Cannes Check 2014: Jean-Luc Godard’s ‘Goodbye to Language’

Welcome back to Cannes Check, In Contention's annual preview of the films in Competition at next month's Cannes Film Festival, which kicks off on May 14. Taking on different selections every day, we'll be examining what they're about, who's involved and what their chances are of snagging an award from Jane Campion's jury. Next up, the oldest director (with the shortest film) in the lineup: Jean-Luc Godard's “Goodbye to Language.” 

The director: Jean-Luc Godard (French-Swiss, 83 years old). How to sum up Godard in a paragraph? One of the founding fathers of the French New Wave, and arguably its most persistently radical innovative member, with a career spanning seven decades, 39 feature films and an indeterminate number of creative phases. One of the sizable school of French filmmakers who had a formative stint as a critic for Cahiers du cinéma, Godard was born and educated in Paris — the very city whose deathless cool he immortalized in his 1959 debut “Breathless.” Formally innovative from the get-go — particularly in terms of editing and narrative structure — Godard's cinema grew increasingly reflective of his Marxist politics in the 1960s. The next decade, labelled his Revolutionary period, saw him burrow deeper into alternative forms, and adopting a range of ideologies; a return to (highly) relative narrative convention followed in the 1980s. The new century has brought some of his most lyrically avant-garde work, while Godard has also embraced modern technologies, including digital video and 3D.

The talent: The cast, which ranges from American actress Jessica Erickson to European stage veteran Alexandre Paita, features few recognizable names; Godard abandoned star casting a long time ago. Godard wrote and edited the film himself; cinematographer Fabrice Aragno also shot the director's last feature “Film Socialisme.”

The pitch: You aren't expecting a classical three-act structure from a film called “Goodbye to Language,” are you? I think Godard's own enigmatic synopsis should really speak for itself:  

“The idea is simple: A married woman and a single man meet. They love, they argue, fists fly. A dog strays between town and country. The seasons pass. The man and woman meet again. The dog finds itself between them. The other is in one, the one is in the other and they are three. The former husband shatters everything. A second film begins: the same as the first, and yet not. From the human race we pass to metaphor. This ends in barking and a baby's cries. In the meantime, we will have seen people talking of the demise of the dollar, of truth in mathematics and of the death of a robin.”

All that in 70 minutes, and it's in 3D too, folks. Suffice to say that Godard's subversive existentialist streak appears undimmed, and that this may be the single weirdest big-studio acquisition of recent years — yes, 20th Century Fox has picked it up for the US. Don't say you're not curious.

The prestige: On the one hand, it's Godard, so off the charts. He's routinely named one of the greatest filmmakers of all time; when Sight & Sound last performed their decennial critics' poll, he had 10 films (“Breathless,” “Contempt,” “Pierrot le fou,” “Histoire(s) du cinema,” “Two or Three Things I Know About Her” and “Vivre sa vie”) in the top 200. He has been in Competition at Cannes on six previous occasions, including his contribution to portmanteau film “Aria,” though has never won a prize. On the other hand, Godard has been regarded as something of a special, separate entity for a while now: it's been a while since he made a broadly embraced (or even released) film, and 13 years since Cannes deemed one suitable for Competition. His 2010 curio “Film Socialisme” played in Un Certain Regard at the fest; it had its champions, but many critics felt the master had disappeared into himself. 

The buzz: At this point, no film in Competition has a greater “what the hell is it?” factor, which counts as buzz in itself. The prospect of the octogenarian iconoclast making his first 3D feature, plus the unexpected interest from a mainstream studio, has even journos who have ignored Godard's latter-day output keen to see it.

The odds: In theory, Godard should be a favorite. It's hard to believe he's never won an award at Cannes, and his return to Competition carries an event status — amplified by the project's novelties — that should secure him a place in the prize-giving conversation even if the film proves divisive. But Cannes juries aren't always as sentimental as Oscar voters: many were surprised when Alain Resnais left the Croisette empty-handed with “You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet” two years ago. Later Godard provokes discussion more than it unites opinion, which may account for his meager Cannes record. Jigsaw Lounge has him near the front with odds of 9-1, though it's easier to imagine the jury recognizing his continued chutzpah with, say, the Best Director award.

Next in Cannes Check, we'll look at the latest from a recent Oscar winner: Michael Hazanavicius' “The Search.”