Sam Falk/The New York Times

May 5, 2023

XU | Goodbye to (Godard’s) Language

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If Jean-Luc Godard was born in our day and age, he’d be an edgy, grunge teenager. He would make obscure literary references and crank out memes by the dozen. This is the only way I can justify the existence of Godard’s funny little film, Goodbye to Language (2014). Lasting just over an hour, Goodbye to Language consists of what I can only describe as an excruciating series of tawdry audio, visual and textual snippets stitched together in the most random way possible.

Maybe I’m expecting too much from a movie. I expect something visually interesting, a distinguishable narrative, and I expect to see actors and events instead of concepts. But maybe I should have a different criteria just for Godard movies: a man, a woman, a revolver, a car crash. Primary colors, a Parisian café, a handwritten letter. Skippy montage. In whole, something chaotic and out of the ordinary, a movie that makes you go “Huh?” because nothing really makes sense. By those standards, Goodbye to Language is just as revolutionary as Breathless (1960) or Pierrot Le Fou (1965).

How far backwards am I willing to bend for Godard? The answer is less and less. For the ’70s, Godard was pretty cool. But are the ’70s still relevant? Is Godard still relevant? I’ll keep everything up to Masculin Féminin (1966), but the rest can go. The high modernist impulse has passed. People grow old — you can’t stay relevant forever. That is a dream for Gods, art and other conceptual stuff. Not Godard, nor modernism, which itself is highly sensitive to the passage of time.

I don’t blame Godard. The 21st century can be a chaotic and overwhelming place, especially if you grew up in a time where the major sources of information were newspapers, telegrams and letters. Back then people still spoke to each other, and read more or less the same books — Paul Valéry, William Faulkner and Antonin Artaud. Back then there was language, it was real, tangible, not yet broken.

That seems to be the point in Goodbye to Language: Communication is no more. In fact, it never was. We will never arrive, in fact we never left. With more tools than ever on our hands, we remain our helpless human selves. It’s the type to make frat boys go “Wow, that’s deep” every thirty seconds. Love, war, betrayal, gunshots. The good old crew. Except in his old age, Godard’s language is losing its focus. He seems to recede further and further from narrative, substituting in its place a kind of deep, disconnected skepticism. There is no trace of what the story used to be. There is no story, I can hear Godard saying.

But that is old, old news. If anything, the postmodern turn happened in the ‘90s. Godard is outdated, and frankly, he’s been outrun. His auteurism was a myth to begin with, and he has taken that myth to an extreme. To a certain extent, all of this is about him. Goodbye to Language would not matter if it wasn’t made by Godard, a recognizable, famous auteur known for his expansive artistic control over his work. If you read the Letterboxd reviews, you’ll understand how far this mythology goes. Some will watch Goodbye to Language multiple times — and cry every time. There are others for whom the film is laughable, like the emperor’s new clothes.

It all depends on whether we treat cinema as a piece of art. Watching a Godard movie is like looking at a white canvas: Is it really art? When it comes to Godard’s later work, reviews are increasingly divisive. Loyal Godard fans (read: worshippers) and arthouse film festivals like Cannes, who are notorious for their snobbish support of their verified favorites, will adore it. Even if it’s something so arbitrary, any twenty-year old could have made it (using Final Cut Pro, or maybe even iMovie). At this point, Goodbye to Language is only significant because it comes from the “artist” Godard himself. All that’s left is clout.

After taking a whole class on him, I’m really, really tired of hearing about Godard. If we’re talking found footage, I’d prefer to talk about Xu Bing’s Dragonfly Eyes (2017), which was made entirely from clips of surveillance footage. If we’re talking experimental arthouse cinema, I’d prefer to talk about Chantal Akerman’s News from Home (1977). Or anything by Chantal Akerman, really.

In short, I am not willing to sing the praise of Goodbye to Language. Watch it if you’d like, but I was not entertained. However, just like how looking at a white Rauschenberg painting or listening to John Cage makes me confront my definitions and principles of art or music, Godard forces me to confront my expectations of cinema. And he doesn’t care if those frontiers have been broken already: He’s here to show you he’s capable of breaking them himself.

Skylar Xu is a junior in the College of Arts & Sciences. They can be reached at [email protected]. Seeing Double runs alternate Thursdays.