A boat sails into port. Frankenstein author Mary Shelley scratches in her composition book with a quill. The second movement of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony begins, halts abruptly, then begins again. A naked woman pontificates while her male lover takes a loud shit that would shame Austin Powers’ Fat Bastard. A dog runs into a forest, then back out. The boat leaves port.
Those are some of the images and sounds you’ll experience in Jean-Luc Godard’s playful, provocative latest. After his stimulating, highly uneven Film Socialisme (2010), it’s nice to see this great filmmaker sculpting something that feels genuinely revelatory. That’s not to say that the 3-D Goodbye to Language is always an easy sit: As with much Godard after 1967’s epochal Weekend, this is a free-associative essay film that eschews straight narrative, includes a tidal wave of allusions (both visual and verbal), and unfolds over several planes of action. Impossible as it is, you have to look everywhere at once.
Godard has called the film a simple one about a married woman, a single man and a dog. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re always portrayed by the same people—or even exist in the same time period. Only that scene-stealing canine (played by Godard’s pet pooch, Roxy) seems to be its own entity, a silent witness to the man and woman’s tempestuous relationship. One shot of our furry friend sleeping on a couch while an offscreen argument rages calls to mind an observation by Abbas Kiarostami (a Godard favorite): “I prefer the films that are kind enough to allow you a nice nap.”
Not that there’s much chance to doze in this 70-minute maelstrom. Hitler’s Final Solution is invoked, Solzhenitsyn is quoted and old Hollywood movies play on TV while the man and woman harangue each other. (At one point, a character observes how much she hates “characters”—consider that the movie’s liberating mission statement.) Then there’s that added third dimension, which the ever-inventive Godard uses with stunning dexterity. There’s a moment in Goodbye to Language—an intentional split of the image to dense, multilayered effect—that caused the audience, myself included, to burst into ecstatic applause.
With that elation comes a certain drawback: The innovation raises the spirits but gives you a splitting headache. That's how it is with Godard, who revels in his dreams so willfully that the results are frequently frustrating and opaque. Damned if I could tell you what it all means, where Goodbye to Language fits in with the director’s filmography and how I’ll feel about it 10 days or 10 years from now. But I was able to spin my own movie out of the experience, and for that, I'm thankful. That’s not to say you will be.
Follow Keith Uhlich on Twitter: @keithuhlich