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If the concluding moments of The Image Book — of a man madly dancing and spinning around until he collapses from exhaustion, taken from Max Ophuls’ Le Plaisir — turn out to be the final images in the oeuvre of Jean-Luc Godard, the last man standing from the French New Wave, they will be a fitting capper to a career devoted to the incessant creation of images and sound, their sweet harmony and violent discordance.
Following his most recent full-length works, Goodbye to Language and Film Socialisme, this one consists entirely of pre-existing footage — clips from fictional films mixed with mostly brutal documentary and news reportage — with a layover of music and mordant commentary from Godard himself. As with his previous idiosyncratic, often inscrutable late works, this will be seen only by a highly select audience of dedicated Godardians, and genuinely liked by just a fraction of those; one can essentially name them.
In fact, The Image Book (Le Livre d’Images) is, for a while, moderately more accessible than some of Godard’s other late work, partly due to its many striking film clips, both familiar and not, and also because, while listening to his raspy voice, it’s easy to imagine the 87-year-old sitting in his Swiss editing room, playing endlessly with scenes from Johnny Guitar, Kiss Me Deadly and Vertigo as his assistants bring him ever-more real-life footage of brutality from across the globe. He monkeys with colors, exposures, speeds and rhythms just as he abruptly gives and takes away sound while expounding on global tragedies in ways that are ideologically familiar while at the same time clever and sometimes playful.
An opening remark, referring to a desire “to think with hands,” would appear to be a witty way of referring to the craft of film editing, which lies at the core of this enterprise. And when the filmmaker refers to “remakes,” he is announcing his intention to reuse old images for alternative means. As modern equipment now makes endlessly possible, Godard tweaks and re-tweaks images here, changing their speed, lightening and darkening images, colorizing them, removing sound, and on and on. Some of it just seems like larkish fun, while at other times it serves to emphasize moments that otherwise would quickly pass. One imagines Godard spending whole days playing with dials, switches and buttons to discover the very moments he wishes to emphasize in his clips, and a good many of them are passingly arresting.
Elsewhere, he disturbingly mixes together fictional and real killings, the former including some of his own work, the latter numerous ISIS executions, as a means to address the selective and fragmentary nature of personal and collective memory, as well as to bluntly announce a preoccupation with death.
Still, when it comes to his commentary, Godard remains more a glibly clever sloganeer than an analytical and persuasive political thinker. The striking images increasingly lead one away from Godard’s sometimes obscure, other times familiar phrasemaking and more toward his visual wit, which remains in moderate evidence.
In other words, there are ways to engage with this highly idiosyncratic work, at least for a while; some traces of the playful Godard of old remain, as well as of his own way of looking at history, which is at once doctrinaire and personal, even if his preoccupations and attitudes sometimes seem as entangled and entrenched as old vines.
Perversely, too, Godard plays cutesy by only offering English subtitles for a portion of his voice-over commentary.
After about an hour, the film settles in to concentrate largely on the “lost paradise” of Arabia. The tenor of the film significantly changes here, paradoxically becoming both more specific and more vague as to what it’s driving at. The platitudes pile up and, whatever Godard is trying to say and do in these last 20 minutes, it doesn’t come together coherently; it feels halfway toward being a different film than the longer first section.
The very ending does provide a briefly renewed charge. But in the end, this sometimes cheeky but fundamentally private work will connect meaningfully only with those few faithful who have taken the whole ride with Godard and didn’t jump off the wagon somewhere shortly after Weekend a half-century ago.
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Competition)
Production: Casa Azul Films, Ecran Noir Productions
Director: Jean-Luc Godard
Editors: Jean-Luc Godard, Fabrice Aragno, Jean-Paul Battaggia, Nicole Brenez