In my brief career as Slate’s 3-D-movie correspondent, I’ve endured all manner of pop-up flotsam: shark’s teeth and human eyeballs, Grace Kelly’s outstretched hand and Jerry O’Connell’s severed penis. But I’ve just seen the most effective 3-D gimmick ever made, and it isn’t exploitation schlock, or not exactly that. It is instead a tiny meditation on how hard it is to know another person, rendered in a nasty, brilliant shot that hurts the viewer’s eyes on purpose. And it’s the high point of Jean-Luc Godard’s weird and fascinating 3-D experiment, Goodbye to Language.
The movie’s mostly incoherent plot describes the pairing of a married man and mistress, and their failed attempts to find a common language. (There’s also a fair amount of nudity, bathroom humor, and a dog.) Godard loves to test the seams of movie-making method, and here those double as the fragile threads that bind a pair of lovers. “Soon we’ll all need interpreters, if only to understand ourselves,” the woman says. As their efforts to communicate stop and start and falter, so do the director’s. The soundtrack to Goodbye to Language flits between stereo, mono, and unexpected bursts of total silence; its picture vanishes at points; colors fade away then super-saturate to raucous, psychedelic hues.
The amazing 3-D gimmick fits into this theme of interruption. The scene starts with an image of the couple talking, shot the normal way—a pair of cameras pointed in the same direction. That’s how you make 3-D: With two overlapping movies filmed from slightly different angles, then projected separately (left-camera to left-eye, right-camera to right-eye) so they can be fused inside the viewer’s brain. But when the man and woman start to argue, Godard splits the image tracks: As she walks away from him one camera follows and the other stays behind. Now you see the woman with your left eye and the man with your right, as if they’d wandered into separate movies. The depth illusion breaks in half, replaced by a flickering double-image. It’s the inverse of the classic 3-D thrill, in which your eyes conspire to deceive you. This one does the opposite: It puts your eyes in opposition. They can’t agree, they’re misaligned, like the couple on the screen.
I’ve been waiting for this shot, or something like it, for about as long as I’ve been covering the new 3-D boom. In 2010, just six months after the release of Avatar, Slate’s film critic Dana Stevens and I traded posts on the future of the medium. “To call 3-D ‘immersive’ damns it with faint praise,” I wrote, referring to what was then (and may still be) the consensus view of 3-D’s best quality. But it could just as well be “more of a paradigm shift than an upgrade, like the changeover from silent movies to talkies, or from black-and-white to color. Directors have taken only their first baby-steps down the mineshaft of new possibilities. What’s the 3-D equivalent of Godard’s formal experiments with red, yellow, and blue?”
Now Godard himself has answered, and how. Goodbye to Language, his 43rd feature, is his first in 3-D. In Cannes this year, where the movie won the jury prize, the split-eyes gimmick brought on spontaneous applause. At the New York City press screening I attended in August, the same shot made critics giggle with delight. That such a simple trick should feel so fresh and meaningful, new but not a novelty, suggests a rich deposit of untapped ideas, not just for Godard, but for any 3-D filmmaker who might choose to dig a little deeper.
That’s happy news. But for all the thrill of seeing depth explored in wild ways, the film unearths its share of nuisance, too. The split-eye gimmick (which shows up twice) is just one of the film’s many 3-D provocations, and by far the most successful. Godard and his cinematographer Fabrice Aragno have built their own slapdash stereo rig out of wood, to force distortions in the image. “There were no computers involved,” boasts Aragno. “It is artisan filmmaking.” But that commitment to the 3-D glitch suggests a rebellious spirit that might be better suited to more established elements of cinema, things like sound recording and montage. When Godard plays enfant terrible in 3-D—when he sticks it to audience, both literally and figuratively—he’s breaking rules that don’t exist. The technology of 3-D has been applied to feature films for about a hundred years, but no one’s yet devised a thorough grammar for its use. Goodbye to Language aims for iconoclasm, but many of its icons are imagined.
That leads to some misguided mischief. Nearly every scene has something sticking off the screen—a book, a person’s leg, a stanchion on a pier—and Godard doesn’t worry when these are cut off by the image frame. When an object pops into the theater space, and then abruptly has its edge chopped off, it breaks the depth illusion in a way that isn’t buoyed by a lovely metaphor. Endlessly repeated, the effect seems less expressive than incompetent.
Nothing in the movie is as painful or pointless as the 3-D subtitles, though. Godard has a history of messing with his English-speaking fans: He agreed to screen his last feature, Film Socialisme, with subtitles, but only if he could write the words himself. He ended up omitting entire lines of dialogue, and writing others in a pidgin of his own creation. The subtitles in Goodbye to Language aren’t just inconsistently translated, they’re hard to read at all. Godard has them waver back and forth in space from one sentence to the next. At some points the words are popping off the screen (“A line in your lap!”); at others they’re drifting somewhere back behind.
The drifting titles fit into the whole, of course: They alert the viewer to the artifice of language as clearly as the broken soundtrack or the busted color balance. But it’s overkill. I mean, is there any movie-making method that calls more attention to itself already than 3-D? Even when 3-D directors try to play it cool—when they skip the flying spears and bouncing paddleballs—they’re still beholden to the plastic glasses, the dim projection, and the bouts of eyestrain that announce themselves in every frame. I love that Godard wants to fiddle with the 3-D image, but at least a portion of his effort feels redundant.
At its best moments, Goodbye to Language stops shadowboxing with convention long enough to draw a striking contrast. In my favorite scene, the couple stands off-camera with their silhouettes cast onto a road that rises sharply up a hill. The film projects a pair of flattened figures onto a sort of pavement screen, but one that’s sharply tilted in 3-D. There’s a lot going on in that moment, too much to process all at once.
But in the end, Godard’s experiments left me thinking back to another art-house 3-D film, Wim Wenders’ extraordinary Pina. When that came out, Wenders said that he’d like to see a different kind of 3-D emerge, one that embraces subtlety and beauty. “The 3-D I am dreaming of will be pleasant to the eyes,” he said at a stereoscopy conference that year. “It will not hit you over the head, it will never feel like a rollercoaster ride. It must feel natural and unpretentious.”
Goodbye to Language does just the opposite. It pushes 3-D so far into abstraction, and makes it so unremittingly unnatural, that we end up close to where we started. For better or for worse, Godard has traded roller coaster thrills for a carnival of gimmicks. He’s given us a highbrow Comin’ at Ya.