“One never touches the thing itself but metaphorically.”
– Jean-François Lyotard


In his emphatic review of Adieu au langage (Goodbye to Language, Jean-Luc Godard, 2014) Blake Williams accurately describes the epistemological charge of the film: “Adieu au langage is a lashing out against the symbolic and semiotic structures that hinder our ability to experience truth in the world, and laments the freedoms lost from so many demarcations and hierarchies, while painfully acknowledging the impossibility of the world without them.”1 Some commentators have linked Adieu au langage to various philosophical models to make sense of this “lashing out” of Godard’s film, that seems eager to once and for all grasp at the elusive thing in itself with the help of the newest cinematic gadgets and visual techniques. Stefan Kristensen has interpreted the film’s use of space in the light of Godard’s longstanding ties to the phenomenology of Merleau-Ponty,2 whereas Rick Warner has taken the appearance of Emmanuel Levinas’ book Time and the Other at the beginning of the film as a possible way to detail the film’s construction of intersubjectivity as a primary mode of access to – and transcendence of – being.3

And yet, as is so often the case with commentaries that approach Godard through a particular philosophical framework, these readings, while occasionally fruitful, face the problem of how to approach Godard’s films philosophically in the first place. In contrast to other filmmakers who attract a large amount of philosophical commentary, such as Alain Resnais or Andrei Tarkovsky, interpreters of Godard must account for the fact that philosophy is not something implicit in his films that has to be extracted by the philosophically skilled interpreter. In Godard’s case, philosophical discourse is as much an object of the films as it can be their structuring principle. As a layer of his rich web of voices and allusions, philosophy appears prominently in Godard’s films while, for the same reason, it also appears as bracketed and withdrawn from a direct application, calling into question every totalising attempt at making sense of the films through a particular philosophical doctrine or methodology. 

It is possible to characterise all of Godard’s films as vehicles for the spacialisation of discourses, beginning with Patricia’s hotel room in À bout de souffle (Breathless, Jean-Luc Godard, 1960), where works by William Faulkner and Dylan Thomas are held, read and discussed, through the apartment of the Maoist students in La Chinoise (1967) to the vast tapestries of citation in the later films, where characters often appear as indexes that put into space and motion assorted fragments from the history of literature and philosophy. Drawing attention to this unique characteristic of Godard’s films already in 1969, Susan Sontag writes: 

If film is, in Godard‘s laconic definition, the “analysis” of something “with images and sounds”, there can be no impropriety in making literature a subject for cinematic analysis. Alien to movies as this kind of material may seem, at least in such profusion, Godard would no doubt argue that books and other vehicles of cultural consciousness are a part of the world; therefore, they belong in films. Indeed, by putting on the same plane the fact that people read and think and go seriously to the movies and the fact that they cry and run and make love, Godard has disclosed a new vein of lyricism and pathos for cinema: bookishness, in genuine cultural passion, in intellectual callowness, in the misery of someone strangling in his own thoughts.4

Following Tom Conley’s work on the cartographic qualities of film it is possible to argue that Godard’s cinema creates a peculiar topology of modern life, that emphasises the role discourse as it materialises in written and spoken form in the living environment between people and things.5

Sontag’s observation also involves the notion of a certain equivalence between different domains of knowledge connected in a unified cinematic space that brings to mind Vincent Descombe’s characterisation of the defining characteristic of structuralism as a philosophical method. Structuralism, Descombes claims in his classic study of post-war French Philosophy, is the translation of formerly incompatible fields of knowledge into differential systems of signification, that then can then be set in relationship to each other.6 The notion, that Godard is a structuralist may sound unfashionable today. Yet in a recent collection of essays on Godard and philosophy, Louis-Albert Serrut makes a convincing argument for the reconsideration of this position. It is not in the direct application of this or that set of philosophical ideas or even methods in the films that marks the locus of Godard’s philosophical activity but, the construction of a network of concepts and propositions, philosophical and non-philosophical, in the unifying medium of a fragmented narrative, where we find Godard the structuralist and by extension the philosopher: 

The form of the narrative, discursive and reticular, is propitious for the production of concepts. These are elaborated by the exposition of their different faces and the multiplicity of their operative modes, all of which are constitutive of the general abstract idea that they name. This exploration is realized and accomplished as much by the image as by the sound figures deployed. Structuralism does indeed concord with Godard’s style, constituted as a network of signs, correspondences and inter-relations that operate within Nouvelle Vague, but just as much between the different works of the filmmaker.7

Serrut’s characterisation has the welcome secondary effect, that we do not have to limit our understanding of the films to the philosophical activity of the filmmaker himself, who claims that he “isn’t the one doing the thinking”, but only the agent who constructs a from that allows the films to think by themselves.

Adieu au Langage


Interviewed by the magazine Cinema Scope, Dominik Graf recently praised the literary adaptations of the early new wave as unsurpassed in their aesthetic grasp of the primary sources. And indeed it is a well-known yet still underestimated fact, that the New Wave was as much about literature as it was about film. In his article “Une certaine tendance du cinéma français”, regarded by many as the manifesto of the New Wave, Francois Truffaut cites Andre Bazin’s essay on Robert Bresson’s Journal d’un curé de campagne (Diary of a Country Priest, 1951). This text gives us a key to the understanding of the films of the New Wave and by Godard in particular as an expression of structuralist approach in the domain of film. Bazin writes: 

Here it is no longer a case of translating, as faithfully and intelligently as might be the case, and even less of being freely inspired by loving respect, to create a film that will be the novel’s double. The point, rather, is to construct on top of the novel, through cinema, a work in another state. Not a film which can be described as “comparable” to the novel, or “worthy” of it, but a new aesthetic existence, something like literature multiplied by cinema. The only comparable exercise for which we have examples to hand may be that of films about painting. Luciano Emmer and Alain Resnais are also faithful to the original. Their raw material is the work already formed in the highest degree by the painter, and their reality is not at all the subject of the painting but rather the painting itself, just as we have seen that Bresson’s reality is the very text of the novel.8

What is at stake here is nothing less than a cinematic method that accesses literary text as an object radically heterogeneous in relation to the encompassing meta-text that is the film, that still remains compossible with it. Here we can again recur to Descombes’ characterisation of the characteristic methodology of structuralist method:

Take any novel; for orthodox Marxism it will reproduce either the ideology of the ruling class or that of the oppressed class. For structuralism such a view is premature, to say the least, for the novel originates primarily in the code of novelistic discourse, and not in the author’s social awareness. It is only secondly that as the analysis progresses a structural correspondence may perhaps be established between the novelistic code as a whole (but not this or that particular novel) and the relation of subordination which, of all the relations possible in one group’s power over another, defines the rule of the bourgeoisie.9

While a naive philosophy, such as orthodox Marxism, tends to collapse one system of signification into another, structuralism carves out the irreducible internal logic of one system and places it in relation to the other while keeping the specificity of each of them. Truffaut criticises the screenwriters Pierre Bost and Jean Aurenche on exactly the same basis: they ignore, or are insensitive to, the internal logic of the literary text and try to reduce it to what they take for the properly “cinematic” language, while Bresson and later the New Wave keeps the ontological agency of the text that both transcends the borders of the film and is folded into them by structuring the composition of the film. 

While Bresson may be the first director to directly access the text in its ontological autonomy and difference in the context of fictional film, the text as a virtual factor over-determining and transforming the structure of the film is present in many films of the New Wave. One only needs to think of the paradoxical role of Balzac’s “Histoire du treize” in Jacques Rivette’s Out 1 (1971) or Pascal’s Pensées in Ma nuit chez Maud (Éric Rohmer, 1970). These texts appear both as structuring principles of the films (which can be understood as adaptations of sorts) but also exist within the films as objects, where they are both read and discussed. Yet it is without any doubt Godard who most extensively makes use of and expands the possibilities of this virtual text as a vehicle for the multiplication of meaning and difference within his films. Godard’s dissemination of texts in space creates a situation, where the act of viewing the film becomes an act of essentially co-writing it. As Paul Vacher writes apropos Pierrot le fou (1965): 

We find ourselves faced with a text to decipher which contains apparently aleatory lacunae. These gaps in the textual tissue transform the act of reading by placing reading and writing on the same level. And this happens in a dual way: we read what Ferdinand has written and we invent what is missing, whereas at the same time we can read the manner in which he continues to write. We can therefore affirm that in Pierrot le fou, reading is writing.10

The close ties of the cinematic image to the textual layer structuring the film paradoxically has a liberating effect by setting in motion a circulation of agency between the film and the viewer. This confrontation of the virtual text with the lively documentary nature of many of Godard’s films is one of the main reasons for their lasting appeal as expressed by Graf. Yet the discursive space these films construct has the “downside” of being primarily discursive, which explains the hostility of many critics and audiences towards their high flying “intellectual” flavour. Godard’s films can be said to constitute three-dimensional, dynamic texts where objects, people and words are attached to virtual indexes and footnotes that posit every character and every line of dialogue in Godard’s eclectic and vast cosmos of references. Godard himself has many times affirmed this approach to his films by drawing on Walter Benjamin’s idea of the constellation and his constant quest for a readable image. 

Adieu au Langage

Here it might prove fruitful to consider the relationship of this textual aesthetic to Metzian film semiology, arguably still the theoretical framework that has most extensively elaborated the relationship between film and a structuralist, that is Saussurean, understanding of language. 

In his most famous essay, “The Cinema: Language or Language System?”, Christian Metz famously discourages every attempt at extracting fixed rules from conventions of narration and montage. Film, in Metz’s description, is never language system (langue) in the sense of a fixed relationship between meaningful elements that could express predetermined concepts and propositions. Eisenstein and his vision of a precise language of montage, where shots are equivalent to words in a sentence is Metz’s main theoretical opponent here. While Metz claims that every attempt at systematising montage in this way must fail, he affirms that film spontaneously constitutes a mode of communication of narrative information and he connects this emergence of meaning to the concept of langage. For Saussure langage is the empirical side of language as it circulates among people, in opposition to the implicit set of rules working in the background that constitutes the language system as langue. For Metz, film is a flexible, ever-changing language in motion while never consolidating into a finite system.11 The paradoxical result of this theoretical move is that, while Metz liberates film from attempts of a strict systematisation of its expressive possibilities he ties every cinematic expression to language, even going so far as to disavow the notion of film as a visual art from in the strict sense. Since every bit of cinematic information is processed in linguistic form, the image for Metz can be said to be “blind”.12 

As a film-structuralist Godard in many ways performs Metzian ideas in his works. Consciously disavowing the conventions of narrative cinema, he achieves an unprecedented formal freedom and a density of coexisting cinematic codes that go hand in hand with his formal innovations. Yet as shown above, Godard’s method as a filmmaker is still governed by a textual logic which in a way literalises Metz’ claims about cinema as langage as constituted by shots as linguistic units. In this context it is not surprising that the fantasy about overcoming the limits of verbal understanding of the image already surfaces in Godard’s 1978 Montreal lectures.13

At the heart of Godard’s graphomania there is the constant desire to overcome the image as a linguistic unit, not by way of a minimalist subtraction of meaning from the images, but by exploding the sign from within and breaking through the code to reestablish a new relationship between signifier and signified. Goodbye to Language indeed. 

Adieu au Langage


It is well known that for most of his career, Godard has been an advocate for what he calls the “readability of the image”. From our description of his method it already has become clear what characterises this approach: in Godard’s films objects and characters coalesce in a stratified image in which every element is saturated with multiple layers of meaning and posited in a discursive field, manifest as virtual text, which the film unfolds throughout its running time. The elements of the image become signs which are polysemic to the extreme yet still follow a textual logic even though they are distributed on a nonlinear, diagrammatic plane.14 

In Adieu au langage the perspective is finally reversed and language itself is approached in its inherent metaphorical, and even visual, dimension. The concept around which this idea crystallises is the metaphor. By working through this concept Godard tries to extract practical consequences from his musings about the overcoming of verbal, inescapably logocentric bias in the cinematic image. We find attempts at tackling this problem already in Nouvelle Vague (1990) where the sentences “Les mots et les choses” (“Words and things”) and “Les choses, pas les mots” (“Things, not words”) divide the film and a certain inversion of the visual language following these interfiles can be observed. 

In Adieu au langage we find a similar dualistic structure, yet this time, the two Chapters titled “1 La Nature” and “2 La Metaphore” appear twice and the vast tapestry of events and ideas placed under these headings is far from clear, even for Godard’s standards. By repeating the same intertitles with the same numbering, the film suggests, that these chapters are less to be seen following one after another sequentially. Rather, they are playing in a common present tense, virtually superimposed as it were, so the viewer must split his or her gaze to properly see them int their complementary nature, just as the 3D images are split and superimposed in the film. In this way viewing Adieu au langage becomes an active transferal of meaning from different areas in the overall structure of the film, from “nature” to “metaphor” and back again. Obviously, the film forces the viewers to enact the mental operation that defines the metaphor as a function of language.

The first time the concept of the metaphor is mentioned in the film, a woman by the name of Ivitch asks Davidson, a philosopher who sits on a bank at Lake Geneva studying an album with images by Nicolas de Stael, what the difference between an idea and a metaphor is. Davidson answers laconically: “Ask an Athenian on the tram.” This short sentence both alludes to one of the most common definitions of the metaphor as a transferal of meaning from one context to another – here taken as a literal act of transportation in space “by tram” (public transport in modern Greek is called metaphoras) – and points to the origin of this idea in classical Greek philosophy, and especially the works of Aristotle. 

While this may seem like a rather obvious reference, this invocation of Aristotle in the context of Godard’s bonds with structuralism and continental philosophy calls to mind the complex revaluation that metaphor has undergone in continental philosophy of the 20th century. Paul Ricœur in “The Rule of the Metaphor” has provided a summary of the fate of the metaphor in western thought.15 While in Aristotle’s classical account, metaphor is a constitutive part of language and informs poetry, oration and philosophical discourse in equal measure, later traditions have increasingly associated the metaphor with poetics and rhetorics alone, thereby obscuring its essential role at the heart of language as such. This has coincided with a reduction of the understanding of what happens in language when metaphor is applied. Metaphor has become a mere “figure of speech” and something that happens to single words which are taken out of context for the achievement of a poetic or impressive effect. In his book, Ricœur painstakingly reconstructs the role the metaphor plays in the evolution of discourse: by connecting different subsystems of language through a conscious violation of their “proper” rules, the sentence, and by extension the whole text becomes inherently saturated with metaphorical meaning. Ricœur affirms the Nietzschean claim that language in general and philosophy in particular is metaphorical. Yet while philosophers like Lyotard and Derrida have made similar claims to the ends of revealing the hubris of philosophical discourse in its purported ability to attain truth through a metaphysical “view from nowhere”, Ricœur strives to show how this metaphorical nature of language connects philosophy to the sensible world and makes it possible for philosophical concepts to be “about something” in the first place. Understood as such, the metaphor, as a spoken image, forms the missing link between the sensory and the linguistic. Godard clearly tries to activate this function of the metaphor when, a bit later he cites Beckett: 

J’ouvre la bouche et sors la langue, elle va dans la boue, je reste comme ca, je n’ai plus soif, je rentre la langue, ferme la bouche, elle doit droite maintenant, je reste comme ca c’est fait, j’ai fait l’image. (My tongue comes out, I stay there, no more thirst, the tongue goes in, the mouth closes, it must be a straight line now, it’s over, it’s done, I have made the image).

This quote is accompanied by the image of a hand reaching toward the camera thereby emphasising the power of the metaphor to reach out into the real and literally take an image of it. Yet while he clearly is close to a certain optimism inherent in Ricœur’s take, Godard is also very aware of the limitations of logocentric philosophical discourse. Just as Ricœur has provided a theory of the metaphor as a conduit for the real, many post-structuralists have gone in the opposite direction and shown that the inherent metaphorical logic of language in fact hinders language’s capability to adequately align with the real. Here, language appears just as blind as the image in Christian Metz’s account. Jean-Francois Lyotard’s work on the figural nature of discourse provides a clear example of this problematic where language ins paradoxically blinded by its visual dimension. David Rodowick summarises Lytoard’s position on the figural nature of the visual: 

The scandal of the figure is that it is both inside and outside of discourse. Language is no longer a homogeneous space marked by linguistic unities. The eye is in the word because there is no articulation without the appeal to an outside constituted as a visibility where objects are designated in space, as well as a spatialization that resides at the heart of discourse as an unconscious force – desire.16

This unsettling ambivalence of language may be the reason for the tragic trajectory of the double plot of Godard’s film. Through the power of intersubjective recognition in Levinas’ sense, the twin pair of lovers open up being, yet by becoming ensnared in predetermined linguistic categories and the libidinal drive behind them, their attempts at establishing a stable relationship to each other and to the world at large collapses under the self-annihilating tendencies of both visual and linguistic discourses. 

Yet here the figure of the dog appears. Godard points us toward the overcoming of blindness through an obscure, convoluted piece of text

It is not animals who are blind. Man, blinded by conscience is incapable of seing the world, what is outside wrote Rilke, can only be seen by the animal’s gaze and Darwin citing Buffon, maintains that the Dog is the only living creature that loves you more than it loves itself.

By introducing a third subject into the relationship, that is apparently free of the destructive trajectory of verbal discourse and who is the only creature “that loves you more than it loves itself” the dog opens up an impossible middle ground between the layers of language and the visual. Tellingly; during one of the Roxy-Sequnces, Godard cites a short sentence from Derrida’s “The Animal That Therefore I Am”. In this collection of essays Derrida links the animal to the biblical story of Genesis and a theoretical state of nature before animals were given names by Adam, or rather, a state during which Adam is in the process of naming them. Here we again encounter the couple as a quasi cosmic vehicle of meaning-making. 

The man who, in that rendering, calls the animals by name is not only Adam, the man of the earth, the husbandman . He is also Ish preceding Ishah, man before woman. It is the man Ish, still alone, who gives names to the animals created before him: “The husbandman cried out the name of each beast,” […] Man called all the animals by their names.17

The Dog is there to remind the viewer that although this ideal state before names and before concepts is not attainable in any direct way, it still is possible, at least aesthetically, to withdraw from the oppressive force of abstraction and to approach a state where the world appears as new. In the film this invigorating force of the flux of the real before the name is connected with images of the river around which Roxy strolls and which mystically speaks to the dog in some primary language unstained by the paradoxes of signification. 

Adieu au Langage

With the introduction of the animal other Godard aims at an ideal point where the heterogeneous, yet isomorphic systems of cinematic and discursive language approximate an impossible unity in the infinite. “Point” is to be taken here quite literally, since a point, or a dot, appears twice in the film against a black background. As the shortest sign used in written language, the point also bears resemblance to what, in Derrida’s account of the metaphorical limits of philosophical discourse, is the metaphor of metaphors: 

Each time that there is a metaphor, there is doubtless a sun somewhere; but each time that there is sun, metaphor has begun. If the sun is metaphorical always, already, it is no longer completely natural. It is always, already a luster, a chandelier, one might say an artificial construction, it could still give credence to this signification when nature has disappeared.18

The sun is the central metaphor from which every other metaphor is derived. At the same time the sun constitutes the possibility of the image. In this ideal point of overlap the two “blind” systems of representation form a conduit between language and the real as described in Ricœr’s theory of the metaphor. This paradoxical flipping point where the denotative capabilities of language “touch” the real has haunted post-structuralist philosophy in many iterations 19. All of these models try to pinpoint the elusive process by which the sterile system of stratified metaphors that is language, cracks open and makes it possible for the new to enter into discourse and cognition. As often the case with post-structuralism, these issues can appear terribly complex and beleaguering. But Godard’s film also has a strong sense of the lightness that comes with experiencing this novelty first hand: The opening montage features a scene from Howard Hawk’s “Only Angels have Wings”, where a woman played by Jean Arthur finds out, that she is loved back by Carry Grant simply by flipping a coin. As with love, we know the real for what it is, when we encounter it.


  1. Blake Williams, “TIFF 2014 Adieu au langage (Jean-Luc Godard, France) – MastersCinema Scope 59 (June 2014), https://cinema-scope.com/cinema-scope-online/tiff-2014-adieu-au-langage-jean-luc-godard-france-masters/.
  2. Kristensen, Stefan, “Ah ! Oh ! A propos d’Adieu au langage de Godard”, Décadrages 29-30 (Spring 2015), https://journals.openedition.org/decadrages/812.
  3. Rick Warner, “Godard’s 3D Essay Film: Thinking in and with Adieu au langage (Goodbye to Language)” in The Global Auteur: The Politics of Authorship in 21st Century Cinema, Seung-hoon Jeong and Jeremi Szaniawski eds. (New York: Bloomsbury, 2016), pp. 61-78
  4. Susan Sontag, “Godard” in A Susan Sontag Reader (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 2014).
  5. Tom Conley, Cartographic Cinema, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007).
  6. Vincent Descombes, Modern French Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), pp. 77-103
  7. Louis-Albert Serrut, “Nouvelle Vague” in Louis-Albert Serrut (ed.), Le Cinéma de Jean-Luc Godard et la Philosophie (Paris: L’Harmattan, 2019), p. 143
  8. André Bazin, “Journal d’un curé de campagne and the Stylistics of Robert Bresson” in What is cinema? (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), p. 157
  9. Vincent Descombes, Modern French Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), p. 127
  10. Pascal Vacher, “The act of reading literature in Pierrot le fou, by Jean-Luc Godard”, Comparison 20 (2009), pp. 72-82.
  11. Christian Metz, “The Cinema: Language or Language System?” in Film Language, (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press 1974), pp. 31- 92
  12. Christian Metz, Language and Cinema (The Hague, Paris: Mouton 1974), p. 35
  13. “I think there is an interesting film to be made: to try to find a place where people didn’t learn to read or write and after twenty years see – I think this is no longer possible today because communication is going everywhere.” Jean-Luc Godard, Introduction to a True History of Cinema and Television, (Montreal: Caboose 2015) p. 136
  14. Vincent Berne connects this tabular nature of Godard’s images to the Groupe Mu’s analysis of the tabular and the linear as coexisting logics in literature. Vincet Berne: “Partages de l’image et du verbe – Jean-Luc Godard et la question de la différence iconique” in Louis-Albert Serrut (ed.), Le Cinéma de Jean-Luc Godard et la Philosophie, (Paris: L’Harmattan, 2019) pp. 23-87
  15. Paul Ricoeur, The Rule of the Metaphor (London, New York: Routledge, 2003).
  16. D. N. Rodowick, Reading the Figural, (Durham, London: Duke University Press, 2001), p. 9.
  17. Jacques Derrida, The Animal That Therefore I Am, (New York: Fordham University Press, 2008) p. 15.
  18. Jacques Derrida, “White Mythology” in Margins of Philosophy (Brighton: The Harvester Press, 1982), p. 251.
  19. Most notably in the series of paradoxes that constitute Deleuze’s Logic of Sense. Gilles Deleuze, Logic of Sense (London: Bloomsbury, 2015)