The Image Book (Jean-Luc Godard, Switzerland/France) — Masters

By Andréa Picard

Published in Cinema Scope 75 (Summer 2018)


There is a real contrast between the violence of the act of representation and the internal calm of representation itself.”—Le livre d’image

Last summer, the Institut Lumière in Lyon run by Cannes chief Thierry Frémaux announced a full Godard retrospective for its annual restoration festival; rumours had it that JLG’s latest film, Le livre d’image, would premiere there in October. Excitement had naturally been building around the film, one said to tackle the Arab world (raising eyebrows for some, fearing a tone-deaf tone poem). Then the Lyonnais festival came and went and not a word about Godard was uttered, let alone one of his films screened. Not the new one, none of the older works, not even a restoration. No erratum was issued either. The rumours persisted: Godard had managed to obtain money from Iran to buy back the rights from his sales agent, and that he wanted to release the film solely as an art object and was selling it (both ironically and fittingly) to the Pompidou, which in 2006 hosted his brilliant, inevitably doomed, and infamous exhibition-as-detritus, Voyage(s) en utopie. And while a three-channel installation version is forthcoming, and a touring exhibition with attendant photographs has been announced for select major cities, Le livre d’image of course debuted in the 2018 Cannes Competition, where it won a Palme d’Or. Not the Palme d’Or. A special Palme. Not an honorary one for career achievement, but a special one for the film’s magnitude and originality—a film “almost outside of time and space,” said jury president Cate Blanchett. An ovni, then, that could not be judged against the rest as it is so clearly in a league of its own.

Le livre d’image is another Godardian encyclopedic history survey that continues his late- career interest in language—its gaps, overlaps, and deficiencies—employing contrapuntal cadence and the associative use of fragments. He weds and wrests images, text, and music into a thrilling, gnomic salvo, returning to the protracted three-decade late style of his magnum opus, Histoire(s) du cinéma (1988-98). Quoting Brecht’s dictum “in reality, only a fragment carries a mark of authenticity,” Godard renders a moving account of two centuries’ worth of history that signals a deeply disturbing human tendency toward colonizing, annihilation, and warring. That JLG’s account is entirely subjective is without question. It draws upon a bevy of critical and literary texts as much as the histories of cinema and modern art, yet many of the references are those that we’ve seen before: Vigo, Nicholas Ray, Max Ophüls, Vertov, Balzac, Rilke, Rimbaud, Nicholas de Staël, André Derain, Masaccio. His distinctive lexicon is expanded here to include Hollis Frampton (aphoristic text) and Gianikian/Ricci Lucchi (clips, but also the notion of cinema archaeology and the analytic camera), with thanks to Google and Al Razutis, and citations from thinkers and writers from the Middle East and North Africa, such as Edward Saïd and Albert Cossery. Godard assembled the film from a vast image archive, including his personal collection, footage from a number of his own films, but also viral videos, and pre-existing shots of his hands unspooling celluloid at an editing table. He delivers the bulk of the text in his signature, cigar-deepened voice, noticeably more faint and fragile than it was in Histoire(s).

While the film makes an important reference to a book by his long-term partner Anne-Marie Miéville, Images en parole (the subtitle of the film is a sly variation, Image et parole), the recurring theme—and image—is that of the hand. Godard proposes that thinking with one’s hand is our true human condition, an idea advanced by Swiss writer and cultural theorist Denis de Rougemont. Beginning in total darkness with a startling and loud beep of audio feedback as if sounding out an alarm, the first image in Le livre d’image is a static one of a rounded hand with the index finger pointing upward. A cropped detail from Da Vinci’s thought-to-be-final painting St. John the Baptist, the hand looks Xeroxed as it floats in a dark abyss. Is the hand about to teach us a lesson, lead the way, or suggest something more divine, like creation itself? Creation and destruction—the hand that builds and the hand that decimates. “The war is here…” Godard tells us, both in the maelstrom of images that follow, and out in the world at large. Oscillating between explosions and murmurs, the film has the paradoxical effect of being both an extraordinary barrage and strangely soothing. Godard’s voice is intimate, and with a sophisticated multi-channel sound mix that isolates sound from image (or Image et parole) like never before—the audio equivalent of the 3D brain-scrambling “separation shots” in Adieu au langage—one feels he is, at times, whispering in your ear, or seated at the back of the cinema delivering the text live.

A film in five chapters with literary titles, but also one that feels like a partition in five movements plus a coda, Le livre d’image is supremely dense as both meta-text and individual fragment. It is a moving handbook—or book of hands (the iconic singular “image” behind the title?)—that conceptually adheres to the five fingers, but also to the five senses and five parts of the world. Early on, Godard invokes the ethics of the archive with a title card and mixes popular imagery (like the comic-book character Bécassine) with a phalanx of clips that are extremely disparate in their content. With a swaying level of imperceptibility, he outrageously flouts dialectical suturing in order to convince us that in war (and perhaps memory and imagination) all is fair game. Godard again proves to be a master of essayistic form, cohering the messiness of thought into a perceptive whole, invoking senses that are rooted in intellectual play as much as they are serious reflection and emotion. The first section, titled “Remakes,” uses cinema not only as witness of history but also its copy and its fabricator. RIM(AK)AKES. The wordplays abound, some easier to decode than others in their double entendres. Adieu au langage, then, as Godard meditates on the invariable idea of war repeating itself (a “divine” war), catastrophes recycled and recast. His digital images, some striated with colour degradation and considerable fading, are consistently reframed. It’s a nervy stylistic device, which recurs throughout the entire film. Pan and scan—is that what we do to historical representation, to history itself?

The second section, “Les Soirées de St. Pétersbourg,” takes its title from a book by Joseph de Maistre and features a sombre meditation on trains (and annexation and death). Endemic to cinema itself—its origins as much as its theoretical steam—trains are the traumatic carriers of death but also symbols of modernity, transitoriness, collectivity, migration, and exile. Exquisite black-and-white scenes from Tourneur’s Berlin Express (1948) to von Sternberg’s Shanghai Express (1932) are juxtaposed with locomotives penetrating a glitch art aesthetic rainbow-coloured landscape—an excerpt reminiscent of French experimentalist Jacques Perconte’s digital impressionism. Connecting history and images through serial movements, the successive frames like train tracks, Godard’s sense of movement through time and space is, to take up Blanchett’s claim, “almost beyond.” The images are uncontainable to the screen and spill out forward, backward, and in the round, as the isolated yet immersive sound amplifies the sense of collective grief, despair, and pain, but also hope, love, and romance to which humans are susceptible. At the heart, as in so many films, there lies a love story between a man and a woman, here suggested by Dovzhenko’s masterpiece Earth (1930).

The third chapter is a distilled verse from Rilke: “Ces fleurs entre dans les rails, dans le vent confus des voyages.” This line is, perhaps unsurprisingly, missing a bunch of words. Of all the text in the film—the spoken monologues as well as the dialogue in the clips—only a fraction of sentences are translated and subtitled into English. Anglophones receive an abridged version, which is also the text reprinted in cursive handwriting and blotted with an overdose of corrective “Wite Out” in the handsome limited-edition booklets that were distributed in Cannes to buyers, critics, and others who were resourceful enough to get their hands on one of the 1,500 copies. Adieu au langage, yet again. (As also seen in 2010’s Film socialisme, Godard is an unspoken critic of subtitling, which detracts from the innate power of images and their relation to sound.) Godard offers fragments and mixes his citations at will, often without credit, consistently excising words like a lettrist. The ethics of the archive? Or the transfiguration of life into art? Godard also makes use of the canvas here like never before, his impasto Fauvist interventions onto the image acknowledged with actual images of paintbrushes applying paint. He is rewriting, remixing, recolouring, revising, reinterpreting, yet why does it feel so novel, so alive, so vital?

The fourth segment, “L’esprit des lois,” from a text by Montesquieu, suggests justice rather than the law. Godard seems to be answering his own questions as he goes along, searching material for clues to understand the madness in the world (while also replicating it to some extent), and being forever seduced or comforted by the inner calm and wholeness of certain images because within them lies “ardent hope,” beauty, or the drive for assurance—maybe even truth. The “internal calm” of representation is disrupted through an image flow that is set alight. Unleashed and wanton, Godard’s images nevertheless signal an inexhaustible belief in art. “All is grace”—like the solemnness of hands in Bresson. Who are the guilty ones? Who are the infidels? An indictment of Europe, whose colonizing past is coming home to roost? The hand’s central region is the palm. To hold the world in the palm of one’s hand—this, perhaps, is the brilliant idea behind Godard’s surreal FaceTime press conference in Cannes. Ever a fashionable, rebellious no-show, his face appeared in the palm of his collaborator Fabrice Aragno’s hand, an uncanny and presumably disarming offering to journalists given the opportunity to come “face to face” with cinema’s greatest living legend. Michael Bay? Who? What? An old man has the right to forget…

The fifth chapter is named for Michael Snow’s masterpiece La région centrale (1971), whose primordial, otherworldly (and Québécois) landscape is seen quoted as a world upside down, canted, barren, dizzying. But here, at last, is where Godard comments on the Arab world, a notion he refutes in exchange for the “central region,” and where Albert Cossery’s novel Une ambition dans le désert and Edward Saïd’s essay “Dans l’ombre de l’occident” provide inspiration for a fictional, nested story which ultimately derides Western or Orientalist representations of “Heureuse Arabie” (after Alexandre Dumas), or “barbaric” Arabia, from Pasolini’s pageant play Arabian Nights (1974), through rebroadcasted ISIS news bulletins. “The war is here,” and there is need for revolution—that hasn’t changed. But the cycles of violence have migrated across time and space. “Can the Arabs speak?” Pilfered by Western archaeologists and oil pirates, the Middle East has been profusely invaded, and its voices construed as soft and poetic (in other words, exoticized) in most European art films. This chapter feels somewhat like a detour into hot-button contemporary politics at a remove (but Godard claims the interest is from his childhood, from the name of his first dog through his family’s Algerian driver). Even if it does not entirely coalesce, Godard’s refracting of attention outside of Western Europe feels like a continuation of the clairvoyant portents of Film socialisme. (One wonders the full extent of filmmaker/producer Mitra Farahani and film historian/theorist Nicole Brenez’s contribution to the research of the film.)

For all its apocalyptic doom and gloom, Le livre d’image has moments of great tenderness and melancholy, and exhilarating, even transcendent, rhythm. Though it lends itself to being construed as elitist by some for its willful opacity, the film acknowledges its own construction, and argues that inherent and dangerous power hierarchies exist within representation itself. Whose version of history are we receiving, what are the limits and permeability of interpretation, and who gets to tell what story—via the news, via film, via art, via personal testimony? An idiosyncratic call to (utopian?) revolution and widespread empathy, the film’s cryptic Dadaist proclamations exist both in and out of time, in monochromatic black and white and acid, feverish colours that ultimately sound a stirring humanist lament for a world too stubborn to learn from its mistakes, or perhaps simply one that is alarmingly, compulsively drawn to violence and the oppression of the Other. A terrific post-credits coda, which devolves into a smoky cough and a blunt, heart-stopping dance of death courtesy of Ophüls’ Le plaisir (1952), is too perfect and too blunt a last word (and image) to be the end. There will be Godard forever.