Jean-Luc Godard lives for contradictions – his best-known work from the 1960s was at once a zippy, deeply cool play on old Hollywood tropes and a recognition of their limitations, and the hopeless lives of those who try too hard to emulate them. His films always feel terribly misogynistic, even as he acknowledges the destructive impact misogyny causes everyone. He seems to genuinely feel the way men in particular can simultaneously hate and love the women they sleep with, the greatest, most unsettling contradiction of all.
The Image Book, from is very title, is a study in similar contradictions. One of the big pushes in the modernist period in which Godard began his career was to find a way to do with images what the great writers do with words, stripping from the movies as much of the novelistic and theatrical tendencies that defined too much of what was then considered “quality cinema.” Gone were the dramatic monologues and as much plot as one could abandon. Yet despite the abundance of them, we are not a culture trained to think in images, and the eventual conflict comes when it’s possible that humans simply aren’t as geared to read them as we are words. How’s that for contradiction.
So the new film is necessarily opaque, and difficult to read, and I can only draw from it what I drew from it and state up front that your conclusions may be entirely different. Compiling old films – including a few of his own – along with news footage and some original material (shot by Godard and his Goodbye to Language cinematographer Fabrice Aragno), The Image Book is an avant-garde essay without a thesis or perhaps even a subject. The film seems most interested in notions of freedom and captivity, and the thin line separating the two. A long section on trains reminds us that they are – or can be – vehicles promising romantic journeys, or a temporary jail on the way to a more formal one. A briefer section on keys holds a similar purpose; when wielded, they are the avenues to defining one’s own space, but when held by another, they are the very objects of our imprisonment.
In narration, Godard muses on the problem of waste, that the wealthy do so out of spite while the poor do so out of necessity. This leads, of course, as it must at least glancingly in Godard, to the idea of socialist revolution, and how such revolutions are inevitably declared terrorism by the powers that be, and how fraught a term that is now, how ill-applied it is to the terror of capitalist rule.
These are but stray thoughts the film inspired, and are in no way a summation of its aims, or perhaps even an accurate encapsulation of them. One of the true pleasures of the film is the openness it leaves to interpretation, the space it makes to let your mind wander and muse and reconsider. On the podcast, I often rail against thesis-driven cinema that seeks to contain the human experience into a neat package that is readily digestible and easily summarized. The Image Book, despite taking more clearly an essayist format, doesn’t even seek to package itself. “At the cinema,” Godard wrote as a young critic in 1950, “we do not think. We are thought.” The Image Book is such an internal film, filled with the way we process, urging the audience at all times to process for itself.
Despite existing in mere 2D, the film is in its own way just as enthralling a theatrical experience as Goodbye to Language was. Godard plays with the clips he draws from, changing their color palette until they’re purely abstract, squashing and stretching them until they snap back into the correct aspect ratio. Perhaps he’s exploring the way images themselves become prisons? Or maybe he’s just railing at the TV settings that try to make everything fit to 1.78:1…its own kind of prison! Or maybe he’s just having a laugh. The possibilities go on and on.
Godard uses surround sound in very dynamic ways, putting dueling narration tracks at opposite ends of the auditorium or isolating the only voice we hear to a single distant speaker (all the better to highlight the way voices are drowned out or distanced? Who can say). This is especially disorienting for those who don’t speak French, who are reliant on the (somewhat sporadic) subtitles Godard allows an English audience, reading at the front of the auditorium what is being said at the rear. I’d never really considered that subtitles traditionally work in large part because they’re emanating from the same zone as the voices, so having the two so drastically separated was a bit of a head trip. The sound, too, will cut out at strange moments, contradicting onscreen action, or suddenly explode into bone-rattling rumbles (he isn’t pulling clips from Michael Bay’s 13 Hours for nothing).
As I was leaving the screening, I heard another critic note that the film should come with a warning – “this isn’t a film, this is an ART film.” Leaving aside my most immediate question, of how one even becomes aware of a Godard film these days without a sense of what he’s been up to, and further leaving aside that such divisions are meaningless anyway (the legacy of Johnny Guitar, which Godard pulls from, is prime evidence that all cinema is art, or has the potential to be), it speaks to a problematic divide that has haunted Godard’s work and legacy. His aesthetic in the 1960s was quickly co-opted by commercial interests, and you still see traces of it in modern advertising, but those films were also commercial works unto themselves. I’ve been slowly working my way through Richard Brody’s Godard biography Everything is Cinema, and box office returns were not beneath the filmmaker’s concern at all. They are avenues to work. Coming off Goodbye to Language, which sold out venues in New York and Los Angeles, playing for well over a month in both cities (in addition to smaller runs elsewhere), The Image Book has less evident potential, but is very much the work of someone who values the freedom he’s been afforded. And, generously (and thus quite unusually for the confrontational director), he’s extended that same freedom to the audience. Or at least, he did to me. Too many films, even supposed “art house” films, seek clarity to the point of bludgeoning the audience with it. Godard seeks thought.