A blink of a camera eye, or a smash-cut in the editing room, can mark the difference between breathlessness and contempt.
This is what Jean-Luc Godard’s joyously chaotic ruminations on cinema, lust, regret and more cinema have proven ever since “Breathless” (“Contempt” came later) changed things for good back in 1960.
The Cannes Film Festival rejected “Breathless” for its competition slate that year. The year before, Godard’s Cahiers du Cinema colleagues all traveled south from Paris to see critic and fledgling filmmaker Francois Truffaut pick up an award for his feature debut, “The 400 Blows.” From the film magazine’s cashbox Godard swiped enough for train fare to join them in Cannes that May, and to get his own filmmaking debut, “Breathless,” taken from a treatment by Truffaut, off the ground in terms of financing.
In the decades since, the iconoclastic Godard’s on-again, off-again relationship with Cannes has continued. And on Wednesday the latest notes-from-the-underground cine-essay by Godard premiered in a competition slot at the 67th festival.
It is called “Goodbye to Language," and it's a bracing riddle, more buoyant in spirit than "Film Socialisme." Prominently featured is a dog, whose name I didn't catch in the closing credits, playing a dog named Roxy. When Roxy’s nose points straight at the camera, it’s a delightfully invasive sight, reason enough to justify Godard’s cheeky decision to shoot “Goodbye to Language” in 3-D, on a variety of low- and medium-grade video cameras.
Godard has never won an award here. He may never win an award here. But it was truly moving to experience first-hand the hearty reception afforded “Goodbye to Language” among the 2,300 Godard freaks in attendance at the festival’s largest venue, the Lumiere.
As was the case when Godard’s nutty whatzit “Film Socialisme” premiered in Cannes four years ago, Godard declined to attend the festival. The festival posted on its website Wednesday an eight-minute “letter in motion,” a video RSVP Godard sent to festival heads Gilles Jacob and Thierry Fremaux. Speaking in French, Godard thanked “my old comrades” for “inviting me to climb your majestic stairs.” Thanks, he said, but no thanks, citing his lack of interest in, and removal from, the world of international film distribution as it was once practiced.
Here’s Godard’s own description of “Goodbye to Language.” The idea, he wrote for the Cannes program notes, “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 images return to a Lake Geneva, Switzerland, ferry and, indoors, to the naked body of Heloise Godet. The men are played by Kamel Abdelli and Richard Chevallier. The dog crosses some tricky-looking rapids, and takes napes on the couch, and appears to share the director's demeanor. Roxy embodies the notion of constancy and loyalty. The humans on view, as has long been the case in Godard's work, do not.
Descriptions are close to useless with “Goodbye to Language,” which quotes freely from Victor Hugo, Herman Melville, Mary Shelley (she’s also a character in one scene) and Samuel Beckett. Beckett’s own chipper fatalism, as well as his mistrust of conventional language, seems especially in synch with the film's zigzagging curiosity. Some of the images are wondrous. There’s a shot of Godet from the top of her head down, in 3-D, that is beautiful enough to make you cry. It’s a few seconds of everything Godard ever did for the movies, crystallized: We sense the desire behind the eyes of the man behind the camera, but it’s not merely salacious. It's sad, a human moment captured just so.
Elsewhere a simple shot of a car windshield wiper going fwoop-fwoop in the rain takes on a strange import in the 3-D format. This is how long Godard has loved the cinema; he was around as a cinephile and lover of trash to see the 3-D films of the 1950s, and now here we are. “Goodbye to Language” is a dreamy blur, a melange of World War II imagery, and frantically shifting styles. At one point one of the men enjoys a bowel movement in the pose of Rodin's "The Thinker." Pure adolescent effrontery. Godard is a French-Swiss gangsta now and forever, and he still makes movies that confound and perplex and entice. And the festival is richer for it.
The Godard film swims in all sorts of water imagery – rivers, lakes, slush on a windshield. The same can be said of Ryan Gosling’s directorial debut, “Lost River,” which premiered Tuesday with Gosling in attendance. A competition title in the Un Certain Regard sidebar, it’s the other determined discombobulator of the 2014 festival. I never thought I’d have Jean-Luc Godard and Ryan Gosling next door to each other in the same sentence, but life is funny.
“Lost River” isn’t, and it’s not trying to be. A half-baked “Beasts of the Northern Wild,” Gosling’s fairy tale was shot in Detroit and takes place in a mythical water-logged land with a lot of abandoned and soon-to-be-demolished housing. One resident (Christina Hendricks of “Mad Men”) resorts to a bizarre, burlesque-y variety show for employment, while her son Bones (Iain De Caestecker, in the soulful, T-shirted Ryan Gosling role) becomes an urban-blight Shane, a guardian angel and an all-around savior for his little community of stragglers.
Gosling’s first effort caused an insta-tsunami of ill will via Twitter here in Cannes. A lot of it’s deserved, but more than the movie really deserves. Yes, it’s incoherent. Yes, it’s derivative, full of David Lynch and (more problematically) color schemes and violent adolescent daydreams out of Nicolas Winding Refn, with whom Gosling made “Drive” and “Only God Forgives.” But it has some visual ideas in it, interesting and mysterious ones, and while the film’s overall rhythm relates to some of the same problems I have with Gosling’s performances — he’s nobody’s idea of a fleet-footed master of pace — I say: Wait for film No. 2 before writing him off as a director.