The Gaze of Interruption
by Philippe Theophanidis
Goodbye to Language (Adieu au Langage),
2014, 70 mins.
Nous comme la brèche elle-même,
tracé hasardeux d’une rupture.
At one point near the end of his unfinished novel Jean Santeuil, Marcel Proust describes a painting by Claude Monet from 1897, titled “Bras de Seine près de Giverny”. It shows, in the painter’s hazy and colorful style, the branch of a river as it peacefully makes its way through the dense canopy growing on its banks. In the central areas of the canvas, the calm water seamlessly blends with the overhanging foliage. The various elements of the landscape become indistinguishable from one another, leaving the chromatic strokes of Monet’s brush to appear on their own. Proust’s attention was drawn by this interruption of representation:
Here already at our feet is the river, but little farther on the view is blocked, and we are aware only of nothingness, of a fog through which the eye cannot penetrate. To paint at one spot on the canvas, not what one sees, because one can see nothing, not what one does not see, because one ought never to paint what one has not seen, but the fact of not seeing, so that the failure of the eye which cannot pierce the mist, is imparted to the canvas as to the river, is beautiful indeed. (1955: 705).
Monet painted 18 versions of the same landscape, all part of what is known as the Mornings on the Seine series. In Monet’s case, the aesthetic depiction of the “fact of not seeing” may have been informed, in part, by a medical condition: the French painter suffered from cataracts during his later life. The extent to which this problem influenced Monet’s style is still being debated.
Proust’s observations find a renewed relevance in Jean-Luc Godard’s 3D film Adieu au langage (Goodbye to Language), which won the Jury Prize at Cannes this year. There is an intimate relationship between an aesthetic of opacity through which the film presents itself, and its political dimensions. The very difficulties set forth by Adieu au langage – the misty mix of images and sound, the fragmented stories – actually open the possibility for an ethical engagement regarding the way we all live together. In other words, the challenges presented by Godard’s latest film appear as an invitation not only to think differently about the art of cinema, but also to reconsider the current conditions of our shared coexistence.
There’s no doubt that Adieu au langage, like many of Godard’s previous films, has the potential to feel “baffling”, “incoherent”, “irritating and often incomprehensible”, as some critics have suggested. American film theorist David Bordwell remarks about Godard’s work in general: “The brute fact is that these movies are, moment by moment, awfully opaque.” Borrowing from Proust, one could say that Adieu au langage is a film that resists the viewer’s gaze. It offers images “which the eye cannot penetrate”.
A simple way to understand this experience would be through the title of the film. Could Godard be suggesting, in his idiosyncratic style, that we must bid farewell to language as a means of communication? After all, it is nowadays a rather common observation: the world has become incommensurable to the various means of expression we have at our disposal. The words we could use to account for the ongoing mutations are failing us. In one of his previous films, Éloge de l’amour (2001), Godard has one of the characters reciting a line from Jean Cocteau’s diary: “Too many changes are in the air that still lack a means of expression” (1988:299; my translation). In Adieu au langage, a similar idea is conveyed by a quote from a book by Alain Badiou:
What is happening to us in the early years of the century – something that would appear not to have any clear name in any accepted language? (2012: 1)
For various reasons however, the idea that a critique of language could open up a more adequate access to reality is problematic. How would such a critique communicate without replacing one regime of meaning by another? Wouldn’t it fall prey to a certain pathos of nostalgia, longing for a more authentic experience of the world? Besides, such a reactionary attitude would not account for the overall jest and energy – however awkward it may feel at times – that infuses the film as a whole.
With this in mind, a more interesting approach to Godard’s latest opus can be found in the way it presents the problem of representation. With some caution, it could be argued that Godard, in a manner similar to Monet’s painting, is actually filming “the fact of not seeing”. Throughout his career, Godard repeatedly insisted on this point: “Cinema is seeing what you cannot see… other than through the camera” (Fleischer, 2007), “Movies you can see them, while you cannot see cinema. You can see only what you cannot see” (Adler, 2011; my translation). This practice does not operate from or towards the reference of a reality that would still be experienced as being missing. In other words, if there is a failure of representation in Adieu au langage, it cannot be simply dismissed as an imperfection or a fault. Quite on the contrary, Godard denies the privilege granted to the presence of a reality in relation to which representation has traditionally been subordinated. In doing so, like other artists before him, he is gathering the conditions necessary to welcome a new kind of aesthetic experience, one that is at once, as we will see, a political one.
It follows that Godard’s farewell – “adieu”– has nothing to do with the mourning of a loss: as I suggested, it actually presents itself with an exuberant and spirited joy. This attitude is echoed in the sequence where two children are playing on the ground with three dice: pointing to them, one of the character remarks: “The metaphor of truth: a child playing with dice” (“La métaphore de la vérité: un enfant qui joue aux dés”) (the scene is a mischievous allusion to the pronunciation of “3D” in French, but also a reference to Heraclitus’s fragment DK B52). All interpretations aside, many commentators have noted this playfulness.
What to make of those peculiar manners? How can the fact of not seeing and the “adieu” to language acquire such ebullient traits? In an interview he did recently with Canon Europe, the filmmaker explained how, in the Swiss canton of Vaud, “adieu” could actually mean both “farewell” and “hello”. Depending on the context, it can suggest either a departure or a greeting. The idea therefore is not to get rid of language in general, but to welcome another way to relate to each other. In the same interview, Godard was adamant about this: “cinema still allows […] to create within ourselves a mix of images and words”. Thus Godard does believe in some sort of language, just not of the kind we are used to. What happens to language, then, when it is freed from the obligation to be accountable to an authoritative reference?
In both his previous films Histoire(s) du cinéma (1988-1998) and Éloge de l’amour, Godard uses a quote from an essay by Maurice Blanchot: “the image, capable of negating nothingness, is also the gaze of nothingness upon us” (1996: 40). In Adieu au langage, the cinematographic expression discovers – or uncovers – the fact that behind language, there is nothing. What holds us together through our daily conversations thus appears to be actually grounded on the groundlessness of a void, or the opening of an abyss. While watching Godard’s film, the viewer is seized by the gaze of this interruption. Stripped from the support of clear references, one finds himself or herself rather exposed: the experience can indeed be baffling. The opacity introduced by this rupture unveils the film’s nudity by making it simply visible for itself. To paraphrase one of Godard’s well-known formulae, it is not a film about something, but just a film (Vent d’Est, 1970).
Without the draping of a familiar language to cover the gap that exists between the viewer and what is happening on the screen, another kind of dialogue can take place. The film speaks from this void in the way Monet’s paintings exhibit the experience of not seeing: not as an unsuccessful artistic operation, but as the cheerful “unworking” of traditional representation through an act of imagination. The film’s inaugural title card is quite clear in this regard: “Those lacking imagination take refuge in reality” (“Tous ceux qui manquent d’imagination se réfugient dans la réalité”). Therein lies Godard’s creative joy and the possibility of welcoming a different way of being with one another. The relationship between the aesthetic and the political becomes manifest as well.
The film’s “nothingness” does not entail that the screen is empty (although Godard, like Guy Debord, has also played with this idea in the past). The interruption of language is presented as the disintegration of a couple, played by a pair of actors. “The idea is simple,” states Godard’s concise synopsis, “A married woman and a single man meet. They love, they argue, fists fly”. Between them, the synopsis continues, comes a dog. Aristotle once argued that animals have a voice, but no language (Pol. 1.1253a). Hence, the film paradoxically stages the void traditional language is made of as the very separation through which the lovers come in relation to one another. “Make it so I can speak to you” (“Faites en sorte que je puisse vous parler”), utters the woman at one point, repeating a line from Blanchot’s experimental novel L’attente l’oubli (1962). Later, she laments “The words. I don’t want to hear about them” (“Les mots. Je ne veux plus en entendre parler”).
The regime of this intimate relationship – doubling the cinematographic experience itself – is that of an interrupted conversation. It is, as Blanchot once observed, “the fundamental separation on the basis of which what separates becomes relation”, “the very abyss of relations” (1996: 292). The dog Roxy circulates in the opening of this void: between the two lovers, the film, and the viewer.
What goes for the couple’s intimacy and the viewer’s experience ultimately goes for the contemporary conditions of our political coexistence as well. As I have suggested elsewhere, the current bankruptcy of the very possibility to say “we” does not solely point to the disappearance of an idealized political synthesis (that some would like to bring back). The gap it opens also offers the opportunity to seize the default of unity as that which is being shared. “Losing too is still ours”, once wrote Rainer Maria Rilke (1995: 165). Without anything being lost in the first place – no referential reality or ideal community – the loss appears as the common no-thing that actually allows us to be exposed to one another. As Jacques Derrida once explained: “the condition for talking to ourselves and hearing ourselves is that [the] interruption remains” (Fathy, 2001). Not unlike Godard’s lovers, “we” are a dialogue made of those interruptions.
Which brings us back to the film experience itself: In an interview he did with the French journal Cahiers du cinéma back in 1976, Gilles Deleuze made this crucial remark about the style of Godard: “It’s as though, in a way, he’s always stammering. Not stammering in his words, but stammering in language itself.” (1995: 37-38).
As it should be clear by now, the difficulties presented by a film such as Adieu au language are not really in the way of a representational process from which a viewer could expect to receive a determinate message. Instead, the film’s opacity is the privileged path provided by Godard in his effort to lay out the conditions for another kind of relation, one made paradoxically of shared ruptures. Adequately enough, the film’s soundtrack is a synthesis of various disjunctions, taking the form of abruptly interrupted musical pieces, fragmented dialogues, and overlapping ambient sounds. All the while, the screen often resembles a colorful kaleidoscope, both in the way the images are composed and edited together. Although previous films by Godard displayed a similar style, in Adieu au language a significant innovation comes from the ways in which he manages to express it through the use of 3D cinematography.
I have seen the film three times in a small movie theatre equipped with the XpanD 3D system (the same system that was used in Cannes in 2014). Depending on how the depth of field is put to use, the stereoscopic experience varies greatly from one sequence to another. At times, it seems to be optimized, with a single object being the point of focus of the composition: the chair when the first gun shot occurs, the sequences when the ferry approaches the pier, the woman with the bowl of fruit. In all those instances, the impression of volume is breathtaking. However, the 3D effect often seems to be just as noticeably off: the two stereoscopic images do not align. This is due to the way Godard and his operator chose to handle the parallax, as it is called in 3D cinematography: the horizontal shift between the left and right images. It happens for example when the image is composed of both very close and very distant elements. The result is a form of misalignment experienced through the 3D glasses. Instead of a volume, the viewer sees two slightly overlapping 2D images. The impression of depth gives way to twice the flatness: 2 x 2D. Fabrice Aragno, Godard’s operator, suggested that the intention was to produce “a much harder 3-D image” (Dallas, 2014). In a few striking sequences, the 3D bursts asunder, as the couple is disjointed through the progressive but total dissociation of the two stereoscopic images. The result is two completely different scenes being presented simultaneously to each of the viewer’s eyes. “Let every eye negotiate for itself,” advised a quote from Shakespeare featured at the very beginning of Histoire(s) du cinéma.
Rolland Barthes strongly believed that in its relation to reality, language has something to do with power: “I experience reality as a system of power,” he wrote in A Lover’s Discourse (1978: 89). At his inaugural lecture at the Collège de France, on January 7, 1977, he provocatively asserted that, as such, language “is quite simply fascist” (1979: 5). But isn’t language part of human nature? How are we to escape this deadlock? Barthes formulated this aporia with the utmost clarity: “What relation can I have with a system of power if I am neither its slave nor its accomplice nor its witness?” (1978: 89-90). A difficult problem indeed arises when one uses language in order to denounce a given system of power: the denunciation risks falling short as it actually participates in the very operations of what it pretends to oppose.
Deleuze had expressed the very same problem in the interview he gave to Cahiers du cinéma about Godard’s television series Six fois deux: “So how can we manage to speak without giving orders, without claiming to represent something or someone […]?” (1995: 41). For Godard, the answer has something to do with imagination: the act of transforming and assembling images that can stand for themselves, instead of referring to a given reality or a given meaning. If language as a referential tool is a system of power, one needs to undo “the way language takes power” (Ibid.).
Giorgio Agamben once explained how capitalism “not only aimed at the expropriation of productive activity, but also, and above all, at the alienation of language itself” (2000: 82). The unworking of language in Adieu au langage is aimed directly at the productive nature of capitalism. The interruptions, jump cuts, and other caesuras all contribute to make of Godard’s film a film that does not “work” as a cinematographic product. One could say it does not work in the very sense once painted on a wall by Guy Debord: “Never work” (“Ne travaillez jamais”). Therefor, a film such as Adieu au langage cannot be consumed, nor completely exhausted of meanings it refuses to offer in the first place. To use a distinction Godard once made, one could say that Adieu au langage is less a film about politics, then it is a film made politically (Brenez, 2006: 141-155). Its aesthetic of opacity manifests itself as a form of political resistance.
In its opening sequence, the film features this quote from Jacques Ellul: “We adopted the habit that the State does everything, and as soon as something goes badly, we hold the State responsible for it.” (2007). The same could be said of our attitude towards movies. We have become accustomed to letting them do all the work, indeed expecting them to actually work. We ask of them that they provide us with unambiguous meanings in the form of self-contained stories that can be fully digested from beginning to end (the end is important: open endings are much harder to swallow). In contrast, Adieu au langage asks for a commitment on the part of the viewer. Its very opacity is an open invitation that still requires the viewer’s hospitality to become visible. While the film offers to go beyond language and to clear the path to another form of communication, the “gaze of nothingness” it presents needs to be met by the gaze of the viewer. In other words, to the style of the film must respond an ethic of viewing: a responsibility towards the image.
The viewer who so chose to engage Godard’s latest film may partake with the couple in the gaze of interruption that brings all the parties together. A frail “we” thus emerges, stuttering and shivering in the nakedness of its exposition. In the midst of this syncopated audiovisual experience, Roxy the dog merely presents itself with its silent eyes and its occasional barks, allowing for the groundlessness of this encounter to come forth.
Images from A Goodbye to Language, Wild Bunch, 2014
At the Ciné-club de Caen website, Jean-Luc Lacuve offers a detailed description of the film (in French): “Adieu au langage, Jean-Luc Godard” (June 10, 2014). Viktor Kirtov offers a more systematic inventory of many of the quotes –and they are numerous– used by Godard in Adieu au language, along with a detailed and useful analysis (also in French): “Godard: Adieu au langage la bande-son commentée Partie 1, Partie 2” (June 14 and 20, 2014). In his document, the textual references come with useful audio excerpts from the film (in the form of short MP3 files). Ted Fendt has added materials to both those sources in order to build an impressive list of works cited over at Notebook, the digital magazine attached to MUBI website: “Adieu au langage – Goodbye to Language: A Works Cited” (Oct. 12, 2014). Over at Keyframe, Fandor’s own daily digital magazine, David Hudson offers as always an exhaustive roundup of relevant links pertaining to the reception of the film: “Jean-Luc Godard’s Goodbye to Language” (Sept. 17, 2014, with many subsequent updates).
Additionally, French-speaking readers can listen to a 2-hour conversation with Fabrice Aragno hosted by Dérives.tv: “Fabrice Aragno, chef opérateur d’Adieu au language” (recorded on June 2 and 7, 2014). Aragno was the main technician on the very small team who worked on Adieu au language. He did the cinematography, with location sound, editing and re-recording.
Adler, Laure (2011). “Jean-Luc Godard : l’opacité de l’existence (3/5)”, Hors-Champs, France Culture, September 14.
Agamben, Giorgio ( 2000). Means Without End. Notes on Politics, trans. Vincenzo Binetti and Cesare Casarino, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Aristotle (1924). Politics, trans. H. Rackham, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1944.
Badiou, Alain (2012). The Rebirth of History: Times of Riots and Uprisings, tr. Gregory Elliott, Brookly: Verso Books.
Barthes, Roland (1978). A Lover’s Discourse, trans. Richard Howard, New York: Hill and Wang.
– – – – – ( 1979). “Lecture in Inauguration of the Chair of Literary Semiology, Collège de France”, trans. Rochard Howard, October, Vol. 8, Spring, pp. 3-16.
Blanchot, Maurice ( 1988). The Unavowable Community, trans. Pierre Joris, New York: Station Hill Press.
– – – – – ( 1996). Friendship, trans. Elizabeth Rottenberg, Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Bordwell, David (2014). “Adieu au langage: 2 + 2 x 3D”, Observations on film art, September 7. Available online [http://www.davidbordwell.net/blog/2014/09/07/adieu-au-langage-2-2-x-3d/].
Brenez, Nicole ed. (2006). Jean-Luc Godard: Documents, Paris: Centre Pompidou, 2006.
Cocteau, Jean (1988). Past Tense: The Cocteau Diaries, ed. Pierre Chanel and Ned Rorem, trans. Richard Howard, San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
Dallas, Paul (2014). “1 + 1 = 3”, Film Comment, November/December. Available online [http://www.filmcomment.com/article/fabrice-aragno-interview]
Deleuze, Gilles ( 1995). “Three Questions on Six Times Two”, Negotiations, trans. Martin Joughin, New York: Columbia University Press.
Ellul, Jacques ( 2007). “The Victory of Hitler?”, trans. Matt Lyons. Originally published as “Victoire d’Hitler?”, Réforme, 23 juin 1945, No 4, pp. 1-3. English translation available online. [http://www.jesusradicals.com/wp-content/uploads/hitlersvictory.pdf]
Fathy, Safaa (2001). Elsewhere Derrida (D’ailleurs Derrida), France, 68 mins.
Fleischer, Alain (2007). Morceaux de conversations avec Jean-Luc Godard, Les Films d’Ici – Le Fresnoy – BPI Georges Pompidou, France, 125 mins.
Levinas, Emmanuel ( 1969). Totality and Infinity. An Essay on Exteriority, trans. Alphonso Lingis, London: Martinus Nijhoff.
Proust, Marcel (1955). Jean Santeuil, trans. Gerard Hopkins, London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.
Rilke, Rainer Maria ( 1995). “For Hans Carossa”, Ahead of All Parting: The Selected Poetry and Prose of Rainer Maria Rilke, trans. Stephen Mitchell, Modern Library.
About the Author:
Philippe Theophanidis is completing his Ph.D. with the Department of Communication at Université de Montréal, where he also taught for five years. His work addresses the communicative transformations brought forward by the various contemporary crises associated with the globalization of human coexistence. He has published both in French and English on a variety of topics, ranging from cinema to contemporary political issues. Some of his essays have been translated into Greek and Persian. He writes online at aphelis.net.