Goodbye to Language | Dogme Year Zero

Credit: The Criterion Collection

Tom Atkinson

When the Cannes Film Festival was officially cancelled in May of this year, you may recall that festival director Thierry Friemaux offered an alternative to the in-person event. In a poorly-timed livestream completed in the midst of high-profile protests against police brutality in the United States, the UK, and other nations, Friemaux announced the provisional line-up to give people an idea of what the festival would have been like. Some titles, like Steve McQueen’s Lovers Rock and Thomas Vinterberg’s Another Round, have since been fully ingested into the cultural discourse and spat out the other side. Others, like Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch, will have to wait until 2021. The most interesting part of this announcement, however, was that Friemaux only partly mentioned how it was to be structured. What was the competition going to be? What was the Un Certain Regard lineup? Who would have been in the running for the Palme D’Or?

The sprawl of this announcement stood in stark contrast to the tight narrative most Cannes years have when followed day by day, with critics itching for the masterpiece that is promised to them every time they head to the Croisette, and opining, as they did in in 2018, that the second week of films was miles better than the first. Friemaux’s lineup (divided instead into unhelpful categories such as The Faithful for directors returning to Cannes for a second or third time) was reflective of how we experienced cinema in 2020: decentralised, sans structures, and with narratives harder to manufacture in the absence of such structures.

In May, with Cannes cannes-celled, I undertook an experiment that, while predating Friemaux’s announcement, perhaps in its hypothesis foresaw the interesting gap left at the festival’s centre without structure and linear narrative. My experiment was this: what if I took a line-up from the past decade or so (after much deliberation, I settled on 2014) and watched every competition film from that year, while making sure I watch them in the order they would have been seen when the festival actually happened? To supplement this, I set myself the challenge of writing about each of the films, for which I even made a basic, but charming, web 0.5 website: just black, Times New Roman text on a white background. Nothing except the words. Regrettably, since the site’s existence was at the whim of a seedy HTML hosting site, the reviews are no longer available online. Really, the entire thing was an excuse to watch some interesting films and write something other than my dissertation. But it did also allow me to appreciate the formation of a Cannes narrative.

Indeed, two viewing experiences in this experiment stood out. The first was Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Winter Sleep, the (rightful) winner of the 2014 Palme D’Or, the prominence of which might suggest that the festival’s narrativity did its job. We are still talking about Ceylan today, but I doubt you could find someone who remembers Michel Hazanavicius’ awful The Search (all the more damning, since it was the first film he made after winning an Academy Award for The Artist). 

Ceylan’s film provided the inspiration for this undertaking in the first place, the simple reason being that I was a little frustrated by the contemporary reaction to the 196-minute film that year, especially from two writers at The A.V. Club. One of these writers was A.A. Dowd, who covered Cannes for the website that year. On Winter Sleep, he said: “There’s a powerful movie buried in the borderless sprawl of Winter Sleep. I just wish Ceylan had let it be a drama instead of inflating it into a monument to his expanding ambition.” The other was Mr Mike D’Angelo. Readers may know D’Angelo for his maddeningly anal 100-point rating system, or perhaps for his similarly anal writing style that I would describe charitably as CinemaSins with a thesaurus. The essence of his review of the film, which came out on the occasion of Winter Sleep’s theatrical release, was that it was too long, and perhaps the jury that year had awarded Ceylan for the dual reason of the film’s grandiose (thus, apparently, more artistically worthy) length and the fact that the director had attended – and been awarded at – Cannes several times but had never won the Palme. 

I disagreed with both critics, finding Winter Sleep to be a surprisingly entertaining film. In my review at the time, I gently suggested that the initial reaction had “ignored the wealth of compelling drama contained within [Winter Sleep], not to mention its daunting length being offset by an unsung goldmine of humour”. Drawing from Chekhov’s short story ‘The Wife’ and a subplot from Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, the film follows rural landlord, local newspaper columnist, and former actor Aydin, who lives in his mountainside complex with his wife Nihal and sister Necla. Aydin is a self-righteous, condescending arsehole who uses his own perceived virtuousness to patronise Nihal and his poverty-stricken tenants. The film’s extended conversation set-pieces find Aydin being the architect of his own narrative undoing, not so much ending in comeuppance as an absolute assuredness that he is not a local hero or a benevolent landlord, but an arrogant dick. 

It’s also funny as hell, and its drama is expertly rendered in precise, communicative editing by Ceylan. So why did critics like the aforementioned A.V. acolytes feel so flattened by the film and its supposedly overblown length? For D’Angelo, the jury is out, as always. In Dowd’s case, however, one might put it down to the festival setting. When one is operating on what would have been considerable jet lag for a Chicagoan in Southern France, 196 minutes of Turkish modulations on Chekhov on only the second or third day of the festival is perhaps not the easiest thing to digest. And, to his credit, Dowd was able to predict the film’s Palme win on the day of its premiere. Something about a career win for regular Cannes attendee Ceylan and the film’s thematic weight. So, consider my cap doffed.

But if Winter Sleep was a confirmation that The System Works, as far as Cannes is concerned, then Jean-Luc Godard’s Goodbye to Language pointed to the ultimate fault in its structure. A 3D experimental film that only has a semblance of narrative, the film is broadly about a couple, played by two different sets of people, who are having an affair. One of the couple is killed by the other’s spouse. Godard’s dog, Roxy, appears at various points, seemingly outside of the narrative. But it is really about the slow encroachment of images to replace language, and the simultaneity of reality and unreality in the digital age. 

I knew at the time that I had watched something quite incredible, and having seen Godard’s masterpiece In Praise of Love (2001) in the months since then, I can say he’s working at a level few other cinema artists are able to match. What other artist would be bold enough to attempt Godard’s 3D experiment in the film, where two separate sets of footage are projected on top of each other, but if the viewer covers one eye, the 3D glasses will only register one of the sets of footage?

Yet, Goodbye to Language was presented alongside films operating almost uniformly in a more narrative mode. Whether that’s in the brilliant classical style of Winter Sleep, the stylistic excesses of Bertrand Bonello’s Saint Laurent, or the greyscale Oscar bait of The Search, what Godard was doing in his film was more ambitious, more epochal, and more indescribable than anything else in competition. 

Having never attended a festival where world premieres are par for the course (the London Film Festival provides paltry satisfaction in this area), this cheeseboard approach fascinated me. But looking back on this experiment, which simultaneously feels like it took place yesterday and a lifetime ago, perhaps the most alien thing about it is that very structure. In any ordinary film year, compartmentalisation is the order of the day, even more so than it was, say, two decades ago, when summer blockbusters and the awards season were clearly delineated, and everything was measured in box office metrics. Film festivals provided the art, multiplexes provided the trash. Such things are true of today too, but add to that the endless stream of listicle “content”, the social media bubbles of different film communities (vulgar auteurists, for example), the new spaces opened up by the internet for digital filmmaking and home movies that match up to avant-garde legends of days past, and the whole world seems like a Hegelian series of boxes on a spreadsheet.

What the pandemic did was to strip away that structure. The coitus interruptus of staggered, cancelled, modified, or altogether non-existent theatrical releases, the film festivals that weren’t, and the absence of key critical arbiters like Film Comment has made this year somewhat shapeless, much as awards bloggers might try to convince us otherwise. Films belonged to nobody and nowhere, and in no particular order. Perhaps my undertaking was based on a desire to achieve some normalcy, some stability, while the rest of the world – in cinema and beyond – seemed to be tectonically shifting. If one thing has changed since then, it’s that I’ve embraced the chaos a bit more. This month alone, I’m digesting the rest of Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s filmography for an essay, whilst also making my way through the films of Alan Clarke; Josef von Sternberg; Joanna Hogg; and a whole load of new releases I need to catch up on before the year draws to a close. To quote Paul Simon (whose music, incidentally, I have finally begun to appreciate this year after about half a decade of putting off listening to Graceland), “Who am I to go against the wind?”

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