Few films from this year challenge their actors like Goodbye to Language, Jean-Luc Godard‘s 39th feature and his first in 3D. It is here where two things take center stage: first is that format, so often a misused gimmick but, in his hands, shown in perhaps its most astounding powers; second is, of all things, Roxy, a dog played by the writer-director’s own pet canine, and through whose eyes viewers see a majority of the film.

But a real emotional center does indeed emerge amidst the eye-popping techniques and philosophical musings, and one of Language‘s greatest effects is very human indeed: Héloïse Godet, whose fearless performance helps lay bare (literally and figuratively) the complicated gender dynamics of Godard’s work. We discuss some of that below, all while learning how his intuitions come to fruition on a set, the experience of working with such heady material, and what the creative association means for your own self-worth as a performer. If we’re fortunate, the apparent confidence it’s granted her will help breed a long, prolific career.

The Film Stage: I’ve been hearing about this film for a while — at least since production began in mid-2012. It must be strange, after all this time, to be here, talking about it.

Héloïse Godet: Absolutely. And also because I could’ve never come here, because it’s always the creator representing the whole team, not really the actor.

Godard doesn’t do so many interviews these days. I find it interesting how the main representation for U.S. press are you and Fabrice Aragno, his cinematographer. Do you thus feel any pressure to represent Goodbye to Language in an “adequate” manner? There may be the sense of speaking on someone else’s behalf.

I’m not speaking on his half completely, because I couldn’t be in his mind and internalize what he was trying to say. I’m just speaking about my experience, which is where I can have less pressure. People sometimes ask me questions as if I was Godard, and then just, like, try to say, “Well, I had this story and that’s it.” I’m not going to try to invent what’s in his mind, which is really… [Laughs] He has a genius mind that is not completely what you could expect to analyze.

When did you finish shooting this film?

Last November, there were extra takes for the sound. Last November, yeah; end of November. Otherwise, for me, it was the Autumn of 2012. So you’re right: long time ago. But the actors for the second part of the movie, the second couple, they’d been shooting six months after me. So they were expected to arrive in Winter, and that’s what happened to me before: I was chosen in 2011, and then, little by little, “No, later. No, later.” So I turned down some projects to be available, and that was kind of hard for a bit, but then it was worth it.

You haven’t done many interviews on the subject of Goodbye to Language, but I was still able to learn he’d originally found a photo of you, which sparked his interest.


One thing I didn’t quite understand is if you auditioned for the film, or if he found out about you through some other means.

It wasn’t really an audition. I think the 45-minute interview with his assistant, because it was filmed, was kind of an audition, because he just wanted to see if I was able to talk, if I was a normal person — because we were just talking about life and my way of seeing work — and, also, he’d seen a short movie. So he knew I could act, basically. That’s what he wanted. And he knew I could talk normally, but, also, he’s been deconstructing my way of talking by having me work on this deaf, dumb, hair-lipped, kind of handicap before the shooting.

He knew I was available about whatever could happen, including nudity. He knew I could be normal; I wouldn’t be a pain in the ass. [Laughs] That was basically it. I was chosen before meeting him. Then he, for production reasons, it turned out, he said, “Now I’m going to work with an actress from Switzerland,” so I was really disappointed. After that, it didn’t turn out to be what he expected, so he said, “I want to meet Héloïse again.” That’s where, you could say, it would be an audition, but not really. He said, “Just read this text,” but I think he had already made up his mind. It was just to shake hands and talk about whether I would be all right doing it.

You must’ve been at least somewhat familiar with his work before getting the role.

Before the offer, I knew the classical movies — I mean, the first ones. I knew, like every French person that is a little bit into cinema, but he’s really so famous that you just put on the TV. At some point, there is Contempt, there is Pierrot Le Fou, and several others. You don’t have to really look for it — it’s here. But then, when I heard about it, I heard this festival that had this enormous retrospective, and I was really lucky that it was really good timing, and so I saw a lot of things. Including things that are really rare, like the really-difficult-to-watch ‘90s movies — I mean, “really difficult to watch,” not really, because I’m really into it. I’m really into watching those movies, but it’s not a narrative kind of approach. But, yeah, after that, I educated myself — because I had some pressure, of course.

It’d be totally different in America, where a lot of people simply don’t know his films. What was the reaction among friends, family, colleagues et al.?

Oh, it was crazy. [Laughs] It was hysterical, because he’s huge. At the beginning, people were like, “Really? Are you sure?” Not meaning, “I’m a liar,” but, “Are you sure it’s going to happen? Don’t take it too high. Don’t get too many expectations, in case he turns down,” which happened, so people were right to tell me, because I was so excited. But then, when it was really sure… which, actually, it was really sure just on the day I was shooting, in front of the camera, and “action.” Because, before, I could’ve been turned down at any minute, because of what he made us used to. Like, “Okay, we’re going to film now… no, no, in three months.” Around me, people were really excited for me, but because it went during a long time of expectations, we learned also to be reasonable.

How so?

I mean, talk about it like I’m going to work with Godard, but let’s see when, let’s see how… we’ll see. And then, when it finally happened, people went crazy. “Tell me about it! Tell me about it! Tell me stories!” But you’re right: there were not that many interviews. There were just some, but not that many, because people are right about the movie: the real star is the dog.

Was there any requirement to be secretive from Godard or anyone else?


There weren’t many reports on what was happening.

Yeah. There was an excitement about the mystery.

One thing I wonder: I can’t claim to wrap my head around all of this movie, but I find both the images and ideas within to be very exciting. How is it to sit down with a screenplay of his and read it? I can only imagine that it’s very different from most other screenplays you read.

Yeah. I regret not having brought it with me, because it’s a book. There’s one page of text and one page of images, and you go through it like contemporary art. There was pretty much all of the movie, already, in the script, because the images are also already kind of edited. It’s really, really interesting. And so I go through it like something I could analyze for ages, and I know that he didn’t want us to go to “psychological” places or anything, but you couldn’t! There was no narrative story, so every time I’m asking questions I’m like, “What do you mean?” I knew I wouldn’t have any answer.


Did you like that?

It was kind of scary at some points, but because he was so detailed in his direction about the movements, the way of talking — like with music sheets — I wasn’t scared at all, afterwards, because I knew I was in good hands. And if I did what he wanted, it’d be all right for him, at least, and, for me, I was feeling comfortable. But then preparing it was still trying to see the sentences in the kind of dialogues — there was not a real dialogue — where it was coming from, but it didn’t really bring me many clues, though. Some bits were coming from the historical or social, cultural analyzing books. But even if it was from a book analyzing the language, I wouldn’t read the whole book to try to know what he meant, because it’s the composition of all these little sentences together that makes it special. It’s not especially where it comes from or what he meant.

Did it take an especially long time for him to establish compositions or block actors? It all seems so precise, so I have to wonder if he’s especially slow or, in fact, moves at a normal rate.

No, it’s normal. I mean, he knows exactly what he wants, very fast. Is this what you meant?

Yeah, absolutely.

He’d just put you there and tell you to do that.

It seems difficult to conceptualize what that experience is like.

[Laughs] I know! I know. I’ve done a diary, every day, that was published in the Cahiers du cinéma in France, in the June piece. And it’s pretty detailed, the everyday life on the set, but I should have translated it to bring it with me, too. Some days were more confusing than others, but, sometimes, it was just full of jokes all day long. You could expect that from him. But sometimes he was down, sometimes he was really, really into jokes.

Well, the film is really funny.

Yeah. Do you think so, too?

I very much do.

I’m happy that you say that.

I saw it a couple of weeks ago, and, when exiting the theater, I said to a friend, “I didn’t think I’d be laughing so much at the very end.”

Yeah! Especially the last moment! It was brilliant. That’s such a brilliant end.

Did you see it prior to Cannes?

Yes. There was one for the crew.

Could you talk about seeing yourself in 3D? That experience seems so bizarre.

Actually, during the filming, I already saw a little bit, because, at some point, they had to check if one camera worked. Godard has a big 3D TV in his home. We were sitting in his home. We all wore 3D glasses — he had a bunch of them in his house — and we were plugging the camera to the HDMI on the TV, and just watching what we just did in 3D. So I already saw what it would be like, and it turned out that one of the cameras didn’t work, so we had to re-do some takes.

Otherwise, I thought it was bringing something very special — an ambiance. It also was very special to watch all that. It’s always a little bit hard to watch yourself, but I think I was pretty happy with what I saw. But the rest of the movie, in general, I kept being surprised and happy about the whole movie. Really, really enjoying it.

Even if you don’t completely understand it.

I don’t, and I think people come to me and say, “It’s the third time I’ve seen the movie. I still don’t understand anything.” I say, “Ahh, well, just get your own experience. It’s just like poetry: you don’t always want to internalize everything the poet would have to say.”

I think that would be exciting, starring in a film you don’t totally grasp.

Yeah. It’s not that I don’t “understand” it — it’s that you don’t get everything. You just feel things that are really emotional, because of the mix with music, with the frustration that he’s creating. I love that he surprises us in an uncomfortable way. [Laughs] That puts the audience in the position of being awake all the time. That’s interesting.


Regarding Language’s other couple: were you ever placed in a room to talk with them, or —

Before the filming?

Before the filming.

With Godard, or just between us?

Either / or.

We had one appointment in a café in Paris, on a terrace. I thought, “What? Godard is on a terrace and nobody’s jumping on him?” But that’s what happened. He’s in the streets of Paris like a normal guy, with his big cigar — all the time with his cigar, enjoying Paris — and we were all together with the actors on a terrace, him and his assistant. He was saying, “Oh, I’m happy that you’re all here. We’re going to do this thing together. How are you?” And that’s it. Not trying to explain anything.

It’s interesting how he casts an actor who looks like you. A lot of people don’t even realize there’s a switch, so I wonder if, when you first met them… was it really just going over things and moving on, or did you talk in-depth about the performances?

I wish we would have, but he was more talking about everyday things — not especially “everyday,” but he was not trying to get me into the film itself. He was really more trying to know which person I was in life, to know if we would get along together, and how I was feeling. I think he wants, also, to have the company of people he likes. [Laughs] That makes it logical, because maybe he doesn’t want to get annoyed anymore; that’s why he has such a small crew. We were just five. [Pause] I don’t know if… yeah, what I say is right, I think. I don’t pretend to analyze what is in his mind, again.

You certainly know better than I do. Along with the screenplay containing words and images, did he ask you to look at any specific works of art or read anything in particular? For instance, there are films on the TV. I don’t know if you needed to watch those beforehand.

Not really. Yeah, at some point, he gave us a painting of abstract art, saying, “That’s your character.” That was kind of a direction. He gave this to Kamel [Abdeli] and me, and we were not surprised. I think we really enjoyed it.

So you understood this, “That’s your character”?

Yeah, but maybe because my mind is a little twisted, too. [Laughs] I don’t know. But Kamel actually did to the same school as me, which is a theater school, the Jacques Lecoq International School, where you get asked to represent, on-stage, with your buddy, without speaking, an abstract tableaux. So that wouldn’t be that surprising for us. I mean, representing something that would be blue and long, or a ball of fire, you could express the idea of your character.

But that wasn’t that psychological as when Godard gave us this abstract painting. We just thought, “Okay, let’s just not really talk too much about it.” We just tried to evoke it in front of Godard to make him know that we were thinking about it, but not too much analyzing. Just trying to feel things. But, you know, when you see the result, you don’t really know if we could make the difference. It’s so…


Visceral? No. He made us talk so naturally. Degree-zero of talking, without trying to interpret or anything.


Agh, that doesn’t give you much… [Laughs] That’s full of contradictions, what I say.

I don’t think so. No, I mean, what you’re saying makes sense — it’s just a matter of working through a process.

Yeah, you’re trying to make your way through this process, but it’s never really that clear. [Laughs]

It seems somewhat clear for you, working through it. I guess one thing I would wonder is if, after doing this film, you come out of the process feeling like a new actor? I mean, do you go to the next set with a suddenly alien feeling?

“Alien”? Yeah. Maybe just a little more confident, because I knew working with Godard. Just because I felt he wasn’t that easy to be always so available. But I think, because I’ve experienced that, to take this small direction where he is just whispering, “Okay.” And just starting these takes that he’s adding [snaps fingers] at the last minute. I’ve never learned takes that fast. Also, I know that I’m able to do that, so, after all the sets, that made me, maybe, just a little more confident and ready for anything.

“If I can go through Godard, I can go through anybody.”

Yeah, that was kind of my… [Laughs] Yeah.

Whether or not that’s a little egotistical, there’s a truth to it.

Yes. But it’s so specific, also. I think nothing is going be the same after, so I shouldn’t be that confident. [Laughs] There was just Godard and nothing else.

Well, it is making a splash, and your work has garnered the biggest notices, as far as an actor is concerned — excepting Roxy, of course.

Of course.


Goodbye to Language will begin its U.S. release on Wednesday, October 29.

No more articles