Jean-Luc Godard’s “The Image Book” is similar to many of the films that the great French director has made since 1980 – cryptic, semi-coherent, fitfully fascinating, often repetitive and only to be understood completely in the mind of its creator.
You have to give Godard credit. He’s 88 years old and still doing his thing without much interest in how his work is perceived. During the 1960s and 1970s, his work – although radical and groundbreaking – still coupled basic plot elements and characters with his New Wave stylistic techniques and political commentary.
But since 1980’s “Every Man for Himself,” Godard has gravitated more and more toward the type of assemblage films – the most noteworthy of which is the fascinating “Histoires du Cinema(s)” – that is his stock in trade in the latter part of his career. His films are made up of images, semi-ironic title cards, croaky voice-over narration courtesy of the director, political statements and dialogue that is elusive by nature.
In “The Image Book,” Godard throws away the whole cinematic construct altogether. At least some of his recent films featured actors (I’m thinking Patti Smith in “Film Socialisme”). There are none to be found here, other than the ones that pop up in clips from old movies that the director loves. The best use in “The Image Book” is a scene from Max Ophuls’ “Le Plaisir,” in which a man dances and dances and dances until he finally collapses. This shot is the final one in the film, possibly hinting that Godard has finally made his last statement on film. The director once ended one of his classics – “Week End” – with a title card that read “fin de cinema (end of cinema),” but it would have been just as fitting here.
So, what is “The Image Book” about? Good question. There are passages showing hands cutting film on a Steenbeck, while others are shot with the crudest video imaginable. There’s an entire sequence in which he praises Arabic society. There’s a brief shot of gay porn that is intercut with a scene from Tod Browning’s “Freaks.” There are clips from old Godard movies, passages read from philosophers, conversations in French without subtitles.
One might say, as some have over the past few decades, that the director is merely taking the piss, so to speak. I’m not so sure. If anything, Godard’s films of recent years – the most interesting of which was “Notre Musique,” the most frustrating “Film Socialisme” – have seemed deliberate.
My advice is that you should you choose to experience the film, sit back and let the images and words wash over you and take from it what you will. “The Image Book” is far from Godard’s best work – hell, I’d say the same about many of his assemblage films of the past 30 years, which to me don’t come close to his 1960s and 1970s classics – but it’s certainly quite unlike anything else you’ll see in a movie theater this year.