On the eve of what’s certain to be one of the coldest winter days in Chicago, it’s not the spine-chilling temperature that’s on my mind - it’s whether or not the Gene Siskel Film Center is playing a Jean-Luc Godard film. At one point or another a cinephile encounters Godard. He’s a titan of cinema, the sort of frustrating and oft times overwhelming director whose films require multiple viewings. Thankfully, the Gene Siskel Film Center, from January 3 to March 4, offers just that opportunity, screening 17 feature films and three shorts from the director’s filmography, spanning from his debut film Breathless to his highly acclaimed 3D film, Goodbye to Language. This is an early candidate for the best Chicago film programming of the year, with the rare opportunity to catch some of the auteur’s most celebrated and least accessible work.
I concede to cheating a bit though - I happened upon Goodbye to Language at New York City’s IFC Center during an impromptu sojourn. And I further concede that a single viewing was not adequate in grappling with such a heady and challenging film. It’s not to say the film is inaccessible, but rather that Goodbye to Language is a dense film that requires a degree of flexibility to fully decipher. I suppose I’m trying to suggest that the film is quite wonderful when viewed on a scene to scene basis - certain sequences challenge a human’s optic capacities, fusing 2D imagery into a 3D one and vice versa. It’s technologically mind-blowing, in large part because this truly feels original and new. Yet I struggle to reconcile its ultimate ambitions. It’s not a struggle bred out of annoyance though, but one out of curiosity. This is a film that sparks a genuine interest in revisiting not just Goodbye to Language, but Godard’s entire body of work.
So with Goodbye to Language still lurking in my mind, I caught Breathless for the first time. It stood for far too long as a major piece of cinema that I have failed to catch up with. I can’t say it lives up to the lofty reputation that precedes it, but it’s clearly a significant work and possess a vitality that few films today broach upon. It’s a film of such massive impact that, having seen the fruits of its influence, registers as a bit diluted as result. Though it’s interesting to pinpoint the rebelliousness in form shared by Breathless and Goodbye to Language - whether it’s Godard in his early 30s or 80s, the man clearly rejects any tendency toward conventionalism.
Of the handful of Godard films I have seen, it’s Vivre Sa Vie that I have the greatest admiration for. It might be the Godard’s concessions toward narrative clarity and the picture’s emotional accessibility, or simply Anna Karina’s startling capacity for handling a close-up, but it’s a film that I hold in considerable esteem for simply possessing the source DNA for a slew of my modern favorites (particularly Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love). I saw the film at Chicago’s Music Box Theatre during a particularly cold winter several years ago (Godard and winter, I suppose), well before its Criterion release. It was a revelatory experience during my early cinephilia and it’s the film I’m most eager in revisiting as part of the Gene Siskel Film Center’s programming.
Yet as Chicago will finally screen Goodbye to Language, it must be mentioned just how difficult it is for the film to be screening here at all. Despite the promise of expanded theatrical booking following a Cannes victory, distributor Kino Lorber strained to get the film booked throughout the country - and not for a lack of trying. With so few theaters possessing the technological capacities to even screen the film - those that do are major multiplexes that court primarily toward Hollywood productions - it’s something of a miracle that the film has made its way to Chicago at all.
It will be a considerable and unusually fruitful weekend in Chicago’s theaters. Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice screens in select theaters throughout the city; Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan, another Cannes winner, screens at the Music Box Theater; and Ava DuVernay’s messy but timely Selma expands throughout the city. But it’s Godard’s Goodbye to Language that edges out all those releases for the sheer virtue of providing a monumentally new experience - there’s nothing else like it.