Giving Jean-Luc Godard a 3-D camera is like putting Igor Stravinsky in a DJ booth or sitting Pablo Picasso down in front of a computer running Photoshop: Whatever comes out of the encounter, you can bet it will bust your preconceptions of the technology wide open. And, sure enough, 15 minutes or so into “Goodbye to Language,” two onscreen characters walk in separate directions and Godard’s camera follows both of them, one lens and one viewer eye for each. It doesn’t feel like the screen’s splitting — it feels like your head has just expanded a rung or two up the evolutionary ladder. The 2014 release is finally reaching the Boston area in a 3-D print at the Kendall Square; catch it while you can.
“Goodbye to Language” finds the aging enfant terrible of the French New Wave in a comparatively playful mood; it’s as good an introduction to late-period Godard as any, and better than some. It’s also more visual essay than standard movie — Godard hasn’t been interested in plot as such since the apocalypse of 1967’s “Weekend” — and the soundtrack is full of aphorisms, ruminations, quotations, and bursts of Beethoven, among other dead white males. You have to let the experience wash over you and pick what jewels you can. (I’m attaching four stars more out of helplessness than critical acumen, by the way; if the film is beyond language, it’s certainly beyond a traditional rating system.)
The point, if you need one, is that our culture, our governments, and above all our technology have moved us to where language itself is a remnant of old ways, an empty nostalgia in a world of digital media and tappable icons. “Soon everyone will need an interpreter to understand the words coming from their own mouths,” says the woman (Héloïse Godet) to the man (Kamel Abdeli).
Yes, there are people here. A few black-suited German security forces dash through the early scenes (the director is of the opinion that we lost World War II — we were fighting fascism, remember?) and we get shards of an adulterous romance between a quintessential Godardian couple, a woman who’s anchored in reality and a man who keeps disappearing up the hindquarters of his own intellect. (See 1965’s “Pierrot Le Fou” — a movie that’s in this writer’s personal Top Five — for the purest treatment of the theme.) Godard films them often nude, often cropped from the neck down, upstaged by vases and other foreground bric-a-brac. You almost can’t hear the characters for all the visual noise, which is at least partly the point.
The main character of “Goodbye to Language,” though, is a dog: a soulful black-and-tan mixed breed named Roxy Miéville that belongs to the director and his longtime partner, filmmaker Anne-Marie Miéville. Godard films the animal with rough iPhone-level camerawork, trailing Roxy through lakefronts and rivers, urban wastelands, forests of lush, Rousseau-ian greenery. For a film obsessed with language, these scenes are an island of respite, honoring the simple dogness of being. “What is outside can be known only via an animal’s gaze,” says Godard, quoting Rainer Maria Rilke.
“Goodbye to Language” is a film of dualities, then — the yin/yang of male and female, of nature (all that is real) and metaphor (everything we use to refer to reality: words, images, the cinema), of dog and human, of idealism and earthiness, of the left and right eyes we use to order perception into graspable shape.
There are rumors that this was to be a more narrative experience (relatively speaking) until Godard got seduced by the possibilities of the medium and just started shooting stuff. The cinematography runs the gamut from gorgeously crisp 3-D shots of a ferry on Lake Geneva — they serve as a “control” image, just to prove the director knows what he’s doing — to color-saturated images of flowers and trees in which the overloaded hues almost bleed into the audience’s lap. Most filmmakers working in 3-D avoid reflective surfaces, knowing they can mess with a viewer’s spatial orientation; Godard revels in reflections, daring us to find ourselves in his brave new world. A simple shot of a woman’s hands dipping into a basin of water seems to open undiscovered means of seeing, the way “2 or 3 Things I Know About Her” (1967) once held the universe in a coffee cup.
Is this what happens when a youthful firebrand keeps his motor running into his 80s? In the 1960s, Godard was very much the Dylan of the movies, breaking the medium apart and fashioning the pieces into something inscrutable, powerful, and thrillingly new. “Vivre Sa Vie,” “Pierrot le Fou,” “Contempt” — these and others remain among the greatest movies ever made, just as “Blonde on Blonde” pushed rock music beyond poetry into open horizons of perception. If Dylan eventually crashed on a country highway, Godard crashed on the rocks of radical politics; his post-1968 films can be hectoring, obscure, pretentious, all the while containing moments of unearthly beauty.
The old obsessions are here, of course, and the sense of a feverish brain cross-referencing every blessed thing it absorbs. Godard namechecks Solzhenitsyn, Plato, Hitler, “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” “Frankenstein” (including a special guest appearance by Mary Shelley), Darwin, A.E. van Vogt, the French Revolution, and Vladimir Zworykin, the inventor of television. It’s all too much and yet not enough; the babble will never get to the essence of things. (Thus the dog.) Painter Claude Monet is acknowledged with a quote that seems near to the movie’s heart: “Paint not what we see, for we see nothing, nor what we can’t see — for we must paint only what we see — but paint that we don’t see.”
When all is said and done, “Goodbye to Language” may simply be about Jean-Luc Godard exploring 3-D filmmaking, in the same way “The Shining” is really just about Stanley Kubrick wanting to fart around with a Steadicam. Which, honestly, is fine. Great artists use new tools to discover new vehicles for seeing, understanding, living. Be thankful we get to come along for the ride.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.