Excerpt from Close Readings
The following excerpt from Daniel Morgan’s essay on Jean -Luc Godard’s The Image Book is available in full in the January-February issue of Film Comment.
In may 2018, a short video claiming to be the newest work by Jean-Luc Godard began making the rounds. Entitled Vent d’ouest (“Wind from the West”), it was notable for two things. First, it looked like a Godard film; that is, it had the kinds of things—images, clips, texts, references to his own career, his own voiceover—that his works since Histoire(s) du cinéma (1988–1998) tend to be comprised of. Second, Vent d’ouest was about something happening at that particular moment in time, namely the dismantling of the ZAD: the community set up in 2008 to protest an airport in the west of France. Indeed, much of the video was comprised of the surveillance footage of the destruction of the encampment. Watching the video, it was hard to remember the last time that Godard had been so emphatically topical.
Vent d’ouest was, it turned out, a fake (although, as Orson Welles would remind us, that does not mean it was bad). But the same month, May 2018, saw the release of what was verifiably Godard’s newest film, The Image Book, which premiered at Cannes and won the first “Special Palme d’Or” in the festival’s history. What is striking is that it shares a good deal with Vent d’ouest: it looks like a Godard film, and it deals with the current moment.
There is always a concern when a filmmaker develops a style recognizable enough to fake or caricature in a generic form that they may fake themselves. This worry seems plausible in the opening minutes of The Image Book, which are in many ways a recapitulation of Godard’s concerns of the past 30 years. We get two familiar tropes: that the possibilities of cinema to create new ideas are bound up with what Denis de Rougement called “thinking with one’s hands” (penser avec les mains), and which Godard associates with the practice of editing; and that, through a familiar (though falsely attributed) quotation of St. Paul—“The image will come at the time of the resurrection”—cinema succeeds in engaging the world not by merely recording it but by making new images of it. But then the film begins, and it turns out that these familiar tropes are being put to radically new use. Godard is still capable of surprise.
The Image Book is divided into five sections—though, since the fifth section alone comprises half the film, it is better described as being divided into two parts. The first part is in many ways a reprise of Godard’s longstanding concerns with 20th-century history and its multiple connections to the history of cinema. We thus get a litany of war and destruction, this time even moving into contemporary ISIS videos of executions as bodies fall into water—followed wonderfully by Scottie rescuing Madeleine from drowning in Vertigo (1958), digitally altered to turn the water the same red as the ISIS imagery. And we get a series of figures that link cinema to history, like trains: both a cinematic pleasure and a transport to the camps. In one of the film’s most astonishing sequences, Godard digitally alters a clip of a phantom ride—a camera placed on the front of a train moving through the landscape—now creating almost psychedelic colors, as if to restore to us the astonishing transformations of perception that trains once effected. There are dozens of such jaw-dropping moments amid the usual barrage of references, clips, images, music, and texts that comprise a Godard film. There are bursts of montage, fragments connected in new ways. There are digital manipulations of footage, moments when familiar sights are transformed almost beyond recognition. And there is even an effect that looks like an aspect ratio pop, in which a pan-and-scan image suddenly jumps into its proper format. We are, one might say, being primed to have our perspective shifted.
That break in the film comes with the fifth section, which occupies the final 45 minutes. Entitled “The Central Region,” it starts with a clip from Michael Snow’s 1971 film of that name. This is in itself shocking, as it is one of the only acknowledgments of the American avant-garde Godard has made. (Hollis Frampton is the major exception.) This is followed by an even more surprising development. The fifth section is centrally about, and contains numerous clips from, the cinema of the Arab world. This is, as far as I know, the only time that Godard has even attempted a sustained engagement with a non-Western cinema. Why did he do this now? Was it the result of the film historians credited at the end of the film, including such luminaries as Nicole Brenez, who introduced him to it? Or was it an organic move on his part?
To a certain extent, this part of the film is self-aware of Godard’s own position in the West (note the repeated reference to Conrad’s Under Western Eyes). He presents film clips and texts that evoke the Crusades, as if it were a standing worry, along with citations of Western fantasies from Dumas’s L’Arabie heureuse, a recurring voiceover that recites extended passages from Albert Cossery’s strange novel Une ambition dans le désert (1984), and quotations from Edward Said’s Orientalism. We even get a question that evokes Gayatri Spivak: “Can the Arab speak?” But the terms of an answer are not simple. Godard is not looking to hear “authentic voices,” or to provide the images and sounds of revolution—as he sought to do in the failed Jusqu’à la victoire project in 1970—but rather to create images that have the force of speech. Here the inclusion of ISIS videos in the first half of the film bears fruit. They are, Godard asserts, the political image of Islam for the West; his project is to see if Arab cinema contains the resources to create new and alternate images to replace them. Egyptian critic Joseph Fahim notes: “The images introduced by Godard in here are unknown to most Western critics who waxed poetic about the film.” And so Godard gives us clips from “the Arab cinema playbook”: Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco. New images, certainly to me.
Read the full essay in the January-February issue of Film Comment, available now.