If The Image Book does turn out to be Godard’s final gesture—and as you say, it certainly feels that way—it’s one I’m certain to cherish, not least because it's the rare competition film that left me with more questions than answers. "Nothing is as handy as a text,” Godard intones—and a later image offers a title page for the complete works of Alexandre Dumas. But where does one even begin creating a catalog of images? A tracking shot through a ballroom in the third section ("St. Petersburg Evenings") is smeared into gorgeously over-saturated color; the unstable ground of Michael Snow’s La région centrale transforms into a shadowy cascade of pebbles; emerald waves break over the surface of a cliffside vista in "Arabia." In Godard’s hands, various materials and texts are plundered, transformed and thus renewed; piracy is brought up alongside archaeology. “To produce is to breathe… to exist,” he says later. Apart from being, among other things, a beautiful exhortation, The Image Book is a forceful reminder of what it truly means to provoke.
A provocation of a different sort: Gaspar Noé’s Climax, his cheekily-titled follow-up to the 3D-porno Love. In true Noé-esque fashion, Climax opens at its story’s conclusion, with a top-down shot of a bloodied woman collapsing in the snow followed by the credits; it then glitches back to the “beginning” with a series of interviews with various dancers framed by a TV set surrounded by what would seem to be Noé’s personal canon (VHS tapes of Salò, Suspiria and Possession, among others). What follows is perhaps the single most electric experience of the festival thus far, a deliriously, dizzyingly choreographed dance sequence—aggressive and liberated, all the more so for the sexual fluidity of the dancers themselves. In true Noé-esque fashion as well, there’s not much of a story to speak of. Apart from a shift in tone occasioned by LSD-spiked sangria, Noé’s investment comes across as primarily non-narrative. An extended top-down shot that captures bodies flailing and contorting in and out of the screen, spinning every which way, is utterly hypnotic—so canny in its use of perspective and perceived volume that one wonders why Noé chose not to shoot in 3D. Arenas of light, space, neon color and pulsating, writhing movement intersect with a Bosch-like abyss of unrelenting, escalating dread—not unlike the implacable provocations of Darren Aronofsky’s recent mother! All the while, Benoît Debie’s camera moves across decrepit hallways and dimly lit rooms as if possessed, drunk and drugged out, a direct channel for alternately blissful, hellish sensation. “This is not a good place,” someone intones early on, before the debauched, debased proceedings begin—a perverse understatement for those familiar with Noé, but also an indication of the French provocateur’s sense of humor. A virtuosic, infernal evocation, it's as uncompromised a vision as any at the festival.
Another furious LSD-fueled assault, also in the Directors’ Fortnight: Panos Cosmatos’ Sundance sensation Mandy, which seems to be a gonzo cult-horror object in the making. Cleaved cleanly into a two-act structure of assault and retribution, its opening passages evoke a relative calm: the title character (Andrea Riseborough) living with a lumberjack Red (Nicolas Cage) in an isolated cabin by “Crystal Lakes.” Nighttime whisperings are rendered in shifting primary colors; a brief jaunt in the woods is suffused with a noxious yellow glow. The world is hazy and unreal, as if veiled by some sort of haptic energy, the light, prismatic. “A ghostly emerald light… Strange and Eternal,” reads Mandy from a pulp-fiction novel, as if reciting an incantation. A crazed Messianic cult leader designates a spectral and Carrie-esque vision of Mandy as an object of desire and an infernal biker cult is summoned for the task. Cosmatos’ vision is appropriately cosmic and apocalyptic, although its distended contemplations in the first hour can be somewhat trying, even suffocating. But once a murderous fire has burned to ash, the descent begins in earnest. Occult utterings and arcane weapons are churned into the hellish mix—a veritable whirlwind of blood, gore and absurdity. (“You ripped my shirt!” screams a blood-soaked, wild-eyed Cage as he cleaves an opponent in two—a moment that occasioned cheers and whooping from the crowd.) There is, perhaps, something dubious about Cosmatos’ eager extremity, his readiness to please the built-in audience for such a project, encapsulated by the chainsaw fight (!) towards the end. (Cosmatos’ genre provocations are, as of yet, a far cry from the likes of the late Tobe Hooper.) But as with Noé’s frontal attack—the sensation is everything: “If you’re not with me, you will not ascend.”
Entirely removed from both Fortnight provocations are the gentle undulations of Jafar Panahi's 3 Faces, the Iranian director's follow-up to the Golden Bear-winning Taxi (2015) and his first film to screen in the main competition. In brief, the film follows Panahi and veteran actress Behnaz Jafari, both playing themselves, as they journey to the Azerbaijan region of Iran to search for Marziyeh (Marziyeh Rezaei), an aspiring young actress who, according to a video sent to Panahi, had committed suicide after her requests for help to Jafari were ignored. It's a distinctly Kiarostami-like setup, and the early sections, in which Panahi and Jafari interact with various villagers—most of whom know Jafari through her television appearances—have a shambling, but generative quality. (Alternate title: Visage, Village.) A man exhorts Panahi to speak in Turkish; another asks him to switch back to Persian. Consistently, the villagers speak of Marziyeh as "empty-headed"; her desire to attend a conservatory becomes a source of shame, a reason to "lose face." An old woman rests in an unfilled grave, her "final abode," seen later as the frame is filled with darkness punctuated by isolated pools of light. A cracked frame occasions the elegiac, hopeful final shot (again indebted to Kiarostami), which is not without a certain resonance, particularly given Panahi's continuing political confinement. But the lingering question—and a literal one, in terms of the ostensible plot—is: Where does Panahi go from here?
Over to you, Danny.