‘The Image Book’ Review: Godard Looks at Violence, and Movies

To borrow an idiom from the extremely online, late Godard is a mood. Inscrutable, stubborn and pessimistic; preoccupied with historical traumas, dead writers and old movies; and yet, in spite of what looks like nostalgia and sounds like fatigue, unmistakably — defiantly — present, alive and engaged.

That said, I don’t think I’m alone among Jean-Luc Godard completists in finding that my admiration (or tolerance) for a given film depends a lot on my own mood at the time of viewing. For the past 20 years or so, the movies themselves have been consistent in their themes, attitudes and rhythms, but sometimes I’m unable to shake myself out of my sunny, shallow, American mental habits and succumb to the master’s gloomy Gallic wit and intellectual intransigence.

Other times I find in Godard’s fluid collages of verbal, visual and musical citations something that I desperately need. A reminder of the endless work of thought, maybe, or of the fragmentary nature of personal and collective experience, or of books I might have read and movies I might not have seen. In any case, this moment feels right for “The Image Book,” composed (like much other late Godard) of video clips counterpointed with literary texts and classical music, all of it partitioned into numbered, cryptically titled chapters. I found it haunting, thrilling and confounding in equal measure. It is a work of ecstatic despair, an argument for the futility of human effort that almost refutes itself through the application of a grumpy and tenacious artistic will.

The title can be read as an invitation — to go back, to underline, to make notes in the margins. This isn’t scripture, but rather a compendium of cuttings and jottings, an idiosyncratic commonplace book. The images Godard has assembled come from a vast range of sources and have been gathered using an almost equally wide variety of methods. Occasionally the screen provides a clue, a network watermark or a smartphone logo visible in the corner. What you see looks like a mix of the topical and the canonical. Movie scenes are intercut with snippets of video culled from television and the internet. Colors are blurred, bleached and bled together in such a way that the boundaries between representation and abstraction all but vanish.

Nonetheless, you squint to understand what you’re looking at, and scramble to keep up with the associative momentum of Godard’s mind. What’s on that mind, mostly, is violence, which emerges not only as a frequent subject of cinematic representation over the years but also as an essential component of the form’s genetic material. “The Image Book” implies a disturbing connection between the industrialization of killing and the mass production of moving pictures.

Depictions of combat and slaughter, excised from narrative or political context as they are here, also lose their moral and aesthetic bearings. The spectacles that thrill us and the documentary evidence that horrifies us are hard to tell apart. Are we looking at cruelty or heroism? Fact or fiction? Justice or barbarism? And if those distinctions collapse, what about the narrower — but to Godard, utterly vital — distinction between cinema as an art and the ubiquitous and disposable images that threaten to swallow it, and us?

No answers are forthcoming, and those are far from the only questions this film provokes. Further research is suggested by an implied syllabus that includes texts by Victor Hugo and Montesquieu, and films by (among many others) Nicholas Ray, Roberto Rossellini, Ridley Scott, Abderrahmane Sissako and Godard himself. What you remember may not be pictures or ideas so much as his voice, roughened by age and tobacco, fragile but still hectoring, melancholy and indomitable.

Reaching the end of his ninth decade on earth and his sixth behind the camera, Godard resembles his near-contemporary Clint Eastwood, who similarly perseveres without regard for the vicissitudes of fashion or reputation. They still make movies because they still know how. To take issue with either man’s political or artistic commitments may be irresistible for younger viewers, but it’s also missing the point. Do you think Eastwood cares what a couple of millennial goofballs on “Saturday Night Live” think of “The Mule?” Do I think Godard gives a damn about this review? Certainement pas.

Godard in winter feels like the last of a breed, but in truth he has always been one of a kind, a singular thinker and image-collector only loosely attached to larger movements and tendencies. And “The Image Book,” for all its historical sweep and erudition, has the feeling of a personal testament — elusive, almost hermetic, but still motivated by an urge to communicate.

The Image Book

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The Image Book
Not rated. In French, English, Arabic, Italian and German, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 24 minutes.

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