“Oh, we’ll never get this done. Look at this silly thing: ‘Name your father’s gender.’”
— I Was A Male War Bride
“The shot and reverse shot are basics of film grammar. But look closely at these shots from Hawks’ movie. You’ll see that it is the same thing twice. That is because the director is incapable of seeing the difference between a man and a woman.”
— Notre Musique
Howard Hawks is quoted three shots into Jean Luc Godard’s new film, Adieu Au Langage — it’s the scene from Only Angels Have Wings where Jean Arthur discovers that the coin Cary Grant offers as a way of making their ultimate romantic decision – “heads you stay, tails you leave” – is double-faced, two heads, face à face. As Adieu Au Langage progresses, it increasingly seems like a pertinent metaphor as well as a key (later, itself another metaphor) to unlocking some of the more opaque arrangements of Godard’s style.
3D, stereo, man and woman (in two couples), “le métaphore” and “la nature”, “1” and “2”, red and black; the Hawks metaphor persists, at least for the first section. Or maybe that should be the metaphor of 1930s and 40s Hawks, since Adieu Au Langage ultimately serves up Hawks’ 1962 film, Hatari! as its foremost inspiration.
The press notes for Godard’s film:
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.
It’s easy to apply the same logic to Hatari! – about a group of international big-game hunters in Africa whose only intention is to spend their days out capturing the animals, ostensibly, in order to bring them to live on the reserve alongside the humans – whose final scene Adieu Au Langage takes as a starting point. In Hatari!, Elsa Martinelli (seemingly the model for both the lead actresses’ performances in Adieu Au Langage) eagerly awaits Sean Mercer (John Wayne) to arrive and jump into bed with her at last, after all of the film’s sedentary attempts at throwing up romantic obstacles between the two. But before they can get down to it, a parade of baby elephants storm the bedroom, smiling, wailing, and, if we’re running with Adieu’s press notes, finding themselves between the couple. With Wayne looking on, cursing, shooing, the four-poster buckles as one crawls in next to Martinelli, and the film comes serenely to a close.And like Hatari! still, Adieu Au Langage suggests that indeed the only way to make peace as a couple, the only way to break through the difficulties of being two, is to get a dog—to be three. It’s an idea that’s been on his mind for years; of the dog as a common bond to separate a double-faced world, to bridge two sides of a conflict (he has suggested Israelis and Palestinians should walk their dogs together every morning as a first step towards peace). The hound at the centre of Adieu, Roxy, acts as our guide through the unintelligible world of the film. As langauge and even cinema – as evidenced by the film clips from Mamoulian, Lang, and King that play on an ugly flat-screen TV in the characters’ living room, muted and mutilated both – begin to seem less and less appealing (useful?), the reconciliation the dog offers is a last hope.
Adieu Au Langage is the third film in an unofficial, but nevertheless chronological, trilogy of Godard features, after Vrai Faux Passeport and Film Socialisme – all radical experiments that fly in the face of digital’s ascension as both a shooting format and as a means of projection, while diminishing the presence of the director and giving the film over to the audience, almost to make of it what they will (Hawks again). Perhaps just a big gag at the expense of the cliché of classical auteurist conception of the director as an all seeing, all knowing demi-god, these three films see Godard questioning, as well as mocking and celebrating, basic assumptions about the cinema and its history that are central to understanding the place of his work in it.
Cloaked in the veneer of triviality, the trilogy is distinguished from his other films by an obsession with extremely low-rent digital forms (Film Socialisme – taking his interest in digital video to another level with its extensive use of consumer grade recording devices, returning in Adieu) and dubiety of the validity of auteurism’s history in the face of digital (Vrai Faux Passeport, where Godard’s somnambulant voiceover must state wearily if the clip he shows us is either “True” or “False”, though confusing words, truths, and languages as he goes).
Adieu Au Langage exacerbates the qualities of both, as well as uniting them; the digital’s just as schlubby, the binaries just as confused. It is, paradoxically at first, it would seem, one of the most brilliant digital films. Despite his obvious contempt for its destruction of real depth and suspicion of its so-called clarity—as evidenced by the hideous sharpness of the HD video sections—digital and digital 3D in Adieu Au Langage are tools that feel like they have genuine potential in Godard’s hands, like Ken Jacobs’ before him and like a generation of others I guess after, to open up a new world of violent, jagged textures for our curious exploration.