In the acid rasp with which he narrates his latest and much-lauded cine-collage, The Image Book, Jean-Luc Godard says, “To tell the story of one second, I need a lifetime. To tell the story of one hour, I need an eternity.” To tell the story of the 85 crammed minutes of The Image Book, I need a few million words and they wouldn’t add up to much, since it would all be writing around the movie instead of about it. The movie is sui generis. The movie is chop suey. Stitching together, recoloring, and reframing clips from many films from many cultures from many eras (the Lumières to Van Sant) while interspersing classical works of art and footage of death camps, bombings, executions, Godard gives us nothing less than a documentary of a bitter soul — the soul of the most fertile and unpredictable (although not necessarily the most acute) director of the 20th century. If this turns out to be his final statement (he’s 87), it’s an appropriately ragged one, half-formed but gesturing toward meaning. Every edge bleeds.
What’s it about? It’s about 85 minutes, as I’ve said. But there’s nothing random about those minutes — fluky, yes, random, no. There is a schema of sorts. Hands are opening and closing motifs: a baby’s hands, a skeleton’s hands, the unseen but all-too-present hands of an 87-year-old man, Godard. His impulses seem to come not just from deep in his brain but also from his fingers, which reportedly snipped off hundreds of pieces of celluloid, spliced them together, and insisted that the roughness — the jarring, disjunctive, handmade feel of the piece — be preserved as it was transferred (as it had to be) to the digital realm. There are artful segues in The Image Book, but they’re not the ones that register. What registers are bumps, lurches, sawed-off bits of soundtrack — music cut in mid-bar as Godard bashes ahead to the next image, the next bit of garbled dialogue. Godard insisted mistakes be left in. Nothing should be finished.
Various sections use retina-stinging snippets of Olivier in Hamlet and King Lear (“I know when one is dead and when one lives!”), Jaws, and Sylvester the Cat, and James Stewart jumping into the water after Kim Novak in Vertigo, and Henry Fonda — distilled idealism — settling down with a law book in Young Mr. Lincoln, and the big kaboom — distilled nihilism — from Kiss Me Deadly. There are Eisenstein, Pasolini, and even Godard (Breathless). Gus Van Sant’s Columbine fantasias punctuate a senseless real-world killing. Cocteau’s Orphée returns from the underworld. One of Godard’s favorite scenes — the “Lie to me” exchange between Joan Crawford and Sterling Hayden in Johnny Guitar — plays out in all oxymoronic honesty. Images from movies — fanciful, deceptive images, peddling stereotypes — are mashed together with documentaries of atrocities, suggesting that audiences say to filmmakers, “Lie to me.”
Early in The Image Book, we see men preying on women or seducing them or stripping their corpses or rescuing them or projecting things on them. Is Godard exploring misogyny in movies, or is this meant to suggest how masculine nation-states crush individuals and rob them of their culture? Both, maybe? Samurais, French revolutionaries, World War I soldiers in period footage — all on a damnable continuum. Godard leaps from St. Petersburg (it’s a Dostoevsky quote) to the massacre of 1,000 civilians in the 2003 Siege of Monrovia, Liberia. A chapter of The Image Book lingers on trains, and I’ll be damned if I’ll watch them again onscreen as anything but harbingers or instruments of death. Trains to death camps, trains to the Russian front … Buster Keaton provides a momentary respite, but let’s remember that The General shows slapstick amid slaughter. Between clips, we see hyperbright flowers growing between the rails.
I didn’t recognize all the texts Godard appropriates, although I’ve read that he’s plundering the work of the French poet and philosopher Charles Péguy, and that the final section on the Arab world is pegged to a novel by Albert Cossery. It’s in that last chapter that Godard began to lose me, not because of his politics but because I could see his politics — because his meanings could be pinned down. In a section on Western depictions of “Arabia,” he relates Cossery’s story of a sheikh called Ben Kadeem of the fictional Gulf state of Dofu, whose people want peace but of course can never attain it, statesmen being “bloody morons” who “govern with bombs.” In a strange, allusive summing up, Godard (or whomever he’s quoting) asks why people dream of being kings when they can dream of being Faust, trading their souls for knowledge, omniscience? Is Godard saying that he has traded his soul to be that damnable artist?
I think he is, but I don’t know. I do know that he is, in a way, playing God. He is taking hold of the greatest works of art and cinema and bending them to his will, sometimes defacing them, and toying with sound so that it bounces around the various speakers and constantly dislocates us. Godard has always been a Brechtian, an artist who never lets an audience settle into a hypnotic trance, to the point where he’s perversely delighted to deface his own canvases. Now, in his final years, his canvas consists of the defaced canvases of other artists. He is Brecht plus Herman Melville — Ahab stabbing at the universe. He is not going out with a whimper. Once a brilliant critic, he has become one again, albeit with an artist’s right-brain genius to make that criticism concrete. He will stab at our hearts until his dying breath, from hell’s heart.