhood, but it’s a film that’s not made from the perspective of childhood. It’s looking closely at childhood from the perspective of wisdom. Breathless, on the other hand, is a movie from the perspective of youthful energy. That’s what it is, and then at the same time, Goodbye to Language is made from an old man’s energy. It feels very youthful. [...]

"Hans Hurch, the director of the Viennale ... said [he was surprised Godard made a film in 3D]. He saw Jean-Marie Straub two years ago, I think, and Straub was in Rolle, Switzerland, which is where Godard lives. He visited Godard, who was ill for the first two weeks he was there, and saw some of what he was working on and was flabbergasted. He was very doubtful. He is a guy who’s not known to embrace everything. He said it was like watching some new form of montage.

"Last year in Cannes, there was an omnibus film with three 3D films and one of them was by Godard [
Les trois désastres]. It was something he had been working on that was related to the feature and he had crafted a short out of it. I could not see it because I needed a cataract operation in my right eye, but it looked great from what I could tell. Everybody anticipated Goodbye to Language last year and it wasn’t done, and we did the Godard retrospective last year and that would have been great, but it just wasn’t ready.

"So in Cannes this year, that was one of the most heavily trafficked screenings of the entire festival. I got there really early and I have a pretty good pass, and I was up in the balcony — on the side. I wrote about this in my
Film Comment coverage — in the middle of the movie there’s a shot in which two 3D perspectives — both sides of the 3-D image are used, are separate and then they converge. I don’t know how he did it. I would have to see the movie a couple more times to figure it out, but it got a round of applause in the middle of the movie, it was just fantastic. It’s not a surprise that he did 3D. He said that one of the reasons he was drawn to do it was because there were no rules."

The NYFF52 schedule description (likely written by Kent) reads: "The 43rd feature by Jean-Luc Godard (and the only film at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival to get a round of applause mid-screening), Goodbye to Language alights on doubt and despair with the greatest freedom and joy. At 83, Godard works as a truly independent filmmaker, unencumbered by all concerns beyond the immediate: to create a work that embodies his own state of being in relation to time, light, color, the problem of living and speaking with others, and, of course, cinema itself. The artist’s beloved dog Roxy is the de facto “star” of this film, which is as impossible to summarize as a poem by Wallace Stevens or a Messiaen quartet. Goodbye to Language was shot, and can only be truly seen and experienced, in 3D, which Godard has put to wondrous use. The temptation may be strong to see this film as a farewell, but this remarkable artist is already hard at work on a new project."

Before getting to the main feature of this post, I have to point out the absolutely exemplary piece that the great David Bordwell posted about the film earlier today, entitled 2 + 2 x 3D. A must-read-some-of before you see the film, and a must-read-all-of after. It's right here. ("Godard’s Adieu au langage is the best new film I’ve seen this year, and the best 3D film I’ve ever seen." He takes off from there.) Relevant frames (in 2D, naturally) from the film posted below are taken from Bordwell's own piece.

Now without further ado


The Form of the Interview
(Reversals, Doubles, Reflections, Shadows)

by Arthur Mas and Martial Pisani
May 31, 2014

The following was posted in its original French at Independencia here, where images and video have been embedded. My translation, which appears below, should appear at the same site soon. A second part by Mas & Pisani from July 10th will be posted here shortly.

— Setting out by defining the subject of Adieu au langage might be a mistake.

— Yet several ideas come to mind.

— Let’s not run through them all. Let’s try to figure out what would make us lean in the direction of this subject or that, or, instead, to pick up once more on the signals that would persuade us to take this tack.

— As far as not forcing ourselves to pick up on the most noted motifs goes — and to try to authentically describe the film’s form.

— What’s meant by that? Is it the composition, the rhythm, or the plastic aspect of Adieu au langage that’s most astonishing?

— The way in which the images, the sounds, and the words circulate. In Adieu au langage as in the letter sent to Thierry Frémaux and Gilles Jacob, Khan Khanne, the connection established between the tramway and metaphor functions as a reminder: the Greek word for “metaphor” also refers to a means of transport.

— So you’d have to figure out the inroads that leave their mark on the metaphors. Between its first appearance and its return, the image has changed without our having been witness to its transformation, or you might say to whatever kind of journey it’s undertaken. — It’s been written that everything, in the film, comes back at least once, but one must be more specific in that this doubling is not exactly a repetition. The stuttering that Godard wished for the actresses to perform (you can read about this in Zoé Bruneau’s set diary, En attendant Godard) seems to have disappeared in the course of the shoot. There remain traces of this in certain replies, before distance compounds the gap between the sentence and its rephrasing, or the motif and its recurrence. The echo is made distant, and distorted, before the back-and-forth is executed anew more rapidly towards the end.

— By the way, how do we know whether this doubling isn’t really an unmasking? It’s possible that the order of the montage presents the double, the transformed image, before the origin-image.

— The distinction’s neither possible nor pertinent. There’s before and after only according to the montage. Time is never linear, except in bad films. "What will be has already been," Godard recalls in Khan Kanne, paraphrasing Ecclesiastes.

— So let’s begin with the beginning of Adieu... The title credits, the song by Alfredo Bandelli, the cover illustration of The World of Null-A by van Vogt, which already opened Les trois désastres, then pixelated war images. And the ending of Hawks’ Only Angels Have Wings.

— When Jean Arthur finds out that Cary Grant’s coin has two identical sides, she realizes the seducer has stopped cheating fate by making her believe he was flipping a real coin at every turn.

— By the same token, she understands that he’s just declared his love for her in a roundabout way. The scene is hard to describe; you have to see the film to understand what’s at stake here.

— The man’s love for the woman is sealed by a single identity between two faces that are supposed to be different. In Notre musique, by selecting two frames from His Girl Friday Godard explains to some students that the shot and the reverse-shot in Hawks are, in reality, identical, and that the director makes no difference between a man and a woman. Adieu au langage adds that this single identity, which is a special-effect if not an illusion, is the existential condition of the couple.

— In Vrai faux passeport, the same excerpt from Only Angels Have Wings precedes the image of a migration of birds on a wildlife show. Here the analogy proceeds towards "the rapprochement of two more or less remote realities" according to Reverdy's quote that’s so dear to Godard: fiction and documentary, black-and-white and color, the mail-plane taking off and the birds in full flight. Propellers and birds will both come into the mix in Adieu...

— Therefore it would be a matter of finding the “true-false cut” [“vrai-faux raccord”] evoked in Khan Khanne, the kind that Hawks didn’t know how to create, and which would bring about a transformation in place of wrongly affirming a single identity.

— Does this cut have to produce the inverse of the image? Isn’t it just a different image which is not the equivalent of the one that comes right before?

— Whatever it is, it’s a matter of something entirely different from the reverse-shot.

— By the way, not one shot/reverse-shot is to be found in Adieu au langage, like in Film Socialisme.

— The eyes of the man and the woman never meet. If they’re in the same shot, they’re looking in different directions. If one person’s face appears on-screen, it will be turned toward the camera and the hand or body of the other one will indicate a lateral position, preventing them from looking the first one in the face.

— In a photo-montage that was made public a few months ago, Godard inserted two images of his dog, its head turned in two opposing directions, between two frames of a film the same shot from which we catch a glimpse of twice in Adieu au langage: Siodmak and Ulmer’s People on Sunday.

— The scene takes place right after the two young people race through the woods. The man and the woman look at one another; she lowers her head and he can’t see her face anymore. When he grabs hold of her hair to take a look at her, she averts her eyes, as though under no circumstances should they look at one another any longer as they prepare themselves to make love.

— Object of attention, attracting gazes without returning them, the dog would perhaps come to ensure this interdiction.

— In the bathroom, however, the man and the woman of Adieu au langage are able to exchange glances: the woman from behind, and the man full-face.

— In that instance, they are fittingly no longer at the same height, even though the man holds forth on a discourse on equality that his position is assumed to be re-establishing.

— In the first of the two scenes, he has to raise his head to look at her.

— In the second, she tells him: “I know what you’re looking at.”

— With the shot/reverse-shot, it’s all things face-to-face which are condemned, considered rigged in advance.

— What then of the reflection sent back by the mirror?

— It’s not exactly the same thing. Whenever a character looks at himself in a mirror and the camera frames the subject and its reflection, shot and reverse-shot reside together within the same shot.

— The image is at once reversed and split into two.

— Before the mirror, the man remarks that the image is only partially in reverse: right and left are reversed, but top and bottom remain unchanged.

— He can therefore look his double in the eye.

— In the first trailer for the film, a young deaf-and-dumb woman, facing the camera, recites the phrase inspired by Maine du Biran that Godard has liked repeating ever since For Ever Mozart: “In the ‘I think therefore I am’, the ‘I’ of the ‘I think’ is no longer the same as the one of ‘I am’.”

— Perhaps the mirror is the instrument that allows seeing this alter ego.

— We count at least three in Adieu au langage: one in front of which both couples end up standing, one more in the bathroom when the second couple gets in a fight in the shower — the framing of the mirror is thus apparent. The water of Lake Geneva also functions as a reflective surface — the “mirror of the sea.” In a more general manner, as we’ve said, each sequence is doubled, which makes the entire film one gigantic mirror.

— While a ship is pulling away from the port on-screen, a voice off-screen mentions Otto Rank’s reflections on the importance of water in the origin myths of heroes, and dreams linked to childbirth. A few years after The Myth of the Birth of the Hero: Essay on a Psychoanalytic Interpretation of Myth, the same Rank analyzes in Don Juan and the Double (1914) the role played by reflections on water in the myths and superstitions linked to person-doubling...

— In Borges’ story that opens The Book of Sand, “The Other”, the writer meets his double while sitting on a bench on the bank of the Charles River in New England. A phrase from this story returns twice within the film.

“This morning is a dream. Everyone must think that the dreamer is the other person,” says the first woman (Héloïse Godet), before the second man (Richard Chevallier) corrects: “This morning is a dream. Everyone thinks the other person is the dreamer.”

— The other person is Borges himself, but younger, contemplating the waters of the Rhône, in Geneva, one morning in 1918.

— The aged writer questions his interlocutor about what he’s read at his age.

— The young Borges then evokes Dostoevsky’s The Double and The Possessed.

— The latter novel figures among the books presented to the camera on a stand at the beginning of Adieu au langage. — Among literary doubles, Rank evokes The Double but also the couple formed by Jekyll and Hyde, and the sosie [double/doppelgänger] Percy Bysshe Shelley will encounter shortly before his death.

— Both Jekyll and Shelley turn up as apparitions in Godard’s film.

— Rather than a double, Shelley spoke of his “doppelgänger,” a German word coined by Jean Paul adding displacement, working or starting, to the idea of the double.

— As for Doctor Jekyll, he undergoes a transformation in order to leave his solitary office and plunge full-on into vice. In Rouben Mamoulian’s version (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, 1931), his face is only seen when he looks at himself in a mirror upon returning home.

— Once transformed, he always goes to see Ivy, the prostitute he meets during the scene playing on the television in Adieu au langage.

— Strangely enough, the editing doesn’t retain the fade that closes the sequence, famous for its suggestive character: Miriam Hopkins swinging a bare leg over the side of the bed instead repeats to the doctor returning to see her...

— The main thing can be found earlier, in the painting hanging on the wall of her room, still visible in Godard’s film.

Venus at Her Mirror [by Velázquez]?

— The mise en abyme is complicated by the nature of the interlocking frames: a mirror inside a painting inside a film inside a screen inside another film.

— The painting made its apparition in Chapter 1A of the Histoire(s) du cinéma, then in The Old Place. Velázquez’s mirror and naked woman announce, in subliminal fashion — but isn’t everything subliminal in Godard? — the contemplation of the two couples in front of the mirror, and the clutching of the second in the shower stall. “As soon as gazes fall in love, we’re no longer entirely two,” the voice-over affirms later on: narcissism lets in an intruder.

— The presence of the mirror puts the spectator in the position of voyeur, when the frontality of the frames in the other nude scenes instead betrayed a disregard for decency.

— It’s said in the film that, because they’re naked, animals aren’t naked.

— The dog never lets his reflection be seen, and, strangely, his shadow only once, on the lake. He alone in the film does not seem doubled.

— Could it be because he doesn’t speak? Perhaps Adieu au langage formulates a farewell to language that’s not a phenomenon of doubling, and wants to designate without ambivalence. Reflections, inverses, or reverse-shots, the words shift the problem, obscure it, actually, instead of resolving it, but allow that it not be concealed.

— The title of a book by Julien Green suddenly came back to mind: I don’t know if Godard was thinking about it for his film...

— Which one?

— It’s a collection of articles written in two languages, which therefore has two titles. In French, it’s Le langage et son double; in English, Language and Its Shadow. Moreoever, shadows are not absent from Adieu au langage.

— At one point, only the shadows of the couple on the ground seem to be in conversation with one another, as the words of Dolto on shadows underscore the strangeness of these distinct bodies of which they are the projection.

— Green sees in languages “a closed world from which it’s difficult to escape.” Near the beginning of the film, the woman (Zoé Bruneau) stands behind a metal gate that recalls a cell. Split into two, the image which cements the birth of the couple shuts away those who just united, and cuts them off from the world. Later, an excerpt from Proust’s La prisonnière will take on importance. Perhaps we’ll return to it.


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