the image book review

If one were to introduce Jean-Luc Godard’s first film, Breathless (1960), to a class of unassuming film students without first providing context, it may seem, to them, an exercise in the rote and familiar. The film’s referential nature began to permeate American cinema not long after its arrival (crystalizing, arguably, in the works of Quentin Tarantino in the 1990s) with the long-take becoming a staple of Western arthouse, the jump-cut featuring prominently the YouTube vlog, and other stylistic flourishes seeding the very tapestry that is our modern visual language. These, of course, were uncommon before the French New Wave. The context in question is partially the post-World War II dominance of American cinema, out of which Godard sought to explore — and subsequently, discombobulate from within — cinematic imagery, as if tapping in to a fractured cultural psyche. After all, the film’s protagonist Michel yearns for some fundamental Americanism, whether through romantic pursuit of an American woman or through a self-fashioned, Humphrey Bogart-inspired “gangster” persona. Point being, Godard and his peers lived in the shadow of a neatly functional, largely American filmic image, the vernacular of “a secret cult only for the initiated” (per his Criterion interview) and a paradigm he sought to upset in the process of exploring.

Fast forward fifty-eight years.

The Image Book, more frenzied video-essay than traditional narrative, functions much as Breathless once did, albeit in a radically changed environment. Take, for a moment, the snaking long-shots and the jarring jump-cuts that Godard helped popularize; they’ve gone from the radical new cinematic slang of the era to something easily recognizable. Something used, and understood, with far too much ease. It’s that ease of the image, the comfort with which we as filmmakers — all of us, who carry around digital cameras in our pockets — wield this now blunt weapon that Godard seems to eulogize. In the first half of The Image Book, he presents us with a disorienting non-narrative, composed of harsh sounds and images including clips from all your favourite classics, manipulated to the point of nausea, dropping frames (if not dropping the image entirely) and sanding pictures down to the point of simply being ideas. In the process, he demolishes the cinematic lingua franca we now instinctively understand, replacing it with something grotesque, and yet, something entirely necessary.

In the film’s second half, Godard uses his new fragmented visual vocabulary to once again return to a story of American dominance. Only this time, his focus is overtly on American violence rather than the mere the seeding of America’s cultural ideas. While he takes a more abstract approach than he has in the past, his focus is far more literal, shoving this new cinematic grotesqueness in our faces until we have no choice but to accept it. (He succeeds for my money; all other forms of visual language fall temporarily by the wayside)

The Image Book was once touted as “a reflection on the Arab world today,” a world that has been thrown off balance by American missiles. Godard, however, knows full well the futility of trying to highlight issues through fiction once they’ve become the background noise to our daily routine. In some ways, he mourns the futility of the image itself, rapidly switching aspect ratios and colour palettes as if to reflect back to us the ease with which images can be manipulated and their meanings changed. He categorizes his pictures, pulling from newly shot footage, from films of the past and from news and documentaries, telling of trains throughout cinema, the way we use human hands in stories, and ultimately, the ways we chronicle war — in a manner as banal, perhaps, as those first two categories. He switches between real footage of death & destruction and images of the same in fiction, to the point that there may as well be no difference, lamenting “Remakes” while showing us real footage of exploding bombs. Which of the two do we, as lovers of cinema, speak out against more often?

We’ve grown numb to images of real violence as our visual fiction has become more sophisticated, and the barrage of Middle Eastern destruction on our news channels has numbed us to the very concept of “violence in the Middle East.” The image, in Godard’s mind, has lost its might; he’s able to use clips from Salò, or The 120 Days of Sodom the very same way he does clips from Young Mr. Lincoln.

To Godard, it would appear that we can no longer discern between fiction and reality in an emotional sense, even if we know the difference instinctively. A real-life beheading is as easily accessible as a beheading in a fantasy show, and either one can be made to look cartoonish with a few minutes of amateur editing. But if the images themselves have lost their power, then Godard is intent — perhaps to a fault — on invigorating the ways in which we present them.

In 2014, Godard made Goodbye to Language 3D, which changed the very way digital 3D could be used to see the world. It’s a headache-inducing film, albeit intentionally, warping the dual lenses of the medium (by widening the distance between them; a significant increase from the few centimeters between our eyes) to create not only a warped picture, but a duality of consciousness, as if attuning our eyes to see beyond the dimensions which we’re allowed to perceive. In 2018, The Image Book induces a similar discomfort, though rather than the growing pains of a perspective being forcefully widened, the film inflicts pain as if to embody the very violence its images contain.

Today, images of real bodies strewn about after a militant assault have as much power as fictional song-and-dance about returning soldiers, clips Godard cheekily places side-by-side. The former may, in fact, be more common and thus more familiar, but by taking advantage of filmic manipulation, by rapidly changing the shape of the window through which we see these pictures, and by forcing their colours through neon filters that go far beyond Instagram, the images themselves become violent, assaulting our senses, as if to put us in the shoes of those who have to hide from rockets and falling debris.

Along with a jarring, imbalanced auditory attack, Godard restores the power of cinema to churn one’s stomach, returning all feeling to the parts of us that have grown numb in the age of information. His new jump-cut is now the confounding shift between presentations, with soldiers on battlefields being painted in cinemascope or widescreen, as if in a Hollywood production, before the image flickers to a television’s 16:9, revealing itself be news footage or something that resembles it. (What, in our HD era, is even the difference?)

The film induces a keen awareness of the fragility of our digital world, in which we’re enveloped by screens at all hours of the day. The ways in which we see our own stories can be altered at the drop of a hat, a terrifying prospect that Godard attempts to dramatize through his new approach to story. He introduces the sculptures of old, people whose identities may be lost to the sands of time, before taking still photographs of living people and pushing their elements to every extreme. Contrast, saturation, all things once understood only by filmmakers and filmic technicians, though now available to everyone with a smartphone. He pushes them, or rather shoves them aggressively, until even the human face no longer resemble living, breathing flesh in the present, but feels closer the statues and paintings of those who have long left us. Even in the present, we’re constantly peering into the past; we have total control over the image, and yet, no control at all. 

And yet, Godard’s lament for cinema’s loss of agency is purposeful. He spends the first half of the film instructing us on this new way of seeing images, because in the second, he uses them to tell a story about autocracy and invasion in the Middle East, one that blends the real with the fictional and forces us to pick apart the difference. He speaks of Sheikh Ben Kadem, ruler of Dofa, and of America’s invasion of the region. As matters of fact, neither Kadem nor Dofa actually exist. As matters of emotional reality, though, they’re as real as necessary.

Godard underscores this tall tale of Dofa with real-world footage of despots, invasions, a world destabilized by idiot leaders in the West, and with even more fictional footage of an Egyptian political drama. Fittingly, it’s hard to tell whether this Egyptian footage was shot for The Image Book, or something Godard pulled from elsewhere. In essence, his assaultive, disorienting insertions of real violence amidst these dramatized images and narrations imbue the fiction with a real sense of savagery, the kind that countless American war dramas about the Middle East this century have slowly numbed us toward. There’s a dark cloud hovering over the world, and Godard isn’t content with helping us see it. He wants us to feel its sickening weight, and he articulates what most of us might only know instinctively: that the power of the image is now a matter of form, rather than of content.

Unlike sanitized war movies and the repetitive news footage that no longer elicits emotion, Godard’s images actually hurt. He may not be the first to use these exact techniques (Jonathan Caouette’s 2003 autobiographical doc Tarnation is similarly discomforting) but this master of cinema has found a new way to make images of violence feel visceral in ways they no longer do — or perhaps, no longer can.

Even at eighty-seven years of age, Jean-Luc Godard remains one of cinema’s most ferocious, most transgressive voices, forcing us to look past the cinematic world we’ve grown comfortable with — a world he helped create in the first place. In a mere 85 minutes, he tears down that old world and rebuilds it anew, in the form of a visual poem about how the world at large might require that very same treatment.

/Film Rating: 8.5 out of 10

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About the Author

Siddhant is an independent filmmaker & film critic working out of Mumbai & New York. You can follow him on Twitter at @SidizenKane.