Before Jean-Luc Godard’s latest essay-in-motion screened at the 2019 New Orleans French Film Festival, a presenter reassured the audience that the projection we were about to see was not broken, glitching, or corrupted. That turned out to be a helpful tip, as The Image Book plays about as smoothly as a gas station rap CD found facedown on parking lot pavement. The audio & imagery of the film alternate from complete darkness & silence to deafening booms & blinding vibrancy to erratic peaks & valleys in-between. Godard’s narration is sometimes subtitled in English, sometimes not, and he’s often cut off in the middle of a vague political or philosophical pontification. Images are frequently shown in their proper aspect ratio for a half-breath before being stretched out into full-screen, over-saturated monstrosities. The Image Book is a deliberately ugly, frustrating experience that strips the art of cinema of all its sensory pleasures in order to punish its audience. If I weren’t watching it with a snooty film festival crowd and if Godard’s name weren’t vouching for the purposeful intent of its sensory aggression, I assume there would have been even more flustered walkouts than the two or three I witnessed at our screening. Listening to old folks & college students intone “Hmmm” & “Ahhh” to themselves during the film as if in an art gallery where they “got” the subliminal meaning of an abstract oil painting was hilarious to me, as Godard did not give us much to work with in establishing patterns in his madness. I suspect most of our audience saw the grueling experience through for the exact reason I did, though: appreciation for the aging, curmudgeonly filmmaker’s audacity, even though he hates our guts for being there.
To his credit, Godard does afford The Image Book a clear sense of structure as a whole, even if its minute to minute rhythms are a dissociative free-for-all. The film is broken into five segments: one for each finger of the hand. This is explained with brief justification about how all art is made by the hands of its creator, which ultimately doesn’t mean much to the themes of the piece, but a guiding sense of structure is still appreciated in this kind of experimental cinema anyway. Three of the five segments seem especially vital to the The Image Book‘s thesis, as vaguely defined as it is: an early section titled “Remake” that pulls & distorts imagery from notable cinema past; a central section that collages imagery of steam trains & Nazi occupation; and a concluding section that offers sympathy to the suffering people of Arab nations who can only express their frustration with their government & Western oppressors through terrorist violence, as all other means have been stripped from them. There’s a lot of bleedover in all these segments, as even the early cinema clips are interrupted by war footage (and home videos of children playing war) and the distorted movie montages themselves continue throughout all five “fingers.” What Godard is trying to say with this assemblage is anyone’s guess. He makes a somewhat clear-eyed distinction between the decadent wealth of the West and the war-torn poverty of the Middle East, but the narration itself is too loosely philosophical to put too fine a point on what he’s saying. Mostly, what comes through is the sadness & anger of an old man who’s getting weary of watching the world burn with no sign of substantial change to come, a frustration he’s eager to pass on to his (mostly Western) audience as punishment. It’s a bleak political treatise that supposes its audience is unworthy of any cinematic pleasure, even the comfort of a clear thesis or narrative.
The Image Book is many things: a movie fanzine, an angry political screed, a flippant troll job, a solemn philosophy piece, a pretentious art film indistinguishable from a parody of itself. The wide range of cinematic relics it pulls from (including titles as varied as Un Chien Andalou, La Belle et la Bête, Elephant, Freaks, Salò, and Johnny Guitar) could easily make for a stunning, moving work of transcendent film fandom, but Godard deliberately uglies them up and robs them of their splendor. This may initially seem pointless when he’s distorting them though color-saturated Xerox copies in stretched-out aspect ratios or interrupting them with footage of war atrocities & hardcore pornography. By the time the film focuses on the atrocities of the now, particularly in the politics of The Gulf, it at least feels like there’s a commanding thesis behind the ugly chaos of it all – if not only in reflecting the ugly chaos of the modern world at large. Attempting any more concrete of a guess on what the French New Wave veteran was getting at with this ugly, fractured, grueling essay in motion could only make me sound like the beatnik lunatics in my audience who were shushing background chatter and whispering “Aha!” to themselves as if they had cracked some intellectual code. This is not a film that allows for a hypnotic, immersive experience; it has all the fluid movement & graceful logic of William S. Burroughs’s herky-jerky cut-ups experiments at their herky-jerkiest. However, it does command a confident, ambitious, righteous anger that I can’t help but be impressed by as a stunned observer, an anger that affords it a one-a-kind novelty as a stream-of-consciousness cinematic tirade.