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Consider this a first draft, a first impression, a first stab at making meaning of a Jean-Luc Godard film. Along with his other late works, Film Socialism (2010) and Goodbye to Language (2014), The Image Book is a dense, multi-layered work of sound and images. It’s unlike anything else in the Main Slate at the 56th New York Film Festival.
Working with his regular collaborator, the cinematographer (who also produced the new film with filmmaker Mitra Farahani) Fabrice Aragno, Godard is in an essayistic, montage mode of filmmaking, mixing relatively few live-action shots with the majority of footage taken from cinema’s history — an approach he honed with Histoire(s) du cinéma (1989–1999). The myriad of images are then further manipulated, Godard stretching, re-framing, de-grading, saturating, speeding, and slowing them down throughout the 84-minute runtime. Anchoring the melange is Godard giving an epigrammatic narration in his gruff voice.
The Image Book is split into five chapters: Remakes/RIM(AK)ES; St. Petersburg Evenings; “Those flowers between rails, a confused wind of travels”; Spirit and Law; and La Région centrale. Or rather, the film has five fingers that make up a hand, for the imagery of digits is interspersed all-throughout The Image Book. In fact, one of the first things we see is a ghostly hand using the pointing finger, calling to mind the one seen in Jacques-Louis David’s “The Death of Socrates.” This is a film in which Godard is leading the viewer’s gaze from one rough-hewn audio and visual cut to the next.
Regard the first section of the film: Remakes. There’s a great circularity to the footage, suggesting not only repetition in cinema but also in world history. Godard even slips in moments from his own films — Les Carabiniers (1963) and what looks to be Weekend (1967). And sure enough, Godard includes a moment from Jaws (1975), the film that spawned the summer blockbuster, which has since been reborn during the remake craze clogging Hollywood today.
By the fifth section (titled after Michael Snow’s 1971 avant-garde masterpiece), the deep-dive into the archeology of film history transitions to the atrocities of the 20th century, namely the Holocaust. The link between cinema and the genocide being trains. They were one of the first images that film pioneers Auguste and Louis Lumière captured, and they were the mode of transportation to the camps. And finally the subject moves to 21st century tumult in the Middle East. A title card reads “Happy Arabia,” which derives from an Alexandre Dumas text. Here, Godard ensconced in a fuzzy logic, goes a little off the rails. This is a portrait of an artist as a grump as he mixes imagery of Arabia, blurring any distinction of the diversity of the different countries and cultures of that region. And yet you wonder if that’s his intent? Can one trust the persistence of imagery — from Hollywood, from news networks — visualizing the Middle East? (No.) Godard’s ideology and politics concerning the Middle East calls to mind the questionable ones held by the late experimental electronic artist, Muslimgauze (Bryn Jones’ stage name). Even though he never visited the region, Muslimgauze, monomaniacally obsessed, made music inspired by Arabic culture and the Israeli-Palestine conflict. At least Godard traveled to the places he considered in preparation for his film.
Despite the at times abstruse content, The Image Book’s sound is another matter altogether. Mixmaster that he is, Godard is one of the best filmmakers making full use of the capacity of sound in cinema today. The first sound one hears is the sharp, piercing tone of 1,000 hertz frequency associated with announcements. At another point, we hear a squawk that recalls the jarring parrot cry in Citizen Kane (1941). The Image Book does have end credits, but the film goes on a little while longer afterwards in a kind of fuge-like state in which Godard’s hackey, croaky, horse voice reverberates on the different channels of the theater’s speakers.
The Image Book is Godard in a minor register. Instead of a symphony, Aragno called it a “chamber film” made for a small, intimate audience. Be that as it may, it is still a work, both surprising and confounding, that indicates the lyrical and poetic potential of montage-based cinema.
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