Cannes 2018: The Image Book Review

How does one properly adjudicate the later works of Jean-Luc Godard? Many of his acolytes have followed the iconoclastic filmmaker down his paths of experimentation and fragmentation, revelling in his delights of providing what for them are ripe objects for exegetical contemplation while for the rest of us derisive, incoherent messes that make one yearn for the inarguable delights of his 1968 and prior period.

It’s perhaps worth noting that his last work, Goodbye to Language, shared one of the major awards at Cannes and has fans rhapsodizing about his stylistic and poetical acumen while the more sober of us saw through the nonsense to find an execrable work of pretension, hubris, amateur theatrics and weaponized incoherence.

Yet as always his current film was taken in with an open mind, neither via a closed mind to the possibilities of a satisfying screening experience nor from the position where the deification of Godard results in an inability to see when the Emperor truly is naked.

So consider this a near ringing endorsement that this author didn’t hate The Image Book, meaning of course that those that only revel in his anti-audience works may find this a softened version of his usual onslaught and thus not a major addition to his oeuvres. Sure, for the casual audience this is still poison, yet as a kind of rambling journal entry that incorporates a myriad of film clips, some traditional Godardian stylizations and an apparent fascination with terrorism, we’re at least treated to a concise (under 90 minutes!) incorporation of much of what the filmmaker has stood for in his latest period.

Books will be written parsing the myriad of references named checked, and whether it was deliberate or not the subtitles that only translated half the dialogue makes for an even greater challenge to parse some of the elements for international audiences. The shtick is very much intact – Solarized images of film unspooling? Check. Strangely low-resolution fonts colliding with rapid-fire editing? Yup. Even his use of surround-sound to overlay dialogue and swirl it around the theatre seems near cliché. Yet with this work, more than others, the landing seems to stick a lot more often. Since much of the work is made up of repurposed clips, from classic films like Jaws and Citizen Kane through to ISIS combat footage, there’s a lot to digest visually. The collisions in montage between documentary footage and fiction are the film’s greatest strength, underlying the central conceit that terrorism itself is an aesthetic act.

Some may blanch as his use of holocaust imagery buttresses against a tortured plea for the return to a simpler, more pure Arabia, and it’s hard to find a specific thread to hold onto to pin down his angle on terrorism thanks to purposeful obfuscation of his words and ideas. So while the film seems in many ways a love letter to the terroristic ideal, it also comes close to decrying such radicalism, looking for revolution in a slightly less bloody way.

Needless to say the exegetical parsing of these texts will be done in near Talmudic precision by students of JLG, and despite sharing my initials with this auteur I’ll unlikely be one of those signing up for such a deep dive. Still, as a kind of fever dream that acts like the flashing memories of a dying man trying to make sense of his own paradoxical political and aesthetic life, The Image Book may provide a vital crux by which to begin to peel apart the conflicted ideas of this auteur. One gets the sense that if Mark Cousins’ Story of Film was chopped into a myriad of pieces and the droll Scottish narration was replaced with a more guttery, near solipsistic rant then you’d kind of come up with what Godard has wrought on the world.

For those that care about this filmmaker they will have the pleasure of another work to bite into. For those that gave up a long time ago this may be a way back in, seeing in the work a bit of the playfulness in amongst the more trying and tumultuous elements. I half-joked that Godard passed away in the late 60s (a la “Paul is Dead” rumours with The Beatles), only this Billy Shears was a replacement computer that ingested all the stylistic ticks of this artist and spat out works once in a while that sated fans and generated new converts drawn by the promise of needing to find meaning within the incoherence. Either Godard is getting soft in his old age or the simulacrum is finally working in sync with our current media landscape. Either way, this film is the most fun to watch of any of his for a very long time indeed.

Yes, The Image Book is akin to flipping the channels rapidly while hearing the droning at a Swiss mental institution where one of the inmates is muttering about meaning and scrawling obscenities and profundities on the wall. But that’s the way Monsieur Godard wants it to be, and just maybe this film finally allows even the most cynical of people about his later work to find something to admire.


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