Where do you start in sharing news of a film like Jean-Luc Godard’s ‘The Image Book’? Whichever words you choose they’re unlikely to match the next person’s reaction to such a highly personal, dense, obscure and provocative film. If you reject it as indecipherable, that’s fine; the 87-year-old Swiss-French filmmaker isn’t one to approach the crowd open-armed (or care what you think).
Even calling ‘The Image Book’ a film feels misleading: it’s more a nearing-the-apocalypse polemical docu-essay characterised by a cascade of film clips (it all comes back to cinema), literary quotes and a growing sense of unease about the state of the world, leaning into images of violence and debasement, with special interest in the Middle East, now and before.
It’s dark and uncomfortable (as well as funny and mischievous) – but the extracts from movies (by Hitchcock, Pasolini, Godard himself, er, Michael Bay – and many more) feel like relief from the ugliness of the real world it comments on. If, like me, you warm to ‘The Image Book’, you’ll want to see it again; if you don’t, you’ll run out of the cinema screaming.
Late-period Godard – now he’s nearing 90 we have to assume Godard is at the ‘late stage’ – has retreated from shooting any new images at all in any traditional sense. But to say he’s not an image-maker is wrong: he has a visual aesthetic in the collaging of this film that is extremely distinctive; there’s a punkish, digi-crude, cut-and-paste look that’s Godard’s very own. He’s an essayist working with archive film clips, shots of paintings, sound, noise, his own voice and a lifetime of thought and cinephilia.
One of the many powerful things about ‘The Image Book’ is how it so aggressively rejects any sort of gloss or neat packaging. The telling is the story. Godard will be an experimenter and disruptor to the end: the images are often manipulated beyond comprehension, shown in negative or in crumbling formats. The upending sound edit has Godard’s own weakening, scratchy, deep voice coming out from different sides of the room, now way over there to the right, now somewhere behind you.
Even when he was making his ‘straight’ films in the 1960s – such as ‘Breathless’ and ‘Pierrot Le Fou’ – comfort was never Godard’s game. Quite the opposite. It’s right – and impressive – that in a doomy modern world of endless images and infinite words, Godard still feels ahead of the game with his own spin on that same world. You have to take it seriously – even if you hate it.