Best of the Decade: Jean-Luc Godard

Adieu au langage

By Andrea Bussmann

I initially wanted this piece to be about a writer—after all, are not images and words inseparable, delicately intertwined?—but I was gently nudged to stay focused on the image side of things. The task itself seemed like an impossible process of elimination, however, one that was finally alleviated only when I recalled the opening quotation published in this magazine in the article about my film Fausto (2018):

Most people want to be kings and queens, but not enough want to be Faust. —Jean-Luc Godard  

Godard and Borges. Image and Language.

Faust. But not the rogue man who ate lavish meals, drank copious amounts of wine, hoarded bags of gold, fed off mischief, took trips on a magic coat, and got lost in labyrinths. No, not that Faust. That would be the Faust of another person, another kind of cinema. Godard’s Faust is the endless searcher, the unceasing wanderer. The alchemist. The one who is capable of changing and adapting. The one who constantly renews. 

Godard and Borges share a common element in their oeuvres: an engagement with translation and mutability. They move freely back and forth between their work and the works of others, adapting and adopting until a transmutation is laid bare. Borges thought so highly of translation that at times he would introduce himself as a translator, and so central was his exploration of this art that several of his most unforgettable characters (Pierre Menard, Jaromir Hladik, Tzinacán) playfully engage with the process themselves. Godard too delved into translation, language, and adaptation, most obviously in Le mépris (1963), where he sought to make a film impossible to dub, challenging European nations’ normalization of and reliance on the practice. (And of course, Le mépris is itself a loose translation of Alberto Moravia’s novel A Ghost at Noon, which centres on yet another translation: a film adaptation of Homer’s Odyssey.) While Godard’s insistence on subtitles expresses the fallacy of language to communicate our complex emotions, it also reminds us that everything on the screen is part of the film itself. With each text and language version, the original film is transformed. Fidelity: Godard confronts and questions it, challenging codified patterns and assumptions around speech and text. Synchronization: the subtitles don’t last the normal length of a character’s dialogue, and often there is text onscreen before the words are spoken. Further, the film’s translator (played by Italian actress Giorgia Moll, who, in a sort of film-industry translation, had earlier played a Vietnamese woman in Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s Hollywood adaptation of British writer Graham Greene’s The Quiet American [1958]) often translates dialogue before it is even voiced: translation as the original.  

For Borges, the original was no more important than a translation, and a translation could be superior to the original. Difference is not mutilation: translation allows for enhancement, transformation for renewal. In his essay on One Thousand and One Nights, Borges queries, apropos the appearance of a new, previously unseen story in one of the collection’s later translations, “Why shouldn’t we suppose that after having translated so many tales, [the translator] wanted to invent one himself, and did?”The act of cinema, like the act of translation, must be freed from an idealized fidelity. To contravene the weight of its verisimilitude, cinema should transgress, not complement, our sight. Each element in the frame is an element to be considered and reconsidered. Meaning is malleable; form is malleable. Breaking the parallax (Adieu au langage, 2014). Verbs lacking tenses (Film socialisme, 2010). Hypnic jerks of varying aspect ratios (Le livre d’image,2018). Language and image remerge as fragments.

If dismantling and reimaging progress is our contemporary Faustian undertaking, Godard has extended this to the act of cinema.For Godard, cinema’s potential has not lessened. For him, it does what other art forms can’t. It projects, it does not reduce; it evokes not just different histories, but different futures. Like the best adaptions of Faust, his cinema does not end conclusively, but reflectively. In Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights, Gertrude Stein questions why, when the world is illuminated by technology, Faust is still alone searching in the dark, unable to find contentment? It is nearly a century later. Technological advancements are rapidly replacing each previous model, both inside and outside the cinema, and yet we are still roaming aimlessly in the dark. I don’t know how we are going to get out. But in the distance, Godard is on his way somewhere else, and perhaps we should start by following his lead.