‘The Image Book’: a Tasty Seventh Art Lasagna
An 88-year-old man just directed a new film that’s totally bonkers? No, not The Mule, but The Image Book, Jean-Luc Godard’s latest cine-essay provocation. Of course, Eastwood and Godard couldn’t be further apart in terms of their artistic priorities. They’ve both enjoyed rare, durable, and mostly well-earned reputations as transformative figures in film history. That said, Eastwood only makes conventional movies. Godard makes anything but.
THE IMAGE BOOK ★★★ (3/4 stars)
Directed by: Jean-Luc Godard
Written by: Jean-Luc Godard
Running time: 85 mins.
So brace yourself for a barrage of sound and vision, and let the experience wash over you. The Image Book is what scholars call a collage film, snippets of art, literature, movies, and music carefully layered together into a tasty Seventh Art lasagna.
Godard gave up on actors and plots literally decades ago, so don’t wait for those bourgeois constructs to pop up here. Instead we get the cantankerous director himself using his toadlike voice to croak philosophical nuggets like “Man’s true condition: to think with hands.” When the movie debuted at Cannes last year, more than a few lines weren’t even subtitled. Because art.
A Cinephile’s Dream
Yes, there are images in The Image Book, but more than that there’s a maelstrom of dialogue, narration, sound effects, and music all orchestrated in tandem to vacillate between cacophony and symphony.
If you’re a dyed-in-the-wool Godard apostle, then you’ll love it sight unseen. If, like me, you’re an on-again, off-again Godard fan, then this one’s kind of a keeper. And if you’ve never heard of Godard, then do yourself a favor and give The Image Book a try. Its very singularity is exhilarating.
Is this a discourse on how violence in its many forms defined the 20th century, and how films reflected that journey? Sure, why not. String together enough non-sequitur ruminations about man’s inhumanity to man and thematic purpose can coalesce anywhere.
Cinema Studies grad students will score brownie points parsing through all the dozens of films on display. Blink and you’ll miss any number of shots from Cinema 101 syllabus fodder like Johnny Guitar, Metropolis, Meshes of the Afternoon, Duck Soup, Rome Open City, Un Chien Andalou, Kiss Me Deadly, Vertigo, Ivan the Terrible, and L’Atalante. Oh, you don’t know these movies? Too bad.
Godard also makes sure to give himself a shout-out with callbacks to his own filmography, including Weekend, Hélas pour moi, Notre Musique, Film Socialisme, Les Carabiniers, Le Petit Soldat, Tout va Bien, and For Ever Mozart. Credit where credit is due. Amirite, Jean-Luc?
Shot Out Of a Canon
You want great books? He cites Dostoyevsky, Hegel, Baudelaire, Shakespeare, Rimbaud, Rilke, Faulkner. How about some music? J.S. Bach, Beethoven, Prokoviev. You see, Godard is an intellectual of exquisite taste. If you haven’t gotten that yet.
But enough with the snide remarks. A lucky few will share Godard’s broad, catholic taste in Western civilization’s cultural canon. And that niche minority will vibrate with every quick-take nod. But the vast moviegoing audience will, like me, catch only a handful of references from the film’s firehose of cultural regurgitation. More importantly, though, they’ll also get a stunning visceral experience of cinematic reinvention.
Godard takes film clips transferred to video and further soaks them in heavily saturated colors. Images snap into skewed aspect ratios, like an HDTV struggling to make a boxy shot stretch into its 16×9 landscape. Flickering light fills the screen as images toggle between each other in a strobe-like effect. Slo-mo footage shudders to a halt, then becomes superimposed with an incoming subject.
There’s more inspired, original, daring technique in its 85-minute running time than in most movies. The Image Book is a formalist wonder that revels in its defiance against convention. And that’s an access point that any open-minded, adventurous moviegoer should find absolutely thrilling. Yes, perplexion is inevitable. Just go with it.