Review: Godard’s The Image Book is an archive of western failures

The cinema titan's disenchantment is palpable in painterly essay film that examines war and violence using classic film and news footage

THE IMAGE BOOK (Jean-Luc Godard). 84 minutes. Some subtitles. Opens Friday (January 25). See listing. Rating: NNNN

“Do you think men in power today in the world are anything other than bloody morons?” a grizzled Jean-Luc Godard asks in the voice-over for his latest essay film.

The 88-year-old filmmaker’s recent work has been dismissed (and praised) as inscrutable, but The Image Book feels direct Godard’s anger and disenchantment is palpable as he explores the ways the world has been represented – or misrepresented – using cinema and news footage.

The movie so impressed last year’s Cannes jury that the director received the festival’s first-ever Special Palm d’Or. It’s definitely the work of a singular artist, though viewers of 2014’s Goodbye To Language, 2010’s Film Socialisme and especially 1998’s Histoire(s) Du Cinéma will find themselves in familiar territory.

The Image Book primarily comprises archival material cut together in associative ways as Godard quotes poets and philosophers. The first two-thirds contrasts footage from films – including Johnny Guitar, Un Chien Andalou, Vertigo, Salo, 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers Of Benghazi and some of his own classics – against raw images of war and violence, particularly World War II and the Holocaust (a constant subject throughout his career). The last third explores western representations of the Middle East through similar visual contrasts but set to the story of a fictional Persian Gulf state untouched by colonialism that eventually opens to outside influence.

What Godard says in his narration, which isn’t consistently subtitled, gives us some navigational framework but it’s the radical and overwhelming way he merges text, imagery and sound that is most compelling. Hands and books are recurring motifs, and early on, two quotes become a guiding through line: “To think with hands” and Brecht’s line, “Only a fragment carries a mark of authenticity.”

Everything is editing in The Image Book. For Godard, editing isn’t just the splicing together of two images (though his cuts, whether fluid or jarring, are often transfixing) but how he guides the eye. He slows down images, uses degraded footage and intensifies colours to stunning effect – blues, reds, oranges and yellows – in ways that empty a frame to subtly and not so subtly shift emphasis. This tactile quality is reinforced by images of paintings. Meanwhile, the audio is not synched, occasionally overlapping and varying in volume as if we’re drifting in and out of a conversation. There is no escaping the artist’s hand.

What does all of this add up to? An attempt to see what we can’t see – or, at least, what we missed the first time around. It’s a damning account of self-deluded western power and its failures. It’s depressing, but at least the ending is somewhat cheeky. He bookends the film with nods to comics and comedy. Though he doesn’t put forward alternatives to the current power structures, Godard suggests that other ways of being are right under our noses – yet we are intent on destroying and misrepresenting them.


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