Saturday, January 24, 2015

Metaphors and other toys: Adieu au Langage (Jean-Luc Godard, 2014)

There's so much to say about Jean-Luc Godard's Adieu au Langage  a movie that's too deliberately cryptic (some would say irritating) to be taken completely seriously, and at the same time too intelligent to be dismissed as a simple divertissement from an octogenarian director who had already secured himself a place in the annals of cinema 50 years ago. The risk is to get lost amidst nebulous conjectures about the story, or succumb to the temptation to summarize in a single sentence the message it supposedly conveys. I'll try to avoid both approaches, focusing instead on some of the questions that occurred to me after the viewing.

The synopsis. Just telling what happens in Adieu au Langage may be the toughest of tasks, and yet, on closer view, the film's narrative core is one of the oldest plot line in fiction  a love triangle formed by a married couple and the woman's lover (possibly two lovers). But Godard makes the story difficult if not impossible to grasp in many ways. Some examples: bizarre framings hide salient details and put greater emphasis on aspects that we usually consider marginal; the flow of events is often interrupted by bombastic quotations about history and philosophy, archival film material from World War II, or shots of landscapes whose justification is purely aesthetic; music doesn't underscore what's happening on screen, but rather seems to play independently from images, with unexpected interruptions and just as much unexpected reprises; and finally, sometimes Godard will find that white text superimposed on a black screen is enough to make his point.

It's easy to imagine him having a good time in writing the film's résumé. Written in a sort of poetic form, it baffles rather than enlightens:

          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 barkingand a baby’s cries[1]

To complicate things further, the film is split into two main segments labeled, respectively, "1. La nature" and "2. La métaphore", preceded by a sort of prologue displaying the same structure in little. As David Bordwell has shown in one of his invaluable in-depth analysis, the second segment is essentially a replay with variations of the first; behind the apparently inchoate string of images, words and sounds actually lies a rather rigorous pattern. The lovers' names are Josette and Gédéon in the first segment, Ivitch and Marcus in the second, and they are played by different actors (respectively Héloïse Godet and Kamel Abdelli, and Zoé Bruneau and Richard Chevallier). The German husband makes only a brief appearance. Two more couples appear in both segments: the professor of philosophy Davidson with his friend (wife?) Isabelle, plus another young couple formed by the redheaded Marie and an unnamed boy wearing a sweater, both students of philosophy. But their role is unclear; their only connection with the protagonists seems to be that they are there when a fight between Josette (or Ivitch) and her husband breaks out. In this scene, set in the cultural center Usine à Gaz in Nyon, Switzerland, Josette's husband fires some shots; a fountain tinged with red indicates that someone got injured or maybe killed. Marie probably gives aid to the victim; we will later see her hands dripping with blood. In an earlier scene, she shows a reaction of annoyance while she's drinking from that same fountain: was she "disturbed" by a body falling in it? The synopsis also says that "the former husband shatters everything", but this too seems to me confusing. Josette and Gédéon's (or their Doppelgänger's) first encounter apparently takes place immediately after the shooting: it's the former husband who provides an occasion for them to meet with his act of violence. So what is it exactly that he shatters? Maybe Josette had another lover before Gédéon? You see: nebulous conjectures.

We might also be baffled by the characters' peculiar behavior. When Josette's husband draws his gun, she nonchalantly says "I don't care". And when the same happens to Ivitch in the second segment, Davidson just waits for the waters to calm down, so that they can continue their philosophical discussion. The only character who behaves naturally isn't a character in a strict sense: it's Godard's own dog Roxy. With his intimate bond with nature still intact, he is the custodian of a mystery that a thousand aphorisms cannot solve.

The story of an epigraph. Like most Late Godard's works, Adieu au Langage is a florilège of quotations from philosophers, writers, painters, etc. Some are emphatically spelled out by the characters, others appear as title cards on the screen. An exhaustive analysis of all the quotations present in the film is certainly worth doing (any volunteers?). Nevertheless, I think we should resist the temptation to equate the film's meaning (as inaccurate as this concept is) with the sum of the aphorisms contained in it. Just because a phrase is in the film, doesn't automatically imply that Godard endorses it. Following the breadcrumbs then doesn't necessarily lead to a coherent explanation, as a hard-to-translate dialogue between Davidson and Isabelle seems to indicate:

          D: Il fait quoi le pouce? [What does the thumb do?] 
          I: Il pousse. [It thumbs.]
          D: Et avant il faisait quoi? [And what did it do before?]
          I: Il poussait. [It thumbed.]
          D: Donc c’est le Petit Poucet. [It's Tom Thumb, then.]
          I: Oui, on peut dire ça. [Yes, we can say so.]
          D: Et les icônes ce sera quoi? [And what would the icons be?]
          I: Les cailloux. [The stones.]
          D: Mais alors, où est l’ogre? [Where is the ogre then?]

This weird verbal exchange suggests that in the digital age icons represent for our thumbs what stones represented for Tom Thumb in the fairy tale. But we would be hard-pressed to find a rigorous syllogism here: the dialogue is fueled by associations of ideas and assonances, rather than by stringent logical reasoning.

Among the dozens of aphorisms, one stands out, not least because it opens the film and thus functions as a sort of epigraph: "Those lacking imagination take refuge in reality". Where does it come from? Is it flour from Godard's mill? By serendipitous accident, French writer Marie Darrieussecq tried to trace the origins of this phrase in an article titled "La résonance d’une phrase" appeared in the newspaper Libération on January 14, 2014, a few months before Adieu au Langage had its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival. She tells about reading the phrase for the first time in 2010 on a photo book by contemporary South African photographer Santu Mofokeng. It turns out that the aphorism is generally credited to the German writer Arno Schmidt ("Nur die Phantasielosen flüchten in die Realität"), who put it in the 1975 novel Evening Edged in Gold (Abend mit Goldrand). But Schmidt cites Sigmund Freud as inspiration for it, and Freud might in turn have been inspired by Wilhelm Jensen, the author of the novel Gradiva upon which the father of psychoanalysis based an influential essay. As if this weren't enough, the phrase may be also a Zulu proverb. Anyway, without going too far, Godard may well have read the phrase on Mofokeng's book. But Occam's razor, in the form of an interview given by Godard to the French radio in May 2014, offers us the simplest explanation of all:
«On ne lit que deux journaux français avec Anne-Marie: Libération et Charlie Hebdo
[I and Anne-Marie [Miéville, his wife] don't read but two French newspapers: Libération and Charlie Hebdo.]
Godard's interest in Darrieussecq's work is confirmed by the fact that in 1997 he optioned the rights to her bestseller novel Truismes (never turned into film), so that Darrieussecq's article is not likely to have passed unnoticed by him.

The meta-forest. Metaphor in cinema has always been a tricky notion. A great deal of confusion comes from the fact that metaphors primarily exist as figures of speech  their raison d'être is indissolubly bound up with language. Only later the concept was extended to visual arts. As film scholar Calvin Pryluck has observed[2], from as early as 1915 film theorists have drawn parallels between language and cinema, popularizing expressions like "film syntax", "film language" and "film grammar". But is cinema really a language? If so, maybe a natural definition of film metaphor can be formulated. If not, can we define the concept anyway? More recently, language-independent definitions have been proposed. Highly influential was the book Metaphors We Live By (1980) by American linguists George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, who coined the term "conceptual metaphor" in the attempt to show that metaphors are not just linguistic phenomena, but originate firstly from human experience.

What about metaphors in Adieu au Langage? Like all well-established cinema norms, for Godard metaphors are tinker toys, to paraphrase a line from Young Frankenstein. Near the end of the prologue an image of two kids playing with dices is presented as "a metaphor of truth", but is actually a literalization of "trois dés", a French expression that stands for both "three dices" and "3D". In another scene, a voice-over (probably Ivitch's) asks what difference exists between an idea and a metaphor. Davidson replies with an assonance that is also a neologism: "méta-forêt" (the meta-forest). Association of ideas reigns again. But is that all there is? We've also seen that the film's second segment is labeled "2. La métaphore", but what does it mean? One would expect this second segment to use symbols and other figures to re-tell the same story in a more abstract way, but such is not the case. Instead, we have what would happen if two Godards had shot the same film independently. It's useful at this point to recall what a metaphor in literature is (the passage is taken from the Encyclopedia Britannica):
Metaphor is a figure of speech that implies comparison between two unlike entities, as distinguished from simile, an explicit comparison signaled by the words “like” or “as”. [...] The metaphor makes a qualitative leap from a reasonable, perhaps prosaic comparison, to an identification or fusion of two objects, to make one new entity partaking of the characteristics of both.
A metaphor thus implies a transfer of meaning from an object A to an object B. For instance, if you say, with Shakespeare, that "all the world's a stage", you endow the world with a quality that is typical of theater. The result is a fusion of the two original concepts, a world-stage where everyone has a role to play. Something similar happens, I think, in Adieu au Langage. The bipartite structure encourages us to draw comparisons between the two segments, and inevitably we will try to make sense of each in terms of the other. Once the film is over, we are unlikely to recall in which segment, say, the knife-with-lemons shot below appears, because a stabbing occurred in both. We watch two films, and a wholly new film begins to form in our minds  the same film, "and yet not". It's as if Godard's aim was to redefine metaphors in purely cinematic terms, by creating a new entity that can't be reduced to a linguistic concept. Shooting in 3D  a device that creates a new dimension by means of superimposition  seems in this sense an appropriate choice.

The auteur dilemma. When we deal with collage as an art form, be it in music, literature or cinema, the basic question to ask is a reformulation of the Ship of Theseus dilemma: is a ship assembled with parts from other ships a new ship? The resulting ship is none of the original ships, though it bears traces of all of them, so the answer is not obvious. And if we are questioning the status of collage as truly original work of art, the next step is to ask ourselves if the term "author", that Godard himself helped popularize in the Nouvelle Vague years, is still valid in regard to a Frankenstein-like creation like Adieu au Langage. Bordwell would probably say yes: He compares him to an omnipresent Cineaste-Emperor, "a sovereign master who is governing what we see and hear at any given moment". I agree on the premise, but I'm not sure about the conclusion: True, we can feel Godard's presence almost in every frame, but what is left of Godard in the inexhaustible succession of assembled archive material, movie excerpts, and pretentious quotations? Can we still talk about artist's "vision", when a large amount of what we see on screen comes from other artists' works? Honestly I don't have an answer, but the question, I think, is more than legitimate. However, what we are calling into question is not the film's value but its authorship, so that this debate in no way should diminish our enjoyment of the film.

French actress Nicole Stéphane, gobsmacked to find herself in a Godard film.
Linguistic nitpicking: Langue and langage. Many English-language critics have praised Godard's attempt to get rid of human language. But few have tackled an essentially linguistic issue: The English term "language" translates both the French "langage" (the faculty, typical of human beings, to develop a system of communication) and "langue" (a context-specific instance of language, e.g. the French language)[3]. If Godard is really trying to abolish language, then, it's not language intended as codified system  the film is verbose as ever, with several voices sometimes overlapping  but as universal human activity. Has Godard then definitively abandoned the idea of "saying something"? And are we supposed to stop "reading" the film in search for messages and interpretations, and just enjoy it the way we contemplate a landscape or a painting  which is itself a contradiction, since in this way we admit that the film is a message addressed to us?

Ok, I've run out of questions for today. Anyway, I couldn't imagine a different way to talk about a film like this  one that seems less conceived as a Big-Assertion-From-A-Cinema-Legend, and more as a film-essay, with the word "essay" used in its etymological sense of "trial, attempt, endeavor". At the venerable age of 84, once again experimenting with film form and technology, Godard is still busy keeping cinema alive.

1. ^ Here's the original French version:
          Le propos est simple
          Une femme mariée et un homme libre se rencontrent
          Ils s'aiment, se disputent, les coups pleuvent
          Un chien erre entre ville et campagne
          Les saisons passent
          L'homme et la femme se retrouvent
          Le chien se trouve entre eux
          L'autre est dans l'un
          L'un est dans l'autre
          Et ce sont les trois personnes
          L'ancien mari fait tout exploser
          Un deuxième film commence
          Le même que le premier
          Et pourtant pas
          De l'espèce humaine on passe à la métaphore
          Ca finira par des aboiements
          Et des cris de bébé

2. ^ Calvin Pryluck, "The Film Metaphor: The Use of Language-Based Models in Film Study", on Literature/Film Quarterly, Vol. 3, No. 2, Spring 1975.

3. ^ The distinction was proposed by Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure (1857 - 1913).

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