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‘The Image Book’
By Owen Gleiberman, Chief Film
Variety, May 11, 2018
silence. Nothing but a revolutionary song. A story in five chapters like the
five fingers of a hand.
Jean-Luc Godard's new film is a kaleidoscopic
bulletin on the state of our world, and the question it asks could apply to
itself: Is anyone watching?
“The Image Book,” the new film from Jean-Luc
Godard, premiered today at Cannes with a sense of momentousness. It
felt as though we were getting the Godard
bulletin on the state of the world. At the same time, it’s the rare work of his
that has the aura of a horror film (it’s suffused with images of violence,
intertwining old movies and new atrocities).
The two feelings are far from
disconnected: “The Image Book” is a
Godardian bulletin, and the world that he’s looking at through his
color-saturated semiotic channel-surfing kaleidoscope is one that has fallen
into horror and is spinning out of control. Or maybe it’s fallen under too much
Early on, there’s a chapter title that says “1.
Remakes,” as if Godard
were about to launch a riff on the corruption of Hollywood (if only!). The shot
that follows is a retouched image of a nuclear bomb exploding. That’s a very
Godardian black joke: the prospect of an atomic blast as a
reboot of history. (It’s also a warning.) Speaking to us on the
soundtrack, in a voice that’s now so low and sonorous and croaky with import
that he sounds like Charles Aznavour
crossed with Gollum, the 87-year-old Godard
says, “War is here.” He means that it’s here, and also that
It’s tempting to say that his warning is all about
the brutes and fascists (I won’t mention any names), but Godard
isn’t about to let any of us off the hook. In Europe, he
says in his scratchy cigar quaver, the actions of citizens can’t be separated
from the actions of their government; they’re all one. That’s a truth that too
many — especially on the left — now try to hide from, but Godard
doesn’t like to point fingers unless he’s pointing the finger at
In the ’60s, he made real movies, even if he insisted,
almost from the start, on fragmenting them into academic baubles. The
fragmentation then took over, and the pretense that Godard
was “purifying” cinema by converting it into a playground for allusive brainiacs
become more and more annoying. Yet his work featured actors and pretended, on
occasion (“Hail Mary”), to tell stories.
So it’s something of a paradox
that “The Image Book” is more
accessible and vibrant than much of the work of the past 30 years that Godard
has been reflexively praised for (as, for example, the unwatchable “JLG/JLG”).
He has now gotten rid of actors entirely and found a free-associational mode of
sound-and-image collage that suggests MTV crossed with the Beatles’ “Revolution
9.” He’s no longer a cracked storyteller — he’s an
audio-visual poet. This means that “The Image
Book,” rather than being seen by 12 people,
might find an audience of 112. It was just announced that images from the film
would tour several major cities as an installation, and that feels right. Godard,
let’s be honest, has left the art house behind. He has become his own living
Watching “The Image
Book,” we catch a hundred fragments of things that, depending on
who you are, will trigger different thoughts and feelings and associations. Godard
rips them out of context, crashing together bits of music (Bach, the soundtrack
the Terrible”), old movie clips (Crawford and Dean, “Notorious”
and “Young Mr. Lincoln,” a pinhead from “Freaks”), sado-porn like “Salò,
or The 120 Days of Sodom,” and video footage of terrorist murders
to let us see and hear each one anew. The Hollywood
actors speak of love and passion as if it were a lost paradise. The global
political killers seem to be carrying out a degraded — or maybe it’s a
heightened — version of what the movies taught them.
coruscating images in “The Image
Book” fuse into feelings of dread that build on things that Godard
has been talking about for half a century: the stunting of
emotion by capitalism, the
assassination of language by mere words (that is, by advertising). With
so much civility ripped away, war, Godard
seems to be saying, may be all that’s left.
last third of the movie, he retains his squirmy fixation on the
Middle East, in
which the media’s dehumanization of the Arab world — a
legitimate complaint — is balanced by Godard’s
sanctification of the Arab world. (It’s a little like what he
did in his late-’60s Marxist days, when Mao became hipper to
him than the Euro-American bourgeoisie.)
Yet as you watch
“The Image Book,” it conjures a
totemic darkness that can’t be shaken off. Godard
tells us that people used to want to be Faust, and
now they just want to be kings. That’s the difference between a world of
religion and a world of chintzy power. Our world, in
“The Image Book,” has finally caught
up to Jean-Luc
Godard’s doom-laden dream of it. He
seems to be saying that we all have a choice: to change it, or to sit back in
our TV armchairs and watch.
Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (Competition),
May 11, 2018. Running time: 85 MIN.
Production: A Wild Bunch release
of a Casa Azul Films, Écran Noir Produtions prod.
Producers: Fabrice Aragno,
Crew: Director screenplay: Jean-Luc
Camera (color, widescreen):
Godard, Fabrice Aragno, Jean-Paul Battagia, Nicole Brenez.
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