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Afterthoughts and Postscripts, 54.2: Daniel Fairfax
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Montage in 3D Cinema: the Case of Jean-Luc Godard’s Adieu au langage

by Daniel Fairfax



Since Voyage(s) en utopie’s three-month run in the Centre Pompidou in 2006, Jean-Luc Godard has completed two feature films, Film socialisme (Film Socialism, 2010) and Adieu au langage (Goodbye to Language, 2014), along with a suite of shorter projects.[1] While both of his feature-length works continue Godard’s restless experimentation with assembling images and his exploration of history, art and philosophy through cinematic means, it is his turn to 3D cinema with Adieu au langage that perhaps most intriguingly intersects with my discussion of the dynamic interaction between spatial and temporal montage in his Beaubourg exhibition.

I had already noted that any notion of a sharp distinction between the temporally-situated act of cutting in film and the spatial arrangements of the gallery’s dispositif should be attenuated: both a film and an installation can incorporate the two forms of montage, and while diachronic acts of montage are evident in Voyage(s) (whether within the clips abundantly present in the exhibition rooms, or by means of the gallery-visitor’s own sensorial parcours through these spaces), synchronic, spatially defined combinations of multiple images are also present in his film and video works, including, most notably, Histoire(s) du cinéma (Histories of the Cinema, 1988-1998), with its copious deployment of “superimposition effects, split screens, dissolves and wipes to simultaneously overlay two or more images within a single frame.”[2]

The same co-presence of both forms of montage is manifest in Adieu au langage, but Godard’s adoption of the technique of 3D cinema entailed a significant redefinition of the nature of synthesizing two images on-screen. Five years after James Cameron’s Avatar (2009) heralded a resurgence in 3D filmmaking – one which, with a handful of exceptions, has remained largely confined to the upper echelons of big-budget Hollywood spectacle – it is the work of a reclusive 83-year-old director, operating on a minuscule budget, that unlocks the true aesthetic potential of the technique.


Figure 1. Godard on set with Fabrice Aragno. Photo by Zoé Bruneau.

For the 3D cinematography of Adieu, Godard eschewed the expensive set-ups common in Hollywood and, in tandem with his technical collaborators Fabrice Aragno and Jean-Paul Battagia, artisanally fashioned wooden rigs capable of holding the digital cameras used for filming (among them the high-end Canon EOS 5D and cheaper units such as the GoPro and the Lumix) – with tracking shots made using model train sets![3] Rather than merging the shots captured by the parallel cameras into a synthetic stereoscopic image during the take by “toeing in” the lenses, 3D effects were created in postproduction by a process of trial and error, through the manipulation of planes and convergence points.[4]


Figure 2. Screen capture from Adieu au langage (Wild Bunch, 2014).

Concomitantly, the resulting images significantly depart from the norms of recent 3D cinema, and evince an unprecedented degree of formal freedom: at times, the image gives a sensation of volume rarely achieved with conventional three-dimensional procedures, while at other times contrasting planes are flattened out to create a diorama effect – as is the case in an arresting shot of the dog Roxy’s head in front of a high-speed train at a railway platform. Accentuated Dutch angles create uncanny compositions, while cameras revolving in mid-shot result in images that, in freeing themselves from the horizon line, create a sense of vestibular flux in the viewer in similar fashion to the effect achieved by Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel’s Leviathan (2012), or even, at a stretch, films such as Life of Pi (Ang Lee, 2012) and Gravity (Alfonso Cuaron, 2013). On occasion, too, the contours of the two overlaid images fail to enmesh with each other, creating planar divergences within the frame that, while perceptually disconcerting, more closely approximate the stereoscopy of human vision.

This said, Godard is openly dismissive, in a video interview released as a promotion for the film, of the widespread idea that “three-dimensional” cinema is somehow a replica of human vision that would be superior to the two-dimensional image, and insists that it should rather be used for showing the world in a different, alien light.[5] This is achieved in the most spectacular fashion at two points in the film, when Godard crafts a fundamentally new type of image – and a new form of montage – through a beguilingly simple yet visually audacious technical maneuver. On the first such occasion, we see a young woman, Ivitch, converse with an older professor by the name of Davidson, before she is brusquely pulled to one side by her irate husband. At this point, one of the cameras filming the scene pans right to follow Ivitch, while the other remains static, keeping its focus on Davidson. The shot the viewer sees in a 3D-equipped theater is thus wrenched into two, resulting in a hallucinatory, unstable superimposition effect impossible to replicate in a two-dimensional image, until the camera pans back to its original position and the two disparate images merge into one another again. Such an image – repeated in a later scene involving another couple engaged in a dispute in their country house – represents a formal invention on par with Godard’s earlier pioneering of the jump cut in À bout de souffle (Breathless, 1960), and elicited bouts of applause at the film’s premiere screening at Cannes, as well as forming the focus of many of the critical responses to the film. As Nico Baumbauch writes in Film Comment, “It is simultaneously a new kind of sequence shot and a new kind montage (a marriage of Bazin and Eisenstein).”[6]


Figure 3. Screen capture from Adieu au langage (Wild Bunch, 2014). This screen capture can only give an approximate sense of the visual nature of the 3D image as seen in the film itself.

This image also demonstrates the rationale behind Godard’s interest in what the French call le cinéma en relièf. In “Montage(s) of a Disaster,” I noted that Godard has adopted an idiosyncratic definition of the term Image, which, in contrast to the monadic, static nature of “the picture” (derided by Godard as the product of the globally dominant Hollywood-approach to cinema), is “always two, showing at the start two images rather than one, it’s what I call the image, this image made of two, I mean the third image.”[7] By its very nature, filming a three-dimensional image involves the capturing of two distinct shots by a pair of independent camera lenses and their subsequent synthesis through 3D projection: the two images are projected on top of one another, slightly askance, and special glasses permit the left-eye to see one and the right-eye to see the other. These are subsequently fused by the viewer’s brain into a single visual field.

As with the development of the classical rules of “invisible” editing, mainstream 3D cinema seeks as much as possible to make this process of synthesis imperceptible, to seamlessly integrate the two original images into a singular, indissoluble whole, thereby wiping out the possibility for montage-relations to take place between the two original images. Godard, by contrast, allows for a margin of disjunction to remain between the two images, and in the privileged moments detailed above even pushes this disjunctive quality to the fore, highlighting the latently dialectical nature of the synthetic image of 3D cinema, and providing the possibility for an Image in the Godardian sense to be created. With curious parallels to the liberated parcours of the Voyage(s) visitor, able to enact their own assemblage of images by their movement through the gallery spaces, the 3D montage-shot in Adieu allows the audience to create their own “cuts” in the scene: by alternately closing each eye, the viewer can choose to shuffle between three distinct images: Image A (seen by the left eye), Image B (seen by the right eye) and Image A+B (seen by both eyes at once).[8] Multiple viewings of Adieu, therefore, can yield strikingly different filmic experiences depending on the actions of the viewer.

In Godard’s new film, however, this process of dialectical synthesis-analysis is limited to an act of multiperspectival representation of the given pro-filmic reality – essentially, it achieves on a spatial level what the jump cuts of Jean Seberg being driven through the streets of Paris in À bout de souffle attained on a temporal level. Surprisingly, perhaps, it is not used to create 3D equivalents of the acts of historical montage that prevail in Histoire(s), Voyage(s) and numerous other works made by Godard over the last three decades. Found footage is present in various ways in Adieu – notably by the screening of Hollywood films on large flatscreen TVs in the background of a number of scenes (an echo of the use of these monitors in the “Aujourd’hui” area of Voyage(s)) – but Godard refrains from, for instance, giving us a sequence where the left eye sees an image of Stalin and the right eye an image of Hitler. One can only think that the temptation to do so must have occurred to him, but the reasons why he desisted from such an act of montage remain a mystery.

On a final note, the claim that the Armenian filmmaker Artavazd Pelechian’s views on montage were of major importance for Godard’s practice receives additional confirmation, if not in Adieu itself, then in the press-kit for the film disseminated at Cannes, which was composed by Godard himself and which, with its elaborate layout of stills from the film, may be considered a work of art in its own right. Page 22 of the press-kit is consumed by a photocopied leaf from Annick Bouleau’s Benjaminian work Passage du cinéma, 4992. Over the top of this text, Godard has scrawled the words “The only book to recount the history of the cinema” – an approbation of the highest order. Also pasted into this collage is entry 6601 from Bouleau’s tome, which states: “Distance montage would be a chain reaction. But there is something in distance montage which goes beyond an atomic explosion; namely, retroaction, the feedback effect which loops the sequence or the film back onto itself. Flux and reflux. [...] The culminating moment may be the beginning, montage may obey none of the established laws of narrative progression. It is a question of circularity.”[9] The quote is derived from an interview with Pelechian by François Niney, which appeared in Cahiers du cinéma in 1991. In light of Adieu au langage, the importance of his ideas for Godard is indisputable.

 

[1] In chronological order, his short works since 2006 are: Une Catastrophe (A Catastrophe, 2007, trailer for the 2007 Viennale), Hommage à Éric Rohmer (Tribute to Éric Rohmer, 2009), Les trois désastres (The Three Disasters, 2013, a segment in the omnibus film 3X3D), Khan Khanne (2014) and Le Pont des soupirs (The Bridge of Sighs, 2014, a segment in the omnibus film Bridges of Sarajevo). To this list may be added a number of trailers made in advance of the release of Film socialisme and Adieu au langage, which all bear Godard’s authorial stamp.

[2] Daniel Fairfax, “Montage(s) of a Disaster: Voyage(s) en utopie by Jean-Luc Godard,” Cinema Journal 54:2 (2015), 47.

[3] See Fabrice Aragno, interviewed by Paul Dallas, “1+1=3,” Film Comment 50:6 (2014), 38-39.

[4] See David Bordwell, “Adieu au langage: 2+2x3D” (2014), http://www.davidbordwell.net/blog/2014/09/07/adieu-au-langage-2-2-x-3d/.

[5] Here he states: “They think ‘We have two eyes, so if we put two cameras, we will... But it’s wrong. Quite simply, if you close one eye, you still see space. I can still see you in three dimensions, more or less well depending on one’s eye. Therefore to put two cameras like that, it has no... it’s a trick.” Jean-Luc Godard, “Jean-Luc Godard: Exclusive Interview with the Legend,” available for viewing at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bou1w4LaqMo.

[6] Nico Baumbach, “Starting Over,” Film Comment 50:6 (2014), 37.

[7] Fairfax, “Montage(s),” p. 43. The Godard comes from an interview with Youssef Ishaghpour, published as Cinema: The Archaeology of Film and the Memory of a Century, trans. John Howe (Oxford, UK: Berg, 2005), 33. On Swiss television, meanwhile, Godard phrased the idea as follows: “The image is a relationship... An image is either two distant things which you bring together, or it is two close things which you pull apart... ‘As thin as a thread of hair, as ample as the light of dawn,’ this is an image, a thread of hair is not an image, the light of dawn is not an image, it is their relationship which makes the image.” Cited in: Jean-Louis Comolli, Voir et pouvoir (Paris: Éditions Verdier, 2004), 314.

[8] Numerous critics (including Bordwell and Baumbach in their previously cited articles) have admitted to adopting this practice during the sequence.

[9] See Jean-Luc Godard, press-kit for Adieu au langage (Paris: Wild Bunch, 2014), 22. For the Bouleau book, see: Annick Bouleau, Passage du cinéma, 4992 (Paris: Ansedonia, 2014), 215. The ellipsis is already present in Bouleau.

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