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Someone finally made a truly 3D movie

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Jean-Luc Godard messes with 3D to wonderful results

You’re probably at least a bit of a film nerd if you’re familiar with Jean-Luc Godard, the biggest name of the ’60s French New Wave movement. Even if you don’t know him, you've definitely seen a lot of film techniques that he pioneered. He's credited with turning the jump cut from an editing accident into a legitimate tool. And you know Wes Anderson's playful use of on-screen text and standout bright colors? Godard was doing that 30 years earlier. He’s been incredibly influential when it comes to what modern films look like, so when he decides to play with something new, it's worth paying close attention.

The movie is obtuse. Its techniques are anything but.

Godard's latest picture, Goodbye to Language, is his first feature shot in 3D. It's an impressionistic film about an affair, and for Godard it's as unapproachable as ever, with little semblance of narrative, strange interactions, and characters that basically just make heady declarative statements like, "A woman can do no harm. She can annoy. She can kill. No more." But whether you're interested in his avant-garde musings or not, there's one big reason to see this film: it may be the first one that really uses 3D to do something new.

A lot of great directors have tried their hand at 3D, including Ridley Scott and Martin Scorsese. Notably, Werner Herzog earned plenty of accolade for his use of 3D to portray cave paintings. For the most part, though, 3D films haven't done much more than look like a cinematic pop-up book — a poor excuse to ask for 10 more dollars at the box office. It's fortunate then that Godard has tried his hand at one and come up with some truly interesting uses for it. Here are three big ways that Godard makes it work.

He actually makes 3D look good

Most 3D films either look almost indistinguishable from 2D, or they don't do much more than apply a basic layering effect between the foreground and the background. Godard, on the other hand, manages to film the world in 3D very much as we see it, using a long depth of field that makes the film’s world extend far into the distance. On top of that, many of the scenes are deeply layered, making the 3D effect more prominent than usual. In one scene, there's a good seven layers from front to back (not counting the actors): a potted plant, a chair, a bike, a barrier, a house, another house, and finally some trees. It’s one of the first times in a 3D film that the image truly looks like it has depth.

Another key aspect is that the film is often rolling at a higher-than-usual framerate. That does give Goodbye to Language something close to the much-dreaded "home video" look, but it's stylized enough with bright colors or contrasting highlights and shadows to not matter so much. The result is some gorgeous imagery that makes me really want to see a nature documentary in 3D.

goodbye to language

He mixes 2D and 3D

This may not sound like succeeding at 3D, but it actually leads to a couple of interesting results. For one, it's kind of funny: one of the very first things that you see in the movie is the term "2D" printed in 2D with the term "3D" hovering over it in 3D. It's a little inexplicable, but it's sort of a necessary joke to get you in the mindset for this film.

The more interesting use of 2D, though, is when archival footage (or, at least, what looks to be archival footage) is interspersed with the newly shot 3D footage in the film. In many ways, this is a modernized equivalent to cutting back to a black-and-white flashback. The fact that it's 2D lets us know that it's out of the modern narrative.

He totally messes with your vision

Sometimes the 3D in Goodbye to Language looks crisp, clean, and downright gorgeous. Other times, it'll drive you cross-eyed — and that's exactly what Godard wants to do.

In what's easily the coolest use of 3D in this film, Godard actually splits the image in two. 3D movies are normally shot with two cameras that remain perfectly side-by-side, one capturing an image for your left eye, the other capturing an image for your right eye. But in two scenes of Goodbye to Language, Godard has the left camera remain stationary, pointed at an unmoving character, while the right camera pans to the side to follow another person's movements.

At first, you have no idea what's going on — your eyes twist in pain, you lift your 3D glasses up in confusion. Then, suddenly, you see it: close one eye, and you see 2D action of the character on the left; close the other eye, and you see 2D action of the character on the right; leave both eyes open, and the images play on top of one another, fighting for your attention and only letting you ever really see their essence. Ultimately, Godard has the two cameras rejoin again, completing the picture and relieving you of discomfort.

It's actually kind of uncomfortable to watch this film

That type of discomfort is used throughout the film in other ways as well. In many situations, the two cameras will be positioned slightly too far apart, once again turning your vision cross-eyed. Alternatively, it means that you can shut one eye and see farther around a corner than you might otherwise have seen. (In a maddening twist, this distortion effect even stretches over to the film's English subtitles on occasion.) One of the more clever uses is when this distortion occurs between two characters on either side of the screen, essentially creating a schism between them that twists your eyesight when you try to look. It makes for a very evocative separation between the two characters — a separation that’s so tangible you can quite literally feel it.

These are obviously not all techniques that should be used by most (if any) mainstream films, but they turn 3D into much more of a marvel than it currently is. If all movies are going to be 3D one day, it'd be pretty disappointing if directors never figure out novel ways for using it to tell a story — and Godard is, unsurprisingly, quick to search for something new. This film is called Goodbye to Language, and you have to wonder: perhaps this is an ode to the end of one cinematic language, and the greeting of another.

Goodbye to Language is currently screening at the New York Film Festival. It opens in theaters on October 29th.