Journeys into Dissonance: Close-Up on Jean-Luc Godard's "The Image Book"

Jean-Luc Godard's Special Palme d'Or-winner is difficult, sometimes impenetrable, obtuse, challenging—and brilliant.
Jason Wood

Close-Up is a feature that spotlights films now playing on MUBI. Jean-Luc Godard's The Image Book (2018) is having its exclusive online premiere in the United Kingdom from December 3 – January 1, 2019.

The Image Book

Attempting to write about Jean-Luc Godard’s The Image Book is a frankly Sisyphean and onerous task. We can start with the fact that the film was screened in Cannes and in the closing ceremony was awarded a Special Palme d’Or, the first in the festival’s history. The award felt like a merci et au revoir to one of the most distinctive, pioneering thrillingly intellectual and irascible directors in cinema; a man who re-mapped and re-routed the destination of the medium many times. But was seldom thanked for it, at least not after the halcyon New Wave period that incorporated Breathless (1960) and Contempt (1963). Godard, it transpires, has no plans to stop working. Good for him; the perennial fly in the ointment. He obviously takes an active role in production notes too. The ones the distributor provides for The Image Book are like something Heidegger might have come up with. They made my head hurt. The written equivalent of Le vent d’est (1970), one of the films Godard made as part of another collective, the Dziga Vertov Group.  

The Image Book premiered in Competition at Cannes and had its debut presentation in the majestic Grand Théâtre Lumière, an imposing emporium designed to accentuate the fact that cinema can be a majestic synthesis of sound and vision. (Cinema can also be The House That Jack Built.) My personal experience, and this is open to conjecture, was that the film was booed and applauded in equal measure. As is now tradition with any Godard screened in Cannes, several people seated in my row left rather noisily, making a haughty show of their disdain, as if perhaps they had been served up one of the suppers from Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975), a clip of which features early on. This visual signifier is followed shortly after by a particularly dissonant Scott Walker composition and if this film resembles anything at all, it is something from Walker’s post-Tilt ouevre. There is also the work of the Shostakovich-influenced Alfred Schnittke and a liberal dose of sounds from Manfred Eicher’s ECM catalogue. Difficult, sometimes impenetrable, obtuse, challenging, brilliant. This is not chart fodder. Watching The Image Book, a voyage through the mediums of art, history, politics and cinema which feels reminiscent of 1988’s eight-episode compendium Histoire(s) du cinéma, I was enraptured, confused and constantly exhilarated. Throughout the screening and to the accompaniment of chairs slamming up as their inhabitants fled for safety, I thought frequently of a quote from Alexsandr Sokurov. Some seven months later whilst wrestling with the film and its dense, labyrinthine nature I think of it still: We shouldn’t be afraid of difficult films, we shouldn’t be afraid not to be entertained.  

Sometimes it is easier to see The Image Book through the prism of others. Jonathan Romney, writing in Screen described it as “a meditation in sight, sound, text and blazing colour that is intractably hardcore even by the standards of Film Socialisme and 3D experiment Farewell to Language.” That’s pretty much the sum of it. Romney, and other similar smart decoders, are also right to point out the film defies estimation and assessment. If Jonathan Romney can’t understand it what hope have the rest of us? And that is actually one of its myriad pleasures. There may be logic to the constant barrage of text, sound and image, but it is very much in the eye of the beholder. What this film does is make it feel exciting to look, listen and feel. It’s a genuinely disorientating but also transportive and rhapsodic experience and I can’t think of too many other recent trips to the cinema you can say that about. If you don’t like it leave. Or watch Bradley Cooper’s A Star Is Born.

Using recorded voices, including Godard’s slightly weathered, wheezing and distorted rasp, but dispensing entirely with narrative and actors, The Image Book is cinema as sampling. It’s Godard in the echo chamber, with a 1970s-era Lee Scratch Perry in the producer’s chair. Or its vintage-era The Fall, with Godard as Mark E Smith, randomly turning the amps up and fiddling with the monitors up just to get a reaction and fuck things up.  A fragmented and frequently self-referential collage of sounds and images that uses sequences from Godard’s own back catalogue alongside artworks, texts, novels and other frequently manipulated media images in which pleasure may be denied or curtailed (just as you fall under the spell of something it tends to be excised from the screen), it begins with a succession of images of hands and fingers, illustrating (or illustrated by) the spoken statement that “man’s true condition is to think with hands.” Other clear themes that emerge and which are accentuated by the chapter-like structure are the Holocaust (a recurring preoccupation in recent Godard since Histoire[s]) and the Middle East, or more specifically in the case of the latter, the Western suspicion, resentment and subjugation of the Middle East and Middle Eastern peoples and politics, and images.  

A collaborative venture with Swiss filmmaker Fabrice Aragno, former Godard production manager Jean-Paul Battagia and academic and theorist Nicole Brenez (Godard has always been an excellent diviner of collaborator), the film has been described by Notebook editor Daniel Kasman as “as much ‘a film by Godard’ as it is ‘research by Godard.’” This makes more sense when one considers the Cannes press conference in which the 87-year-old Godard beamed himself in from his Swiss residence via FaceTime and seemed unsure as to the actual content of the film. Journalists asked him about the inclusion of clips from a number of somewhat surprising sources only for the director to seem at first bemused and then doubtful as to their inclusion. Perhaps it’s all part of the game, a fragment of this mammoth but bracing cross art installation. We should remember after all that The Image Book bears the signature of the filmmaker that when once attempting to describe fellow directors in terms of their counterparts from the world of sprinting equated Steven Spielberg with Ben Johnson. Sometimes artistic statements should be hard work, their meanings buried deep and sometimes unobtainable. And we shouldn’t be afraid of difficult films. Sometimes we should embrace or at least engage with them, allow ourselves to be cast adrift on their intellectual flow.  

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