‘an attack on the senses, a violence towards the audience that targets expectations of beauty, of wholeness, of integrity‘ – Ian Maleney on Jean Luc Godard’s Adieu Au Langage
Jean-Luc Godard is worried. He’s been worried a while now. He’s worried about what thumbs used to do before they spent their days tapping at screens. He’s worried about the ways people speak to each other now, how they misunderstand each other so often. He’s worried too about depth, of meaning, of vision, of nuance, and this is what he appears to be most worried about. I mean, the title of his latest film is Adieu Au Langage, which itself is little if not direct. Still, the film insists upon these worries like a drunk relating an injustice. Every fibre of the film is bent towards these worries, and Godard follows them as they burrow and knot themselves into neuroses.
There are two main threads in the film which, if we were to see them in the broadest philosophical terms, could be seen as ontological and epistemological threads respectively. The former is focused on the sprightly presence of a dog, acting as a body with which Godard can question what it is to be in the world. What level of consciousness is ideal? The dog can be in the world fully because he is blind to the layers of consciousness and self-consciousness which filter our human perspectives. If we wish to be fully in the world, not a mind in external relation to it but wholly a part of it, do we need to become blind in the way the dog is blind? Or is there another route?
The second thread is more concerned with transmission, and the way we learn about the world, the way we tell stories to help ourselves understand the world. Godard’s concern is that images have come to dominate the way we see the world, and these images have become shallow, too thin to support the various desires, loves and failures of human life. Instead we break everything down to its simplest, most repetitive narrative elements; a love story, a spy movie, superheroes, etc. Anything beyond these simple frameworks starts to degrade, or cannot stand up at all. The example is given through a story of a man and woman who meet and live together, before realising they cannot communicate effectively with each other. Very little of their story is actually told, it is more that we pick up the general gist of what’s happening through familiarity with the images. We have no names, no idea of their lives, just that they live together and later appear to be in the process of breaking up. Their lines are not exactly responses to each other, but more like separate thoughts rubbing up against each other, related only by their proximity in space and time.
The couple are often backed up by a huge flat-screen television, where images from old movies play out in the background. The scenes are familiar, even if one can’t place the films. Black and white, highly emotional women and resolute men; these are the tropes of old Hollywood. In their complete anonymity, Godard’s couple are similarly archetypal. In this poverty of expression, details must be squeezed out, and the vacuous bodies caught on camera must be forced to repeat the same tired actions again and again. They create the same images over and over. They have been drained of all energy, both libidinal and intellectual.
As the shots of the iPhone would suggest, this is a time of image glut, and few of our pictures are able to transmit more than the most basic of emotions or messages: buy this, eat that, look this way; happy, sad, indifferent. We ask no more of them now but the barest sense of recognition – the trope, the archetype – before moving on to the next slide. In a time of complete digital reproduction and manipulation, when the possibilities available to the image-maker, to the communicator, are so vast, why have images lost their value, and words with them? Perhaps, like a Coldplay song, only the bluntest of instruments can survive in such a torrent of noise. We must anchor to the monumental. And, as language simplifies, as it is scraped bare, we are less able to understand it. It does no justice to living, and it descends into nonsense, gibberish, violence. This is the language of Kafka, of Orwell and, as Godard points out, of Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago. It is a language which isolates and objectifies – it is impersonal, inexpressive, oppressive.
This violent failure of language is whole-heartedly embraced in the film itself as the narrative is reduced to a series of aesthetically discontinuous scenes. Each shot feels as alone and desperately pathetic as the character’s misunderstood utterings. One image may be entirely saturated, with the cheapest of digital camcorders smearing the colours into a low-fidelity haze. The next might be in glorious high-definition, so familiar in the cinema. Both, we are made aware, are cinematic choices, directorial filters designed to tell stories in particular ways; more archetypes. The greens and reds play havoc with the 3D delivery. As in every other film, the 3D adds nothing to the narrative here, it transmits nothing that we couldn’t grasp without it. It is pure, shallow spectacle – an expensive route to a cheap thrill. It is an attempt at a greater fidelity to reality which only serves to distance us even more from reality it hopes to replicate, a literal illusion of depth, and Godard forces this bastardisation to it’s extreme end. There is no immersive experience; rather, this is an attack on the senses, a violence towards the audience that targets expectations of beauty, of wholeness, of integrity.
The film is tragedy playing out as farce, a technological mess with a plot designed solely to impart a particular message. This is as base and manipulative a film as one could hope to see in the cinema. It suggests we are well past the time for tears, and the only option is a sort of self-destructive cinematic accelerationism, forcing the viewer into an unbearable world of futile, miserable non-communication. It would be a dumb world, a blind world, but perhaps necessary if we are to resurrect language as something which connects us, which can store meaning and allow the mimetic impulse to flourish. Perhaps we need to raze the monuments to the ground and start again, to create ourselves and our language – for the two will not be separated – from the ashes. We would have to believe there’s something left to resurrect or to re-imagine. It might be too late; language is the site and backbone of memory too.
In Memoirs of the Blind, Gilles Deleuze suggests that, at the heart of great drawing, there is a sense of debt or faith to what is drawn, rather than a mastering of the object through its representation or reproduction. The artist kneels in the position of supplicant, and belief will lead the way. “The fidelity of faith matters more than the representation, whose movement this fidelity commands and this precedes,” he says. “And faith, in the moment proper to it, is blind. It sacrifices sight, even if it does so with an eye to seeing at last.” In Adieu Au Langage, Godard sacrifices sight over and over again in the hope that he, and we, might learn to see – ourselves, the world, each other – again.