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A place in history

Jean-Luc Godard deconstructs and reconstructs in Adieu Au Langage

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When people ask why Cannes Film Festival is important, one way to answer that is to look at a film such as Adieu Au Langage (Goodbye To Language). Jean-Luc Godard, 84, is the oldest filmmaker in this year’s competition, and with this latest movie he turns out to be the most exciting. Fifty years ago Godard and friends, under the watch of theorist Andre Bazin, waged a ferocious war to prove that cinema is art and filmmakers are artists, that they worked and thought like Picasso or Balzac or Rodin did. Godard and Co won that battle, but he’s still far from finished — simply because cinema is far from finished. In other words, film is part of art history, and history is being written all the time, sometimes, prominently, at places like Cannes. 

Adieu Au Langage , by Jean-Luc Godard.

Adieu Au Langage is in 3D — sharp, saturated, dripping, with some astonishing optical tricks that we’ve never seen before — and altogether it’s the most beautiful film showing at the festival this year. Like other Godard films, especially his late opuses, this one defeats any easy attempt to summarise, describe, sketch, or review. It’s a deconstruction and reconstruction of visual and narrative — something he’s always done — and it’s a free-associative essay, philosophical banter, critique of world history (of course), a deft manipulation of image and montage and sound and text, and also a touching contemplation of nature. It’s a tease, a provocation, and an act of avuncular mischief. At the centre, there’s a story: a man and a woman, an affair, a contest of ideas and will, and a cute 3D dog. “I’m looking for the poverty of language,” the man says. Then, “What’s the difference between an idea and a metaphor?” Many questions are asked and not necessarily answered, but the film (its image and sound) will be ringing in your head for days.

There was a mini stampede to get into the screening at Grande Theatre Lumiere — a good sign that challenging cinema still attracts attention. Like his previous film Film Socialisme, Godard’s experiment with the perceptive elasticity of text, sound and visual is even more pronounced in Adieu Au Langage. This is cinema at its genesis — how different, unrelated images (or sounds) acquire a meaning through association — and here the master has fun demonstrating it to us, who have a lot of fun following him into the fire, or the dark, or the attic of hidden perception. The 3D is certainly integral to Godard’s concept; besides the depth and the texture, in this film he teases (or tests?) us with an innovative visual trick that superimposes two simultaneous actions in the same frame, in a way that’s confounding at first, but strangely refreshing when you realise what’s going on and how our understanding of narrative can be achieved this way. In short, Godard still wants to test the boundaries of cinema, and the result, at crisp 75 minutes, is spectacular.

Yes, the fight was won, and cinema has become the “seventh art”. Watching Adieu Au Langage, I also thought about the recent Christie’s auction of masterpieces, where Francis Bacon’s paintings and other great works collected altogether the astronomical (and just plain obscene) $745 million. Would one day a film — a masterpiece — be sold at that inhuman price? “Sold” might be too crude: would it be valued by that figure? No, you might say, because movies are repetition, copies, downloadable digital files, and they don’t possess the unique entity as a painting does. But I mean, would an act of conceiving a film and putting that concept into a piece of work be valued similarly? Not that we should judge art by monetary estimation; it’s only that the cynical belief that “art films” are an alien species is surprisingly rampant among those who ignore the progression of history — and history of art in particular.

Godard isn’t the only senior citizen who dazzles in Cannes’ Competition this year. David Cronenberg, all fangs and venom, is also a septuagenarian, as well as Ken Loach, who seems to have mellowed. But another “veteran” — two actually — who should be mentioned here are the Belgian brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, in their 70s, who’re back in Cannes with Deux Jours, Une Nuit (Two Days, One Night). The Dardennes have already won two Palme d’Or, both from films about the underbelly of prosperous Europe: Rosetta (1999) and The Child (2005). In their new film, the brothers bring another gutsy female character and follow her through a weekend of despair, hope, humiliation, and a case of moral dilemma at a time when economic dilemma seems more powerful.

Marion Cotillard plays Sandra, a factory worker who’s just come through a bout of depression. Her employer, struggling to remain competitive, asks her co-workers to vote whether to keep Sandra on staff and everyone loses their €1,000 bonus, or to lay her off and everyone gets the money. Over one weekend, Sandra will have to visit all her colleagues to convince them to vote to keep her — and on every visit she confronts the harsh reality of the no-longer-glorious Europe. She desperately needs to keep her job, but her co-workers also need the money. In democracy, will you vote out of selfishness or out of altruism? That rings a bell around here too.

Unlike Godard, the Dardennes’ aesthetics is bare, unadorned and pared-down. Cotillard, as Sandra, is a primal force, a one-woman crusade for self-interest as well as for humanism — flawed, sad, imperfect humanism. This is what the directors have done in all their films, and yet in this one (as well as in The Kid With A Bike), the Dardennes have maintained the urgency of the social issues but without pressing it, and the epiphany comes to Sandra without much ado or pretensions. Watching these old guys making films, young mavericks should take note: the lesson isn’t in making good movies, but in keeping making good movies, because, judging from Cannes this year, the movies are far from finished.

The Palme d’Or will be announced tomorrow. See more reports from Cannes on the Bangkok Post website.

Deux Jours, Une Nuit , by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne.

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