“Nothing is as handy as a text” reads one subtitle in Jean-Luc Godard’s The Image Book, a film that, as should be expected from late Godard by this point, only translates about half of its primarily French-language audio track for English-speaking audiences. This particular line about “text” has been used by the iconoclast filmmaker before: It also appears in “4B,” the concluding chapter of his decade-in-the-making, eight-hour video project Histoire(s) du Cinéma, though there it’s part of a much longer quotation taken from an essay by French poet and philosopher Charles Péguy.
The above represents one isolated effort to understand a context. To adequately unpack all of the things that Godard does in the dizzying 85 minutes of The Image Book, this would need to be repeated many more times. And that’s true even despite the general feeling that Godard’s latest film is less oblique than than other recent ones, like 2010’s maddening Film Socialisme. The first hour or so of The Image Book offers a fairly approachable (and entertaining) orchestration of Godard’s ideas on cinematic representation, political ideology, and historical revisionism, leaving only the last section of to wander off into a largely unnavigable wilderness.
The Image Book dispenses with actors entirely, committing to pure collage. The first chapter samples such recognizable films as Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar, Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast, John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln, and Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, as well as that most iconic (and referenced) of scenes from Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly. These are set, varyingly, to Bach compositions, a Scott Walker song, and recurring samples of the score to Sergei Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible, giving each film Godard references a new context. Not for nothing is the chapter titled “Remakes.”
This “remade” cinema is also frequently subjected to visions of violence and war, not unlike those in 2004’s Notre Musique. When a nuclear bomb detonates at the beginning of The Image Book, it’s an early indication of where Godard is going with the film. But first, an overexposed vision of the Lumière brothers’ The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat. In this third and most accessible chapter from The Image Book, Godard proceeds to cycle through a plethora of images of trains from 20th-century cinema, situating his film around the idea of the railway as central to the formation of modernity. This section also paraphrases the opening text from Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot (“The Warsaw train was approaching St. Petersburg”) and quotes a Hollis Frampton essay on art as a “means of survival.” Then things get violent again: There’s a murder scene from Gus Van Sant’s Palm d’Or-winning Elephant, crawling naked prisoners from Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom, and nonfiction footage of terrorists, including ISIS executions.
As the last section of the film commences, it feels as if Godard has finally arrived at where he’s always been headed. Titles appear in Arabic and Hebrew, and English text reads “Joyful Arabia” and “The Lost Paradises.” Godard’s focus shifts to the Middle East, with his film clips now interjected with news and documentary footage of the Arab Spring. But just as The Image Book builds toward an almost concrete consideration of “the Arab imaginary” versus Arab reality, Godard opts to confound us anew, reciting large passages from Une Ambition dans le Désert, a 1984 novel about a fictitious sheikh by Egyptian-born French writer Albert Cossery, refusing to give those unfamiliar with the text any sense of who the oft-mentioned “Samantar” or “Ben Kadem” are. It’s not clear if “Chatting with a madman is an inestimable privilege” comes from Cossery or some other source that die-hard Godardians will spend the next decade searching for, but it’s probably the most memorable line in the film, and also nicely indicative of Godard’s humor here.
It’s through exercising a certain kind of madness—the demented way that Godard asserts his own presence in The Image Book—that the film connects even at its most disjointed. Whereas Goodbye to Language stood out from other Godard essay films for its singular reimagining of the 3D image, The Image Book offers its own inspired fillip to the director’s formula: a soundtrack that ping-pongs around the stereo field in four dimensions. This is felt especially in Godard’s narration, which, with the proper system, can sound like a mono track softly emanating from behind, or blaring and directionally imbalanced. The schizophrenic mix is complemented by the filmmaker’s expressively croaky voice, and at one point by a bizarre coughing fit.
The Image Book ends with another display of madness that would be a more than appropriate sendoff for the French New Wave figurehead’s restless career. Taken from Max Ophüls’s Le Plaisir, it’s a sequence of a man dancing and spinning around furiously until, finally, he falls down. This moment also serves as a canny reminder that, whatever effort it takes to understand the exact nature of the work that Godard is doing here, he’s also exerting that effort with us—and he seems to mind not at all if he collapses in the process.